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If we do not believe that social and mental difference produces separate kinds of creativity, then the value judgments attached to marginalized art should not be determined by such categories.
— Lynne Cooke, “Peer Review,” Judith Scott — Bound and Unbound
The first time I saw Judith Scott’s work was in Rosemarie Trockel’s retrospective, A Cosmos, at the New Museum. One piece, “Untitled, 1989,” was set alone on a pedestal near a painting of Trockel’s, “Belle Epoque” (2011), made entirely of bright yellow wool. Trockel’s painting informed Scott’s piece and vice versa. The two were in conversation. The connection was not literal, was not straightforward. More poetic, or, in fact more like literature, in that one could “read” the two as one might read two words placed next to one another.
The poet John Ashbery, a former art critic, once said that he was not interested in work that was easily comprehended. What moved him, in fact, was being pushed against his own not-knowing, which would work as a sieve of sorts, forcing him to ask himself questions about meaning. This, too, is true in his own work, which rose to prominence, securing his place in the canon of poetry, vis-à-vis his invention of making meaning in a poem within the confines of two disparate words. Placing one word next to another, not to serve a larger purpose but, instead, to see what spark those two words would make, is the structure of how Ashbery’s poetry works. This is also how Trockel’s painting works with Scott’s piece. The two don’t fit a larger narrative, historical or otherwise. Instead, the two make meaning in the space between them.
What, to me, was profound about Rosemarie Trockel’s show was precisely this manner of curating. Rather than using the works or texts to orchestrate a story, the curation, by Lynne Cooke in collaboration with the artist, allowed each piece to stand on its own without any sense of hierarchy. The title, A Cosmos, of course clues us in to the very scaffold of the show. The word “cosmos” derives from the Latinized form of the Greek kosmos, which means “order, good order, orderly arrangement.” The word itself has several meanings. Cosmos as order, but a loose, clanging order. Like nature, for example: messy, complex, and, in the end, mysterious and inexplicable.
This mysteriousness loomed large in Trockel’s A Cosmos, where each of the many rooms presented work by Trockel alongside that by other artists, often artists like Judith Scott who have been silenced by the layers of labels and meanings affixed to them. To include Scott, as one example, in this larger retrospective, under the title A Cosmos, removed the pressure of the artist’s biography (having been born deaf, mute, and with Down’s syndrome), allowing her work, for once, to stand on its own. Here, absorbed into Trockel’s retrospective, I was able to truly see Scott’s work as it is: large, often bright, sculptural works of multiple media often including everyday items such as yarn, fabric, duct tape, wire, and scraps of paper. Her work immediately aligned itself with that of other, similar artists, such as Sarah Sze, Jessica Stockholder, and Sheila Hicks. The only thing separating Judith Scott from these women artists is the tangle of narrative and meaning we place on her work as a result of what we are told about her.
In sharp contrast to the way it was presented in A Cosmos, Judith Scott’s work seems imprisoned in the two rooms of the Brooklyn Museum allotted to her current show, Bound and Unbound. The way her work is offered is problematic on several fronts. First, many works are displayed together on raised platforms, as if on a stage, which reduces the importance of the individual works. It’s the simple law of supply and demand: the less something is worth, the more of it we have. There were so many pieces in each room that it felt as if I were looking through piles rather than taking in individual works of art. Also, I question the importance of biography as it is emphasized in the wall texts. This results in silencing the work, turning it into the strange artifacts of a strange, not-understood person.
While the introductory text does state, “By any standard definition, Scott was a contemporary artist: an artist of her time whose achievement reflects the culture in which she lived and worked,” and the individual labels primarily discuss the formal aspects of each piece, the continual mention her disabilities could threaten to turn the exhibition into a kind of anthropological study — not unlike the way museums often showcase objects from other cultures. In these instances, instead of seeing such work as art, we imbue it with a functional narrative, in which meaning is connected to aspects of ritual and survival.
With African or Native American art in the Metropolitan Museum, for example, the accompanying text often emphasizes the work’s utility or social function over its formal qualities. Similarly, when we label an artist as insane or disabled or otherwise impaired, a common interpretation is that the work is serving a purpose (e.g., the artist was trying to escape reality); it is often not acknowledged that the artist, like all artists, is simply making art. When we are told an artist is an outsider (self-taught, illiterate, and so forth), the questions we ask about the art and artist are quite different from those we would ask about mainstream or “insider” art.
The term “Outsider Art” was created in 1972 by the British writer Roger Cardinal as an English equivalent of the French term “art brut,” which was coined by the painter Jean Dubuffet. But such terms, like the psychiatrist’s manual, the DSM, change as culture changes. Artists are considered “Outsider” if, as Colin Rhodes writes in Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives (2000), they are “labeled as dysfunctional through pathology.” But also “through criminality, as the result of their gender or sexuality, or because they appear anachronistic, or are seen as un(der)developed, or often simply because of cultural identity and religious belief that is perceived as significantly different.” But why label an artist “Outsider”? How does this help inform the reading of the work? And who does the labeling? The whole enterprise seems to emanate from a position of power, of deciding who does and does not belong. Soon enough, these decisions appear to be the norm, though of course, all hierarchies are constructions.
Judith Scott’s art is vibrant and multilayered. The color combinations in many of her pieces are astounding: the crimsons, the bright baby blue, the shock of black thread. The pieces seem to bring order and harmony out of chaos. In particular, I am thinking of “Untitled, 2002,” and “Untitled, 2004.” Both works include bright blue plastics reminiscent of Stockholder’s and Sze’s sculptures, but they also, of course, evoke Rauschenberg’s earlier combines and assemblages which seemed to swallow and digest items from the everyday. Such pieces as “Untitled, 2004” and “Untitled, 2003-4” adhere to a chair and to a shopping cart, respectively, enabling them to reach out into the world, to speak of another kind of clutter, one that manifests itself everywhere, in terms of physical stuff as well as thought.
What is both unfair and not useful is to entangle Scott’s work in the rhetoric of the victim, of the outsider, of the child-like genius. Like other art brut artists, she is made mute many times over, and as a result we lose our focus and find ourselves fixing her, like a moth, to the wall. But Judith Scott is an artist. She is more than a set of descriptions and labels. She has a voice. Step closer and really look at the work until the words fall away, until there is nothing but the beautiful cadmium blue yarn and ink-black thread, stare into the work until you see nothing but the work and listen, closely, to what the work, her work, says.
Judith Scott — Bound and Unbound continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through March 29.