Is it possible to separate Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel’s inaugural exhibition, ‘Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women’, from the spectacle surrounding the gallery’s launch? Its building – a converted, 19th-century grain factory – takes up no less than 10,000 m² of prime real estate in the downtown Los Angeles ‘arts district’. In its mission statement, the gallery tells us that it intends to offer ‘museum-calibre exhibitions as well as public programmes and educational activities that contextualize the art on view for diverse audiences’, introducing an ‘art complex’ model that disturbs art’s revered distinctions between for-profit and non-profit institutions. Do commercial galleries need mission statements?
If the bomber jacket-clad security guards, HD screen-equipped information desk and soon-to-open restaurant have flawlessly invoked the machinery of museum infrastructure, there are more meaningful mechanisms of legitimization at play, ones that involve not only architecture but also social commitments to a larger public and the writing of art history itself. From the wall didactics (which tell us that most of the works have been loaned and are, therefore, not for sale) to the thoughtfully curated ‘Book and Printed Matter Lab’, featuring archival materials related to Louise Bourgeois’s early work, nuanced details inevitably colour a review of the exhibition in question: an historical survey that aims to trace the ‘legacy of studio-based abstraction’ through the sculptural works of 34 female artists working mostly in the US, Europe and South America. Co-curated by Paul Schimmel and Jenni Sorkin, the exhibition is arranged chronologically, from 1947 to the present, throughout four buildings. Works by Ruth Asawa, Lee Bontecou, Louise Bourgeois, Claire Falkenstein and Louise Nevelson anchor the immediate postwar period. Bontecou’s familiar, Frankensteinian assemblages of welded steel, canvas and industrial objects are still mesmerizing in 2016. Their tenebrous surfaces and gaping, tunnelled cavities – which sometimes bare razor-like grilles and zippers – convey a haunting, macabre silence. Works by lesser-known LA artist Falkenstein will most likely be viewed for the first time. Like sacred relics exhumed and preserved for historical posterity, Falkenstein’s metal entanglements inflect a similarly gothic tone: dark, sticky skeins of copper, gold and iron wire envelop coloured fragments of glass and sheet metal, which are suspended like the inanimate dust and debris caught in a long-abandoned spiderweb.
The largest gallery presents works from the 1960s and ’70s. Some of these include immense, installation-oriented objects: in Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Wheel with Rope (1973), a gigantic wooden spool is loaded with a coil of burlap rope that unfurls on the floor of two galleries. In contrast, the ethereal work of Venezuelan (by way of Germany) artist Gego foregoes theatricality for subtlety. Made from metal wires and tubing, her kinetic constellations form delicate flight lines conjoined by tiny clamps and tender contingencies. The faint ebb and flow of these constructions may not register except for their cast shadows, which further inscribe their undulations on the wall behind them.
The curators have certainly chosen a formally impressive collection of abstract works made by women. For many of these artists, revived exhibition contexts and market attention are long overdue. But is this kind of support and visibility enough? No one will deny the need for ‘revisionist’ art histories that champion a more feminist agenda; but the curators, in pitting formalist abstraction against more ‘conceptual’, ‘political’ and ‘socially engaged’ concerns, ultimately privilege what Sorkin calls in the exhibition catalogue ‘feminine, not feminist’ qualities. Can one speak to the former without the latter in the context of contemporary art history? Indeed, this is the messy and complex task of a revisionist project: to relate aesthetic form to the social factors that inevitably intersect with issues of gender, like race, ethnicity and class, while avoiding reductive characterizations of those forms as essentially ‘female’. It is not enough to expose the inequalities that pervade the history of art; any revolution in the making must also address the wider social, economic and political concerns surrounding artistic production and reception, in both the gallery and the museum.