Judith Scott (1943-2005) did not begin making art until her mid 40s, but over an 18-year period, from 1987 until her death, she worked on that art tirelessly. Some might say she lived for art, perhaps more than most. Each day, she would spend hours wrapping found objects in colored yarn, string, paper and fabric strips. Some of the resulting sculptures were completed during a day’s labor; others over weeks or months. While Scott had no style per se, each of the wrapped sculptures has its distinct personality; all convey a sense of inner life. The originating object is mostly unrecognizable, as in Franz West’s more famous plaster or epoxy “Adaptives,” which similarly incorporate largely unidentifiable items and are likewise portable. At the Brooklyn Museum, some 45 Scott sculptures are presently on display, resting on a low white platform; on the wall are 15 mixed-medium drawings completed at the beginning of her art-making career. Scott never indicated a “correct” way to show the three-dimensional works, so they are shown casually, as she might have worked on them.
Scott’s first sculptures consisted mainly of long bundled sticks wrapped in colored twine. Even then, it is clear that Scott was making choices as to the density or openness of the wrapping. In short order, her shapes began to grow in size and complexity, though many are somewhat roundish, large, irregular forms, something like the vaguely bovine shapes of West African boliw, that come alive in their textural exposition. Her palette is endlessly fascinating, as in one flat piece (1989) in which a roughly rectilinear shape wrapped in predominately orange string is balanced by a jutting appendage, something like a comically chubby leg, in brighter orange, burgundy and blue, growing darker toward its “toe.” Occasionally, Scott would go monochromatic, in one case (1994) using white paper toweling (apparently the only material she had at hand that day); more often, she would play colors and textures against each other—ribbon or lace against common string; masses of one color against another; or she would simply devise a gay, allover potpourri of hues. Teasingly, a recognizable bit or more might appear—a hanger, corrugated plastic tubes, a printed sheet of paper, even an entire shopping cart. Resemblances are probably accidental. One openwork construction conjures a bird in flight; another a sled. Scott’s whimsy is evident in numerous details: the few purple plastic stitches that cap a white monochrome of 2004, or the single pointed stick protruding from the matted, narrow end of what looks like a giant fryer, as if a hair pin holding it all together.
I understand the impulse not to tie artists out of the mainstream too closely to biography, but in the case of Scott such an effort seems to me to disrespect the extent of her achievement. We don’t know how Scott meant her works to be displayed because she could not say; born with Down syndrome, she was also deaf, a condition that was diagnosed only when she was well into adulthood. Institutionalized for decades, she was brought to the Bay Area in her 40s by her twin sister, Joyce (with whom there is a moving interview in the catalogue), and began attending the famous Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, where instructors recognized her talent, then her genius, and gave her materials and free rein. That said, I think it is safe to say that visitors chancing upon the splendid display at the Brooklyn Museum will have little need to know more than what is before their eyes. However mysterious in intent and meaning, these objects are wonderfully communicative, vividly conveying the efforts of a hardworking artist who found her voice, and clearly reveled in it.