How Women Made Their Place in Abstract Sculpture

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Adopting uncommon materials like latex foam and wire rope, these artists, who were often overlooked, are gaining new attention.

A bronze abstraction by Sophia Vari, titled “Trouble Essentiel,” is displayed outdoors on New Bond Street as part of a sculpture trail organized by Art in Mayfair and as a teaser for the “Making It” gallery show nearby on Cork Street.
Credit...via Waddington Custot, photo by Barney Hindle

Oct. 9, 2021

As a graduate student of sculpture in the 1970s, Maren Hassinger had little affinity for traditional fibers used in weaving class.

“I didn’t like weaving with flexible materials,” Ms. Hassinger said in a phone interview from New York. “One day in a junkyard I found some wire rope, and it changed my career.

“With wire rope, I could make self-supporting objects with a strength and linearity that appealed to me.”

Ms. Hassinger is one of nine sculptors represented in a show at the Waddington Custot gallery in London during Frieze Week. Titled  “Making It: Women and Abstract Sculpture,” the show tackles the sweeping theme of the artists’ contribution to the development of abstraction in modern sculpture.


Credit...Françoise Grossen, via Blum & Poe. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“Two years ago, we had the idea to show women artists who have been forgotten or overlooked by the art world,” said Stéphane Custot, co-founder of the gallery in an interview from London. “We went looking for artists who had brought something new to the history of art with techniques or materials that were unusual, even extravagant, for their time.”

Inside the sprawling 2,260-square-foot gallery, 22 pieces, some historical or sourced from private collections, showcase the varied ways those artists, five of whom are living, explored the possibilities of sculpture, starting in the 1960s and ’70s.

An additional piece, a black and white bronze abstraction by the Greek-born Sophia Vari titled “Trouble Essentiel,” is displayed outdoors on New Bond Street as part of a public sculpture trail organized by Art in Mayfair and as a teaser for the “Making It” gallery show nearby on Cork Street.

“It is fun to show sculpture outdoors because you can see how it changes in the natural light and lives with everything that happens around it,” Mr. Custot said. “It also piques the public’s curiosity to come inside the gallery and see what else we are showing.”

Like Ms. Vari, Lynda Benglis, Olga de Amaral and Louise Nevelson are established names, while others like Beverly Pepper, Françoise Grossen, Mildred Thompson, Ms. Hassinger and Barbara Levittoux-Swiderska, are getting new attention.


Credit...The Estate of Barbara Levittoux-widerska, via Richard Saltoun Gallery. Photo by Benjamin Westoby

“Women have been overlooked from the greater narrative of sculpture, a practice long seen as ‘macho’ and dependent on an ability to wrestle with physical material,” said Natalie Rudd, senior curator of the Arts Council Collection, the largest public loan collection of British art, speaking from Nottingham, in the north of England.

“It is interesting to look at artists working in the 1960s and ’70s when a collision of interests, starting with the second wave of feminism, the emergence of postminimalism in sculpture, and a move away from solid blocks to a wider range of materials, created a real opportunity for women to carve their own space,” Ms. Rudd said.

Uncommon materials — found objects, latex foam, fibers, horsehair or wire rope — helped these artists create works that challenged convention by expanding the definition of monumental sculpture and by using abstraction to invent new forms of three-dimensional art.

A floor-based blob of red and orange polyurethane foam (or melted latex), an early work by Ms. Benglis called “Untitled” (1970-71), for instance, challenges the verticality of traditional sculpture.

Some of the artists used fibers, wood or other everyday materials to make arresting objects, applying artisanal techniques often associated with the domain of women and domesticity.

An oversized woven tapestry in the show titled “Manto de Greda” (Clay Mantle), made with wool and horsehair using Indigenous techniques, is the work of the Colombian-born artist Olga de Amaral, a figure of postwar Latin American abstraction.

A wood assemblage by Mildred Thompson, an African American artist from Jacksonville, Fla., reflects her experimentation with found wood.

“Fire,” a monumental floor-to-ceiling suspension made of sisal, rope and metal, is one of three large pieces by Barbara Levittoux-Swiderska, an avant-garde artist largely unknown outside her native Poland.

“What is fascinating is the range of these women,” Ms. Rudd said, “their bodily relationship with the work, their physical engagement with the material and the handmade quality of their pieces.

“There is also a precariousness in their pieces seen in the notion of balance and in the way the works lean or hang.”


Credit...Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC, photo by Adam Reich

“Untitled Vessel, (Small Body)” (2021) by Ms. Hassinger illustrates her longtime fascination with the rigidity of wire rope.

“I use wire rope because it describe me personally,” Ms. Hassinger said. “It is tough and unbending, it never disintegrates, and I have to fight it to work with it.”

Ms. Hassinger, 74, a director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has been a teacher, performance artist and sculptor since the 1970s.

“Back then, very few women showed their sculpture,” Ms. Hassinger said. “I quickly realized that there were many obstacles in my way as a woman and an African American.

“I felt underappreciated, but I wasn’t hostile about it. I decided that I would continue to do my work even if there was no place to show it. So I made art, I was a teacher, and I raised my kids.”

Institutional validation of her work came when Ms. Hassinger was in her 70s. “MoMA was one of the first museums to buy my work three years ago,” she said.

In the show “Close to You” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Ms. Hassinger’s piece “Embrace/Love” (2008/2018) shows her range. A wall installation of pink plastic bags filled with human breath, it is on display through January 2022.

“Today, public institutions are broadening the historical narrative around sculpture and it is becoming obvious that women have contributed so much to that narrative,” Ms. Rudd said.

Fueled by the attention from public institutions, commercial galleries are taking a new look at female artists like Ms. Hassinger, who had her first solo show at the Susan Inglett Gallery in New York last spring.

“I had given up showing my work,” Ms. Hassinger said. “Suddenly, this year, I was invited to join a gallery.”

The show at Waddington Custot may be well timed, but it is undeniably a gamble for Mr. Custot to present artists without salable name recognition.

“Commercially speaking, the show is 100 percent risky,” Mr. Custot said. “Art buyers today prefer to buy a certain ‘brand’ of artist.

“But I see our job as gallerists as complementing the work of institutions,” he said.

“We want to be part of the conversation that museums have started.”

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