Joan Jonas, NA Wins $900,000 Kyoto Prize

Joan Jonas, NA and a friend.

Joan Jonas, NA and a friend.

The Inamori Foundation in Japan has announced that Joan Jonas has won its 2018 Kyoto Prize for Art, which comes with 100 million yen (more than $900,000) and a 20-karat gold medal. (The Kyoto Prize also goes to leaders in the technology and science worlds.) After she receives the award in November, Jonas will give a lecture to commemorate her win. She has also been invited to participate in the Kyoto Prize Symposium, which takes place next year in San Diego, California, from March 19 to 21.

Jonas is well known for her performances and video installations that focus on the relationship between viewers’ bodies and various surfaces, such as screens and mirrors. Her work has been considered central to feminist art history, and critics often regard her pieces from the 1970s as pioneering examples of early video and performance art. Jonas has steadily produced new work with a mystical, inquisitive spirit in the years since, and New Yorkers can currently see the U.S. premiere of her latest performance, Moving Off the Land, which focuses on the ocean and its role in our lives, at Danspace Project in the East Village.

A release announcing her win reads, in part, “Jonas created a new form of artistic expression in the early 1970s by integrating performance art with video. Through labyrinth-like works that lead audiences to diverse interpretations, she hands down the legacy of 1960s avant-garde art by developing it into a postmodern framework, profoundly impacting artists of later generations.”

The Kyoto Prize is one of many accolades Jonas has garnered over the past few decades. She is the winner of the Guggenheim Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award for Video, the Whitechapel Gallery’s Art Icon Award, and, most importantly, a special mention by the Venice Biennale, where she represented the United States in 2015. Tate Modern in London held a survey of Jonas’s work earlier this year.


Robert Kushner, NA Featured in Artforum

Robert Kushner, Large Red Dahlia, 2017, oil, acrylic, gold leaf, silk, embroidery, and sequins on canvas, 72 x 72".

Robert Kushner, NA
535 West 22nd Street 2nd Floor
May 3 - June 16

“I just want to be a good visual seducer.” So Robert Kushner, NA declared in a 1981 interview. And as we see in his current exhibition here, “Reverie: Dupatta-topia,” the artist—a pioneer of the Pattern and Decoration movement—confirms his approach to ornament as a specific way of seeing and moving through the world. In these canvases and panels, Kushner refrained from adding paint to his surfaces until the gilding and fabric collaging were finished. Though the works recall some of Kushner’s earliest pieces, what we see before us feels utterly new.

In Large Red Dahlia, 2017, outlines of the flower slowly emerge from three Indian dupattas, or scarves, glued to the canvas. The fabrics overlap at certain points, creating moments that allow the viewer to glimpse exquisitely complex layers of embroideries and colorful sequins. In Mughal Tulips, 2018, the titular flowers sway against a patterned, cream-colored background, composed of four sober-looking dupattas and beautiful gold-leaf embellishments. The work calls to mind the regal interiors of the Taj Mahal. The beige-ish tulips almost blend in with their surroundings, but they don’t entirely because they are made from glitter-infused oil paint. The flowers emerge from the work, creating a subtle bas-relief effect.

Kushner forces us to give up our focus on a single subject in his formally labyrinthine images. If there is a sense of narrative, it is expansive, nonlinear. He asks us to take in everything we can see. And so we do, completely bewitched by it all.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

— Veronica Santi

Controlled Chaos: Howardena Pindell, NA Interviewed by Jessica Lanay

Autobiography: Scapegoat, 1990, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 141 inches

Autobiography: Scapegoat, 1990, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 141 inches


Multidisciplinary artist Howardena Pindell, NA has reached an apex in her career. With the recent presentation of her work in major survey exhibitions, her art has become a phenomenon of its own. Pindell tenderly and painstakingly braids her formal artistic skills, political positioning, and personal reflections into sculptural canvases that at their most impactful seem to bloom in psychedelic colors that reach beyond the work’s surface. Pindell’s exacting rigor transforms her art into playful, eye-arresting fractals and procedural poetry. A retrospective of her work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until May 20.

