New York

El Anatsui, They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom, 2011, copper wire, found aluminum, 15' 6" x 23'.

El Anatsui, They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom, 2011, copper wire, found aluminum, 15' 6" x 23'.

El Anatsui

El Anatsui, They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom, 2011, copper wire, found aluminum, 15' 6" x 23'.

By now the story of El Anatsui is famous: In 1995, a Ghanaian artist in his fifties who lives in Nigeria, in an off-the-beaten-track town called Nsukka, has his first one-man show with a London gallery. Over the next fifteen-plus years, he shows extensively, in galleries, museums, and international exhibitions—New York, Osaka, Paris, Berlin, Milan, Mumbai, Moscow—including a triumphant appearance in the 2007 Venice Biennale. His work comes to hang in public collections running from the British Museum in London to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s something of a fairy tale, and, as such, predictably misleading: As Susan Vogel writes in her recent book on the artist, Nsukka gave Anatsui a more cosmopolitan base than parochial Westerners might imagine. Before his global recognition, not only was he well established in Nigeria and a professor at the national university, but he traveled quite widely, through artist’s residency programs in Europe, the United States, and Brazil. He had also begun to exhibit outside Africa, if sporadically, as far back as 1969; the Studio Museum in Harlem can claim the credit of first showing him in New York, in a 1990 group exhibition, part of which traveled to the Venice Biennale that same year, making the 2007 Biennale Anatsui’s second. Even so, it’s an unlikely and remarkable career path.

Part of the story’s glamour, surely, has to do with the humility of Anatsui’s current medium (he has worked in several others): the flexible aluminum caps that wrap the tops of liquor bottles, their inner sides dull gray, their exteriors usually a bright metallic, often with a printed logo or slogan advertising the bottles’ contents. Linking thousands of these elements at a time with copper wire, Anatsui fashions them into wall hangings of mural scale and bigger: A work currently installed outdoors along Chelsea’s High Line in New York is 157 feet across. The fact that these very large, very grand objects are made up of very small, very ordinary ones gives them an immediate populist appeal—they are works about which a wide audience finds it easy to say “wow.” This has led to a certain snootiness about them in some parts of the art world, a response that seems to me entirely wrong.

What came across most strongly to me while looking at this recent show was the extraordinary range of effects and atmospheres that Anatsui is able to achieve through a method I could and did describe above in one sentence. As with my fairy-tale version of his career, that sentence doesn’t do him justice: He is startlingly resourceful in the changes he rings on his method, isolating different parts of the bottle caps into sets of units with very different characters, composing and combining these units into larger blocks, shifting in color and scale. Anatsui embodies the artist who invents a technique, a vocabulary—an art form, really—and then spends years trying out what he can say with it. The classic case is Jackson Pollock, of whose paintings Lucifer and Enchanted Forest, both 1947, Kirk Varnedoe once wrote, “The list of their crucial dissimilarities—palette; ground; dilution and mix of mediums; speed; structure; density—is so imposing that it virtually belies, even within this one year, the notion of any common strategy that could be called a style or method.” Yet everyone thinks they know what Pollock did: He dripped.

And so it is with Anatsui, whose works in this show ran from the dense, compact 3 by 5, 2012, a flat, abstract, red-and-gold curtain speckled with little patches of pattern at its outer edges, to They Finally Broke the Pot of Wisdom, 2011, a twenty-three-foot-wide silver sheet, hanging in loose folds, with at its center an amorphous shape that might perhaps be the pot of the title. Awakened, 2012, lets multicolored streamers drape from wall to floor, while Visionary, 2012, is a more or less circumscribed shape that nonetheless is internally divided into a literally dazzling array of surfaces and designs. Having begun to make his metal hangings about a dozen years ago, Anatsui shows absolutely no sign of running out of ideas for new ones.

David Frankel