With galleries in Zurich, London, Somerset, and New York, the Hauser & Wirth enterprise has inaugurated their newest outpost in Los Angeles, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, with the exhibition Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016. Curated by Jenni Sorkin and Paul Schimmel, the show sprints through seventy years of art history with nearly one hundred works by thirty-four women. Sorkin and Schimmel take a nervy stand, making a convincing case of women artists as the progenitors of contemporary abstract sculpture. But is this what revolution looks like?
The exhibition is almost thorough enough to counter the significance of Unmonumental, the New Museum’s 2008 blockbuster proposition that sculptural assemblage, with its low-tech modesty, exploration of contingency, and embrace of unstructured play, was somehow novel. Revolution in the Making uses materiality, tactility, and the autonomous labor of the artist in her studio as its lynchpin, which allows for a sweeping breadth of work. The show ricochets from the formal investigations of Ruth Asawa to the psychologically loaded works of Isa Genzken, and from the blowsy assertiveness of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Wheel with Rope (1973) to the fugitive wire constructions by Gego that are as ephemeral as a syllable blown into the air. The artists’ improvisational uses of found material and embrace of unpredictable forms dramatically break open the category of sculpture.
In her tour, Sorkin pointed to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which institutionalized in American society the schoolboy’s place in shop class and the schoolgirl’s place in home economics. The compelling moments in the exhibition occur when realizing that most of these women worked—and continue to work—with materials and processes in defiance of a world formed by the Smith-Hughes Act. They occupied a space in direct opposition to the dominant norms: their studios. When they didn’t have traditional studio spaces, some of these women found a way to make work in their kitchens, their boyfriends’ studios, or in their children’s rooms, showing just how powerful the margins can be.
Despite these constraints, the artists worked their subject matter and materials into spectacular achievements. In Wing (1970), Lynda Benglis seems to have cast a gust of air that juts from mid-wall with pitched and hurling gobs of aluminum. The monumental lines in Abakanowicz’s Wheel with Rope continue outside the gallery with Shinique Smith’s humungous installation (2015–2016) of intertwined cables of ripped cloth and ribbon so thick they could moor a cruise liner. Phyllida Barlow’s Untitled: Pianoframeandcover (2014)—an indoor tower of babel made of timber, polystyrene, felt, tape, and plywood—soars in front of the viewer. Abigail Deville’s hilarious and complicated Intersection (2014)—two porous, eight-foot-high arced walls composed of “reclaimed plywood theater flats, lumber,” and other “accumulated debris”—makes plain Richard Serra’s vicious physicality and latent anger in his own versions of precarious arcs.
Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s all-women opening salvo is unequivocally important and incomplete. The new space has curated a powerful induction ceremony for many deserving artists and their estates into the blue-chip art-historical narrative. At the same time, it feels like a well-publicized pat on the back for learning about second-wave feminism. Art history has been grossly discriminatory, and an embrace of feminism by an establishment figurehead such as Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, including Iwan Wirth himself, feels pyrrhic. Hauser & Wirth, whose own roster of artists includes over two men for every woman, is as mainstream in its bias as any other art institution out there. But even the act of tallying “men” and “women” with the hope of eventual parity is its own ugly generalization that flattens difference and distinction.
Revolution in the Making asks its viewers to participate “in the continuing quest to articulate the female experience through art” when many of the women on view were (and are) fighting the very logic that relegated them into an essentialized category in the first place. As Judith Butler described in an Artforum interview, “The commodification of identity politics is so strong that whatever you write, even when it’s explicitly opposed to that politics, gets taken up by that machinery.” No matter what marginalized artists do, their identity continues to box them in, while various institutions make misguided efforts in directions that don’t lead to ameliorating entrenched biases or, in some cases, outright hostility. As Butler declared elsewhere: “This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.”
The real question is whether Hauser Wirth & Schimmel will follow through on Schimmel’s stated desire for an all-inclusive “art center.” What will their education program look like? Will there be outreach to underserved Los Angeles communities? Will they cultivate the work of people of color? Will Hauser Wirth & Schimmel do justice to the second half of their exhibition’s title, “in the Making,” or was this a one-off? If the following shows are merely openings for the next art-world hotshot hero, my worst fears will have been confirmed: the cynical commodification of feminism to garner good publicity.
Today, a woman occupying studio space is a less transgressive concept compared to that of Louise Bourgeois’ time, and as late and incomplete as it is, establishments do continue the embrace of women’s work. Meanwhile, as Cathy Cohen has written, “Many of us continue to search for a new political direction and agenda, one that… seeks to transform the basic fabric and hierarchies that allow systems of oppression to persist and operate efficiently.” A more conscientious and painstaking revolution.
Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016, is on view at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles through September 4, 2016.