New York

View of “Judith Scott,” 2014–15.

View of “Judith Scott,” 2014–15.

Judith Scott

Brooklyn Museum

View of “Judith Scott,” 2014–15.

The effects of an artist’s biography on his or her reception may be uncertain but they are hardly insignificant, and “Bound and Unbound,” the outstanding survey of the work of the sculptor Judith Scott at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, brings crucial questions about the relation of artmaking to language, affect, and intentionality—the very sort of phenomena that underpin the character of our intersubjectivity—into disorienting focus. Organized by the Sackler’s Catherine Morris and White Columns’ Matthew Higgs, the show comprises several dozen of the wrapped forms that Scott created during the eighteen years she participated in the studio program at Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. Scott was born with Down syndrome, and her profound deafness went undiagnosed into her thirties; developmentally disabled and unable to speak, the artist never made any comment on her work. Tending to her project almost daily, she would focus on one piece at a time, using both available materials and things she had found herself, until she signaled she was finished by pushing the object away, never to return to it again.

Though the exhibition, which remains on view until March 29, also includes a handful of drawings, they represent a minor adjunct to Scott’s consistently unexpected three-dimensional objects, which are here laid out in two galleries on long, low plinths. Scott made her first sculpture in 1988, roughly a year and a half after she joined the studio group at Creative Growth, gathering together a handful of thin sticks and wrapping them in twine and scraps of fabric to produce a long bundle suggesting a quiver of sorts. The show begins with this piece, and the chronological path the curators chart demonstrates how formally and conceptually capacious this simple procedure—in which three-dimensional material is bound by and secreted within various layers of fiber and textile—would prove to be for Scott as the material diversity and complexity of her works proliferated over the next decade and a half. The artist deployed colorful threads and twine in increasingly intricate counterpositions with yarn and patterned fabrics as she added to the vocabulary of her very first sculptures an array of flattened shapes, mounded forms, and multipart structures whose arching elements evoke handles or the silhouettes of musical instruments or archers’ bows. In some cases, both the material of the art studio (empty spools, beads, various fabrics) and things from the larger world (dry cleaners’ hangers, plastic tubing, a small bicycle wheel, an entire shopping cart) are visible within the astonishing tangles. In others, the interior contents of the works are totally invisible, though X-rays have revealed a rich world of stuff buried inside their sarcophagal contours.

As Morris, Higgs, and Lynne Cooke all gesture toward in their essays for the show’s very fine catalogue, Scott, who died in 2005 at the age of sixty-one, represents a kind of limit case for understanding the conditions of making and of viewing. An individual whose experience of the world was vastly different from most people’s, she was nevertheless a subject, an actor, within it—a person influenced by events, one whose artistic production might seem inevitably destined for ahistorical mythologizing, but which in fact should be considered within its social and political context (the rise of the disability-rights and accommodation movements, for example) and grounded in an expansive canon, even though its creator was unconcerned with the details of either.

So much of what qualifies as traditional curatorial (or critical) contextualization must, in Scott’s case, be performed in a sort of theoretical vacuum, one whose opacities and ambiguities can’t help but start to productively trouble other aesthetic encounters. (Indeed, even such matters as the “proper” orientation of her elegant, obstinate works are fundamentally up for grabs: The artist herself often turned the forms as she worked on them, and definitive postures were never ascertained.) They are undeniably fearsome, magical objects—totems whose absolute inscrutability estranges the viewer from conventional spectatorial positions—but they are also, as Higgs writes, products of a daily process, one that promoted the simple idea that “people making things was a completely reasonable thing to do.” The essence of Scott’s work resides in an indefinite location between these two poles, between the enchanted and the everyday. In this, at least, it is perhaps less of an art-historical outlier that it may at first seem.

Jeffrey Kastner