Jessica Lanay I read an anecdote in an interview in which you talk about beginning to number the circles in your work. I was wondering how much this is connected to your father being a mathematician.

Howardena Pindell He had a book, and it had graph paper. He also liked to drive, and when we went anywhere he would write down the numbers when we started, and he would write down the numbers when we got there. He was interested in science and math. For my birthday as a small child I was given a microscope, and I was looking at drinking water and seeing all the things swimming around in the water. When I started the numbering, I found it a relief and a meditation.

JL Does your artistic process help you work through outrage?

HP It is very hard for me now to get angry, maybe because I have worked it out in the art. I can remember before when I was pretty angry, but that was when I expressed myself in writing. I think it is a combination of both my art and my writing that help me touch base with my anger. Now, I am feeling that I want my anger back. I am not going to stop my work to make myself angry, but I want to feel that anger again. The thing that I am really angry about now is Trump. It is almost like living again in the 1940s—it’s his rhetoric.

JL Speaking of math, has the idea of chaos as order ever influenced your work?

HP I love controlled chaos: I love the way it looks, the drama, the things juxtaposing with one another. Also, to hold the eye through beauty, to notice one thing next to another. I want to have a sense of inside and outside. When I was living in Japan I went to a place called Itsukushima Shrine, and they had a scroll called Heike-nyko. When you look at it, it looked like water. You look down into the water, and you saw things under the water. I am at the stage where I want a sense of going outside the picture plane.

JL People ask a lot about pre- and post-accident differences in your artwork. What I want to know is: What was your body’s relationship to your work before and after the accident?

HP In 1979, there was the exhibition called Nigger Drawings. A number of us, including Lucy Lippard, protested. David Hammons came to my loft, and we were making banners. When we went there they called the police and shut down the gallery, and then the whole chatter in the art world was that we were censoring the artist. And I was thinking: But you are censoring White women artists, Black men and women artists; you are censoring Asian artists and Native American artists—everybody. There were also other things happening. For instance, I was friends with Ana Mendieta, and I associate my lying down on the canvas and tracing my body with a crime scene or what it would have been like when she fell down onto the roof when, I assume, Carl Andre killed her. My getting in touch with my body after the car accident is in it, too. One of those reviews said in error that I cracked my skull. I did not crack my skull; I had a concussion, and my skull is dented. Still, it brought on a form of amnesia: I couldn’t read a watch or a clock.

JL Can you tell me about the process of getting a piece from your imagination to the canvas, and what the vehicle is for translating what you see through your body? Is it emotion?

HP I keep journals, and when I get an idea I write it down, because with the medication and my head injury, I have short-term memory loss. I am trying to resurrect the crusty, crunchy piece (Untitled #20 [Dutch Wives Circled and Squared])(1978). I want to try to reinvigorate this approach, and I have to keep looking at my own notes. I want to revive the way I used to work and combine it with how I am working now.

JL You speak often about moving from canonical figurative artwork to abstraction. Did how you see things as an artist change with that shift?

HP I don’t know if you know the piece Scapegoat (1990); it’s in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. There is a little child, me, holding a ball—that is one of the paintings that came out of the accident, even though it is ten years after the accident. I felt there was a narrative that I wanted to put on canvas, but I didn’t want it to be on a rational picture plane or a rational perspective. At the bottom of the painting there is a white foot on my head—that was my old boss at the Museum of Modern Art. She is why I left. Then there is the text. My mother and I had a very adversarial relationship, and it was confusing for her because she was born in 1903, and she had a White birth certificate, but she was darker than I am. For some reason in Ohio they let her go to White schools. You can imagine what they said to her. Some of the things that I think were done or said to her she did to me. One of the things she said to me, before she died—she was in the hospital—she said, “If you don’t stop fighting racism someone is going to come along and destroy that little career of yours.” I put that text in the painting.

