Powerful Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014

Beer describes her “Anchored Candy” series of benches as “inspired by fashion and hotrods.” The curving, inviting seats feature sleek, jewel-tone automotive finishes, and each bench is grounded by a contrasting raw steel block. She says, “It is furniture simultaneously about desire and structure.”

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Who made it?

Vivian Beer (b. 1977), a New England-based furniture designer, takes inspiration from culture, industry, and the decorative arts “to create handmade, one-off objects that manifest the nostalgia of history, the speed of progress, and the memory of the human hand.” Her forms evoke speed and motion, beauty and power.

For Beer, who grew up in a rural area of Maine, making objects and developing hands-on skills was integral to everyday life. She received a BFA from Maine College of Art in sculpture in 2000 and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in metalsmithing in 2004. In 2014 she undertook a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There, she researched the design history of American aeronautics and the aesthetic and cultural influences that have shaped airplanes over time.

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

How was it made?

Beer, a former metalworker and blacksmith, incorporates the tools and techniques of industrial design into her furniture. In her studio, she welds, grinds, and builds steel armatures for furniture. Other pieces incorporate concrete, appearing to drape the rigid material into graceful curves. She finishes her furniture meticulously, touching each inch of the surface at least a dozen times. She says, “This attention to detail is very important, because . . . one of the wonderful things about furniture, especially seating, is its intimacy.”

Collection connection

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

In NMWA’s collection, Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain, 2001, also evokes power and beauty through automotive materials. Booker, whose work was featured in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, uses recycled rubber tires as her medium. With varied techniques—chopping, slicing, shredding, and curling—Booker transforms the dense material. To fabricate her largest sculptures, Booker uses computer-aided design software, creates detailed models, and constructs armatures from pressure-treated wood and steel rods. The intricacy of Acid Rain, a wall relief sculpture, belies its imposing 10-foot-tall size. Her use of tires refers to social mobility and progress as well as environmental, political, and cultural issues.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Feminism and Daring: Cataloguing Niki de Saint Phalle

“Very early on I decided to become a heroine . . .” said Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002). “What did it matter who I would be? The main thing was that it had to be difficult, grandiose, exciting.”

That quote, which adorns the back cover of Niki de Saint Phalle (La Fábrica / Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2015), captures the ambition and bravado of the French-American artist. The lush catalogue was published for a recent retrospective of Saint Phalle’s work that was shown at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the RMN-Grand Palais in Paris.

Saint Phalle may be best known for exuberant mosaic sculptures known as her “Nanas,” several of which were showcased as the inaugural works in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project. This retrospective celebrates and contextualizes her Nanas while shedding light on her other work—from paintings to sculptures to experimental films—as well as her boldly cultivated persona and the political and feminist subjects that her art addressed.

In this catalogue, Saint Phalle’s work is presented in four sections—“The Beginnings,” on her formative work; “Shooting, Performances, and Commitment,” which traces her public persona and action-based Shooting Paintings; “Feminine Imagery,” highlighting her vibrant and sometimes aggressive portrayals of women; and “Sculpture and Public Art.” Numerous contributors include Bloum Cardenas, the artist’s granddaughter and trustee of the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, and Camille Morineau, lead exhibition curator.

Morineau’s introductory essay asserts Saint Phalle’s status as a feminist and risk-taker with a “mixture of coherence, complexity, and courage which distinguishes great artists.”

All are welcome to look at this catalogue, which is available in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. If you’re touring the museum’s exhibitions, the library is open to the public and makes a great starting point on the fourth floor. In addition to beautiful books and comfortable chairs, library visitors enjoy interesting exhibitions that feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artists’ books. Reference Desk staff members are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“The Past is Palpably Present” on New York Avenue

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s work is now on view in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project!

At a celebration on September 30, curator and scholar Mary Jane Jacob, a renowned authority on the artist, gave a special lecture on Abakanowicz, including her body of work and her sculptures on view on New York Avenue. These pieces, including Walking Figures and abstracted birds in flight, represent some of the artist’s most iconic work.

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

Walking Figures (and detail), 2009; Bronze, dimensions variable (each figure approximately 106 1/4 x 35 3/8 x 55 3/8 in.); © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photos Laura Hoffman

During Jacob’s talk, she discussed Abakanowicz’s life story, particularly her youth and artistic training in Poland and her experiences during the Second World War. Jacob believes that “the past is palpably present” through the artist’s work. She talked about Agora, a large public installation in Chicago’s Grant Park that, like the Walking Figures on New York Avenue, features a group of larger-than-life, armless and headless human figures.

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Mary Jane Jacob at NMWA; Photo Laura Hoffman

Through this motif in her work, Jacob said, Abakanowicz shows that “Art is able to be a means of building links between distant societies” despite differences, due to commonalities and collective memory.

Jacob also described the artist’s abiding interest in nature: “Restoring nature became a theme for Magdalena Abakanowicz. She grew up in nature, and she understood that in war we not only kill others, but we kill the earth. She’s always been drawn to nature.”

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Stainless Bird on Pole II, 2009; Stainless steel, 144 1/8 x 106 1/4 x 57 1/8 in.; and Stainless Bird on Pole III, 2009; Stainless steel, 151 5/8 x 63 x 53 1/8 in.; © Magdalena Abakanowicz, Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, New York; Photo Laura Hoffman

Abakanowicz is especially inspired by unrepeatability in nature—encountering a swarm of mosquitos, for example, the artist was fascinated by the conspicuous individual characteristics among them. Jacob said, “Among her most powerful works are her soaring birds, which take us back to nature, and to a way of thinking not just about how we exist within this natural form, but how natural form itself has amazing variety.”

These works will be on view through September 2015 outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Plan your visit soon to see work by this extraordinary artist both inside and outside the museum.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.