I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body. From tender tight beginnings to sagging end . . . The body can only stand so much push and pull before it gives way, never to resume its original shape . . . My works are abstracted reflections of used bodies—visual images that serve my aesthetic decisions as well as my ideas.
– Senga Nengudi, 1977
In 1977, Senga Nengudi first exhibited her R.S.V.P. works at Pearl C. Wood Gallery in Los Angeles and Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York. R.S.V.P., the conventional abbreviation for “répondez s’il vous plaît,” or “please respond,” was the artist’s call for the audience to relate to and engage with the work. Composed of used nylons stretched between nails or pins and burdened with the weight of sand or found objects, the works resemble the body reduced to parts. With each element visible and its function in everyday life known, the sculptures invite a sensory response that amplifies the visual perception. The “psyche can stretch, stretch, stretch and most of the time come back into shape,” she observed.
These three sketches demonstrate how Nengudi developed expressive gestures not only through sculpture and performance but also with drawing. The softer smudges beside the more intentional lines allude to the passage of time or movements of the body. Like much of her practice, Nengudi’s sketches were exploratory and offered her another way to realize what she called her “thought experiments.”
Nylon mesh, rubber, foam, sand.
60 x 24 x 6 in.
In Inside/Outside, the title of the work and the oblong shape of the rubber tube refer to internal parts of the body. When worn as a headdress, as seen on Nengudi in the photograph to the right, the curved tube appears as a halo, crown, or continuation of the hair. The sculpture becomes an extension of the body, illustrating how adornment plays a role the transformative process.
1977; remade 2004.
Nylon mesh and sand.
Suspended from the ceiling, this R.S.V.P. includes a triangular form created by the lighter-colored nylon. In contrast to the taut exterior lines are the sand-filled, darker-colored nylons that descend from the center. This combination of different colors and malleable material are characteristic of Nengudi’s interest in sculpture as a means to explore notions of the body.
Gelatin silver print.
Nengudi leans out of a window of a Catholic School—an enduring landmark in her L.A. neighborhood in the process of being demolished. Posing as Rapunzel, she wears a headpiece made of pantyhose connected to two long wires covered in human hair. The crumbling building and Nengudi’s presence suggest inevitable change and transformation, and the allusion to Rapunzel evokes folkloric associations with the female body.
Interview with the Artist
Senga Nengudi talks about the inspiration and process behind her art.
Senga Nengudi: Topologies is organized by the Lenbachhaus Munich, in cooperation with the DAM. Concept and idea by Stephanie Weber, Lenbachhaus. Funding is provided by the donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine and CBS4.