JL Were there artists who were highly influential in your decision to become more experimental in your work?

HP Frankly the earliest artist that influenced me was Marcel Duchamp. I loved The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). There is one piece I adored that looked like sugar cubes covered in a cage. That opened my eyes. When I worked for the Museum of Modern Art, the department I was in was Prints and Illustrated Books. One of the things that I catalogued was Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–1941), where he had little miniatures of his readymade pieces. My two influential things are the texture of Vincent van Gogh and Duchamp’s avant-garde thinking. Eva Hesse, I love her work. Vermeer, I love Vermeer.

JL Some of your work is about being gaslighted as a visual artist who is a Black woman. One example is your short filmFree, White and 21 (1980). Do you consider your work to be an affirmation of your experiences?

HP I would say, yes, especially with that film. I said: This had to be done; it has to be video; I have to play the two parts. I bought the blonde wig at Woolworths, and the sunglasses were my sunglasses from the 1950s. It was the first autobiographical piece that I did that set in motion the rest of the work. Everything felt like I was doing the right thing. It is weird because I had the idea, and someone showed up—her name was Maria Leno, and she was part of Downtown Community Television Center. Ana Mendieta, while she was still alive was a member of A.I.R. Gallery, and she did an exhibit called Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, and that was my first showing of Free, White and 21. Then Franklin Furnace invited me to show it, and they were charging admission. I said: "Don’t give me my honorarium; let people come for free."

JL Your work is made up of discrete parts that are layered and built into a highly detailed field. Can you talk about the relationship between the individual pieces in your art and the final product?

HP You know what I think it is related to? Fractured mind. Because I had a head injury. It was a concussion. All the pieces after that are an attempt to unite my mind again, to mend the rupture. I have had two head injuries. When I was a toddler I slipped and landed on the floor and ended up splitting open my head. When I was in the car accident…I took a terrible impact. The feeling was fractured in terms of face recognition, voice recognition. I still have memory lapses. I have an extreme memory for some things like me being in the crib and seeing my father come in and hand me a newspaper. I would say that the turning point was really that accident—that was when I started combining figuration and abstraction and started using text. It is almost like knitting different parts of myself together, trying to get back myself.

Screen Interactions: Howardenda Pindell's Video Drawings

Video Drawings: Hockey, 1975, chromogenic print, 8 x 10 inches

Video Drawings: Hockey, 1975, chromogenic print, 8 x 10 inches

Howardena Pindell’s retrospective, What Remains To Be Seen, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) spans more than five decades. Pindell, who began as a figurative painter, turned to a process-oriented practice around 1967, the year she graduated from Yale, favoring abstraction and mixed-media materials, of which her hole punches are the best known. Her dot paintings, as they are often referred to, use the dots from a hole-puncher on large abstract canvases, adding texture and depth to the surface. However, as the exhibition makes evident, she has explored many materials and is a meticulous maker who also takes pleasure in repetition. She methodically repeats actions such as drawing vectors or punching holes, which in turn meditatively investigates order, calling into question the stability of systems that govern daily life and conceptions of reality. In repeating lines, numbers, etc., she calls attention to the relative trivialness of certain logics that are accepted as truth.

This deconstruction of structures of authority is specifically evident in her Video Drawing series, which she began in 1973 and has returned to throughout her career. At the MCA, the Video Drawings are presented in both the first and second half of the exhibition, which highlights Pindell’s reengagement with this idiosyncratic method. The first iteration of the Video Drawings began in 1973 when she purchased a television for her studio at the suggestion of her eye doctor. At that point her studio had no natural light, so the television became an electronic illumination source and focal point for her to give her eyes a rest from the meticulous work she was making. In her downtime watching the television screen, Pindell became interested in the nuanced politics of the programming she was consuming. The television then became a conduit for a new artistic output. For some time Pindell had been drawing vectors and numbers on acetate, and soon noticed that because of the electric static of the television screen, the acetate naturally clung to the surface of the screen, which Pindell then photographed.

