Atlántica # 58

Can an artist make the move from formal experimentation to critical practice without changing the appearance of her work? Can she, at the same time, expand the object of her study? Leonor Antunes (Lisbon, 1972) seems to have made this move with surprising dexterity. While her work was initially focused on an affirmative exercise in sculpture (the artist herself prefers this label to installation) as a means of rethinking the forms of Modernism, little by little she has come to cast light on the shadows of that movement, by naming—and in the process lending value to—some of the women who have been relegated to the sidelines of its history.


Predicated on the relationship the artist establishes with place, her works from the early years of this century often emulate, underscore, or bring to the surface specific features of the spaces for which they were conceived. The objects, despite being self-contained—in as much as they are independent forms—facilitate this dialogue by the employment of similar materials, morphological equivalences, or knowing nods to aesthetic qualities in the reproduction of certain details of their surroundings.


Sin embargo, estas apreciaciones aún permanecen en el ámbito de lo formal, sin trascender a un plano metafórico, puesto que la artista no se está refiriendo a una vivencia o historia previa alrededor de esos elementos (objetos o espacios), sino que sus obras son respuestas casi directas a la materialidad de los sitios en los que surgieron y que las inspiraron. Las propiedades biométricas de las piezas permiten que éstas cobren la misma importancia que el contexto, con el que se genera una suerte de fusión.


Aunque esta lógica se presenta como un ejercicio conceptual predeterminado, en el que las características ambientales son la clave fundamental para la realización de las piezas, la artista siempre ha mostrado una cuidadosa atención a los materiales, a menudo manufacturados. De esta forma, niega cualquier supuesta deuda respecto al conceptualismo occidental de los años 60. En sus piezas iniciales, a pesar de haber surgido dentro de ese esquema de respuesta a objetos ya existentes, finalmente convergen otras influencias que aluden al estilo o materiales utilizados en el momento en que se construyeron las edificaciones en las que se emplazan y que se manifiestan, por ejemplo, en el uso que Antunes hace del caucho, la madera de pino o el corcho. En exposiciones como Casa, modo de usar, de 2011, se hacen especialmente evidentes las consideraciones a ciertos aspectos formales del Modernismo.


On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica

Leonor Antunes, an atrium, at National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.
Leonor Antunes, a room, at National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

The titles of her works, which often refer to the places where they are exhibited, underline this posture. Thus, Uma sala de pintura portuguesa do séc. XVI (A Room of 16th-century Portuguese Painting) and Uma sala de arte namban (A Room of Namban Art), presented at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon in 2002, were based on precise data and pinpointed the purpose of the works, which were seamlessly inserted into the museum. On other occasions, the works allude to precedents connected to the site, as in the case of Debaixo do mesmo tecto (Under the Same Roof) from 1999, the name of the piece that reproduces a banister of the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian building and which the artist installed in one of its exhibition rooms. The title recalls a quotation, rather than an experience, related to the space: Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955) once supposedly said that he would like to see all of his collections on view in the same building. Inspired by this anecdote, Antunes’s piece places works of art, crafts, furniture, and the building’s architectural elements on an equal footing with the simple displacement of a banister. Her titles thus reinstate her goals of creating a sense of continuity and cementing a close relationship between places, artworks, and other objects that inhabit the spaces where they are exhibited.


On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica

Installation views, Leonor Antunes ”Villa: How to Use”, Serralves Villa, Porto, from 15 JUL 2011 to 02 OCT 2011.
Photos: Filipe Braga, © Fundação de Serralves, Porto.

Antunes’s deliberations on certain formal aspects of Modernism are particularly evident in exhibitions like Casa, modo de usar (Villa, How to Use) from 2011. A standalone space within the museum of the same name, the Casa de Serralves is situated at the centre of the Serralves Foundation’s gardens, in contrast to the museum’s main building, which is located at the edge of the park. Dating from the 1930s, the mansion was the first of the foundation’s buildings to be opened to the public and, unlike the museum designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, it was originally built as a private residence. Antunes makes good use of the villa’s combination of industrial fabrication and craftsmanship to create pieces that, even if they are not recollections of that specific moment in history, fit to perfection into the space and bring to light the splendour of one of Europe’s best-preserved examples of Art Deco. The artist’s work has always straddled the manual and the industrial and Art Deco accordingly fits her quest to a T.


The pieces on display in the Casa de Serralves resemble elements from a private home: they call to mind—and yet are not—tapestries, curtains, folding screens. The objects clearly refer to domestic fixtures and fittings, but by virtue of being elevated to the condition of artworks they enhance and lend value to the overall framework of details and furniture. As a result, they heighten the feeling that the villa, paradoxically uninhabited, had somehow been waiting for Leonor Antunes’s work. The visitor who enters expecting to see the pieces inevitably ends up paying attention to the floors, ceilings, baths, and all kinds of adornments and ornaments, as objects that deserve attention within a domestic stage setting that is suspended in time.1


On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica

“Leonor Antunes: I Stand Like A Mirror Before You”
Installation Images by Maris Hutchinson
Courtesy New Museum, New York.
Photo: Maris Hutchinson/EPW

The 2015 exhibition at the New Museum in New York has many points in common with Antunes’s subsequent show at SFMOMA, mainly in the artist’s reiterated interest in Modernism’s lesser-known and unsung players in the fields of architecture, design, and film, particularly the work of Anni Albers and Maya Deren.


