Maren Hassinger’s 1978 performance Diaries lives on as a series of small, black and white photographs. In the 1970s, a great deal of art pushed back against the hard edges and postpainterly purity of the era’s institutional orthodoxy by re-centring the body and de-centring the object. Save for the archival evidence, you kind of had to be there. In one photograph, Hassinger stands with a tight afro, hands on hips, looking on alongside a tousled, blonde Porta-Pak operator; there are hints of the new ‘California cool’ and black political consciousness in their appearance. Diaries seems to parallel the work that happened at New York’s Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s: movement freed from the strictures of narrative. In another photograph, a man appears to playfully swim across the floor.
Hassinger was born in Los Angeles. She returned home in 1970, after being discouraged from pursuing dance whilst at Bennington College. Rather than abandon movement, Hassinger imbued repetition and fluid motion into the more static forms of fibre and metal work, which she began to braid into sinuous wire ropes, at once organic and industrial. These braids would form the basis for riffs on traditional adornments or floor-based, postminimalist sculpture, and they seemed to look laterally to contemporaries such as arte povera and David Hammons. Sometimes they were articulated into familiar shapes, like the Twelve Trees she ‘planted’ amidst the palms of southern California in 1978; sometimes they are more plainly abstract, wall-mounted reliefs, like Interlock (1972–73), a loop that resists closure, suggesting entropic complexity.
In the years ahead, Hassinger would decamp to New York, and then Baltimore in the mid-1990s. ‘Maren Hassinger: The Spirit of Things’, a collaboration between the Baltimore Museum of Art and Los Angeles’s Art + Practice, is an important retrospective that sheds new light on an overlooked, decades-long career. Drawing together 33 works from over 40 years, it illustrates the coherence of a practice long defined by ephemeral work at turns collaborative and intimate. Although Hassinger is widely understood to be a sculptor, here lesser-known projects are brought into focus: postconceptual scrawls of handwriting – nods to diasporic passage that patiently inscribe their titles, such as Ocean Savannah Rivers Dream Floating (2007) – add an incantatory, meditative counterpoint to obvious interlocutors such as Hanne Darboven. The 16mm film Daily Mask (2004) shows Hassinger applying a greasy blackface, invoking histories of racialized entertainment and the performance of gender alike. But she ends the piece gazing into the lens and allowing a wide smile: deft criticality annealed with knowing humour.
Important, too, is this exhibition’s timing. Hassinger’s works of densely woven newspapers are an act of literal processing, a transmutation of glaring headlines’ scattered data into something tactile. The Veil Between Us (2007/18) has literally changed with the times: a large relief of carefully coiled and interwoven newspapers separated by ten years, it is both a meditation on the transience of progress and a captivating index of two very different phases in US political discourse. In its scale and materiality, the piece looks back to postminimalism but insists on literally ‘working through’ difficult news. And in Embrace (2008/18), the show’s most immersive installation, Hassinger, always aware of her position within larger systems both social and environmental, offers almost too potent a benediction: a vast accumulation of pink shopping bags, each containing a brief missive of love. This is refuse rendered talismanic, a small gesture of care and restoration of the sort that is, perhaps, the only remedy for a world gone mad.
Maren Hassinger, 'The Spirit of Things' runs at Art + Practice, Los Angeles until 14 October 2018.
Main image: Maren Hassinger, High Noon (detail), 1976, photograph. Courtesy: the artist. Photograph: Adam Avila
First published in Issue 198