The resulting images are aesthetic and analytic forays into the motion of the screen, especially in the early versions, which are mainly of sporting events, such as Video Drawings: Baseball (1973–76). In this work, Pindell captured the momentum of a baseball player with arrows suggesting movements and numbers suggesting strategic calculations, both of which allude to a player’s velocity and direction. However, as in her dot paintings, the numbers and arrows are also arbitrary marks. In these works, Pindell points toward the rapidity of media consumption as well as the materiality of televisions that send mass-media messages from the exterior world into our domestic lives. As such Pindell aims a critical lens on culture, politics, and leisure as developed in the postwar era.

Pindell’s Video Drawings, as with her larger practice, became more pointedly political after a near-death experience in 1979. When she returned to the Video Drawings in 1988, she photographed images of political events captured from the news to make her War series. In War: The “L” Word (George Bush) (1988), she captured the soon-to-be-president during a speech given the year he was elected. Alongside the arrows and numbers, Pindell began to introduce text in this version of the Video Drawings, placing “LIAR” in all caps underneath Bush’s chin. Also in this series are images of violence and atrocities from wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, particularly the use of poisonous gases. In her return to the Video Drawings, Pindell calls more direct attention to the complexities of technology as related to social and political conflict, subverting the ideal of television as a democratizing force.

The most recent Video Drawing presented in What Remains To Be Seen features news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In Video Drawings: News (2007), she overlays acetate with arrows going in haphazard directions onto an image of a CNN weatherman describing the trajectory of the devastating hurricane in an attempt to engage critically with this cataclysmic event.

The Video Drawings are one of Pindell’s methods of visually deconstructing information, in this case televisual information. Though it is now blatantly clear that television is not neutral, when Pindell began making these works, there was still a general optimism about television and its potential as a populist technology. Through her aesthetic investigation of the medium, Pindell solicits the viewer to look critically at mass media, and she warns against accepting the homogenizing aspects of television programming. In this series, as in the rest of her work, Pindell aims to break down power structures by calling attention to their construction while simultaneously challenging accepted forms and subject matter.

Chuck Webster's NA Affiliated Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome

A Very Candid Narrative by Chuck Webster, NAAF

My proposal for coming to the American Academy in Rome as the National Academy Affiliated Fellow was rooted in expanding the narrative sense of my pictures. I wanted to find a delicate place of tension between the pure plastic form and surface of a picture and a sense of story, a larger drama and figuration.

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Lately, these mallet forms had emerged as a narrator, army or protagonist, placed in a sort of fantastical landscape space. 

For my Rome fellowship, I was first interested in working in two places that are close to each other: the Pantheon and the Caravaggio paintings at the Church of San Luigi di Francesci with the following premise:

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In the Contarelli Chapel at the Church of San Luigi di Francesci, the pictures on the walls are independent of the architecture. As Frank Stella wrote in his book Working Space, “Although Caravaggio’s paintings are obviously at home in this chapel, they do not appear to need the church. This awareness triggers the uncomfortable awareness that the paintings do not depend much on spectators either for their meaning or effect.”

In the Pantheon, the viewer is subsumed within the set of architectural ‘forces’ present, There is a sphere and a cylinder, and they have an effect on the scale of the scale of the body. Distance, volume and spatial relationships all combined for me into a state of spiritual bafflement that I could not understand, but felt completely connected to.

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I started to work in my sketchbook, and it was as though I could feel the spiritual energy of the space in the very marks I was making. As has happened to in the Rothko Chapel and other places, the drawings started to just make themselves without a whole lot of interference from me. It was a spiritual state that does not happen often.

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I started to transfer that energy into my larger drawings.

