Pas de Deux: Sculpture and Performance in the early works of Maren Hassinger

13 12 2009

Consider Pas de Deux, a work made by Maren Hassinger in 1977 and the inspirational starting point of this essay. Featuring an intimate connection between two unlikely couples- branches from a peach tree threaded with lengths of wire rope, it is  at once sculptural and dancerly.  This is no surprise, for Hassinger’s work can be characterized by its entanglement of contradictory elements-  natural/manufactured, abstract/representational, body/object, hard/soft, movement/stillness, sculpture/performance. All of these elements are visible in Pas de Deux.

In their play of contradictions Hassinger’s early sculptural works— made in the 1970s, while the artist was living in Los Angeles- are a response to  Greenbergian formalist and minimalist approaches to art that still dominated academic sculptural programs in the late 1960s. An attention to repetition and modularity,  as well as her strong engagement with manufactured and industrial materials – concrete, wire, and much later, plastic-  suggest the formative influence that minimalism has had on Hassinger’s sculptural work.  Yet, Hassinger, like other artists of her generation, such as Senga Nengudi, was involved in complicating these strategies by invoking the natural world, the bodily and the sensual.  Unlike artists associated with 1950s and 1960s era minimalism in the United States- Donald Judd and Robert Morris, for example— Hassinger pointedly encourages her work to be read imaginatively. She uses wire rope in the most poetic of ways, allowing it multiple and shifting significance:  taking on the gestures of a dancer’s body, in one instance;  in another, fraying the ends of  the rope to appear as elements of nature- tree branch, brush; and yet in another, referencing networks of telephone lines.  It is in this respect that her sculptural forms of the 1970s and beyond can be linked to a movement in art that simultaneously was of minimalism and a departure from it.

Two exhibitions,  on Agnes Martin and Eve Hesse respectively,  at the now defunct Pasadena Art Museum in 1973 have frequently been invoked by Hassinger for their impact on the development of her work in this direction.[1] As in Martin’s grid paintings, one notes in Hassinger’s sculpture the use of geometric abstraction and a reductive, often times monochromatic color scheme. As in Eva Hesse’s work there is in Hassinger’s an emphasis on simple forms that carry strong emotional messages and a use of fiber methods to create sculpture.  Hassinger has said of her own practice that draws on the connection between work and life found in Hesse’s bodily sculptural forms:  “When I make a work, all of me is contained within it. I make things that are extensions of myself, that will express a basic humanness and so allow viewers their own point of entry into the work….”[2]

Installed in galleries such that viewers have to interact with them in a journey through space that is tactile and visual, works like Pas de Deux encourage viewers to have a performative relationship with them. In this, they recall the theatricality of minimalist sculpture, what Michael Fried has called their “stage presence.”  Following in the tradition of sculptors who have been aligned with minimalism, such as Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and Carl Andre, Hassinger’s wire sculptures are centered on the viewer’s phenomenological experience and encourage viewers to have a heightened awareness of their relationship to the art object and to their surroundings.  For  instance with Walking, (1978), which measures 15 square feet and consists of bundles of frayed wire rope strands arranged across a gallery floor, Hassinger invites viewers to navigate the room size installation. In the process of this navigation the spectator might become aware of themselves as performers moving around and interacting with the sculpture.

Beyond a generalized performativity encouraged by the sculptural spaces she creates, throughout the 1970s Hassinger’s works often appear as discrete movements of a dance performance stilled into a single instance.  Acting as a choreographer, Hassinger arranges bundles of bound wire rope for Leaning (1978) to suggest a scattering of bodies that sweep across the floor and evokes a collection of bodies swirling through the room in rippling skirts in Whirling, 10 elements in a circle (1979).

The artist’s interest in performance and its relationship to sculpture can perhaps be attributed in part to her long standing interest in dance. Hassinger originally intended to pursue dance as an undergraduate at Bennington College, but turned to sculpture when she realized that the college did not offer a dance major.[3] Starting in the mid 1970s, she was involved in a number of performance pieces with colleagues in Los Angeles.  For performances such as High Noon (1976), Performance Piece- Nylon Mesh and Maren Hassinger (1977), and Still Wind (1981), Hassinger performs in and around sculptural objects – creating a dialog between mobile human forms and static sculptural objects, thus blurring the distinction between subject and object.

This work and her background in dance have contributed profoundly to Hassinger’s approach to art making.  The juxtaposition of a photograph from the 1978 performance Diaries with a detail of her sculpture Walking, 148 elements from the same year is suggestive of this.[4] Found in the catalog for the 1991 retrospective of her work at Long Island University, a row of bodies captured in mid- jump mirrors a “field” of thin broom-like forms that hover in the air. It emphasizes the creative cross pollination and bringing together of contradictions so prevalent in Hassinger’s work, highlighting the centrality of performance to her artistic practice, as well as her participation in the subjective turn in sculptural practices of the 1970s.


[1] Hassinger has cited visits to these exhibitions as foundational. See: Maureen Megerian, “Entwined With Nature: The Sculpture of Maren Hassinger, Woman’s Art Journal  (Autumn, 1996 – Winter, 1997), 21-25.

[2] Megarian, 22.

[3] Megerian, 21.

[4] See: Maren Hassinger: 1972-1991 (Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University: Brookville, NY, 1991).

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2 responses

10 04 2011
Peggy Phelan

This is a wonderful site. Thank you. John Bowles: did you write all the text that lacks signature? I would like to cite this piece on Maren Hassinger’s early work.
Thank you.

11 04 2011
John Bowles

I am glad you find the site and the essay helpful! The essay was written by Jennie Carlisle, one of the students in my graduate seminar on African American performance art and theories of the performativity of identity (we read some of your work, as well). I am currently developing the archive further (among other things, I plan to add more material documenting the work of Maren Hassinger, Senga Nengudi, and Saya Woolfalk in the coming months). Your feedback is very helpful.

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