Born in Chicago in 1943, Nengudi has been a trailblazer in sculpture for fifty years. A vital figure in the African American avant-garde scenes of Los Angeles and New York in the 1960s and 1970s, her work is characterised by a persistently radical experimentation with material and form.
Building upon a legacy of abstraction, Nengudi is a leading figure of Postminimalism making sculpture embedded with human, philosophical and spiritual concern. Her assimilation of traditional African forms and Japanese Gutai within Western Modernism has also been especially significant.
Among Nengudi’s earliest works are the ‘Untitled (Water Composition)’ sculptures from the late 1960s /1970s. Unseen for forty years, a number have been recreated especially for this exhibition. Made from heat-sealed transparent vinyl and filled with coloured water, their abstract forms rest on the floor, on plinths or are fixed to a wall. Undermining the static and industrial tendencies of Minimalist sculpture, the water sculptures instead hang and flop with the weight of a body, mimicking flesh while responding to the viewer’s touch.
Much of Nengudi’s work has been informed by her long-standing interested in spiritual rituals across cultures and the use of objects. ‘Ceremony for Freeway Fets’ (1978) comprises eleven photographs documenting a performance Nengudi initiated with David Hammons (b. 1943), Maren Hassinger (b. 1947) and members of the Studio Z collective at a Los Angeles freeway underpass. The performance incorporated many different objects Nengudi constructed out of what became her signature material – nylon tights. Other photographs, including the triptych ‘Performance Piece’ (1978), show Hassinger, a long-time collaborator and choreographer, interacting with the R.S.V.P. sculptures, perhaps Nengudi’s best known body of work.
Significant examples from the R.S.V.P. series will be included. Begun in 1975, they are made with nylon tights. Stretched, knotted, filled with sand and mounted on the wall or between opposing walls, Nengudi has referred to these sculptures as ‘abstracted reflections of used bodies’. Of great influence to artists more recently, they remain powerful, yet humble, icons of the triumphs and traumas of the human body, especially the female body: Nengudi initiated the series after becoming pregnant.
Also included is ‘Bulemia’, a room-filling installation made from collected and overpainted newspaper, unseen since its original presentation in 1990, and a new ‘Sandmining’ installation made for this exhibition. Building upon a series begun in the 1990s, the ‘Sandmining’ is shown alongside elements from the Wet Night – Early Dawn – Scat Chant – Pilgrim’s Song series from the same decade. The two bodies of work explore the artist’s long-standing interest in the commonalities of different belief systems and pilgrimage.
Offering the most expansive overview of Nengudi’s practice to date and shedding light on the work of a figure fundamental to Postminimalism, this exhibition asserts Nengudi’s vital position within a generation of artists who redefined the possibilities of sculpture and representations of race and gender while drawing upon a tradition of abstraction.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a special edition of the Institute’s Essays on Sculpture series with contributions by Laurence Sillars, Head of Henry Moore Institute Programmes and curator of the exhibition; Whitney Battle-Baptiste, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Adelaide Bannerman, London-based artist and curator.