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I set up the studio, and pinned small drawings to the wall. I started several sketchbooks, some of which I brought here today. I started to get up every morning really early, make my coffee and work, looking out over Rome from my drawing table.

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I walked a lot and wanted to feel free about what I was seeing. I started to visit as many places as possible and taking materials with me, rolled-up papers, pencils and panels, along with enough 1 Euro coins to illuminate the paintings for more than a few minutes. After an hour or two, I settled in and found out new small things about the work.

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For example, in Caravaggio’s St Matthew and the Angel, I noticed that a leg of the bench that St. Matthew is kneeling on goes over the painted floor of the picture, which tilts the entire composition, and my perception of it.

 I’d take them to churches, to museums and to the Villa Dora Pamphilli, a beautiful park right behind the Academy. I started to draw from the uniquely Roman umbrella pines.

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As I worked, things started to open up and a sense of freedom surrounded the work. I would take forms from one place and put them with things from other places in my drawings. I loved the big round mound of the Castel San Angelo, and it made its way into the nomenclature.

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The Bernini show at the Borghese Gallery was astonishing.  Walking through it, I found myself in the same spiritual space as I did in the Pantheon. So, moments in those sculptures started to really show up in the narratives. Daphne’s hair in the sculpture “Apollo and Daphne” was one thing that filled me with wonder.

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Architectural details and the figures in paintings became narrative players on a stage. The altar at Santa Maria Maggiore seemed as a diminutive ‘hut’ that sat inside the large space of the church. It had these amazing bronze leaves wrapping around its columns.

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So I stuck them into my drawings, inventing a new kind of image.

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The statues of the 12 Apostles at San Giovanni en Laterno became a kind of Sacred Gathering, jury, or James Bond SPECTRE meeting, each one in small self-contained box or throne.  I started to use them in the work.

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I felt a sense of freedom as I picked up a brush. These small pockets of energy were all around, and they encouraged and fed the work. A small mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore joined the Pantheon and San Giovanni in Laterno in a strange scenario, one I don’t claim to understand , a highly desired state.  What are these figures doing?  Where are they going?  Is this a kind of meeting or quest, festival or concert?

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This energy carried into the studio, which was starting to fill with drawings, paintings and postcards.

I would see columns standing in groups, still supporting a load, while the rest of the building was gone. I thought of them as a kind of tribute and caretaker of the past, something holding fast against modernity.

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In Pompeii, there were three big stubby stones on all the streets that were born of civil necessity, and somehow seemed so funny. So they showed up in the work.

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Architectural space, pictorial space, and the spaces between the self and others would all create a kind of power that I sought to embody in the pictures.

Small things, like the rope in Bernini’s David:

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Two angels flanking the Ponte San Angelo:

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...and an archway at the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo that looked like horns or a helmet..

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After working for an hour or two at San Pietro en Vicolo, San Luigi di Francesci or Santa Maria Maggiore, I would have wonderful conversations with the guards in my elementary Italian.  

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My fanboy enthusiasm for buying six half-hour tickets to Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in Arezzo was met with equal pride and grace. I had called them a few times the previous day to make sure I had the logistics right. When I got there, introduced myself and they said “Charles!”, as thought I was a lost relative home at last.

As I walked and looked, the art, architecture, sculpture and people of Rome became entirely present actors in a larger historic ‘painting’ of self and spirit. I found this everywhere.

I was living my days like I was entering into my own paintings, as the protagonist finding a sense of connection with the world.  I felt that Rome is a place where the energy of the connections I felt with the great paintings extended to everyday life. It is a kind of magic that fills me with wonder. Each day in the studio I would try and create that energy in the work.  I was entranced by the Romanpaintings at the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill.

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Art, architecture and history are bonded to the population, and they gave themselves back to it. I found the whole city to be a kind of palimpsest, from the Sistine Chapel to the humblest of streets, layer upon layer of monuments, ruins, residences, paintings, statues, parks, and people living, building and destroying, forgetting and remembering over thousands of years.

