It’s not a new movement. There isn’t a widespread revolution reflecting drastic change in sculptor’s materials. Yet a spot check reveals that, over the last decade, contemporary artists are incorporating rope — a hardware store standby — in their work, reviving a vanguard sculptural material from the 1960s and 1970s. This is a reexamination of some Minimalist-era art where the process of creating an object is allied with the identification of a straightforward material. Rope can be twisted, stretched, or piled to exaggerate its limitless capacity, and can also serve as a three-dimensional line in space. In conversations with artists and dealers about this quiet phenomenon, they point to renewed interest in textiles and fiber arts as one reason for rekindling the medium. And rope’s modest stature as an anti-status material may reflect backlash to current art world flash.
Rope’s utilitarian nature was emphasized in two early 1960s sculptures by Christo (b. 1935) when he tied the cord across a fabric package and next secured a bundle to a wheelbarrow. Jackie Winsor (b. 1941) created work with rope beginning in the late 1960s by accentuating the process of making an art object with hemp, a natural fiber. The physicality of rope as a material in league with other textiles has intrigued Magdalena Abakanowicz (b. 1930) since the late 1960s and early 1970s; her sculpture and rope installations magnified the material for its physicality. Rope became part of a headless human form in a 1967 sculpture by Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) and, later, rope was the subject of a drypoint print by the artist. Eva Hesse (1936–1970) used latex-covered rope in 1970 to create a hanging installation of delicate, evanescent forms in space.
Perhaps the past and present are tied together in a current exhibition of the work of Bill Bollinger (1939-1988). On view through July 30 at SculptureCenter in Long Island City is Bollinger’s retrospective. His Rope Piece, 1967, was reconstructed last year and is installed in the Center’s first floor. The work is a Minimalist drawing where rope behaves as a line on a wall and simultaneously juts into the viewer’s space. Metal clamps and bolts secure the material to the floor. Because it is a common material, the viewer isn’t encumbered with the character of the rope.
“I consider rope to be an anonymous material which I like because I don’t feel weighted down by blinding associations,” said Orly Genger (b. 1979) whose Brooklyn studio houses lengths of climbing rope that the artist paints and crochets by hand to create large-scale installations. Genger’s room-size installation, Big Boss, was created for MASS MOCA in 2009. The piece contained one hundred miles of lobster trap rope which Genger painted red, crocheted, knotted and then piled into massive sculptural strata. Genger riffs on the asceticism of the Minimalist movement by making layered pieces where her handiwork defines space. She appraises the technique of traditional women’s crafts like crochet as she forms outsize environments using the same techniques. “The reason I first used rope was because I was looking for a way to translate my process of knotting yarn on a smaller scale to a larger scale… I found nylon climbing rope,” she wrote in a recent email.
Genger’s signature material is industrial rope – oftentimes used by fishermen or climbers — that she locates for each project. For Moor, a 2001 installation at the Stockholm Konsthall, Janine Antoni (b. 1964) twisted her own expanse of rope made with coconut husks, dish towels, a kitchen apron, and a hairnet – all materials equal to rope in their mundane character. Yet these materials were from people acquainted with the artist, so the handmade rope becomes a personal narrative. In an interview, Antoni told the PBS series Art21: “And because Moor is made out of materials from my friends, I thought I could make a rope from materials of my life and walk it like a lifeline.” In Moor, this lifeline stretched across indoor and outdoor spaces.
If some artists have used rope as the singular material in their work, John Newman (b. 1952) incorporates several materials in his recent tabletop sculptures, including rope. He has used this material in pieces including White Wicker Fountain, 2006, where rope, woven wicker, Japanese paper, and papier mache resonate not for their implicit materiality, but for their role in creating a new language. In Hanging Bridge and Royal Wood, 2009, Newman brings coconut fiber rope, Japanese wood and papier mache together. “I conjoin these different materials and processes in the hopes that their collision or connection will create some kind of allusion; a third meaning that comes from being squeezed out of the two or hovering above the two. So something is happening that is more than the literal,” Newman stated in a recent conversation. Rather than leading with the identity of the rope and isolating one material as a subject, he is striving to free rope from “the singular associative aspects of tying, lassoing and knotting,” to create new metaphors with materials. “Rope… lent itself to ideas of process art very well in the 1970s and that’s why it made sense,” Newman explained. “To me, rope isn’t so interesting,” he said. “It is what you do with it.”