Q&A: "Revolution in the Making" with Jenni Sorkin

Q&A: "Revolution in the Making" with Jenni Sorkin

Revolution in the Making

Installation view of "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016" at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016; Louise Bourgeois: Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Brian Forrest, courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth

This summer a momentous exhibition of nearly 100 works by 34 female artists is on view at the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery space, located in a remodeled 19th century flour mill in downtown Los Angeles.

Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 - 2016” looks at the impact this under-represented group of artists working in material-based abstraction have had on the field of postwar art in America and beyond. The artists in “Revolution in the Making” are known for their dedicated studio practice, experimental nature, and pioneering handwork with materials including fiber, metal, wire, and wood. We asked the exhibition's co-curator, Jenni Sorkin (art historian, critic, and assistant professor of Contemporary Art History at the University of California, Santa Barbara) to give us some insight into the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue (Skira, 2016).

What prompted you and co-curator Paul Schimmel (former chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and partner and vice president of Hauser Wirth) to assemble “Revolution in the Making,” and why feature a contemporary history of female sculptors for the inaugural exhibition at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel?
My investment in women artists is permanent and continuous. Paul and I have known each other for many years: I worked on the "WACK! Art" and the "Feminist Revolution" exhibitions at LA MOCA for a number of years when he was chief curator there. HWS is a massive space. Small works are easily swallowed up. As the intent was to use the whole gallery space (25,000 feet of exhibition space), it made sense to aim for larger works. Sculpture is one of the most masculinist and exclusionary artistic disciplines, particularly for women at midcentury. Judy Chicago writes about this in her autobiography, Through the Flower – that women were taunted in sculpture departments for not having skills. Part of the Feminist Art Program’s pedagogy was helping women help themselves.

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: GIG

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: GIG, 2014 – 2015, installation view, "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016" at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016

Brian Forrest, courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth

The focus of the exhibition is on abstract three-dimensional works produced in a studio setting. What sets apart the female sculptors you chose to include in “Revolution in the Making” from their counterparts in the fine art and craft fields?
There is actually a great deal of crossover in the exhibition. There are a number of well-known, fiber-based sculptors included in the show, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Francoise Grossen, and Sheila Hicks. It is interesting to see their work as predecessors for younger artists like Shinique Smith, who also uses bound textiles in her work, but trained as a painter. Claire Falkenstein and Ruth Asawa are two other midcentury modernists who worked across craft media (jewelry, wood, wire), but always considered themselves sculptors. In general though, I do not think that artists distinguish or have material-driven biases. The divides are organizational ones created in museological settings: decorative arts and design departments vs. painting and sculpture or modern art departments, for instance.

However, I would say that craft-trained artists tend to work on a smaller scale because the work was historically more object-driven than it has become more recently. Now, everyone in every field is making installation art. Part of the impetus for this show was to showcase a trajectory from stand-alone, studio-based sculpture prior to room-sized installations.

Is there anything you learned in your research for the exhibition that surprised you?
It was surprising to see the amount of wire-based work en masse. It was very unexpected to see such a chronologically and geographically diverse population of artists – from Gego and Lygia Pape to Asawa and Falkenstein to Rachel Khedoori – engaged in using wire as a primary material for several bodies of work.

The abstract works featured in “Revolution in the Making” all required a significant amount of skill, experimentation, and (in many cases) hours of handwork and repetition. Can you comment on the risks and challenges involved in making this type of work?
As I wrote in my catalogue essay, “preciousness is a term used to denigrate abstraction.” I think this is a term that is also inherently gendered – used to describe women’s work or judge the seeming lack of social commitments in a studio-based career. But studio-based work is full of the exact sort of commitments you describe: hard, close, repetitive work that is sometimes incremental and slow. To be immersed in the experiment of trial-and-error with one’s materials is a crucial way of making un-self-conscious work: an exercise in perception led by the rigor of the hand.

Several artists in the show, such as Jessica Stockholder, Abigail DeVille, and Shinique Smith, use found and salvaged materials – especially fiber and textiles in their work. Is there a reason so many female artists turn to reuse? In what ways do these materials enhance the work? 
All the women in “Revolution in the Making” worked in non-traditional materials that were in many cases workarounds: found materials, discarded materials, everyday materials, industrial materials, and materials associated with women (i.e. textiles and cloth). We chose artists who eschewed, for instance, the permanence of so-called traditional sculpture: stone and marble. That is why Barbara Hepworth was not included.

Sheila Hicks, Banisteriopsis and Banisteriopsis II

Sheila Hicks, Banisteriopsis, 1965 – 1966 and Banisteriopsis II, 1965 – 1966 / 2010; (Banisteriopsis) The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Liliane and David M. Stewart Collection; (Banisteriopsis II) The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; gift of the artist in honor of Jenelle Porter; installation view of "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 – 2016" at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, 2016

Brian Forrest, courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth

What do you hope viewers take away from seeing this exhibition or the accompanying catalogue?
This exhibition makes an argument that post-war art history has put forth a dominant narrative of abstract painting (i.e. abstract expressionism) by men. This show counters that completely and puts forward a revisionist history of the post-war period in which women’s work in sculpture – a medium so exclusionary to them as to be ignored in the historical record – is at the forefront of abstraction and pioneering innovation in materials and process.

Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947 - 2016” is on view at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles through September 4, 2016. Can’t make it to the exhibition? Check out the comprehensive catalogue published by Skira and featuring essays by Sorkin, Elizabeth A.T. Smith (executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), and Anne M. Wagner, art historian, critic, and University of California, Berkeley, class of 1936 professor emerita.