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I think that the work I made in Rome is about how people there live, how they stand, shift and walk-how they exist with each other in a place.  I found magic in all kinds of things - We stumbled on an exhibition of hundreds of Nativity scenes:

I went to an AS Roma soccer game, and I could never have imagined the enthusiasm of the fans. Those very big flags were flying the entire game.

I went to an AS Roma soccer game, and I could never have imagined the enthusiasm of the fans. Those very big flags were flying the entire game.

The gelato...

The gelato...

The place where I bought art supplies has been in the same location since 1820.

The place where I bought art supplies has been in the same location since 1820.

And of course the coffee!

And of course the coffee!

Historical space, or what I came to see as the compression of time, was part of my everyday life in Rome.

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I came to feel that the mallet forms in my drawings could represent the self, the other, or the spirit of human connection and inspiration I felt as I sipped on Gabrielo’s obligatory latte doppio in the morning at the Academy’s cafe, discovered the architecture of Borromini, walked the Via del Corso on Saturday or drew from Michelangelo’s Moses.  

The mallets I painted were a stand-in, a protagonist for the discovery of inspiration, hope and connection. Rome is a place where history and the present are one, where the energy of the city and its people echoes the great art of the past. It has elevated my perspective on making art and on understanding how to move and exist in the world.

The American Academy in Rome was a natural extension of this Roman magic. It is an extremely well run place that has developed its own traditions and layers of meaning over the years. 

The people there were extremely dedicated to the place, and fostered an atmosphere of creative freedom, warmth and grace that I will never forget.  

One of the greatest things about the Academy is that they gather talented and articulate people from diverse disciplines and put them in a place where ideas and craft can be exchanged with ease. I was surrounded by incredible, curious minds. In a space of a few days, I had great conversations with a book designer from the Netherlands, a researcher of building techniques in Puglia having to do with a marvelous thing called a “Squinch Dome”, and a scholar from Brazil who was researching minute grammatical errors in18th century translations of Aristotle.  

I had a number of great exchanges with the Arts Director, Peter Benson Miller, about the work of the Academy Fellow Philip Guston, and I was able to source an autograph letter for him that he integrated into a lecture  he gave at the New York Studio School in February.It was interesting to hear how archaeology and art history are similar: they look through documentation and the real world for clues and posit theories about how things actually happened, and they, as well as I have occasional moments of clarity. The historians helped me to imagine the Romans in 30 B.C. going about their day or Michelangelo signing in every morning at the Vatican to paint the Sistine Chapel. 

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I  hosted a series of “Draw Jams” in my studio that brought other Fellows and their families into my world. Lots of fun was had by all.

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I have a show of the work up now at Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston. I was able to walk through it with an architect that I’d met at the Academy, Nader Terhani.  We spoke about the work in architectural terms, and he related it to his experience in Rome, and to the architecture he saw there.  He saw the impression of Rome everywhere.          

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It was a marvelous exchange, which took me back to sitting on an old stone, painting Bramante’s Tempietto as a kind of junior-sized chapel; like a “Mr. Potato Head” tiny muffin populated with a colony of small croquet mallets, which contained so much beauty, form and function. I spent a cold, wet afternoon working there, and could have spent a week.

I came to feel that my time in Rome had been a success: I was able to absorb the work in the terms of another discipline through a shared experience of a place.

This is me sitting on the Palatine Hill drawing.

Rome has a unique magic that had a very deep effect on me. It’s something that I can access when I make new work inspired by my time there. Those exchanges, and the time and freedom to have them, makes the National Academy Affiliated Fellowship to the American Academy in Rome a unique and invaluable resource for an artist, and one that has elevated my practice in a profound way.

Elizabeth Diller, NA, Makes TIME 100 List!

