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Josephine Halvorson’s painting practice focuses on place and the careful acts of observation and transcription. Working outdoors, Halvorson selects a particular site, sets up her tools and materials, and takes in her surroundings, translating what she sees into painted marks. The resulting paintings capture the heterogeneity and brilliance of the mundane, revealing each square inch of earth to hold countless colors, shapes, and textures. 

Station Meter is from a body of paintings (many of which were made during the COVID-19 pandemic), centered on artistic genres of still life and memento mori, which “hover between liveliness and decay,” according to the artist. Halvorson settles on many of her subjects—often overlooked scenes that appear to hold little value otherwise—during her walks and travels, drawn primarily to seemingly forgotten corners of different environments. It is Halvorson’s deep investment in her subjects through which she locates the latent meaning of each scene. She spends hours looking closely and working in a vérité style in order “to make a painting that remembers better than I can,” says Halvorson.  

Station Meter centers on a watt hour meter, a device that measures and records the electric power flowing through a circuit over time. The meter is mounted on a weathered piece of wood whose brilliant blue paint is peeling, its appearance neglected. The mounted meter is represented frontally and crowds the canvas against a backdrop of train tracks, an overpass, and electrical lines, conveyed through an economy of means in very little space. As in many of Halvorson’s works, the meter is painted with a poetic exactitude that renders it with a quiet dignity. It appears to suggest that despite being overlooked, the work nevertheless must go on. The passing and measuring of time apparent in the scene are analogous to Halvorson’s investment in moments of beauty that often go unnoticed. 

An acclaimed artist working primarily in the media of photography, film, and video, Shirin Neshat creates art that contends primarily with the experiences and struggles of Iranian women through the lens of religion, femininity, and modernity. Neshat’s film and photographs are concerned with the social relationships between women and men in Muslim societies and prompt important questions on representations of Muslim women in contemporary art. The photograph Untitled is from a series made the same year titled Passage, depicting scenes from Neshat’s single-channel video Passage from 2001. With an accompanying score by the composer Philip Glass (who originally commissioned Passage), the video was originally shot on 35mm film in the Moroccan seaside city Essaouira, and in the Moroccan desert at a halfway point between Marrakesh and Casablanca. The video is composed in three parts: the first follows a group of men carrying a body prepared for burial; the second, a group of women preparing a place for burial by digging into the ground with their hands; and the third, a young girl playing alone as the burial concludes with a funeral pyre. This photograph draws from the second part of the film, showing the women in a tight circle on their hands and knees, conflating the forms of their huddled bodies with the dry, rocky landscape. Likewise, their tightly gathered bodies resemble the form of the funeral pyre, layering nuanced meaning through these visual metaphors on the role of gender, performance, and ritual. 

In a career spanning over twenty years, Arlene Shechet embraces chance when making sculpture dictated by materials that change from one state to another before solidifying as a finished object. So and So and So and So and On and On is one of Shechet’s most significant works, marking a new direction within her practice. A ceramic sculptural diptych, the work is composed of two round, glazed forms displayed on top of irregular stacks of kiln bricks. The large, fleshy pink heads—whose color references, among other things, the paintings of one of Shechet’s heroes, Philip Guston—function as three-dimensional vessels for the gestural application of color. They are glazed so that the roseate colors layer in zigzagging paths across textured surfaces, with eyelike blue dots interspersed. The glazed and stacked kiln bricks, some white, some outlined thickly in black, are readymade pedestals for the bust-like, handmade ceramic forms. As integral features of Shechet’s sculptures, pedestals dynamically contrast with the elements they support. Here, the columns of kiln bricks reference the process by which the larger forms came into being, gesturing at the presence of the kiln itself as the arbiter of material transformation. Such interplay of forms demonstrates the artist’s dedication to challenging sculptural conventions, grounded, as she says, by “an experience of sculpture as a language for transmitting information, feelings, beliefs, and thoughts.” 

The work of Marlene Dumas explores the thematic relationships between parenthood, sexuality, and death. Using a wide range of photographic source material, from her own Polaroids to newspaper images and pornography, Dumas creates paintings and drawings that are focused largely on the human body or face. She considers her source images to be political in their contemporaneity, showing the psychological realities of the era in which they were taken. She works in the tradition of portraiture, but she subordinates the aspect of individual appearance to the sitter’s mental and emotional state.

