For artists and critics alike, the first artist you discover on your own is a powerful personal milestone. So it was with me. I can’t remember how or when, whether they turned up in a book or the back issue of a magazine, but as an art student I managed to ‘discover’ the American artist Michelle Stuart’s earth rubbings, in which the soil of a particular site was smeared into a ream of heavy watercolour paper, which soaked up the colour to produce an experiential, Mark Rothko-like sensation of actual earth tones. A black and white photograph of a woman with long hair and dangling earrings unfurling a long scroll down a dramatic cliffside is also seared into my memory, and for this reason I shrugged when I first learnt of Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown (1969). Never mind that it came first: in the formation of my earliest personal canon the earth rubbings seemed – both then and now – preferable in their intimacy of direct contact with the land. Moreover, there was the possibility of transfer – the site could be conveyed off-site as Sayerville Strata Quartet (1976), its brilliantly coloured paper cut and hung as a progressive drawing, using a gradient colour scale to convey both the slope of colour and the incline of the site itself, an abandoned quarry located in Sayreville, New Jersey.
So coming across Stuart’s work at the Sculpture Center was like seeing an old friend. Curated by Catherine Morris, ‘Decoys, Complexes and Triggers’ considered the earliest chapter of women’s architectonic art production, drawing on an important predecessor, Susan L. Stoops’ ‘More than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the 1970s’, held at the Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University in 1996. More immediately, it follows on the heels of ‘WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution’ (shown at P.S.1 nearby – the shows overlapped for a week), which, owing to space constraints, regrettably left out artists such as Stuart, Alice Aycock and Agnes Denes and the story of their engagement with public space, industry architecture and landscape.
As room-sized, mostly wooden works were remade for the show, such as Aycock’s Stairs (These Stairs Can Be Climbed) (1974/2008), the exhibition’s insistence on modest, inexpensive and easily re-created forms initiates the obviously gendered inequities of the era, as does Aycock’s pointed staircase, built all the way to the ceiling, literally invoking the oft-referenced threshold – the glass ceiling – by which women were (and are still) held back, in art and other professions. While the men of this very same generation – Richard Serra, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, James Turrell – seemed content with their seemingly single-minded pursuit of, shall we say, size, women’s work of this era is distinctly different: more humanly scaled, with the viewer situated at the crux of its concerns. Artists such as Alice Adams and Mary Miss created work outdoors as a distinctive break from Minimalism, in favour of an engagement with social spaces outside the museum – such as one of the most iconic pieces of the era, Denes’ Wheatfield: A Confrontation (1982). In collaboration with the nascent public art group Creative Time the artist planted and harvested two acres of wheat on an empty site in Lower Manhattan, adjacent to the World Trade Center and atop the broad expansive landfill that became Battery Park City. The photographic documentation is glorious: Denes wading chest-deep in a golden field of wheat with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Such a project prefigures and is vastly more prescient than the preciousness of a sculpture by either an Anish Kapoor or a Wolfgang Laib, artists who also utilize monochromatic colour in prescribed forms and spaces.
Morris’ show was important for its fearless initiation of the dialogue of inequity and its simultaneous platform, showcasing the way women sculptors of the era chose to mediate space – primarily for social means (Jackie Ferrara’s playground-like apparatus in the museum’s courtyard, or her grassy amphitheatres found at myriad sculpture parks across the country) or spiritual ones (such as Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1973–6, which offer celestial awe even seen through photo documentation rather than in the flesh), as opposed to the more familiar examples of their male counterparts: think Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) and its eventual dismantling. The show’s main obvious flaw – obvious perhaps only to insiders – is the inclusion of a Lynda Benglis latex pour-piece. In its Day-Glo plasticity not only does it look conspicuously studio-produced, but it is not an outdoor work, and nor does it utilize or mimic natural or land-based materials. A far better historical reclamation would have been the Washington D.C.-based artist Athena Tacha, who made many such land works herself and was instrumental in commissioning others, as an instructor at Oberlin College and, later, a curator at its art museum: to this day the museum has a Mary Miss cut-out on its lawn. Like the feminist 1970s, you have to get up close enough to this work to understand and feel its depth.