Elizabeth Diller, NA, attends the TIME 100 Gala with partner Ricardo Scofidio.   Photo courtesy DS+R

Elizabeth Diller, NA, attends the TIME 100 Gala with partner Ricardo Scofidio. 
Photo courtesy DS+R

Elizabeth Diller, NA, founding partner of New York City-based interdisciplinary design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), has been named one of TIME’s most influential people of 2018, making her the only architect to land on this year’s list. Now in its 15th year, the honor recognizes the activism, innovation, and achievements of 100 significant individuals from around the world.

A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Diller founded DS+R in 1981 along with her partner, Ricardo Scofidio. She accepted the award from TIME as “a representative of the collective efforts of DS+R.” The studio’s partners include Diller, Scofidio, Charles Renfro and Benjamin Gilmartin.

Among Diller’s formal accomplishments are a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Design, the Brunner Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an Honorary Doctorate of the Humanities from Occidental College. She was also awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant from 1999 to 2004—the first given in the field of architecture. Additionally, Diller is a professor at Princeton University School of Architecture.

With work spanning multiple fields, including architecture, urban design, and installation art, DS+R has worked on a multitude of projects in New York City and beyond. Recent architecture and planning initiatives include the redesign of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts campus and the multi-phased Manhattan public park project, the High Line.

In 2009, Diller and Scofidio jointly made TIME’s list of most influential people.

To view this year’s list, click here.

“I Wanted to Make Art that Told a Story”: Alison Saar, NA on Her Eloquent Sculptures


At her home and studio, Saar elaborates on her powerfully direct stories, particularly as they pertain to the African American experience.

One of Alison Saar’s works in  Topsy Turvy  at LA Louver (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of Alison Saar’s works in Topsy Turvy at LA Louver (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — The artist Alison Saar, NA, set a goal for herself long ago: to clearly communicate her ideas and emotions through the power of form. Her sculptures have their own personal vocabulary that speaks in a direct language about history, race, and mythology. If her sculptures are the melodies that capture one’s soul, the narratives behind them are the lyrics.

Saar draws from many sources to create her sculpture, graphics, and paintings; she is influenced by the art of ancient Europe, Africa, African American Folk Art, and German Expressionism. Primarily, though, her works tell the stories of the African American experience and these change through time as the times change. Her current exhibition at LA Louver, like her last one there in 2016, is moving and cathartic, addressing the current political climate and how history repeats itself. Although much has changed, Saar conveys how old systems are still in place, impacting the lives of people of color.

Alison Saar grew up in a family of artists: her mother is the renown Betye Saar, an African American artist who gained national attention for her work in the 1960s that directly addressed racism and cultural stereotypes. Alison Saar’s sister, Lezley Saar, is a painter and installation artist whose work engages with the myths and fluid conceptions of both biracial and transgender identities. And her father, Richard Saar, was a ceramic artist. He also had a business for conserving art where Alison Saar worked for many years, intimately learning techniques and styles by restoring works of art ranging from ancient Chinese frescos to African sculpture.

Alison Saar at her studio in Los Angeles

Alison Saar at her studio in Los Angeles

Alison Saar was born and raised in Los Angeles. I visited her home and studio in Laurel Canyon, just a few miles from the house she grew up in, where her mother still lives. Her current home is nestled along one of the narrow, serpentine streets that traverse these magical canyons, filled with architectural jewels including several mid-century, case study homes. As I drove up she was casually dressed, having just arrived home from walking her dog. We spoke in her living room, a space filled with her art, including that of friends and family, as well as folk art that she has collected.

Alison Saar’s studio in Los Angeles

Alison Saar’s studio in Los Angeles

“As a child we often visited Watts and my mother’s grandmother had lived near the Watts Towers. My mother grew up while Simon Rodia was still building them,” said Saar at her studio. “We also visited Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village and Trapper John’s Old West Lodge; this work had an impact on me, influencing and shaping my vision.”

