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Feigned neutrality aside, I came into Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s inaugural exhibition with a fair amount of skepticism. Sweeping presentations like Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016 tend to prove worrisome to the expectant critic. The efforts of curators Jenni Sorkin and Paul Schimmel’s intensive focus rendered a selection of works that are revered and unarguably beautiful at moments. But this debut exhibition ultimately retreads the established lineage of (to use Lucy Lippard’s neologism) eccentric abstraction and does little to relocate its peripheral relationship to the traditional Modernist story.
Revolution in the Making takes the customary Modernist narrative as its substrate and introduces the well-meaning catalyst of feminism in what hopes to be a righting of a historically exclusionary record. While the exhibition’s entirely female roster is much called for, it reinforces a kind of myopia that keeps women artists on the margin of major art historical movements. The transubstantiation that traditional Modernism finds at the hands of the artists featured in this exhibition is framed as a part of a reactive narrative that preserves the status of famed male Modernists as initiators of certain forms and materials. Redemption in this particular context is the publicity and undeniable momentum that is afforded by the backing of an international commercial entity such as Hauser & Wirth.
This encyclopedic exhibition spans four galleries and uses chronology as its guide. The exhibition begins in the South Gallery with post-war works by Louise Nevelson, Claire Falkenstein, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Bontecou, and Ruth Asawa. Offered here is the primer for what is to come—the body in fragmentation; a scratching at the existential through abstraction. The body finds new forms in the reductive assemblies of Bourgeois’ totemic Personnages (1947-1953) and Falkenstein’s roiling metallic cocoons (1954-1962). Falkenstein’s work reigns in the room by echoing the amalgamating impulse demonstrated in Nevelson’s work (Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain, 1959) and finding formal common ground with Asawa’s delicate bulbous weavings (1950-1962).
(To reach the North Galleries one must cross the expansive campus of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel past a lone sculpture: Jackie Winsor’s 30 to 1 Bound Trees (1971-1972). The piece stands solitary at the center of the massive outdoor courtyard, utterly detached from just about everything else. Anne Wagner said it best in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue: “Does a bonfire await? Or is this fuel for a pyre?”)
The portion of the exhibition housed in the North Galleries is so wide-ranging in scope that abstraction is more a common denominator of the work than a driving force. Galleries seem grouped by punch-lines relying on formal commonalities rather than conceptual rigor or contrast. One grouping of works that strayed from this pattern was particularly striking: Yayoi Kusama’s silvery phalluses (A Snake, 1974) snake between the spread of latex folds by Hannah Wilke (1970-1976), while metallic cataracts from Lynda Benglis (1969-1975; 1970) gush on one side and the ghostly skins of Heidi Bucher’s performances (1974; 1976) rest on the other.. The works all allude to the body—its orifices, its appendages, its folds, fluids, and skin—but are zapped of virility. This room becomes a poetic figure that is not shy of being embodied, but its elegant cohesion quickly fizzles away as the exhibition continues. The sequence of smaller galleries house clusters of works that rely solely on the sum of their formal parts: Senga Nengudi (R.S.V.P. I, 1977/2003) and Lygia Pape (Ttéia 1, A, 1979/1997/1999) are posed in opposite corners and call to mind a symmetry of form, but the two works are undeniably divergent in their origins; works by Marisa Merz, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Liz Larner are sited side-by-side to offer equivalence among their rolled and coiled amalgams, which in turn denies each work the opportunity for a reading beyond cosmetic consideration.
Revolution in its final leg presents specially commissioned work from contemporary artists in the East Gallery. Among them the clear alpha is Phyllida Barlow’s GIG (2014); the crisscrosses of polychromed scaffolding climb to the ceiling, tangling themselves among the trusses. Barlow’s sculptural kerfuffle teases the space—her sculpture has nothing to uphold but itself. Despite the fun of GIG’s massive pom-pom’d pendants, the scale of the work dwarfs everything in the gallery: Laura Schnitger’s tribe of tensile bodies (2007-2015) lost its humorous appeal, and the small trio of sculptures by Jessica Stockholder (1988-1990) appeared as literal footnotes in Barlow’s shadow. Such cramped mounting does a disservice to the number of works made of delicate arrangements of quotidian materials. What appeared to be the addressing of Minimalism, by bringing subjectivity to formerly objective shapes (in Rachel Khedoori’s collapsing LeWitt; Kaari Upson’s couch-ified L-Beams; Abigail DeVille’s junk-ed Serra), gets lost among the gallery’s preserved factory patina that resembles the forlorn alleyways that buttressed this building for years before Hauser Wirth & Schimmel arrived.
For those using Revolution in the Making as an initial gateway to art history—it is a useful tool—the spread of works in time and form are sweeping and historical. But for those looking to Sorkin and Schimmel’s exhibition to chronicle and continue the revolution of abstract sculpture (as the title implies it is still “in the making,”) the exhibition falls short. Revolution’s focus on women artists and their abstract work is an attempt at feminist revisionism, but by ignoring the complicated and differing frameworks of production for each work (and their maker), Revolution in the Making offers essentialization—of gender and form—as a passable re-weaving of a complex history and understanding of both womanhood and abstraction.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 5.