“The Past is Palpably Present” on New York Avenue

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is now on view in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project!

At a celebration on September 30, curator and scholar Mary Jane Jacob, a renowned authority on the artist, gave a special lecture on Abakanowicz, including her body of work and her sculptures on view on New York Avenue. These pieces, including Walking Figures and abstracted birds in flight, represent some of the artist’s most iconic work.

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

During Jacob’s talk, she discussed Abakanowicz’s life story, particularly her youth and artistic training in Poland and her experiences during the Second World War. Jacob believes that “the past is palpably present” through the artist’s work. She talked about Agora, a large public installation in Chicago’s Grant Park that, like the Walking Figures on New York Avenue, features a group of larger-than-life, armless and headless human figures.

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Through this motif in her work, Jacob said, Abakanowicz shows that “Art is able to be a means of building links between distant societies” despite differences, due to commonalities and collective memory.

Jacob also described the artist’s abiding interest in nature: “Restoring nature became a theme for Magdalena Abakanowicz. She grew up in nature, and she understood that in war we not only kill others, but we kill the earth. She’s always been drawn to nature.”

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Abakanowicz is especially inspired by unrepeatability in nature—encountering a swarm of mosquitos, for example, the artist was fascinated by the conspicuous individual characteristics among them. Jacob said, “Among her most powerful works are her soaring birds, which take us back to nature, and to a way of thinking not just about how we exist within this natural form, but how natural form itself has amazing variety.”

These works will be on view through September 2015 outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Plan your visit soon to see work by this extraordinary artist both inside and outside the museum.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project: Magdalena Abakanowicz

To honor Magdalena Abakanowicz (b.1930) on her 84th birthday, NMWA anticipates the upcoming public installation of her work on New York Avenue for one year beginning this September, as the third artist in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project. Groups of her signature monumental headless human figures, accompanied by flocks of simplified bird forms in flight, will fill the median to create a haunting, dynamic scene of masses in motion.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Walking Figures (group of 10), 2009; Bronze, each approximately 106 ¼ x 35 ⅜ x 55 ⅛ in.; All images © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Walking Figures (group of 10), 2009; Bronze, each approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 1/8 in.; All images © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York

Viewers can often be most intrigued by artwork that juxtaposes dueling elements within a single form. This ambiguity—a “push-pull” sensation—makes it difficult for audiences to ascribe a definitive meaning to the work. They are driven to contemplate and more fully engage with the art in order to fix on a personal interpretation.

Abakanowicz’s large-scale figurative sculptures achieve this alluring duality, providing the viewer both a listless crowd and static memorial. With firsthand experience of the traumas of WWII in Poland as a child, and as a leader of the fiber arts movement of the 1960s, the artist communicates her sensibilities of loss and creation through these zombie-like forms.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Gift of Patti Cadby Birch and partial museum purchase: Members’ Art Acquisition Fund

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Gift of Patti Cadby Birch and partial museum purchase: Members’ Art Acquisition Fund

A NMWA collection highlight, 4 Seated Figures (2002), currently on view in the Rose Benté Lee Sculpture Gallery, exemplifies these strangely seductive tensions in her work. The burlap-and-iron figures, appearing to be reconstructed from shed human skin, are halting yet enticing, solid yet empty, animated yet frozen, delicate yet heavy, and somber yet hopeful still.

These crumbling representations of the human body also attest to the limitations and uncertainties of the human experience—in our lives many things remain unknowable, inconceivable, and incomplete. The presence of Abakanowicz’s enigmatic figures on New York Avenue, in the midst of the District’s commuters and visitors, gives viewers a reason to pause and reflect on the inherent ambiguity of their own journeys.

Read more about the upcoming exhibition, on view September 27, 2014–September 27, 2015.

—Kelly Johnson is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is pursuing her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Curatorial Practice.

Art Lover No. 9: Chakaia Booker

Art Lover No. 9 of NMWA’s “25 Art Lovers” campaign, sculptor Chakaia Booker, is both a patron of the museum and featured artist in the collection. Her abstract tire creations have recently been installed in conjunction with the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, the only public art space featuring changing installations of contemporary works by women artists.

