The last time Michelle Grabner had an exhibition at James Cohan Gallery, shortly after she co-curated the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Ken Johnson panned it in the New York Times. If the show had been “a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating,” he wrote. “But it’s not.” To many observers, including me, the review read as mean-spirited, condescending, and sexist. An outcry was raised. Ripostes were written, such as an absolute scorcher by the painter Amy Sillman. Johnson stuck to his guns, taking to Facebook to mount a self-defense, but the art world consensus was against him. Not only had he given scant attention to Grabner’s work and disrespected her professionalism, but he had also implied (bizarrely) that to be a suburban woman was incompatible with being a serious artist.
Given this backstory, it was always going to be interesting to see what Grabner would do in the next fixture. Now we know: she’s gone for monumental gingham and crochet. “Up yours, Ken,” is your first thought, but as usual with Grabner there is a lot more going on. In the previous show at Cohan, she exhibited paintings she had created using domestic textiles as stencils, and paper weavings of a sort she’s been making since her son brought a similar one home from kindergarten in the 1990s. Both bodies of work address the bifurcated history of abstraction, in which some geometric forms (like those found in painting and sculpture) become canonical, while others (in weavings, in children’s educational projects) are considered incidental to art history. Grabner imaginatively took ownership of both of these strands at once, intertwining them in a way that was simultaneously formalist and feminist.
The recent exhibition continued this line of thought in more assertive fashion. Large monochrome paintings, half Piet Mondrian, half picnic tablecloth, set the scene, but the real stars of the show were sculptures cast directly from crocheted and knitted blankets. These forms are installed upright on pedestals, drooping downward, as if hung on an invisible clothesline. They range in size, topping out at about seven feet tall. Design aficionados will note the similarity to Marcel Wanders’s Knotted Chair, in which a macramé sling of carbon fiber is rendered sittable by dipping it in epoxy resin. More pointedly, Grabner is summoning the complex legacy of 1960s fiber sculpture by figures such as Françoise Grossen and Sheila Hicks, whose ambitious work has only recently been recuperated in mainstream art history.
Less expected, perhaps, is the allusion Grabner is making to ancient statuary. The gorgeous patination of the bronzes, alternately matte and iridescent, recalls archeologically salvaged Greek antiquities, as does the fall of the fabric from each sculpture’s “shoulders” to the floor. In the drapery portrayed in Classical sculpture, the cloth is typically generic—we can’t learn much about ancient weaving technology from it—and that allows the folds to read as purely expressive. Anthropomorphism is not exactly absent from Grabner’s bronzes; seen together, they faintly suggest a troupe of Martha Graham dancers. But the rectilinear compositions, and the specificity of the patterns and textures, keep them anchored firmly in the language of textiles.
The direct casting preserved every detail of the original blankets. They were destroyed in the process, but simultaneously memorialized, their soft warmth transmuted into cold metal. And though the patterns were distorted, as if they were yawning and stretching, they were also permanently fixed. The result is a sense of relaxed yet resilient confidence. Any artists out there who have gotten a bad review, take note: this is how you reply.