‘“Castoro, Castoro, I saw your paintings at Johnny’s. I liked them very much. I thought you were a boy” (Leo Castelli). I turned around and went back to Spring Street producing my next body of work. My energies in the world were for those not yet born…Cezanne didn’t live on institutional acceptance. Time validates and invalidates.’ – Rosemarie Castoro, “Artists Transgress All Boundaries”, ArtNews, 1971
Until very recently, art history has been unkind to women. Work by female artists makes up between 3 and 5% of major permanent collections in the U.S. and Europe*, and of 590 major exhibitions by nearly 70 institutions in the U.S. from 2007-2013, only 27% were devoted to women artists. By referencing a comment made by Leo Castelli – one of the most prominent, celebrated and influential art dealers of the twentieth century – Rosemarie Castoro (1939-2015) stresses the gender bias of an art world that has perceived women’s art as being inferior to art made by men for the best part of history. Times are changing however, and in Land of Lads, Land of Lashes at Thaddaeus Ropac in London, curator Anke Kempes presents the work of three female artists of the 1960s and 1970s minimal and post-minimal art movements. Rosemarie Castoro, Wanda Czelkowska (b. 1930) and Lydia Okumura (b. 1948) all broke the artistic boundaries of the period, and are only just receiving recognition for their work now.
Land of Lads, Land of Lashes greets the viewer with Wanda Czelkowska’s enormous aluminium Elipse (2018). A huge five-meter-wide structure, it is just one of many sculptural works in the exhibition that creates a radical intervention within the gallery space. Experimenting with scale and raw materials, the display of the three artists from very different cultural environments – Castoro in New York, Okumura in Sao Paulo and Czelkowska in Warsaw – establishes a dialogue that goes beyond geographic boundaries.
The sense of enormity conveyed in Czelkowska’s Elipse is most strongly felt in Okumura’s Labyrinth (Variant II), which was originally realised at the Museum de Arte Moderna, Sao Paulo in 1984 and is now re-created in 2018 at Thaddaeus Ropac in London. Consisting of huge wire cylindrical forms covered in brightly coloured mesh, the work has a hypnotizing and disorienting affect on its audience, which is heightened through the addition of grey-blue paint on a steep gradient against the bottom of the white gallery walls. The overall effect culminates in a three-dimensional, all-encompassing optical illusion. This is carried through to In Front of Light (1977), which was first exhibited at the 1977 International Biennial of Sao Paulo. Born in Brazil to Japanese parents, Okumura has been influenced by both Brazilian and Japanese minimalist and conceptual art, and is credited as initiating the first conceptual art show in Brazil. ‘With minimum intervention…I discovered that geometric language was an intelligent way to express simple, clean concise, truthful, conceptual ideas’, Okumura has been quoted as saying, ‘I understand it was okay to make art in a spontaneous way, using the minimum necessary in order to express an idea.’ Thus, playing with geometry and line, Okumura’s sculptural work feels dynamic and innovative.
The reduction of line continues through to Castoro’s sculptures – from which the exhibition’s title was taken – Land of Lashes (1976), and Land of Lads (1975). The structures are the three-dimensional realization of heavy black outlines that might appear as a drawing on a piece of paper. Land of Lashes consists of eight spidery eyelashes crawling along the floor, while Land of Lads comprises a series of vertical structures that represent DNA. Castoro’s work has a performative element; the way the lashes in Land of Lashes move along the gallery floors looks somewhat cheeky and playful, and the artist found early inspiration in experimental dance and choreography. Similarly, in painted work Break in the Middle (1970) and St. (1972), giant brushstrokes of grey-white paint appear against the walls in huge expressive sweeps, demonstrating the movement and vigour in which they were made.
The sense of mischief in Castoro’s sculptures is also seen in Czelkowska’s oeuvre, particularly in her sculptural ‘heads’. First constructed in the 1950s, they demonstrate a neo-primitive influence, reflecting Czelkowska’s interest in Etruscan and Minoan art. The ‘heads’ are large, face like structures made of plaster and iron resembling misshapen portraits of unrecognizable sitters. She has described the heads as a ‘third gender’, removing the idea of a domination of either sex in art. At Thaddaeus Ropac some of Czelkowska’s ‘head’s are shown in front of Elegy (1990), a large abstract painting in which patches of purple and orange appear amongst black marks on top of a raw, unprimed support.
Land of Lads, Land of Lashes excels not only in presenting the work of Castoro, Czelkowska and Okumura as historically important to a London audience, but also in its inclusion of documentary photography from each of the artists’ early exhibitions. Amongst many black and white images the viewer can see Castoro’s spindly sculptures exhibited outside of the gallery space standing delicately on the grass in which the work seems to embody a whole new mood and atmosphere. There are also photographs of Okumura experimenting with the mesh used to make her geometric structures. In some of these snapshots she can even be seen physically wrapping the materials above her head. Perhaps the most striking images however, are those of Czelkowska and her ‘heads’. In these photographs, the petite artist can be seen smiling in front of a huge table that dozens of her alien-like faces are resting on top of. These images show Table (1971), a display that took place at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 where 18 of Czelkowska’s abstract plaster heads lined up on a giant metal table. There are also other images where the heads form a kind of army, displayed outside on a grass lawn, as well as a self-portrait of the artist from the 1970s in which she has wrapped a see-through net fabric over her face. In the photograph Czelkowska clasps her neck and looks to the camera as if she is afraid, it is not certain what the intention is behind the image, but it is just as arresting as her sculptures, and conveys a similar sentiment: a face that has been misshapen – hear by the fabric – and cut off from its body, which Czelkowska does by grabbing her throat with her hands.
Until two years ago, Rosemarie Castoro, Wanda Czelkowska and Lydia Okumura had never had a major retrospective exhibition. Their male contemporaries – Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt – have each enjoyed success for decades. Land of Lads, Land of Lashes adds to the rising number of shows that are rewriting female artists into art history, and highlights the innovation and the artistic contributions provided by three of the twentieth century’s most important post-minimal artists.
Land of Lads, Land of Lashes: Rosemarie Castoro, Wanda Czelkowska, Lydia Okumura is on display at Thaddaeus Ropac, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1S 4NJ, until 11 August 2018
*Judy Chicago, We women artists refuse to be written out of history, The Guardian, 9 October 2012
**What Does a Woman Have to do to Get a Solo Show, The Art Newspaper