The Messengers reveals the fragile cycles of life in a four-panel painting that depicts three skeletons alongside a young child. While the anatomy is not detailed, Dumas creates a compressed intensity by scaling her figures to the height of the narrow canvasses and installing them close to the floor so they share our viewing space. Dumas made this painting when she was a new parent: the figure to the right is her daughter Helena. In contrast to the three small children sheepishly crowding around one of the skeletons, Helena turns her larger-than-life gaze directly toward us. Images of pregnant women and children recur in Dumas’s work, and Helena is a frequent subject. The Messengers is typical of Dumas’s way of suggesting that motherhood and childhood are not as distant from issues of mortality as we might think. The size and postures of the skeletons and Helena are the same, and the skeleton beside her holds a small figure near its pubis as though it had just given birth; the association emphasizes the inexorability of the cycle of life and death.

The striking and monumental The Messengers strengthens the representation of Dumas’s work in the ICA/Boston collection, which also includes her German Witch, 2000.

2014.16.1–4

Tara Donovan transforms everyday materials into formally elegant sculptures, installations, and works on paper. She has made works from massive accumulations of pins, straws, toothpicks, tarpaper, tape, buttons, paper plates, and pencils. The means by which Donovan manipulates these objects are often simple—ripping, stacking, twisting, piling, cutting, grouping—yet the results are spectacular. The artist begins by testing and experimenting with a given material, seeking to remain true to its inherent properties while pushing its capacities. As Donovan has said, “Every new material comes with a specific repetitive action that builds the work.” Colored buttons form rippling towers that recall sea coral, or three million cups are stacked to form an undulating topographic map. When viewers discover what Donovan’s works are made of, they are surprised and delighted by how something so familiar and ordinary can become so unexpected and new.

Untitled (Pins), made of many thousands of straight pins, is a perfect cube reminiscent of the work of minimalists like Donald Judd. Rather than following the minimalist strategy of industrial fabrication, however, Donovan herself poured and pressed the pins into a four-sided square mold. When she removed the sides, the pins created a cube shape bound together by nothing more than surface tension: rather than holding fabric in place, the pins hold only themselves. As in much of her work, light plays off the cube, making it glitter enticingly. For all its prickliness, it begs to be touched. Yet, unlike Carl Andre’s relatively indestructible floor pieces or Judd’s cubes, Untitled (Pins) is fragile, on the brink of falling apart at the slightest touch. Far from tragic, it betrays a sense of humor and humility.

When the ICA/Boston organized survey of Donovan’s work in 2008, this work particularly aroused the affection of viewers. Untitled (Pins) complements the ICA’s Cornelia Parker pieces, as both artists reanimate the overlooked and mundane to create works of striking beauty.

2014.15

Sandra Cinto rose to prominence in the late 1980s. In her drawing-based work, she develops the possibilities of line at an architectural scale, and brings attention to the multiple layers of visual experience. Cinto often depicts the landscape in spare yet florid compositions that invoke the sublime and emphasize turbulence in seascapes, rainstorms, and blustery skies. She is frequently commissioned to create large-scale, site-specific works in which she drapes spaces in wide swaths of lush, blue-tinted drawings, pushing the limits of the medium. In these spiraling, expansive works, Cinto offers the rigors of travel across challenging terrain as a metaphor for human ambition.

​Although Cinto is less known for her photographic work, the medium allows her to explore many of the themes that inform her environmental works, namely, the play between flatness and depth, transparency and opacity, and drawing and three-dimensional space. In Untitled, a ghostly bluish-green hand floats within the frame against an indeterminate background. The glass separating the viewer from the image has been streaked and scored by longitudinal etching marks, as if the glass had been shattered, rupturing the serenity of the milky composition. The hand’s tensely curled and truncated fingers, coupled with the scarred glass that encases it, lend the work an eerie, disquieting air.

​This multimedia work by Cinto builds on the ICA/Boston’s growing collection of late twentieth-century photography and artworks that dissolve the divide between photography, sculpture, and painting, such as those by Gilbert and George, Leslie Hewitt, and Annette Lemieux. It also adds to the ICA’s burgeoning collection of Latin American art.

2014.14

Louise Bourgeois utilized a variety of materials—fabric, wood, metal, wax—to craft personal and evocative objects that reference the body, sexuality, anxiety, and trauma. Deeply affected by her childhood experiences, Bourgeois saw art as a way of processing complex feelings. She found sculpture to be particularly helpful, once claiming that it “needs so much physical involvement that you can rid yourself of your demons through sculpting.” Drawing had another, equally important function in her life and work. She had developed her drafting skills as a youth while helping her tapestry-restorer parents by making drawings for them to follow in their repairs. Conceiving of drawings as a “kind of diary,” Bourgeois drew consistently, almost daily, throughout her long life. Because she could execute her drawings quickly, they were an effective way of recording her artistic ideas.