Here Antunes shows a patent interest in, and constantly refers to, various women who lived and worked in the US and who have been overlooked by history, either because they did not receive family or institutional permission to undertake formal schooling or because their work or research received at best only belated recognition. She often focuses on the cases of women married to successful men and celebrated artists. Among these new touchstones, Annie Albers is the most frequent, but this exhibition reflects the strong influence on Antunes of other women whose stories, she believes, are still waiting to be told.


Anni Albers (1899-1994) arrived in the US from Germany in 1933, together with her husband, Josef Albers, and soon joined the faculty at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A textile designer, weaver, writer, and printmaker, Anni Albers saw the connection between art and crafts and was especially interested in ancient techniques. Albers appreciated the aesthetic and tactile qualities of objects and railed against the negative effect that modern industry had on our relationship with materials. Her objects—like those of Antunes—were conceived to be looked at more than to be used.


On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica

Installation views of New Work: Leonor Antunes, SF MoMA, 2016.
Courtesy of the artist and SF MoMA, 2016.
Photo: David Funk

Anni Albers (1899-1994) arrived in the US from Germany in 1933, together with her husband, Josef Albers, and soon joined the faculty at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. A textile designer, weaver, writer, and printmaker, Anni Albers saw the connection between art and crafts and was especially interested in ancient techniques. Albers appreciated the aesthetic and tactile qualities of objects and railed against the negative effect that modern industry had on our relationship with materials. Her objects—like those of Antunes—were conceived to be looked at more than to be used.


Starting out from the dimensions and proportions of the New Museum building itself, Antunes creates a group of works that reflect on the spatial quality of the Lobby Gallery (one of the museum’s sections), employing a large pane of glass as the central piece in which visitors see themselves reflected. On the other side, a diorama of sculptures and Perspex elements is also reflected, in a nod to the surrealist environments of the choreographer Maya Deren (19171961), who advocated for film’s potential for political transformation.


Serving Objects (2015), another of the pieces in the show, consists of a number of brass wire nets hanging from the ceiling. Here Antunes makes a direct reference to Anni Albers’s Tapestry (1948), a handwoven linen tapestry that showed influences from both the ancient art of the Americas and Modernist abstraction.


On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica

Installation views of New Work: Leonor Antunes, SF MoMA, 2016.
Courtesy of the artist and SF MoMA, 2016.
Photo: David Funk

The exhibition at SFMOMA, which ran until October 2016, was the opening salvo for the museum’s new space called NEW WORK.


On this occasion, Antunes centred her project on research into the work of the architect Greta Magnusson Grossman (1906-1999) who, despite her lack of formal training, designed and built various houses on the west coast of the US. Antunes’s investigation in search of these buildings led to a new group of sculptures entitled A Spiral Staircase Leads Down to the Garden.


Her interest in Grossman arose from an initial discovery of her interior designs and the resulting desire to see the structures in which they were housed. During a period the artist spent in Los Angeles, she realised that the residence she was looking for, depicted in the designs found in the journal Arts and Architecture, did not actually exist, and that the site instead was occupied by a building from the 1950s. The truth is that the commission for the designs, which Grossman received from a fellow Swedish immigrant, was never actually realized.


The bond between her research into the history of places, spaces, and objects and the visual and physical sensations they provoke in her own pieces now seems to be of vital importance for Antunes. For this project, Antunes mixed various materials, once again making references to pieces by Anni Albers, for instance With Verticals (1946), a cotton and linen tapestry composed of vertical lines without any apparent order. The artist transforms and subverts this by transferring it to the floor in Enlarged with Verticals (2016) and introducing materials like cork and brass. Though cork is a material that has no connection with Albers’s work, it does resonate with Antunes’s own history, given that it was widely used in Portuguese Modernism, and thus it serves as a bond between the two biographies.2


Through this type of allusion, one can discover in this exhibition new points of connection among various artists, as well as between them and Antunes. Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) and Kay Sekimachi (b. 1926) share Japanese origins in common, having been born in the US and confined in US internment camps during World War II. Their works, known for their engagement with biomorphic structures, also have points in common, given that they explore three-dimensional forms in their experimentation with space. A Spiral Staircase Leads Down to the Garden is directly related to Asawa’s designs in black nylon during the period she spent at Black Mountain College as a student, a time when she became close friends with Anni Albers.


Leonor Antunes’s practice has been evolving towards an interrogation of some of the basic premises of Modernism, especially its most visible side as reflected in architecture and domestic objects. Indeed, Antunes has specialized in the materiality and rationality inherent in these forms. While at the beginning of her career her work centred on research into the potential of formalism, it gradually became evident that what she was really looking for was an encounter, not with the history of objects, but with the ideas behind their creation. The ghosts that haunt Antunes’s sculptures are not those of the people who used these objects. Rather they are the spirits of those who conceived them and their quests as creative individuals. Somewhere between manual and industrial, biomorphic and spectral, Antunes strengthens an understanding of objecthood in Modernism, broadening and deepening it, and, as a consequence, affords new interpretations to the theatrical and spatial qualities of some of the experimentation of that period. Perhaps for that reason, her interest in Modernism’s migrant women has gradually taken on more and more weight in her work. This, perhaps, is also the reason why she throws light on the creative and innovative attitude of women who, at the time, had to overcome enormous obstacles in order to be acknowledged.

On Leonor Antunes | Atlántica

Leonor Antunes at CAPC, Bordeaux.
Photo: Nick Ash

– 1 Nicolau, Ricardo & Cotter, Susan: Leonor Antunes: Casa, modo de usar / Villa, How to Use. Bom dia Boa tarde Boa Noite, 2013.

– 2 Anni Albers: Pictorial Weavings, exhibition catalogue (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1959)