LOS ANGELES — There are generally two favored narrative arcs used to describe an artist’s life. There is the story of the hot young art star who takes the art world by storm with new ideas and a mediagenic personality. And there is the solitary artist, who works quietly for years, before finding success later in life. Channa Horwitz is one of the latter.
The long-time L.A. artist, who passed away late in April at the age of 80, had spent her life laboring on hand-rendered geometric drawings, paintings and wall installations executed on grids. (Think: Sol Lewitt meets Agnes Martin.) Though she produced work for decades, occasionally attracting a few critical eyeballs, her wider public profile wouldn’t truly begin to grow until she was included in the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial in the middle of last year.
Certainly, the fact that she was a woman had something to do with the tardy success. In 1968, while still a student at CalArts, Horwitz famously proposed a piece to the L.A. County Museum of Art’s “Art and Technology” show that would have been comprised of free-floating Plexiglas beams penetrated by rays of light. But, as the story goes, the piece never happened because the curator in charge told her that women shouldn’t be allowed to work with such industrial materials.
The drawings for that proposed piece, however, became the basis of a life-long pursuit Horwitz called “Sonakinatography” — a combination of the words “sona” (sound) and “kina” (movement) — producing intricate patterns that resemble sound waves in form. She created all of her pieces by hand, lending the work a certain vibrational quality, like a bass string being plucked.
This back story makes Horwitz’s show at François Ghebaly in Culver City that much more special. Opened just two weeks before her death, it represents the first time one of her pieces has been rendered in three dimensions in the United States. Horwitz painted the space, a sunken, whitewashed room that once housed a muffler shop, with a bright orange graph paper grid that covers walls and floor. Descending into it is like entering the Light Cycle arena in “Tron” — dizzying and spectacular — a theater for a battle of sorts.
In this space, Horwitz placed an assortment of black polygons, all of which can be manipulated by the viewer. In fact, I spent the better part of an hour arranging and rearranging the shapes in the gallery. Not an easy task, since the larger rectangular prisms are more than six feet tall and made from wood, making them awkward to move — especially if you’re 5’3”. (The GIF above shows the various configurations I created.)
But it’s in handling the pieces that I really discovered the power of Horwitz’s work. On first impact, her design feels totally high-tech, yet the materials could not be more low-brow: paint, wood, a few nails, with trembling lines that reveal the touch of a human hand. The grid gives off waves of bright orange light; the black cubes seem to absorb it. Move the pieces around and the light in the room changes ever so slightly. “Orange Grid,” as the piece is titled, manages to be both dramatic and subtle — the Light and Space movement as reconsidered by a garage tinkerer. The architectural types will likely find the experience akin to inhabiting an analog AutoCAD.
In recent months, Horwitz’s career had begun to pick up. Two months ago, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. This summer, her work is being shown at the Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, in Germany, and the Venice Biennale exhibit organized by New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni. The fact that Horwitz was never a mainstay in mainstream art circles didn’t seem to have dampened the strentght of her ideas or her output. Nonetheless, the show at Ghebaly left me wondering of everything that might have been — LACMA show included — if the art world hadn’t taken so damn long to catch up.
Channa Horwitz’s Orange Grid, is on view at François Ghebaly Gallery (2600 La Cienega Blvd, Culver City, Los Angeles) through June 22.