A Revolution in the Making

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A few years ago, curator Paul Schimmel was forced to resign from LA's Museum of Contemporary Art after nearly three decades of critically praised exhibitions. That turned out to be perfect timing for Iwan Wirth of powerhouse gallery Hauser & Wirth since he had long wanted to open a space in LA. He asked Schimmel to come on board as partner and curator of the new venture. Having leased and dramatically renovated a 100,000 square-foot former flour mill, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel opens this Sunday in the Downtown Arts District, walking distance from the Geffen Contemporary.

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Lee Bontecou, “Untitled,” 1959
Welded steel, canvas, wire and soot
© Lee Bontecou, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Following the success of their gallery in Somerset, England, the gallery plans to be a community resource with a restaurant, open spaces with tables and gardens where people can lounge, a fountain doubling as a large dog bowl, a bookstore, an education lab and, of course, exhibition spaces. Basically, it's Schimmel's new MOCA.

Though organized with talented co-curator Jenni Sorkin, the opening show is signature Schimmel. He has built a career on examining developments in art history that have been overlooked for one reason or another. An early example is his show of hand-painted Pop art, co-curated with Donna DeSalvo. More recently, the abstract art produced during and after World War II that was influenced by the invention and deployment of the atom bomb. Like those exhibitions, this latest is a triumph of scholarship and visual panache: A Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947-2016.

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Claire Falkenstein, “Body Centered Cubic,” c. 1960
Glass fused with gold and iron wire
© The Falkenstein Foundation
Courtesy Crocker Art Museum and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York NY

Through much of modern art history, sculpture has been made by men and associated with big powerful materials and gestures, whether Henry Moore's monumental bronzes or Richard Serra's industrial slabs of corten steel. However, from the second half of the 20th century, women were making sculpture in a parallel universe with materials and methods quite a bit different from the men. This show includes a diverse and international array with special attention to women working on the East and West Coasts. The entrance gallery of the huge building complex, beautifully restored by New York architect Annabelle Selldorf with Evan Raabe of Creative Space in LA, features delicate wire hanging sculpture by Ruth Asawa, carved wooden totems by Louise Bourgeois, crudely stitched wall reliefs by Lee Bontecou and welded wire and glass sculptures by Claire Falkenstein. Most of the work is from the late 50's and early 60's yet even a decade ago, they had not attained the level of popular or even scholarly recognition of their male counterparts. But this show is much more than an academic treatise on overlooked artists.

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Sheila Hicks, “Banisteriopsis II,” 1965 – 1966 / 2010
Wool and linen
© Sheila Hicks, courtesy The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Photo: Charles Mayer

Progressing through the decades, with 100 works by 34 artists, we see the nascent ideas of feminism take hold as women turn to alternative materials to make statements within the traditional bastion of male art. Women were weaving, wrapping, pouring, crocheting, stacking and stuffing. Handiwork had gone from being anathema to being valorized as the legitimate activity of women.

Work from the late 1960's and 1970's includes Yayoi Kusama's phallic fabric forms lying on the floor, Lynda Benglis's globular poured metal pieces, Eva Hesse's sheets of neutral resin, Hannah Wilke's wall mounted flowers of studded latex, Sheila Hicks stack of wrapped yellow yarns, Magdalena Abakanowicz's immense wooden wheel with a black fabric-wrapped thick rope that trails across the floor.

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Liz Larner, “Reticule,” 1999
Cast polyurethane
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
© Liz Larner, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Once this door of opportunity opened, more women entered. From the 1990s onward, the show does not lose energy or focus despite a broad net that gathers together a disturbing, panty-hose sculpture by Senga Nengudi, a giant open-weave cylinder of red and green plastic by Liz Larner, a painted and electrified assemblage by Jessica Stockholder and a convex cement slab by Cristina Iglesias that invites a viewer to be surprised by a peek around the side.

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Jessica Stockholder, “Kissing the Wall #5 with Yellow,” 1990
Metal strapping, spools of thread and wool, plastic cord, cloth, wood, 
chair, oil and latex and acrylic paint, fluorescent light, paper, glue
© Jessica Stockholder
Courtesy the artist, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York and 1301PE, Los Angeles

The decision to include artists working until the present reflects the fact that these alternative sculptural methods continue to be relevant. (And have influenced, in turn, any number of male artists.) In the Kelley Gallery, named after the late artist whose estate is now represented by Hauser and Wirth, Phyllida Barlow's magical installation of giant pom-poms made from colored fabric scraps hangs from the ceiling. In fact, quite a few artists employ this device, the antithesis of the floor-bound pedestal supporting traditional sculpture. From the ceiling of a long gallery open to the courtyard, Shinque Smith has suspended her lengthy garland tied together from various fabrics, pieces of luggage, stuffed toys, comforters and clothing. (The stuffed bottom of a pair of jeans is like a big booty exclamation point at the end of poetic sentence.)

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Shinique Smith, "Forgiving Strands," 2016
Clothing, fabric, ribbon, rope and found objects; dimensions variable
© Shinique Smith, courtesy the artist
Photo: Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

A walk through this show made me think of the years when women were starting to grope with the concepts of Feminism with a capital F and how they could be manifest in the making of art. This was before schools had entire sections of their curriculum devoted to women's studies, before it had become footnote-worthy material for a graduate thesis. It was with great pleasure that I viewed this smart selection of work with all its lusty, wacky vivacity. The idea for the show was inspired in part by the fact that Iwan Wirth's mother-in-law and original business partner primarily collected art made by women. Not a bad launching pad and certainly a promising opening salvo for the city's newest art gallery. No need to hurry, the show is open until September 4, just like a museum exhibition.