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Q&A: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi

The artists discuss their PST exhibit at the Hammer, being black artists in the 1970s and how dancing influenced their art.

November 27, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Pacific Standard Times exhibition "Now Dig This" curator Kellie Jones, right, with artists Senga Nengudi, left, and Maren Hassinger at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Pacific Standard Times exhibition "Now Dig This" curator Kellie… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

The way Columbia University professor Kellie Jones describes it, artists Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi were well ahead of their time. They were black artists based in L.A. in the 1970s who were not making especially political art. They were women artists not making explicitly feminist art. And along with making individual sculptures, they also worked together and with a larger group of artists in L.A. on performances that combined sculpture, dance, theater, music and more with the collaborative spirit of community meetings and the avant-garde brio of Allan Kaprow's happenings.

But one result of their working against the grain of traditional object-making is that few of their artworks from the time have survived. So when Jones wanted to include the artists in "Now Dig This!," the survey of African American art-making in Los Angeles from 1960 to '80 that she guest curated for the Hammer Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time, she had to ask them to re-create early, seminal pieces.

Nengudi made a version of her sculpture "R.S.V.P." from 1975, work that consists of sand stuffed into pantyhose in a way that hinges between an exploration of the female body under stress and an abstract sculpture about the physics of gravity, tension and suspension.

Hassinger made two pieces: a new installation out of a long-favored medium, wire rope, and a new version of her 1972 work "River," a 30-foot-long serpentine form made by entwining galvanized metal chain and rope. "River" touches — lightly — on slavery and emancipation.

Hassinger is director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and Nengudi lives and works in Colorado Springs, Colo., but the two have remained friends and collaborators. Next is a performance at the Hammer on Jan. 26 called "Walking Tall." The Times sat down with them and Jones for a joint interview in Los Angeles.

Thinking back to your time in L.A. in the '70s, what would you say were the most important or inspiring exhibitions you saw?

MH: For me it was a show at the Pasadena Art Museum by Eva Hesse, curated by Barbara Haskell. I mention her because I saw the work that was inspiring to me in other shows by other curators and it never had the same impact. You walk into a large room, ovoid or oval, and Hesse had made all these L-shaped pieces that vaguely looked like bandages. The material was translucent so the light in the room went right through them. They looked so much like something real I hadn't seen before, like a real personage or object that had a use I didn't know about. It was absolutely real to me with huge emotional impact: I felt it was talking to me about frailty but strength, beauty but gruesomeness, and I wanted as a professional artist to be able to make work with that power.

SN: I remember a show at the Fowler Museum on African art, though I don't know when it was. It was one of the best African shows I had ever seen because of the way they installed it. There were fetishes, wooden sculptures, masks — and they arranged everything so close together you almost had to brush against the work, and you could smell the wood. This idea that people can brush up against sculpture, have a sensual experience with it, is really attractive to me.

That seems pivotal to both of you — this idea of a physical, maybe even hands-on interaction with your work.

MH: I think that's true of the work, "River," that I originally made in 1972. The materials are chain link and hauling line for ships, originally made for marine use. The chain link is very heavy, and it's a tremendous physical expenditure of energy to make this kind of work, which I realize was a big part of me making anything at that time. I wanted to be a dancer. I was thwarted in that as a career, but I made this work that literally made me dance to get it done.

SN: The reason I called my work [at the Hammer] "Repondez s'il vous plait" or "R.S.V.P." is because I wanted people to respond. I really wanted people to touch it. It was made out of sand stuffed into pantyhose — Josine Iancos-Starrels at Barnsdall once said I should call it "nylon mesh" not pantyhose because that's not a proper medium. The reason I like sand is it was the closest I could get to the weight and form of the human body. Because there was always an issue about money, my concept was I could take a whole show and put it in my purse. I could take it out of my purse and hang it up and there you are — there would be no costs for installing or shipping. I liked this idea that a woman's life is in her purse.

Tell me more about your training as performers — I understand you both studied dance?

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