Senga Nengudi, known for evocative found-object art, wins Nasher Prize

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The Nasher Sculpture Center announced Wednesday that Senga Nengudi, an artist whose uncanny sculpture — incorporating nylon pantyhose and other found objects — has been displayed in such museums as the Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, is the 2023 recipient of the Nasher Prize. Nengudi is the first Black woman to receive the honor, which was established by the Dallas museum in 2015 as a way to “honor a living artist who elevates the understanding of sculpture and its possibilities.”

Previous recipients of the prize, which is unusual in its international scope and its focus on sculpture, include such artists as Michael Rakowitz, who is known for replicating looted Iraqi artifacts, and Doris Salcedo, who conducts interviews with survivors of violence that inspire haunting conceptual sculptures. The award comes with $100,000 and is followed by programming focused on the artist’s work, including gallery displays and lectures, leading up to a gala in April.

Doris Salcedo used 15,000 needles to represent pain of gun violence

Nengudi’s multidisciplinary practice — which includes sculpture, performance, dance, photography and film — challenges convention and takes art down from the ivory tower. In the name of art, the 79-year-old has facilitated a ritual dance under a Los Angeles highway overpass in “Ceremony for Freeway Fets” (1978). She has hung “fabric spirits” made of flag material from fire escapes in Harlem to capture what she has called the “inner souls” of the people she saw on the street. And most notably, she’s transformed worn pantyhose, sometimes filled with sand, into tactile, visceral meditations on the female body. (She once said she could fit an entire exhibition in her purse). Her work, which spans more than half a century, has intersected with the feminist and Black arts movements.

At a time when women’s rights are being actively restricted, Nengudi’s signature pantyhose sculptures stretch across museum walls with renewed boldness and resonance. They are suspended, elongated, twisted and knotted, taking an object that was created to reshape women’s bodies to comport with expectations and turning it on its head, gesturing to the saggy, bloated and bulging bits of the body that so many have been conditioned to scorn.

Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher, said in an interview that Nengudi stands out for her pioneering collaborations, which often mix dance and performance art with sculpture; her use of humble materials installed in accessible spaces; and the way she engages with social issues that remain topical today.

“In more recent years, the extraordinary creativity of the Black art community — which, in the ’70s and ’80s, was in many ways marginalized — is now being recognized. And so she occupies a critical place in the history of Black arts but also of art, period,” he said. “At a moment when the right of women to control their bodies has been taken away, she’s an artist whose exploration of female identity through works made with pantyhose speaks with great power and relevance.”

The idea for the Nengudi’s pantyhose works, known collectively as “R.S.V.P.,” came to her after she gave birth to her first child. “I was looking for material that kind of reflected the female body” she told curator Elissa Auther in an oral history for the Archives of American Art. “And then, finally, I found the pantyhose. Right after that, I went, ‘Wow,’ because the whole birthing experience — you’re expanding and then all of a sudden, after it’s over, you’re contracting, and your body kind of goes back into shape. I really wanted to somehow express that experience.”

Nengudi’s work has long been intimately connected to the body. As a student at California State University, Los Angeles (now UCLA), Nengudi, who was born in Chicago as Sue Irons, studied both dance and art, knowing that a career in dance would be necessarily short-lived and she’d need something to do afterward. Her experience working in arts education at the former Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) opened her eyes to the ways art and dance could coexist: The museum had its own dance department, and educators danced in front of artworks as a teaching tool for kids.

In a statement announcing the award, National Gallery of Art curator Lynne Cooke — one of the Nasher Prize jurors — addressed part of what makes Nengudi’s work so impactful. “The fact that she makes work with these everyday means that had no history within sculpture and were of no great value is something that means a lot to younger artists as well as to a wider audience,” Cooke wrote.

Early in her career, Nengudi was attracted to what she called the “non-craft” of artists such as Paul Klee, and volunteered in experimental, Black-centric art education programs at Los Angeles’s Watts Towers — massive sculptures made of found objects. In the 1960s, she became so fascinated with Gutai — a radical Japanese art movement in which artists rolled in mud, half-naked, and painted canvases with their feet — that she moved to Japan. There, she came to appreciate the way Japanese aesthetics embraced simplicity and imperfection, and she studied Noh and Kabuki theater, which she praised for combining different artistic media.

When Nengudi eventually returned to Los Angeles, she founded Studio Z, a Black art collaborative, and worked alongside David Hammons and Maren Hassinger, who often partook in performance pieces in which Hassinger danced among Nengudi’s sculptures.

Based in Colorado Springs, Nengudi has been celebrated in retrospectives at such major museums as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museum. New York’s Dia Beacon is planning an exhibition of her work scheduled to open in February.

But museums and awards, which seek to commemorate and memorialize are, in some ways, antithetical to the spirit of Nengudi’s work — at least according to Nengudi. “An artist’s supposed greatest desire is the making of objects that will last lifetimes for posterity after all,” she has said. “This has never been a priority for me. My purpose is to create an experience that will vibrate with the connecting thread.”


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Kelsey Ables

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