El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum
Wilkin, Karen, The Hudson Review
El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum
All my friends and colleagues vividly remember their first encounters with a work by El Anatsui - and are eager to tell the story. Almost always, it's a tale of the unexpected, of a wonderful surprise, of delighted bewilderment. For many, their first sighting was of the great, glittering curtain he hung on the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, during the 2007 Bienniale. For me, it was a chance encounter, that same year, at the High Museum, Atlanta, where I had gone to see a Morris Louis exhibition. (I'm told he participated in "Les magiciens de la terre," a legendary pan-African exhibition I saw in Paris in 1989, but I don't remember his work.) At the High that day, I hadn't been particularly excited about what I'd found in the permanent collection galleries - the handsomely proportioned, beautifully lit galleries by Renzo Piano seemed more memorable than what was on display - and then I saw something inexplicable and ravishingly beautiful: a sort of tapestry of gold and ochre, with flickers of red and black, loosely hung on a distant wall. It seemed heavy, sagging here and there in suave curves. As I approached, I became aware of a dull metallic sheen and of a unifying geometric system, rather like small, rectangular tiles. Whatever I was looking at reminded me, fleetingly, both because of the color and the regular divisions, of Ghanaian kente cloth - those gorgeous textiles pieced together from narrow strips banded with subtly varied blocks of yellow, red, black, and green that are the magnificent equivalent of formal wear in some African cultures. But there were countless other associations, too: with the gold ground mosaics of churches in Ravenna, with medieval tapestries, and more.
What was I looking at?
Coming closer still, I was surprised to see that the opulent, refined expanse before me was, in fact, made of artfully folded and joined bits of soft metal of various colors, hence the metallic sheen and sense of increment. Whatever it was, it was both immensely labor-intensive and extraordinary. The label told me the artist's name - El Anatsui - that he was born in Ghana in 1944 but worked in Nigeria, and that the piece, dated 2006 and titled Taago, was made of aluminum strips from the necks of liquor bottles. Critical judgment seemed irrelevant at this point. I knew nothing about the artist or his work, but I was completely seduced by this irresistible object.
Since then, I've seen works by El Anatsui at fairly regular intervals at exhibitions and installations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, the Clark Institute, Williamstown, Massa- chusetts, and many other places. Each time, the sense of unexpect- edness and pleasure has been much the same. I've liked some works better than others, but somehow that kind of distinction didn't seem particularly important. Rather, dealing with the work of El Anatsui seemed to be a question of opening myself up to pure visual experience and to the panoply of associations provoked by his enigmatic "construc- tions" - something I've always believed was the aim of good, expressive art. But I've also learned a lot more about the artist and his intentions, all of which has helped to account for some of the uncanny power of his work, enriching, rather than diluting, its impact, although, of necessity, the element of surprise has been replaced by one of gratifying recognition.
This has been a kind of El Anatsui season in New York, with an exhibition of recent lively, polychrome tapestries at Jack Shainman Gallery, from mid-December 2012 through mid-January 2013, and a monumental, rather severe installation dependent on dark, differendy textured, geometric elements on a huge wall beside the High Line between 21st and 22nd Streets. Even more importandy, through August 4, "Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui," at the Brooklyn Museum, his first solo exhibition in a New York museum, allows us to take the measure of a remarkable artist. …