Join “Art Lover” Chakaia Booker and share one of your favorite works of art in NMWA’s collection or your experience visiting the New York Avenue Sculpture Project. What are your thoughts on public art? How do Chakaia Booker’s sculptures transform its surroundings? How do her sculptures differ from other public art in the DC-area? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences. We are all ears!

Chakaia Booker: Evocative, Dynamic Works in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project

Chakaia Booker, Gridlock, 2008; Rubber tire and stainless steel, 2 pieces, 100 x 48 x 20 in. each; Image Franck Espich, Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York

Chakaia Booker, Gridlock, 2008; Rubber tire and stainless steel, 2 pieces, 100 x 48 x 20 in. each; Image Franck Espich, Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York

Chakaia Booker’s creative process involves exploring and exploiting the full artistic potential of rubber tires. She carefully selects tires with easy-to-cut, worn-out treads in order to transform them into her desired shapes. To fabricate her largest sculptures, Booker uses computer-aided design software, creates detailed models, and constructs armatures from pressure-treated wood and steel rods. Just as Saint Phalle merged seemingly dichotomous techniques to create her Nanas, Booker complicates the conventions of femininity by combining traditionally feminine pursuits, weaving and handiwork, with industrial technology, typically seen as a masculine domain. She uses saber saws, band saws, reciprocating saws, miter saws, and drills to form the rubber loops, shards, knots, and folds on the surfaces of her sculptures. Varying her technique—chopping, slicing, shredding, curling—Booker transforms the rigid, dense material into pliable, evocative works.

Though her sculptures are meticulously and beautifully crafted, Booker intends for her art to exist and be understood beyond aesthetics. For her, tires are a means of communicating her ideas about society, human behavior, and expression. For example, in wheels, Booker sees a paradox of human perception. Wheels suggest mobility and progress, but also the way humankind confines itself to old ideas and attitudes. Tires are analogous to the cycle of life: people start out like freshly-treaded tires, but are eventually worn down with time and experience. Tires are also a source for environmental, political, and cultural metaphors.

Chakaia Booker, Take Out, 2008; work being installed on New York Avenue outside NMWA

Chakaia Booker, Take Out, 2008; work being installed on New York Avenue outside NMWA

Booker’s abstractions may be seen as a statement of racial identity, with tread patterns evoking African motifs used in fabrics and other artwork. But they are also intended to represent cultural diversity. Through the rust stains, textures, remaining treads, movement, and coloration of the sculptures, Booker challenges preconceived notions that tires are uniformly black, encouraging people to reexamine presumptions about subject matter, human beings, and perceptions. The evocative titles of her sculptures (such as Serendipity, Spirit Hunter, and Dialogue with Myself) are based on situations that have occurred in the artist’s own life and in the lives of others. As Booker says, “My sculptures are about the recognition of a universal experience, an emotional exchange between people, and the spiritual.”

Chakaia Booker at NMWA with Acid Rain, 2001; Image Max Hirschfield

Chakaia Booker at NMWA with Acid Rain, 2001; Image Max Hirschfeld

The Sculpture Project will showcase four works by Booker, three of which she sculpted in 2008. Gridlock—a symbol of human journey and life—shows an interplay of concave and convex spaces. The title references travel patterns, which fittingly suits New York Avenue’s bustling traffic. Take Out is a whimsical piece embellished with large, looping, swirling tendrils of tire. Evoking photographs and reflections through its frame- or mirror-like rectangular shape, Take Out invites viewers to explore and engage in the New York Avenue cityscape. The smoother, more subtle Pass the Buck is inspired by Madam C. J. Walker, a National Women’s Hall of Fame honoree and early-twentieth-century businesswoman and philanthropist, best known for developing a successful line of hair-care and beauty products for black women. A tight sphere of intricate, interlocking pieces of rubber, the work symbolizes upward mobility, the pursuit of success, and giving back to society—it meaningfully underscores NMWA’s own commitment to recognizing the efforts of women artists. A fourth piece, called Shapeshifter, which Booker has specifically designed for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, will be unveiled to the public for the first time this spring.

