January 4, 2015

Judith Scott: Aesthetics and Biography

This first sculpture that Judith Scott (1943-2005) made at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland ca. 1988 was a wrapped group of sticks and other objects, its intense presence giving the appearance of a ritual bundle, made for magic and for prayer.

Before she began to sculpt, the first works Scott made at the art center were drawings. I learned at the link above that she was not especially interested in these two dimensional works.

I do like her work on paper, and am glad that they were included in the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound. They have an energy and sense of color that points to her sculptural sensibility.

It was in a fiber arts class that Scott discovered her aesthetic voice. There she began to wrap various found objects and materials in yarn and string, sometimes making sculpture that was fluid and oddly shaped, like an imagined living creature.....

....while other works were compressed into a solid form. Because of the complex layers of wrapping––here, even clothes hangers are included––there is tension and a sense of a pod about to burst open.

This piece from 1993 has a lighter, more lyrical quality, a delightful sense of play.

Working with the basic idea of wrapping, Scott has a remarkable range of expression: we go from lighthearted to funereal; I see this white sculpture as like an Egyptian mummy, a hermetic object, closed and unknowable.

Map-like, a relief sculpture carries us over territory of different textures and colors.

I love this piece, one of the few that relates to geometric form; I love the color and the square of lighter threads at the center.

A spill of orange threads top heavier green wool, regularity within the welter of lines. Looking at this piece, and the works above, can anyone doubt that they were made by someone with a clear and developed aesthetic sensibility, an artist willing to experiment, to push her boundaries? And yet, to unsophisticated art viewers, this is not art; my aunt found it "depressing", and I had a very lively conversation with my mother, with whom I saw the show, about the definition of art. She claimed it was not art.

Sheila Hicks, Lares and Penates, detail

So....here is a detail of a Sheila Hicks piece, made up of many small wrapped forms. Hicks is an acknowledged and respected fiber artist.

Why might we not see Scott's work as "art"? it has been recognized as such by critics, galleries, and museums. Here is where biography comes in and confuses things: Judith Scott was born with Down Syndrome and spent many years of her life in a state institution, thought to be uneducable. It turned out that she was deaf, and not so badly disabled. When her twin sister Joyce moved Judith to be with her in California in 1986, Judith's life changed: making sculpture for 18 years at the Creative Growth Art Center, a place for adult artists with disabilities, brought out a vibrant creativity.

As I processed the photos I took at the Brooklyn museum show, I became more and more convinced of Scott's unique and lively vision. There is no question in my mind that her sculpture was produced with the same kinds of aesthetic decisions that are part of any artist's process. There is attention to form and to color, and to the tensions produced in the wrapping of objects. I do wish that the show had been given more space in the museum; I felt that the works were too crowded. They had enough presence to be given more space, with room to walk around each one.

It's marvelous to think of the materials Scott used to make her sculpture: here the primary color is blue, with old blue jeans and other fabrics piled and tied together into a flop-limbed bulbous body.

There is tremendous energy evident in the gathering of this complex array of fabrics, yarn, paper, and other "stuff". We are excavating feelings as we regard these works, bringing up memory, surprise, unease, delight. There is aesthetic pleasure in the forms and colors. Here is art.


  1. It is art to me.
    I thought midway down through the post, especially at the 'mummified' one, "a spider would wish to do this".
    And at your favorite, "a runaway potholder-weaving!".
    Imagine having the impulse and wherewithal to do such creative makings. It is overwhelming to consider the infinite possibilities....to squeeze something out of nothing.
    I marvel at the social histories by which such objects end-up on pedestals in galleries. They don't just climb up there by themselves. There are relationships and appreciations involved.
    A teenager in a gallery said, "That's not so hot....a kindergartener could do that." The guard, overhearing, told him, "the art is not on trial here....you are."

    1. Thanks for that anecdote about the clever guard response.
      And I totally agree: "There are relationships and appreciations involved."
      Great comment, JBS.

  2. I'm so glad you posted about this exhibition, thank you!
    And I'm fascinated by your aunt's experience of the show as "depressing." I wish I could hear her expand that thought. JBS's comment above, relaying that guard's thought -- although I disagree with the use of the word "trial" -- applies more than most viewers acknowledge. Maybe the question is not "is it art?", but is my response artful?

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Ravenna. As for my aunt, I got her comment second hand from my mother. I imagine that the found-object nature of the sculpture was what she didn't like, since much of it would have been discarded stuff.

      We do too often have dismissive, not "artful" responses to work; I know that I do.

  3. The guard may have had a criminal-justice background.
    I myself often feel "tried" as I contemplate announcing "The Emperor has no clothes on!" and think better of it, as the piece in question has certainly passed through a filter-or-two...possibly a glimmer of artful maturation....

    1. Yep, being mature enough to try to understand another's point of view. After all, they took the time to make it so it has meaning to them.
      Though I'm not so good.....

  4. Art is what changes your mind and touches your heart as you see it. You must use your own facility of creative perception to do this. If you are not willing to change your mind or be touched in the heart, you will not see art.

    1. I agree to a certain extent, LLB, but there is much that I know and recognize as art that does not touch me at all; that is a simple matter of taste. For instance, Baroque painting generally leaves me cold, but I do not therefore say it's not art.