Unusual in its international reach and focus on sculpture, past recipients of the award include artists such as Michael Rakowitz, known for recreating looted Iraqi artifacts, and Doris Salcedo, who conducts interviews with survivors of violence committed to haunting concepts inspire sculptures. The award is endowed with $100,000, followed by programs focused on the artist’s work, including gallery exhibitions and lectures leading to a gala in April.
Doris Salcedo used 15,000 needles to depict the pain of gun violence
Nengudi’s multidisciplinary practice—which encompasses sculpture, performance, dance, photography, and film—defends convention and takes art out of the ivory tower. In the name of art, the 79-year-old hosted a ritual dance under a Los Angeles freeway overpass in Ceremony for Freeway Fets (1978). She hung up “ghosts” made of flag fabric of fire escapes in Harlem to capture what she calls the “inner souls.” from the people she saw on the street. And most notably, she has transformed worn tights, 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, spanning more than half a century, has intersected with the feminist and black art movements.
At a time when women’s rights are being actively restricted, Nengudi’s signature tights sculptures span museum walls with new boldness and resonance. They are suspended, elongated, twisted and knotted, taking an object created to reshape women’s bodies to conform to expectations and turning it upside down, pointing to the saggy, bloated and bulging parts of the body that so many tend to have conditioned to despise.
Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher, said in an interview that Nengudi is characterized by their pioneering collaborations, which often mix dance and performance art with sculpture; their use of humble materials installed in accessible spaces; and the way she deals with social issues that are still relevant today.
“In recent years, the extraordinary creativity of the black arts community – which in many ways was marginalized in the ’70s and ’80s – is now being recognised. And so she occupies a critical place in the history of black arts, but also art, period,” he said. “In a moment when women are being deprived of the right to control their bodies, she is an artist whose exploration of female identity through work made with pantyhose speaks of great power and relevance.”
The idea for Nengudi’s tights work, collectively known as ‘RSVP’, came to her after the birth of her first child. “I was looking for material that reflected the female body,” she told curator Elissa Auter in an oral history for the Archives of American Art. “And then I finally found the pantyhose. Right after that I said, “Wow,” because the whole birthing experience — you expand and then all of a sudden after it’s over you contract and your body sort of gets back into shape. I really wanted to express that experience in some way.”
Nengudi’s work has long been closely linked to the body. As a student at California State University, Los Angeles (now UCLA), Nengudi, who was born Sue Irons in Chicago, studied both dance and art, knowing that a dance career would inevitably be short-lived and something she would need to do afterwards. Her art education experience at the former Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) opened her eyes to how art and dance can coexist: the museum had its own dance department, and educators danced in front of artworks as educational tools for children.
In a statement announcing the award, National Gallery of Art curator Lynne Cooke — one of the Nasher Prize jurors — addressed part of it what makes Nengudi’s work so effective. “The fact that she works with these everyday means, which had no history in sculpture and had no great value, means a lot to both younger artists and a wider audience,” Cooke wrote.
Early in her career, Nengudi was attracted to what she called the “non-craft” of artists like Paul Klee and volunteered in experimental, Black-centric art education programs in the Watts Towers in Los Angeles – massive sculptures made from found objects. In the 1960s, she was so fascinated by Gutai – a radical Japanese art movement in which artists rolled half-naked in the mud and painted canvases with their feet – that she moved to Japan. There she learned to appreciate the way Japanese aesthetics embraced simplicity and imperfection, and she studied Noh and Kabuki theater, which she praised for combining different artistic mediums.
When Nengudi eventually returned to Los Angeles, she founded Studio Z, a black arts collaboration, and worked with David Hammons and Maren Hassinger, who often participated in performance pieces in which Hassinger danced between Nengudi’s sculptures.
Nengudi lives in Colorado Springs and 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, slated to open in February.
But museums and awards that serve to commemorate and commemorate are somewhat at odds with the spirit of Nengudi’s work — at least according to Nengudi. “The supposedly greatest wish of an artist is to produce objects that will last for posterity for a lifetime,” she has said. “That was never a priority for me. My goal is to create an experience that vibrates with the common thread.”