—Orin Zahra is a curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This article is an excerpt from “Art is Storytelling: Chakaia Booker’s work in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project,” which originally ran in the winter/spring 2012 issue of Women in the Arts magazine, NMWA’s triannual institutional publication. To receive Women in the Arts and stay up-to-date on NMWA news and exhibitions, join as a member at www.nmwa.org or call 866-875-4627.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project is currently funded through support from NAB member Medda Gudelsky and the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Foundation. In-kind support is provided by Michelin North America Inc.

Women’s History Month—and NMWA—after 25 Years

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Every month is spent celebrating women’s history at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, but this year’s annual celebration takes on special importance. This March marks the 25th anniversary of Women’s History Month and coincides with NMWA’s own 25th anniversary celebration. It is no coincidence that these two landmark occasions were conceived in the same year. By 1987, the debate over women’s rights had reached a critical level of acceptance. The establishment of NMWA and Women’s History Month responded to the political conversations of the day, reflecting the widespread desire to recognize women in history and culture.

Barbara Bush and Wilhelmina Cole Holladay at the 1987 NMWA opening.

In 1978, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women sought to remedy the lack of public consciousness surrounding women’s history. They established the week of March 8 as the first annual “Women’s History Week.” The celebration was met by enthusiasm and by 1979, the seeds for a national decree were planted.

In February 1980, the groups of women working toward national recognition realized their dream with President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980 as National Women’s History Week:

“From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”

The movement gradually gained momentum and by 1986, 14 states had dedicated March to Women’s History Month, prompting the 1987 congressional decision to establish the celebration in perpetuity.

Installation of Chakaia Booker’s sculpture in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project.

This year’s theme, “Women’s Education—Women’s Empowerment,” is near to NMWA’s cause and heart. NMWA’s 25th anniversary exhibition, Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections, explores the role of women’s education in great depth. The female artists featured were not granted the same arts education as their male counterparts. They were barred from studying the nude figure, which inhibited them from taking on history painting, then considered the highest genre. The exhibition explores the alternative avenues women in the 18th and 19th centuries travelled while refining their artistic skills and building audiences for their work.

Take part in Women’s History Month this March with a visit to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections is on view through July 29, 2012. Also join us on March 8, widely celebrated as International Women’s Day, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project Dedication and March 9 for the opening of R(ad)ical Love: Sister Mary Corita on view through July 15, 2012. For more information, visit www.nmwa.org. To learn more about Women’s History Month, visit www.nwhp.org.

—Chelsea Beroza is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Learn to Create Mosaic Artwork with NMWA!

Join NMWA on Saturday, October 1, for Piecing it All Together with Valerie Theberge! This adult workshop, free for participants 16 and older, explores the artwork of Niki de Saint Phalle (currently on view along New York Avenue), while participants gain inspiration for their own mosaics.

Mosaic artist Valerie Theberge

Mosaic artist Valerie Theberge

Local mosaic artist Valerie Theberge will lead this exciting workshop, in which participants will create their own mosaics using tiles and mortar. Theberge has spent the last 10 years working as a mosaic artist; she has studied and worked on mosaic projects inChina, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Turkey, and the United States. She currently works in a studio in the D.C. area, and she has used her wide-ranging skills to complete mosaics in a variety of settings, including an Arlington park, the Prince George’s County Correctional Center, an underpass in Reston, and the Patricia M. Sitar Center for the Arts in Adams Morgan.

Mosaics as an art form can be traced back more than 4,000 years: the mosaic form that we are most familiar with has existed since around 200 B.C., when Greek artists began using tesserae (small, specially manufactured pieces of glass, stone, or gold) to create images and add depth and detail. Perhaps the most beautiful mosaics in the world are from the Byzantine Empire, when artists used small pieces of gold and beautifully colored tesserae to reflect natural light, as well as candlelight, for ecclesiastical images. The results, which can still be seen today, are breathtaking—they speak to the power of the Byzantine Empireas well as the talent of the artists who created them.

