Critics’ Picks

  • Senga Nengudi, Performance Piece, 1977, triptych (detail). Performance view, Maren Hassinger. Photo: Harmon Outlaw. © Senga Nengudi 2019.

    Senga Nengudi, Performance Piece, 1977, triptych (detail). Performance view, Maren Hassinger. Photo: Harmon Outlaw. © Senga Nengudi 2019.

    Senga Nengudi

    Lenbachhaus Munich
    Luisenstraße 33
    September 17, 2019–January 19, 2020

    When Senga Nengudi moved to New York in 1971, after completing her MFA at California State University, Los Angeles, she began shaping large sheets of durable, plastic flag fabric into figural silhouettes. Without a gallery to show her works, Nengudi installed her cutouts in the hallways and on the fire escapes of her apartment building in Harlem, and fastened them in alleyways, streets, and abandoned lots throughout the city. She called these forms “spirits,” or “souls,” and was drawn to how they would move and murmur when caught by a sudden breeze or a slight shift in the afternoon light. While many of her silhouettes were unequivocally figural in shape and stature, when installed on the street and photographed at certain angles, as with Drifting Leaves, 1972, they acquired a quality that was hauntingly abstract.

    A few years later, Nengudi pushed this tension between abstraction and figuration to its limits in her nylon mesh pantyhose sculpture series, “R.S.V.P.,” 1975–. On an invitation for a performance staged in her Los Angeles studio on Slauson Avenue, the artist is seen photographed with her arm raised above her veiled figure, stretching the nylon fabric as if she were a conductor directing an orchestra. In these early iterations, Nengudi’s sculptures were reliant on an audience or a performer to animate them, the latter a role that often went to her friend and collaborator Maren Hassinger. Photographic records of Hassinger’s performances show scenes where the nylon becomes monstrous prostheses, or damaged and desiccated bodies. Exhibited here for the first time are a number of felt-tip pen and crayon drawings, marked and blotted by the nylon. As these sketches suggest, Nengudi mobilized the material for its elastic capacities: the possibilities therein to signify an abstracted cipher of “used bodies,” as well as a nonrepresentational form that exceeds its bodily referent—an obdurate and obstinate material that defies exhaustion.