It’s not every day that a major international gallery opens a flagship branch in downtown Los Angeles, or that the gallery itself would span over 115,000-square-feet in a complex of seven interconnected buildings, or that the partner in that new gallery should be the acclaimed former chief curator at MOCA of over 20 years, Paul Schimmel. So if everyone in the LA art world has been oohing and ahhing over the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, it’s with good cause. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Schimmel’s propensity for sprawling thematic exhibitions while at MOCA, the gallery’s inaugural show, “Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947-2016,” is amply wide-ranging and imposing to frame the museological ambitions of its principals. To anyone who is a fan of 20th century sculpture, the show presents a savvy and appealing-and decidedly tactile-survey, with enough highlights and surprises to warrant repeat visits. With a rather loose, amorphous theme, the show does not so much explicate a thesis as stake out territory, and in the process, make a statement about the significant role of women sculptors, starting in the modernist and postmodernist era.
Co-curated by Paul Schimmel and art historian Jenni Sorkin, the exhibition (which runs March 13 – September 4, 2016) features nearly 100 works by 34 artists, spanning the past 70 years. Thus, that fact that it doesn’t fully cohere is probably less notable than the fact that it holds together as much as it does. Omitting more overtly conceptual, political, and explicitly referential work, the show’s through-threads are in its emphasis on process, material and form. Compelling sculpture often ends up marrying contradictory impulses, in this case, it is a contrast between the use of often soft materials, that obliquely reference an organic vocabulary, and the hand-crafted muscularity of their creation. The result is a dynamic, materially engaging installation of dynamic, materially engaging works.
From Eva Hesse on, much of women’s sculpture from the late ’60s onward has been labeled post-minimalist, as a reaction to the maledominated movement of Minimalism, substituting pliant or vulnerable materials and bodily or hand-crafted references for the hard, impersonal, industrial forms favored by Judd, et al. So it’s useful to be reminded that women artists were in fact using such forms and strategies well before the term Minimalism was even invented. And thus that the larger, female-driven movement of Organic Abstraction, as seen here, has its own distinct roots and legacy, entirely distinct from Minimalism. The exhibition’s first room makes that case in dramatic fashion. As installed in the airy, two-story atrium of the front building of the former Globe Mills complex, the show gathers the works of five artists-Ruth Asawa, Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Claire Falkenstein and Louise Nevelson-made from 1947-1967. The nine Asawas in particular, are stunning, hanging in a cluster at the end of the hall, like time-lapse versions of water droplets recreated in wire mesh. The six wall-mounted Bontecous are a ferocious treat, their raw canvas volcanoes punctuated by gnashing saw blade teeth, in contrast to the elegant phallic totems by Bourgeois, from the start of her career. The gnarly metal wire and glass volumes by Falkenstein and stately black assemblage by Nevelson embrace the works from opposite sides of the spectrum. It’s a museum-quality assembly; shunted into the sidelines early on, all deserve a spotlight center stage in the pageant of 20th-century sculptural pioneers.
Passing through a central courtyard, past a 20-foot tall sheaf of slender trees by Jackie Winsor, one finds the second chapter, of postmodern works, laid out in a suite of sleek, contemporary galleries. This section of the show is perhaps the most frustrating, if only because the narrative that it offers is inherently so eclectic. Among the gems is a pair of latex and canvas works by Eva Hesse, from 1968, called Aught and Augment, reunited for the first time since their original gallery showing. Also, a sprawling 1973 work by Magdalena Abakanowicz (borrowed from the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland), of a large spool-like wooden wheel, with a dark trail of hemp rope that streams to the next gallery; an evocative grouping of nine egg-like cedar cones by Ursula Von Rydingsvard from 1976; and a set of effusive labial abstractions made of latex by Hannah Wilke from the 1970s. While all these works are wonderful, they also are not entirely typical of their respective creators’ mature styles, with the pieces by Abakanowicz and Von Rydingsvard created early in their careers. So the viewer who does not already know these artists will get a very limited notion of their actual oeuvre. Indeed, Abakanowicz is best known for making ghostly husks of human bodies, reflecting on collective identity: so is she really an “abstract artist” at all? But instead of pondering the issue, one moves on to the numerous other dazzling works, like the mound of sumptuous, saffron yellow linen and wool pilings by Sheila Hicks.
The last section of the show, installed in a capacious brick-walled chamber, juxtaposes a range of contemporary works by artists such as Jessica Stockholder, Lara Schnitger, and Phyllida Barlow, while a sprawling web of clothing, fabric, ribbons and the like by Shinique Smith runs along the ceiling of the adjacent breezeway like the tail of a great kite. Disorienting, inventive and subversive, they present the sort of fun, provocative juxtapositions Schimmel handles so deftly.
With works on loan from nearly 60 American museums, private collections and artist’s estates, clearly the scope of the exhibition is far beyond that of a typical commercial gallery. And with MOCA’s onetime guiding spirit at the helm, its goals are clearly more expansive too. And yet, if roughly 80-percent of the works on display are borrowed, the rest of them are still for sale. How did that fact impact their inclusion in the show? We cannot know. Which makes clear that this new hybrid gallery-museum format requires some additional self-consciousness from the informed viewer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Worth noting is a separate, corollary show tucked in a smaller room, inaugurating the gallery’s Book & Printed Matter Lab, presenting documents and ephemera from Louise Bourgeois. Among them is a remarkable 1973 letter signed by 19 female artists and critics to MoMA’s then-director William Rubin, declaring that she deserves a solo show. That letter alone talks volumes about the long path women artists have trod. And is striking evidence of the wealth of resources that a hybrid institution like the new HW&S has to offer Los Angeles.