Niki de Saint Phalle's Nana on a Dolphin, currently on view on New York Avenue

Niki de Saint Phalle's Nana on a Dolphin (detail), currently on view on New York Avenue

But you don’t have to go all the way to Greece or Turkey to see beautiful mosaic artwork. Washington, D.C., residents and vistors can enjoy this ancient art form on a daily basis, just by walking down New York Avenue! The Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures on view through NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project are fantastic examples of this venerable art form used in a new, exciting way. Combining dynamic color and form, de Saint Phalle created vibrant, lively figures, which are partly inspired by the famous Barcelona-based architect Antonio Gaudi (1852–1926). Her figures take on a life of their own: their large scale and active lines create motion and vigor.

This exciting adult workshop will help artists and beginners alike delve into mosaics. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about Niki de Saint Phalle and her sculptures, work with a fantastic mosaic artist, and explore your own creativity using one of the most ancient and spectacular art forms. This October 1 workshop is free for adults (16 and older), but reservations are required. To register, please email reservations@nmwa.org or call 202-783-7370.

This program is generously supported by the family and friends of the late Dr. Leonard Gorelick.

—Elena Gittleman is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

More Mosaic Madness at NMWA!

Since 1988, NMWA’s Role Model Workshops have brought area middle- and high-school students together with women who have achieved success in the visual, literary, and performing arts. These workshops strive to motivate and inform aspiring young artists. On Saturday, June 26, professional mosaic artist Valerie Theberge facilitated her first Role Model Workshop. Valerie spoke about her career and inspiration then lead students in the creation of mosaics inspired by the Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures on New York Avenue.

Many thanks to all who participated and if you’d like to see more of Valerie’s work, check out www.valerietheberge.com!

The Ribbon Has Been Cut!

Today at 1:30, NMWA friends and guests attended the Dedication Ceremony for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project. Speakers and honorable guests included Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden, District of Columbia Councilmember Jack Evans, US Congresswoman for the District of Columbia Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Niki de Saint Phalle’s granddaughter Bloum Cardenas.

Stay tuned for more pictures from the Dedication Ceremony and photos from tonight’s Grand Celebration!

From left to right: Downtown DC Business Improvement District Executive Director Rich Bradley; NMWA Trustee and Sculpture Project Dedication Co-Chair Marcia Carlucci; NMWA Trustee and Downtown DC BID Representative Carol Lascaris; NMWA Trustee Mary V. Mochary; DC Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning; NMWA Founder Wilhelmina Holladay; Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden; DC Councilmember Jack Evans; US Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton; District Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein; Niki Charitable Art Foundation Trustee Bloum Cardenas; NMWA Trustee Medda Gudelsky; NMWA Board President Winton Holladay; NMWA Trustee and Sculpture Project Dedication Co-Chair Marlene Malek; Salamander Hospitality LLC CEO Sheila Johnson; NMWA NAB member and Sculpture Project Advisor Sunny Scully; and NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling

Beauty, Mirth, and Good Cheer: Niki de Saint Phalle’s Three Graces

One of the most recognizable subjects in the history of art, the Three Graces of Greek mythology have been the subject of countless artworks, poems, dances, and musical pieces. As daughters of the omnipotent Zeus, the Graces were broadly considered goddesses of charm, beauty, and creativity. The Three Graces – Aglaea, Euphorsyne, and Thalia – embodied the ideals of Beauty, Mirth, and Good Cheer, respectively. Deeply embedded in the complexities of ancient myth, the Three Graces were written of by such colossal figures as Homer and Pausanius, and were associated with both the Elusian Mysteries and the cult of the Oracle of Delphi.

Visually reinterpreted time and again over the centuries, the Three Graces are generally depicted as youthful, beautiful women, closely embracing each other or dancing in a circle. Below are three representations of the Three Graces spanning the history of art: a wall painting from Pompeii, a Renaissance masterpiece by Sandro Botticelli, and finally, Niki de Saint Phalle’s colorful reworking of the ancient theme. Now on view as part of the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, Saint Phalle’s mosaic work, “The Three Graces”, 1999, features three joyously dancing women whose voluptuous figures recall the many fertility goddesses of ancient lore.

Fresco from Pompeii, House of Titus Dentatus Panthera, ca 65 -79 AD; Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Detail from "Primavera" by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482; Uffizi Gallery

"The Three Graces", 1999, by Niki de Saint Phalle; New York Avenue Sculpture Project

Raphael Sikorra is Curatorial Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts