Remembering Just Above Midtown Gallery
Simone Krug: I thought it would be interesting to start this discussion by looking back at when and where you met. You were both active in the art scene in New York in the early 1980s around Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM). Could you speak about that community, its dynamic, and how you first crossed paths?
MH: Somehow, Lowery and I knew each other. At the time, Linda had started Just Above Midtown Gallery on 57th Street. Senga Nengudi and David Hammons, two artists that I knew from Los Angeles, traveled east to be in shows at JAM. Then Linda moved the gallery downtown to Franklin Street and asked me to be involved and have a show there. I feel like I met Lowery through the artist, curator, and art historian Leslie King-Hammond.
SK: The surrounding world of that gallery and the artists of color it promoted in its run from 1974–86 is going to be the subject of an upcoming MoMA show Just Above Midtown 1974 to the Present curated by Thomas Lax. It seems there is so much archival and collaborative material to unpack.
LSS: In 1975, Linda and I and a contingent from the East Coast went out to California for the National Conference of Artists. That’s when Linda made contact with artists like David Hammons, Dan Concholar, and Susan Jackson. Linda was a kind of revolutionary. Like the larger art world, the Black art world in the seventies and eighties was rather coastally divided. [Fig. 1] It was very important that she introduced West Coast artists to New York, who were a lot more experimental than the East Coast artists. The East Coast artists were caught up in the critical and theoretical concerns of the time and wondering whether they should be figurative or abstract. David Hammons arrived and pasted up paper bags with hair particles calling them “Greasy Bags and Barbecue Bones,” and Maren and Senga Nengudi were doing performance work. The infusion of that kind of West Coast Black art activity was really important, and I don’t think people realize how key Linda was to getting that going.
MH: She had this brilliant idea about business. She had gone to business school as well, so she was adapting those ideas to her galleries. It was also different because most of the artists she showed were people of color. A lot of people, Black, white, and otherwise, women and men, got a chance at starting out in their practice as curators there as well.
Environmental Works and Our Relationship with Nature
SK: Could you speak about what comes to mind when you think of Maren’s early exhibitions in the 1980s? Did these early works incorporate her signature wire rope sculptures like the pieces we will show on the Aspen Art Museum Roof Deck?
LSS: Some of the first pieces I saw were the uncoiled wire pieces that were meant to be landscapes and trees. Then over the years, I would see her alternate between man-made objects and natural objects, but it was all extraordinarily nature-based. [Fig. 2]
Even when Maren uses newspaper or other recycled material like pink plastic bags, that made a statement about cleaning up the environment. I think that was an original way to engage landscape that was very different from what anybody else was doing. [Fig. 3]
Another piece that struck me was this installation with a canopy of branches. You walked into this room and looked up to see a canopy of interwoven branches and leaves: that was sublime. I think about that work now in relation to the coronavirus and this reduction of human intervention on the landscape that’s happening!
In a way, I think of Maren’s work as a kind of harbinger of our relationship with nature. Even with the metal pieces, where she unfurled all those coils of metal to create the impression of trees, bushes, and growth, it was almost like a rebellion against the impact that concrete has on the environment.
Hassinger in Aspen
SK: I first saw Maren’s smaller wire sculptures in this survey show We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 at the California African American Museum where I used to work. I started to read more about Maren’s outdoor wire, branch, and concrete works, which she had been making since the 1970s. So often these sculptures were installed in urban sites, even when installed in a park. Aspen and its surrounding towns are quite rural. Nature and the environment are so much a part of this place. People come here to ski, snowboard, hike, and engage fully with the outdoors.
MH: Aspen may be the first place I’ve ever had a show where nature is so prominent.
SK: Your wire sculptural installations Garden and Paradise Regained on our Roof Deck Sculpture Garden also create a dynamic dialogue with Aspen Mountain in the background. The works will change drastically when the mountain is snowy in winter and when it’s lush and green in summer.
MH: It’s a powerful sight that brings up very poignant issues. Even the title Nature, Sweet Nature brings up issues about our tenuous relationship to nature, how it has been changing, and is continuing to change. My pieces support the idea of their fragility, even though they’re made of steel. There is something about those spindly, curvy things that make you think about how nature isn’t automatically a given.
LSS: The concrete and wire sculptures defy the associations we have of what is natural and with the material, which makes it seem much more malleable and responsive.
MH: The work and the environment become a contemporary issue; they are as one. It’s disturbing, but because it has a certain beauty to it, it makes you feel as if it’s not all lost, which it very well may be. We do have to change a lot.
LSS: Your outdoor pieces I’ve seen are like urban parks. It’s a little more contained than interior spaces. The first time I got to Colorado and Wyoming and Utah, I was blown away by the scale of nature out there.
Protest and Change
MH: My piece is a caution. I’ve realized the interconnected relationship between politics, populations, and climate change since I first started making sculpture. Nothing can be done about our relationship to nature unless we straighten out our relationship to one another. Now we have all of these riots in the midst of a pandemic—of all the time to have riots! Being locked inside all this time—the entire globe has been locked inside—has contributed to coming out and voicing protests. For whatever reason, this is a protest that needs to happen and needs to continue happening.
The place where all these different kinds of people live with all their different thoughts, that is our home and our environment, and we are all connected. I never thought about that as much as I have since I’ve seen all the marches. It’s a divided world, yet we’re all in the same boat.
LSS: Maybe we can figure out what is needed and what isn’t needed, and how we can work together and live together to make it a place that’s home. Unfortunately, this takes on a racial and economic dimension. And this whole idea of dumping toxic materials near communities of color. It is very complicated.
MH: This wild, unchecked growth—if you want to call it growth—has got to stop. Not only what you’re talking about in terms of people not respecting other people’s properties or rights. This whole issue that happened here in New York City, where the population of Black and brown people was the first to be diagnosed and the first to die, and they were dying in heaps and hordes before anybody did anything about it. That just shows you how people are devalued by our society. It’s outrageous.
Even in New York City, where you’d think we are a little bit more understanding, noticing, and witnessing. Still nothing. Nature and politics and populations are connected.
Materials and Beginnings
SK: I have always been struck by your interpretation of the interconnectedness of nature and the industrial. Wire rope is one of the primary materials you use, which is used so often in infrastructure and industry. Can you speak more about how you started using this material?
MH: We should go back to the beginning when I was in graduate school at UCLA for Fiber Structure. The graduate sculpture people didn’t accept me. There was a professor named Bernard Kester, who invited me to join the graduate class in Fiber Structure instead. What I wanted most was to get an MFA so I could teach. He was offering an MA, but I convinced him to give me an MFA. I started using fibers in that program. I didn’t like using the loom very much. It was tedious, and I didn’t find the results exciting. I got involved at one point with using large rope. He showed us the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz and others.
I saw that there was a freedom in materials. As long as they were linear, they were like fibers. I found wire rope in a junkyard on Alameda Street in Los Angeles. I immediately saw that it was both steel and fiber. I’m still using it to this day because it evokes nature and is entirely man-made. I felt like I had a material that was completely modern, but it was new to the visual arts. I found out it oddly looked like wind hitting a field. It showed me things about nature and industry that nothing else has up until this point. The material itself seemed very poetic. It seemed very metaphoric.
LSS: Were you aware of minimalist sculpture and artists like Robert Morris and Carl Andre?
MH: Totally. I thought about minimalism a lot because I thought it was neat, clean, and physically powerful. I liked the idea of repetition because I felt that in nature. A lawn is blades of grass. A flower is petals. Everything in nature is put together in a repetitive way. To me, using repetition is sensible.
I did like minimalism a lot, but I also realized at the time that the door to their success was closed to me as a Black woman in a fiber structure class. I couldn’t even get in the regular graduate sculpture class. That was closed to me.
LSS: The art world has a much more expansive view of that type of vocabulary now, particularly since art critic and art historian Robert Pincus-Witten. By the late seventies and eighties, he talked about post-minimalism and how he and Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, and others were using softer and malleable things, but also still using primary and industrial materials.
It is important to consider how artists of color and women took the vocabularies of color field and minimalism and infused them with content that pushed us from the late sixties into the eighties. You think of the feminist movement, particularly, Miriam Schapiro and Bob Zakanitch and pattern and decoration. That’s just minimalism with decoration. It’s feasible for you now to be included in that canon.
MH: My main inspiration has always been Eva Hesse. I was so gratified because one of my early pieces Interlock [Fig. 4] is now hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hendrik Folkerts, their curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, hung it next to an Eva Hesse. I feel the same gratification because she was like my mentor even though I never met her.
Language, Scale, and Choreography
SK: I want to shift gears to speak about how language plays a role in your work. Your sculpture Garden resembles a tall reed or grass and is installed in the soil amidst the plants and vines in our Roof Deck planter. The other piece Paradise Regained is a recreation of a 1990 work called Paradise and likewise resembles growing vegetation. What’s significant to you about these titles?
MH: The whole show is called Nature, Sweet Nature. I’m trying to bring attention to that. The idea of Paradise Regained, I could have called it “Paradise Two” or “Volume Two.” I decided that if we’re going to talk about Nature, Sweet Nature, we should talk about regaining something, getting something back that was lost.
SK: One of the most striking parts of these two works is their human scale—when you see them, they greet you at eye level. You’ve also made wire works that are below the knee that you look down on. How do you think about bodies in relation to your work?
MH: The scale of something is linked to the meaning of something. A lot of times with sculpture, you miss out on that possibility for communication with an audience because sculpture is “Big, just big! Get it big!” Then it loses that capability. I think there’s a responsibility, if you’re an artist, to communicate something of value to your audience. For example, with the things that were below your eye level that were ankle level, I was trying to talk about a chaotic motion. They were called things like Walking and Leaning and Whirling. [Fig. 5] They were specifically related to your feet and your ability to have locomotion.
In Paradise Regained and other middle level pieces, it is all about being aware of wind currents, of breezes, like sitting in nature and watching the grass flow, the leaves flow. The height of something is another way of talking about more things. It broadens the palette.
LSS: For me, this consciousness of human scale also relates to all the work you’ve done in performance and dance. One of my favorites was a piece that was installed at the Studio Museum. There were bundles of twisted newspaper that you could put on your ankles and do a dance performance. It talked about sound and visual accompaniments to dance movements. I always get this sense that you’re interested in our placement in relationship to the work. There’s a kind of choreography to viewing and experiencing your work.
MH: I think that’s a great observation. Before I was even denied entrance into the graduate sculpture class, I was denied entrance into the dance department at Bennington College. The reason I went to Bennington College was to be a dance major. They just wouldn’t bend.
LSS: I keep telling young people that if they close the door, go and find another opening. Climb in through the window. I think that is the experience of a lot of African American creatives of our generation. We did what we wanted to do. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for us to do it, but we did it anyway. The other thing, too, is that very often we were the first in our field or our mentors weren’t that many, and they were far and wide. We very much had to rely on ourselves as peers, as the posse to get us through. Half the time, we didn’t know what we were doing but tried it. And it worked.
Maren Hassinger (b. 1947) earned her BA from Bennington College and her MFA from University of California, Los Angeles. Selected recent solo exhibitions include Monuments (Corner #1) at Connecticut Avenue Overlook, Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C. (upcoming); Monuments in Marcus Garvey Park for the Studio Museum Harlem, New York (2018); Monuments at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA (2019); The Spirit of Things, Art + Practice, Los Angeles, CA, which traveled to Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD (2018); Walking, Williams College Museum of Art, Williams, MA (2018); Maren Hassinger: A Retrospective, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Spelman College, Atlanta, GA (2015). Hassinger lives and works in New York.
Lowery Stokes Sims
Lowery Stokes Sims (b. 1949) is curator emerita for the Museum of Arts and Design where she served as senior curator between 2007 and 2014 and as chief curator from 2014–15. Sims was on the education and curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1972–99 where she curated over 30 exhibitions. Sims then served as executive director, president and adjunct curator for the permanent collection at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 2000–07. A specialist in modern and contemporary art, Sims is known for her particular expertise in the work of African, Latino, Native, and Asian American artists.
This interview accompanies Maren Hassinger’s AAM exhibition, Nature, Sweet Nature, curated by Simone Krug and on view at the Aspen Art Museum.