Bourgeois’s drawings often seem like automatic notations—quick sketches of a memory or an idea for a future sculpture. Only a small percentage can be considered preparatory to specific sculptures; she generally recorded only individual motifs that might later be translated into sculptural form. The long, thin shape in the right foreground of Untitled, for example, finds parallels in many other drawings, as well as in bronze and wooden sculptures she created in the late 1940s. The hairlike forms in the left foreground, which recur throughout Bourgeois’s oeuvre, are usually confined to drawings and prints. Though abstract, these forms bear a strong resemblance to parts of the body.

Bourgeois is one of the most significant female artists of the twentieth century. Drawings constitute a key and sometimes overlooked aspect of her practice, making Untitled an important part of the ICA/Boston’s holdings of her work.

2014.13

For over seventy years, Louise Bourgeois created poignant, cathartic work that explores sexuality, the human form, and traumatic events from her childhood. She is well known for her powerful sculptural work in a variety of media, including marble, bronze, plaster, and fabric.

Janus Fleuri is an evocatively corporeal object made of sleekly polished bronze. Following a period in the late 1950s when Bourgeois withdrew from the art world, she began experimenting with organic and biomorphic forms. She made six versions of Janus in 1968—five in bronze and one in porcelain (which the ICA/Boston also owns)—and recast the motif in 1992. Each piece in this series is delicately suspended by a single wire and is free to spin on its axis. Other hanging sculptures by Bourgeois from this era include the phallic Fillette, 1968, with which Bourgeois posed for a famous photographic portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe of 1982.

The title references the Roman god Janus, who was the god of gates, doorways, and beginnings and endings (indeed, the opening month of the year is named after him) and who is often portrayed as having two heads facing in opposite directions. A duality of meaning can often be found in Bourgeois’s work, with forms appearing at once male and female, abstract and representational, menacing and nurturing. In Janus Fleuri, we see mirrored forms drooping in opposite directions from a central point. Bourgeois blended male and female anatomy in many works throughout her career, including the phallic yet breastlike Germinal, 1967–92, also in the ICA collection.

The ICA has two versions of Janus Fleuri, one in porcelain and one in bronze. This sculpture, from one of her most significant series, plays an important role in the ICA’s holdings of the artist’s work.

2014.12

During her seventy-year career, Louise Bourgeois became an artist of wide influence and art-historical importance. Her charged work, a distinctive mix of abstraction and figuration, delves into childhood memories and the emotional struggles of everyday life. Working in wood, bronze, marble, steel, rubber, and fabric, she created powerful objects that reference the body, sexuality, trauma, and anxiety.

Among the motifs that appear most regularly in her work are breasts and penises. This imagery is often discussed from an autobiographical standpoint, as standing in for Bourgeois’s mother and father, with whom she had complicated relationships. Her use of the motifs can also be related to human sexuality more generally. Additionally, her objects have been compared to ancient religious icons. In Germinal, a small and domed sculpture in white marble, Bourgeois collapses the imagery of the breast and the penis. According to Bourgeois, as quoted in Thomas McEvilley’s Sculpture in the Age of Doubt, “Sometimes I am totally concerned with female shapes—clusters of breasts like clouds—but I often merge the imagery—phallic breasts, male and female, active and passive.” The “phallic breast” has an early precedent in sculptures and depictions of the goddess Rati in Bali, whose long breasts jut forward as though erect. Germinal stands as an archetypal example of Bourgeois’s manipulations and combinations of male and female sexual markers.

As part of a group of works by Bourgeois owned by the ICA, Germinal augments the museum’s collection of sculpture by significant female artists.

2014.11

Louise Bourgeois was one of the most influential artists of the last century. In her distinctive mix of abstraction and figuration, she delved into childhood memories and the struggles of everyday life. Using a variety of materials—wood, bronze, marble, steel, rubber, and fabric—she crafted evocative and personally cathartic objects that reference the body, sexuality, family, trauma, and anxiety.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Bourgeois repurposed found fabric as the material for a number of sculptures. In part, this stemmed from necessity—sewing was a technique she could still manage as an elderly artist. Stitching with bits of her old clothing, sheets, or towels, Bourgeois created small figures that convey strong emotions. Arched Figure No.1 is made from pantyhose-like fabric stretched over chicken wire. This crudely stitched female form could be in a state of sexual ecstasy or perhaps, conversely, excruciating pain. Bourgeois describes this arched form, which appears in many of her works, as “the arch of hysteria, pleasure, and pain … merged in a state of happiness.” Placed in a vitrine of the artist’s design, Arched Figure No. 1 calls to mind anthropological or historical museum display. Like a contemporary version of an ancient fertility figure, the object is preserved and protected for future contemplation.

Arched Figure No. 1 demonstrates the artist’s characteristic interest in subjects such as the body, sexuality, and androgyny. The piece was featured in the ICA/Boston’s 2007 exhibition Bourgeois in Boston.

2014.10