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Friday, October 14, 2005

Today’s Installation Art

Installation Art, a form of visual art in which an exhibition space is transformed into a three-dimensional work of art. The range of materials used in installations is almost limitless, and the art crosses many stylistic categories—it can be abstract or narrative, political or purely theoretical, temporary or permanent. The term installation art came into use in the 1970s, but forerunners of this art form date back to the early 20th century.

In the late 1910s aspects of installation art were appearing in the work of artists who wanted to go beyond the conventional notions of painting and sculpture. Artists of the Russian constructivism, German Bauhaus, and Dutch De Stijl movements believed fine art and crafts should be integrated into architecture and design, and that domestic environments could be improved through a unified artistic approach based on pure geometric form.

Working in a more anarchic spirit, French American artist Marcel Duchamp and German artist Kurt Schwitters created several early examples of works that fill and transform a space. Duchamp set important sculptural precedents for today’s installation art by heaping bags of coal on the floor and nailing them to the ceiling for a work called 1,200 Bags of Coal (1938), and by filling a room with webs of taut string for Mile of String (1942). Both works were exhibited in New York City art galleries, radically altering viewers’ experience of the gallery spaces.

Schwitters’s fabled piece, Merzbau (begun in 1923), was a massive and complex accumulation of cast-off objects and debris assembled in his home in Germany. Other important forerunners of installation art include American sculptors Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois, who began in the 1950s to conceive of their works as environments rather than independent objects.

Nevelson, for instance, created large sculptures made up of shallow boxes filled with various wooden forms; these collections of objects came together to form sculptural walls, their collective power overwhelming the viewer in a way that an individual object cannot.
In the 1960s American pop artists Claes Oldenburg, Edward Kienholz, and George Segal created room-sized, figurative tableaux. Kienholz’s The Beanery (1965), for example, was a replica of a dimly lit tavern, complete with 17 life-size figures, functioning neon signs, and sprayed-on smells of food and cleansers.

American minimal artists Dan Flavin and Fred Sandback experimented with, respectively, fluorescent light tubes and string to make austere, room-altering abstract sculptures. Other artists worked with natural materials. Earth artists Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria, both American, deposited quantities of rock and dirt in once pristine installation art galleries, radically altering their character.

Although the term installation art is now more broadly applied, it came into use in the 1970s to help define artwork made in direct response to an environment. Installation artists shared an interest in making temporary use of evocative spaces for expressive ends. Some collaborative installations brought together dozens of artists.

American artists Judy Chicago, Faith Wilding, and Miriam Schapiro, for example, collaborated with their art students to create Womanhouse (1972, Santa Monica, California). For this project, they renovated a dilapidated mansion, turning it into a temporary shelter for painting, sculpture, performance art, and crafts created by, for, and about women.

Another landmark collaborative work was Rooms P.S. 1 (1976, New York City). Each of the 78 artists involved in this work, including American abstract sculptor Richard Serra and American artist Dennis Oppenheim, adopted and transformed a room in a New York City public school. Other important early figures in installation art include Americans Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, who used written language to define art’s philosophical and physical limits.

In the 1980s and 1990s Ann Hamilton, David Hammons, Judy Pfaff, and other American artists utilized a wide range of materials to create lively and complex installations. Pfaff’s Cirque, Cirque (1995), for example, permanently transformed the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. In this installation art more than 14 kilometers (9 miles) of tangled steel and aluminum tubing combine with suspended glass orbs and other colorful materials to produce a visual carnival.

Anne Ahira
Editor The Best Affiliate Newsletter


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