Q&A: Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi

The way Columbia University professor Kellie Jones describes it, artists Maren Hassinger and Senga Nengudi were well ahead of their time. They were black artists based in L.A. in the 1970s who were not making especially political art. They were women artists not making explicitly feminist art. And along with making individual sculptures, they also worked together and with a larger group of artists in L.A. on performances that combined sculpture, dance, theater, music and more with the collaborative spirit of community meetings and the avant-garde brio of Allan Kaprow's happenings.

But one result of their working against the grain of traditional object-making is that few of their artworks from the time have survived. So when Jones wanted to include the artists in "Now Dig This!," the survey of African American art-making in Los Angeles from 1960 to '80 that she guest curated for the Hammer Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time, she had to ask them to re-create early, seminal pieces.

Nengudi made a version of her sculpture "R.S.V.P." from 1975, work that consists of sand stuffed into pantyhose in a way that hinges between an exploration of the female body under stress and an abstract sculpture about the physics of gravity, tension and suspension.

Hassinger made two pieces: a new installation out of a long-favored medium, wire rope, and a new version of her 1972 work "River," a 30-foot-long serpentine form made by entwining galvanized metal chain and rope. "River" touches — lightly — on slavery and emancipation.

Hassinger is director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and Nengudi lives and works in Colorado Springs, Colo., but the two have remained friends and collaborators. Next is a performance at the Hammer on Jan. 26 called "Walking Tall." The Times sat down with them and Jones for a joint interview in Los Angeles.

Thinking back to your time in L.A. in the '70s, what would you say were the most important or inspiring exhibitions you saw?

MH: For me it was a show at the Pasadena Art Museum by Eva Hesse, curated by Barbara Haskell. I mention her because I saw the work that was inspiring to me in other shows by other curators and it never had the same impact. You walk into a large room, ovoid or oval, and Hesse had made all these L-shaped pieces that vaguely looked like bandages. The material was translucent so the light in the room went right through them. They looked so much like something real I hadn't seen before, like a real personage or object that had a use I didn't know about. It was absolutely real to me with huge emotional impact: I felt it was talking to me about frailty but strength, beauty but gruesomeness, and I wanted as a professional artist to be able to make work with that power.

SN: I remember a show at the Fowler Museum on African art, though I don't know when it was. It was one of the best African shows I had ever seen because of the way they installed it. There were fetishes, wooden sculptures, masks — and they arranged everything so close together you almost had to brush against the work, and you could smell the wood. This idea that people can brush up against sculpture, have a sensual experience with it, is really attractive to me.

That seems pivotal to both of you — this idea of a physical, maybe even hands-on interaction with your work.

MH: I think that's true of the work, "River," that I originally made in 1972. The materials are chain link and hauling line for ships, originally made for marine use. The chain link is very heavy, and it's a tremendous physical expenditure of energy to make this kind of work, which I realize was a big part of me making anything at that time. I wanted to be a dancer. I was thwarted in that as a career, but I made this work that literally made me dance to get it done.

SN: The reason I called my work [at the Hammer] "Repondez s'il vous plait" or "R.S.V.P." is because I wanted people to respond. I really wanted people to touch it. It was made out of sand stuffed into pantyhose — Josine Iancos-Starrels at Barnsdall once said I should call it "nylon mesh" not pantyhose because that's not a proper medium. The reason I like sand is it was the closest I could get to the weight and form of the human body. Because there was always an issue about money, my concept was I could take a whole show and put it in my purse. I could take it out of my purse and hang it up and there you are — there would be no costs for installing or shipping. I liked this idea that a woman's life is in her purse.

Tell me more about your training as performers — I understand you both studied dance?

MH: We both stem from Lester Horton, who was a real visionary but died young. We took classes from different members of his company, and his company was very influential because it was among the first to be integrated. For example, Alvin Ailey grew out of that company, Carmen de Lavallade, James Truitte, Carmen Delavala, Leila Goldoni. He was a tremendous influence.

SN: Dance was my minor and art was my major at Cal State. Even though I loved dance, I said to myself: Being a dancer, you have a limited time span, but you can be a [visual] artist forever. So that's why I chose art, but it's been dual all along.

