In the first major retrospective of her sculptural bundles of yarn and found objects, the late Judith Scott is celebrated not just for having found a way to creatively express herself late in life, after being institutionalized with Down syndrome and undiagnosed deafness; instead, the Brooklyn Museum’s Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound honors her powerful, tactile acts of making in two galleries of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
Catherine J. Morris, Sackler Family curator at the center, organized the survey with Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of White Columns. In an accompanying catalogue, Morris writes that despite Scott’s harrowing narrative of over 35 years of institutionalization, something which often gets her siloed in the “outsider artist” category, “ultimately, we are also simply presenting a voice in the contemporary art world that resonates, challenges, and engages us.” She adds: “The desire to search for the biography in the work — to hunt for it, expand upon it, and analyze its implications — can limit our seeing what the artist actually created.”
And what Scott created is enthralling to explore. Almost all of the pieces in Bound and Unbound, arranged roughly chronologically, are placed on low platforms so you can look right over them. This is the view Scott had as she worked at a table in the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. It was in that California center, which still thrives and hosts studios and exhibitions, that Scott engaged in the act of making for the first time, in the 1980s. Her fraternal twin, Joyce, had become her legal guardian, and once in the Bay Area brought Scott to the program. At first the paintings and drawings she made — some of which, with their dense loops and whorls, are on view in the exhibition — only idly interested her. Yet when she took a fiber art workshop, she was almost instantly engaged with the materials. Her first pieces in this vein feature twigs entwined like totems in yarn. Each successive project became an experiment in the mixing of colors, in mummifying everything from a crutch to a shopping cart in string, fabric, and yarn, in creating increasingly colossal cocoons that wove together unexpected materials.
X-rays have been made of Scott’s work, revealing a world of immersed objects, but it’s not necessary to know what’s inside. There’s an energy visible from the outside that suggests all the movement within. Swaddled forms stretch out at curious angles, while visible objects like the translucent blue of plastic tubing or spools of yarn emerge from the delicate balances of color.
Scott passed away in 2005 at the age of 61, still creating work up until her death. It might be impossible to completely separate her life story from her art, especially since she never spoke a word in her life, which means her sculptures are the language she left behind. Yet the Brooklyn Museum makes a compelling argument for looking at Scott as a contemporary artist of incredible texture and visual expression. An iPad on a gallery wall has scrolling questions from visitors, including, “Why is this considered art?” Curator Morris concisely responds: “In Scott’s case, this important question gets answered by the context in which we are showing it. Perhaps another question to consider is, why isn’t it art?”
Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through March 29.