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On Display: the visionary women who reshaped the world of abstract sculpture

Waddington Custot's new show focuses on the women of the 1960s and '70s who challenged modernist principles and changed the face of making with their tactile sculptures

Words
Chloë Ashby
On Display: the visionary women who reshaped the world of abstract sculpture

In her 1976 essay Changing Since Changing, the American critic and curator Lucy Lippard describes visiting “a great many women’s studios” in the winter of 1970 and finding them “in corners of men’s studios, bedrooms, children’s rooms, kitchens”. At the time, sculpture was still considered a tough, macho medium, best suited to men, and women were struggling to access workshops and foundries. And yet the pioneering female sculptors exhibited in Making It: Women and Abstract Sculpture at Waddington Custot in London defied gender stereotypes and carved out spaces of their own, undeterred by the prejudices they faced.

These artists rose to prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s, at the same time as second-wave feminism, and expanded the remit of modernist art. Strongly resisting the pull of the typically modernist principles of minimalism and conceptualism, their focus was fixed on materiality rather than ideas and language. They made use of unconventional and close-at-hand media, such as rope and ribbons, to produce ambitious installations, often on a sweeping scale.

Among the artists on show at Waddington Custot is the Colombian textile artist Olga de Amaral, whose enchanting linen wall hangings flicker with gold leaf, and the Polish artist Barbara Levittoux-Świderska, whose jet-black and pearly-white installations feature plastic foil and natural and synthetic fabrics. Also shining a spotlight on the visual and tactile qualities of materials traditionally regarded as purely functional is the Swiss artist Françoise Grossen, best-known for her braided and knotted sculptures fashioned from dyed and natural rope.

Think of corten, or weathering, steel in art and you might picture the monumental works of Donald Judd and Richard Serra. But the American artist Beverly Pepper’s immense yet delicate works in metal predate those of her more famous male counterparts. Many of these women sculptors are united in their knack for transforming found and discarded objects into revolutionary art.

While living in Germany, the American Mildred Thompson made free-standing sculptures from a mix of wood sourced from German forests and manufactured or painted wooden segments. After stumbling upon some wire rope in a Los Angeles salvage yard while studying for her MFA at the University of California, fellow American Maren Hassinger incorporated it into her bundle-like sculptures, which also consider the relationship between natural and industrial forms.

Process, materials and the visual experience of art: these were the key tenets of this generation of visionary women sculptors. They may have been overlooked in the past, but they sparked new ways of making – often with everyday materials – and continue to have an impact on what art is and what it can be. Once relegated to cramped corners and kitchens, their work now adorns the walls and floors of a Cork Street gallery.

Further reading

Making It: Women and Abstract Sculpture is at Waddington Custot until 13 November 2021

Image credits, from top:
Maren Hassinger, Untitled Vessel (Small Body), 2021. Photo: Adam Reich. Courtesy of Susan Inglett Gallery, NYC; Beverly Pepper, Untitled #2, 1962. Photography: Flying Studio, Los Angeles Courtesy of Fondazione Progetti Beverly Pepper and Kayne Griffin, Los Angeles; Beverly Pepper in her studio. Courtesy of Fondazione Progetti Beverly Pepper; Françoise Grossen, Mermaid I, 1978. © Françoise Grossen, Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Genevieve Hanson; Portrait of Barbara Levittoux-Świderska. Courtesy Richard Saltoun.

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