While in school at Otis College of Art and Design, Saar worked with fiber art, creating works that referenced Mark Rothko and Tantric Art. At a certain point she realized that she wanted to create art that communicated clearly. “I wanted to make art that told a story, that would engage people. I wanted them to be moved by my work, whether it was specifically what my intentions were or not did not matter. I wanted them to be drawn in and affected by my sculpture.”

For her thesis in art history at Scripps College, Saar focused on the work of self-taught African American artists such as Horace Pippin, William Edmondson, Nellie Mae Rowe, Clementine Hunter, Bill Traylor, and others. Their work, which is often spiritual and spoke directly about their life experiences, affected Saar deeply.

Alison Saar, “Stanch” (2017) (left) and “Breach” (2017) (right), woodcut on vintage seed sacks

Alison Saar, “Stanch” (2017) (left) and “Breach” (2017) (right), woodcut on vintage seed sacks

Ancient European art has also been influential for Saar. She is especially drawn to the Kouros, an ancient Greek sculpture of a young, naked man. “There is something in the power and force of its form. The tension between movement and stillness,” she observed. All of these influences can be felt in her sculptures, which explore the power of form to invest a work with emotional resonance.

After Saar graduated from Otis, her husband, Tom Leeser, accepted a job in digital effects in New York City, so they moved into a loft in Chelsea, long before the galleries came. At that time in the early 1980s many people were renovating their spaces in Manhattan — gutting them to make leaner, more modern interiors. Saar was drawn to the tin tiles with designs pressed into them that covered the walls and ceilings of 19th– and early 20th-century buildings. The tin tiles would become a signature element in her work, sheathing the sculptures and adorning the frames of her assemblages. She also salvaged posts and beams from the streets of Manhattan, the found materials giving her works the patina of age, the dilapidated look of time weathering and corroding our world. After living in New York for 15 years and giving birth to her two children, Saar and her family returned to Los Angeles.

Installation view of  Topsy Turvy  at LA Louver (image courtesy LA Louver)

Installation view of Topsy Turvy at LA Louver (image courtesy LA Louver)

Saar moves freely and seamlessly from the deeply personal to more political work, dealing with the history of race in America. She has made work that speaks of her experience of becoming a mother, creating narratives about the African deity Yemaja, a mother spirit and patron saint, especially of pregnant women. In her current solo show at LA Louver, Saar addresses the history of slavery in America. The title of the exhibit, Topsy Turvy, is a reference to the character Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the novel, the inhuman treatment that rendered her callous and indifferent to life is transformed through love, leading her to be filled with hope and a desire for good.

Saar interprets Topsy as a symbol of defiance and strength. The sculptures stand with various tools of servitude; a sickle in one and a clothing iron in another. One senses that these tools could be turned into weapons, creating a powerful emotional charge to the work. The patina of hammered metal, the tin tiles that Saar has used for years, adds an aura of melancholy pathos to these sculptures. Their tone brings to mind a quote by Zora Neale Hurston, “Grab your broom of anger and drive out the beast of fear.” It is as though these words could have been written about Saar’s work.

Her intimately personal, politically charged works speak of the tragic histories of racism in America that have been reawakened and made more visible in our current times of political turmoil. “Perhaps the difference between the latest body of work is that in the past my work has always viewed politics and the sword of healing approach, and I think this is the first time I’ve had a show that is just out right angry and maybe a little more aggressive in terms of pushing back,” said Saar of Topsy Turvy. “Often the work will look at contemporary issues through a historical lens.”

As one visitor, who was at the exhibition opening at LA Louver from the beginning to the very end, said of Saar’s work, “It tells so many stories, so many histories.” It is this vision that Saar had long ago: To use the power of art to tell stories, and especially ones that matter.

Alison Saar: Topsy Turvy continues at LA Louver (45 N Venice Blvd, Venice) through May 12.