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LOS ANGELES — The first time I’d ever walked into an art museum I was confronted by a sculpture, free standing, that both seemed like a representation of a human body, a penis, and a catamaran — all at the same time. I found out that the artist was Louise Bourgeois and the piece was “Sleeping Figure II.” This was my introduction at 17 years old to the world of contemporary art, and I was haunted by it, astonished that an object could do so many things simultaneously and yet remain inscrutable, not quite stable in meaning, though it remained solid and unmoving. When I walked into Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel’s inaugural show, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016, I noticed the works by Bourgeois first, a similar set of carved, wooden obelisks that seem ceremonially cryptic, resolutely phallic, modern, and ancient together that had drawn me in as a child at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time. Then while I’m still dazed that this work still has the power to concentrate my attention decades later, I also see the garden of hanging, nested, and interlaced wire mesh lobes by Ruth Asawa, which are their own kind of enchantment. But the room is still not done with me. I also get several works by Lee Bontecou — those steel, canvas, and soot portals that on first sight feel like an invitation into the void. Bontecou’s contraptions do feel like traps; they beckon me in, but I suspect once I enter the other realms just past their threshold, I won’t be able to return.
The entire exhibition is a bit like this; I feel a constant tug, pulling me through to other rooms, other visions and compelling configurations. So much here are brilliant surprises I feel that I haven’t been paying enough attention to sculpture. That, or the museum shows I’ve attended haven’t been attentive enough to what these women were and are producing. Walking the exhibition with Paul Schimmel and experiencing these works I see that they are distinct from some big-ticket, male art stars in both their emphasis on intimate, hands-on, studio practice, as opposed to outside fabrication, and how they convey that sculpture is not just about formal concerns of weight, mass, and scale, but also about social politics. I don’t know how much craft legitimately belongs in a discourse of essentialist gendered sensibility (that is female or feminine), but I’m glad that the work in this exhibition clearly demonstrates that it, as much as any underlying abstract concepts, drive the meaning of the work. Looking at Francoise Grossen’s “Five Rivers” (1974), with its heavily knotted, hanging yarns that look like they could only be brought into being by human hands, I get that craft has to be part of the formula. Because of the depth and wisdom of this show, I’m almost convinced by Schimmel’s argument that what the gallery is doing is providing a “museum standard environment.”
What does this mean? According to Schimmel, it means that the gallery, still very much a commercial enterprise, is committed to scholarship (a claim that is increasingly being made by other major galleries, including Gagosian and Zwirner). It’s true that one can see this in the strong scholarly framing of the artwork in the exhibition catalogue by art historians Anne Wagner and Jenni Sorkin, and an essay by the Elizabeth Smith, director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. More, the gallery has created a Book and Printed Matter Lab (which is now displaying documents and photographs associated with Bourgeois, including her first illustrated book). Schimmel asserts it also means that sales are not to be a constriction on this (and presumably other international, historical surveys) show. In attesting to how much the integrity of the exhibition would take precedence over selling, he also said that for this exhibition 85% for the works are borrowed (later confirmed to be 80%, a surprising figure for a conventional gallery show). By his account, Manuela Hauser had a vision of this LA outpost of their international business that would be more of an arts center, with amenities like a restaurant and bookstore, and also an educational component with a head of education employed in house. It is in part due to the economic power and reputational capital of Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel, that the gallery is able to mount such an important and irresistible show. It also helps Hauser and Wirth to have retained the services of the well-respected curator Paul Schimmel who talked about each piece in the show as if he had lived with it. Yet, it has to be acknowledged that this business is the crest of a wave of gentrification that is hitting Downtown Los Angeles, which is slated to carry in its wake two more large institutions opening in the next year: the ICA LA, and the Main Museum. The questions is what effect their presence is having and will have on Downtown’s current residents.
But don’t lose sight of the art. Here are some other highlights. Experience Jackie Winsor’s “30 to 1 Bound Trees” (1971–1972/2016) which stands in the courtyard and makes me wish I was lost in a forest of them. Marisa Merz’ “Untitled” (1980) rises off the wall on which it is hung like an ascending prayer. Don’t miss Sheila Hicks’, “Banisteriopsis” (1965 – 1966), Magdalena Abakanowicz’, “Wheel with Rope” (1973), and Senga Nengudi’s “R.S.V.P. I (1977/2003) or everything by Isa Genzken and Cristina Iglesias. Each of these works makes one want to reconsider the male-centered, canonized accounts of abstract sculpture’s development in the past few decades. Not seeing these women, I, you, we all missed out.
That said, it is a potentially dangerous thing to leave this sort of retelling to commercial galleries. Despite the seeming well-meaning aspirations of HWS to a create a kind of kunsthalle in downtown LA, they run the risk of blurring the distinction between the public museum and the private one. A public museum has historically been conceived as an institution that constitutes the space of civic being—that is, neither the home nor the workplace, but rather a kind of city or village commons. The civic is where we come together to know our neighbors because we are curious and because we are convinced that learning their stories, songs and experiences will make our lives more livable. If we balance this space on the fulcrum of buying and selling, it’s been shown that it’s only a matter of time before we start to tip over into dishonesty and exploitation. Can HWS maintain their balance, and if so for how long?
Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016, is on view at Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel (901 E 3rd Street, Downtown Los Angeles) through September 4, 2016
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