MH: I started Bennington College as a dance major and wanted to be a dancer. But the dance department basically said, "You don't have what it takes," which was devastating. At the same time I took a sculpture class my freshman year, and the sculpture department said, "Wow, this is great." So I pretty much just went down the wow-this-is-great path.

We know there wasn't much of a market for your work — or just about any work by black artists — at the time, but what about exhibitions? Did you have any platforms for showing your work?

SN: That's why it was so exciting to see Maren's shows at ARCO [in 1976] and LACMA [in 1981], because it was such a challenge getting into major galleries or museums. We were usually relegated to the community room, which was pretty much in the basement. We had our "rooms." So Maren's shows at ARCO and LACMA were major breakthroughs.

MH: I was in that show at LACMA coincidentally at the same time Betye Saar was in a show at Jan Baum's gallery. So the review comes out and talks about two black women having a show. To me that's very discriminatory. The thing about being an artist for me is that I'm trying to say something about what the experience of living has meant to me. And that doesn't have a color or a gender. So it's very devastating to constantly be categorized when you're not thinking about that.

But with "Now Dig This!" you are being grouped together with other African American artists. Does that bother you? Kellie, how did you deal with that issue as a curator?

KJ: Everyone has their own voice as an artist, I'm not going to say there's a special "blackness." So why go back to doing a show like this? I don't think it is going back because at that time, these shows were organized with no aesthetic focus. Back then, if you were a black person and made art, you were in the show. This show is not like that. It has a focus; we're talking about a historical time period and a group of people who knew each other and worked together. Also this is why I added this other section [primarily not African American] called "Friends." [But] it's a double-edged sword: You don't want to continue to isolate people in shows about race, but on the other hand this show is about the historical permutations of a time period, what people were making, and also it's a pedagogical tool. If people don't know about this work, how are the artists going to get into other shows?

SN: I feel the same way as Kellie. Periodically, I teach African American art history in Colorado, and I'm amazed at the students. They cannot name a single black artist, forget Native American or Asian American, not even Noguchi. Cultural literacy is important for everyone, so I think something like this is incredibly important.

MH: And remember we're talking about a major show at the Hammer Museum, not something in the basement.

Both of you have made work and staged performances in unlikely urban locations. Why go out of your way to find unconventional sites?

MH: Senga was really instrumental in finding these crazy spaces, collecting us and getting us to jump out of windows. I remember this school, a Catholic school, a building that was halfway torn down but you could still get in it, and Senga went up in the window in one of these towers and became Rapunzel.

SN: They were demolishing the building, and I said this couldn't happen, it's been in the community so long. It was a Catholic school on Arlington between Pico and Venice. It was a wonderful, beautiful brick building.

MH: And "Freeway Fets" was Senga's contribution to the "CETA, Title VI" show we did at Brockman. She did a performance under a freeway overpass — just off of Pico, probably the Harbor Freeway.

SN: CETA was a federal program that was supposed to be the 1970s version of the WPA. It was supposed to hire artists to do public art around the city, and Brockman gallery was the agent that handled that along with Caltrans. So my work was called "Freeway Fets," short for fetishes. I danced and Maren and David Hammons collaborated with me, along with other members of this collective called Studio Z. It was a wild performance that brought together men and women, and I did these ritual costumes.

Many women artists in L.A. in the '70s were collaborating in different ways — I'm thinking of the Woman's Building and Womanhouse. Is it fair to say that collaboration was embraced by women artists as a way of making art, or making art meaningful?

MH: The women's movement brought it to light, but I think that inclination was always there. The idea of women working on quilts together, raising children together, collaborative householdry, is part of our history. It's universal. I think there's a different ego involvement with women: less aggressive and more willing to be collaborative.

KJ: I think the standard model of art history is to focus on the lone genius, usually male and usually white, but now in 2011 you see a lot of artists collaboratives, who tend to be more socially oriented. This is a way that artists are working now. It's something whose time has come.

jori.finkel@latimes.com

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