An exhibition opened at London’s Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac celebrates three pioneering female artists of the minimal and post-minimal movements. Wanda Czelkowska, Lydia Okumura and Rosemarie Castoro each subverted the avant-garde tendencies of the 1960s and 1970s in their own right, offering fresh and radical and perspectives on sculpture and painting in a male-dominated landscape.
The 18th-century, Grade I listed Ely House on Dover Street is an apt location: as a former private members’ club, it was one of the first to allow women to grace its doors in 1909. The exhibition concept stemmed from a conversation in 2016 between gallery owner Ropac and curator Anke Kempkes when it transpired that each artist was on the cusp of landing a major retrospective. It highlights the different experiences between female artists and their male counterparts during the 60s and 70s. ‘The men had people telling them to keeping doing what they were doing, women like this didn’t,’ Kempkes remarks.
When Wanda Czelkowska began her career, she was resistant to the rigid and restive mood of her native Poland, then under the shadow of communism. Tensions eased in the late 50s following Stalin’s death and she began a series of ‘awkward’ and whimsical structures as a parody of the political system. Czelkowska focused ‘obsessively’ on her signature ‘head motif’— three are displayed here – influenced by Etruscan and Minoan cultures.
‘When we asked whether she thought these heads were male or female, she wisely said they were a “third gender”’, Kempkes recalls. The drastic evolution of Czelkowska’s five-decade career will be laid bare, morphing through neo-primitivism, 60s abstraction to the introduction of stark-edged brutalist deconstructions. The artist still lives and works alone from her factory studio in Mokotów, the ‘hipster’ district of Warsaw, alongside her entire legacy of work.
Lydia Okumura’s immersive wired installation using intelligent optical colour fields was first realised in 1984, and is displayed here in an altered format. ‘I don’t think it matters that it’s not the same as it was,’ Okumura told us while preparing her colossal reel of wired mesh for her sculpture. The São Paulo-born Japanese artist draws inspiration from a number of sources such as land art and the anti-establishment wave of Arte Povera. ‘It’s astonishing that she does all of this in her head’, admires Kempkes of Okumura’s analytical and rigidly mathematical work.
Rosemarie Castoro was at the core of New York’s 1960s minimalist wave, sharing a Soho apartment with her then husband and famed ‘grid’ sculptor, Carl Andre. She initially pursued a career in dance, but, according to Kempkes ‘stopped because she disliked the lack of creative freedom’. But even after Castoro entered realm of hard-edge minimalist abstraction, movement and dancers’ treatment of space remained key forces in her work.
Here, her work occupies the entire first floor of the gallery, including a series of primitive epoxy ‘DNA ladders’ titled Land of Lads, and a parade of eerily oversized eyelash ‘creatures’, moulded in the same material, titled Land of Lashes. The latter’s horizontal forms, contrasted with the former’s verticality, can be read as a commentary on the stagnation of women artists’ careers. Yet, with their expressive forms and monumental presence, the lashes appear to be marching on, just as the arc of art history finally begins to bend towards equality.