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Norma Minkowitz: Spaces Within

By Kathleen Whitney


Boy in a Tree, 2001
fiber, roots, wire, paint
29 x 11 x 11.5
private collection
photo: Joseph Kugielsky

Boy in a Puddle, 2002
fiber, paint, resin
21 x 12 x 8
private collection
photo: Joseph Kugielsky

For the past 30 years, Norma Minkowitz has been transforming the traditionally feminine art of crochet into a medium for sculpture. Her work embodies a quality that philosopher Gregory Bateson refers to as “the message of skill.” Her skill is in the atmosphere surrounding her work; something invisible yet sensed by the viewer. Minkowitz’s skill is the foundation of these objects but not their main point. Rather than make her extraordinary technique the most important issue, she makes her technique transparent, a backdrop for the beauty of her objects and depth of her ideas.

Minkowitz learned to crochet as a child. While in art school she got involved in the making of extremely detailed pen and ink drawings. Her combining the crochet technique with line drawing represents an extraordinarily imaginative cross-breeding. Crochet technique is extremely time-consuming, obsessive and repetitious. Her use of thread or light wire as three-dimensional lines both determines shape and, like handwriting, guarantees that each loop, whorl, stitch will be entirely unique.

Root, 2002
wood, fiber, paint
19 x 14 x 14
photo: Cathy Vanaria

Minkowitz begins by crocheting a circular shape and then molding it around an object such as a mannequin, the sculpted head of a child, branches, or an abstract form. In some cases she simply wraps the object in her mesh and stiffens it with shellac. It is important to stress that the pieces are less delicate than they look; the thread, wire and hog gut are stiffened and protected through the application of a variety of strengthening and damageresistant coatings including resins, shellac and epoxy. The crochet itself is quite strong, its web-like grip controls and defines exterior space and gives shape to the inner structure. In a number of her pieces she uses twigs and roots to form a lattice-like framework for the circling web of fiber.

Not only is the use of crochet an entirely unique way of making sculpture, it also runs counter to not ions which have def ined sculpture. Sculpture is traditionally considered something opaque and heavy with very apparent weight and mass and little connection to techniques such as drawing. Minkowitz’s work is situated between genres, as much drawing as it is sculpture. The ideas that generate her work and the way she fabricates it have strong conceptual and physical origins in the act of drawing; her sculptures can easily be seen as three-dimensional projections of line drawings. The cross-hatching, thickness and thinness, opacity and transparency are all similar to drawing techniques. The thread and light wire she uses form delicate tracings that mimic the hesitations and irregularities of drawing: changes in pressure and direction, erasures and missed areas.

The drawing concept of ‘negative space’ is especially noticeable in those parts of her sculptures where there is empty space. Minkowitz’s use of negative space is closely related to the Zen idea that a bowl’s essence is defined by the empty space within it. The shape that emerges from the juxtaposition of something with nothing is created by the contour of the physical (or positive), tangible elements. Her images constantly change areas of focus because of this play between presence and absence, and the way the surfaces shift identity between outside face or inner face of a surface. Because of these alterations in sur face, Minkowitz’s sculptures are impossible to see all at once; they change depending on lighting, viewpoint, angle and the way they are displayed.

Because they are concerned with skin and surface and never with mass, Minkowitz’s sculptures give no sense of solidity and seem about to disappear before our eyes. The greatest contradiction in Minkowitz’s work is the importance of the materials she uses juxtaposed with the way she reduces their physical presence.


Goodbye Goddess, 2003
fiber, wire, resin, acrylic paint
51 x 96 x 9
Wadsworth Athenaeum Collection
photo: Richard Bergen

Since the mid 80’s Minkowitz has used both hard and soft materials in her work, many found in nature. The sculptures are powerful metaphors for containment, shelter and confinement, creating forms analogous to human beings, animals and plants. Although some of the associations her work evokes are with the body and others with landscape, the work has wider implications, seeming to refer, through titles and images, to the origins of culture itself. Although ‘abstract’ in appearance, Minkowitz’s work is about communication in its most visual and symbolic forms – the languages of silence, expression and gesture. In terms of its origins and identity, Minkowitz’s work is neither traditional sculpture nor traditional craft, neither realistic nor abstract but a mix of all these elements. Minkowitz’s work resembles that of many younger artists in the way she has taken her ideas and techniques from a profusion of cultural options, fusing the arts of Asia, Africa and certain tribal groups with a highly individual American sensibility. This cultural fusion can be seen in her constant play with the idea of ‘primitive’ and ‘sophisticated’, and her swing between the poles of totally abstract and somewhat figurative imagery. Her forms are evocative of something seen or dreamt of, but outside of the imagination, have no counterparts in reality.

Wounded is one example of her use of abstraction. It is an extremely elongated, horizontal form with an outer skin of crochet, paint and resin. It is quite dark in color with the exception of a band of ochre crochet ringing part of its thickest section. Its form is ambiguous, possibly recumbent animal or dried pod. Its interior is made from circularly spreading branches that may come from the top half of a small tree or shrub. Most of the branches are inside this nut-like form, giving the piece its roughly ovoid appearance. The piece is lashed to a length of branch as long as its crocheted body. The crochet binds and restrains the outward thrust of these branches, the strength of the engulfing net contradicting its visual delicacy.

Chrysalis, 2004
wood, fiber, resin, acrylic paint
58 x 23.5 x 10
photo: Richard Bergen

Remembrance is unique in that few of Minkowitz’s sculptures are integrated onto a pedestal. Minkowitz was attracted to this piece of root because of its beautiful linear form. She has peeled it of its rough bark covering and seated it like an offering on a white plaster base. Minkowitz has painted and penciled pale lines on its surface that are tracings of actual cast shadows. The sole piece of branch cutting through the edge of the bowl is a symbol of regeneration. This quiet and enigmatic object resembles a shrine or open reliquary; its title is meant to elicit a wide-ranging set of emotions and associations.

Root is a particular ly beautiful piece – a spherical net of ochre crochet crowned by a corona of roots emerging from an interior stem. Minkowitz’s typical fusions of the biological with the botanical are clearly evident here. The exterior of the shell is laced with a grid-like network of threads that are both venous and root-like in appearance. The way the light passes through the sphere, the way the interior merges with the exterior makes it seem weightless and insubstantial.

Minkowitz’s 2004 piece, Chrysalis resembles the spun carapace concealing the lumpy mass of a soon-to-be-born winged insect. As often occurs in Minkowitz’s work, the total abstraction of the object is firmly grounded in the concrete world by its title. This piece combines transparency with opacity, rendering the hidden areas all the more mysterious.

A substantial part of Minkowitz’s work can be loosely described as figurative, although only in the broadest sense. This figurative work is rooted in her interest in cultural images and in the way ancient myths resurface in different form in contemporary life.

Ruskya Certza (Russian Heart) is a reference to the intricately embroidered, vividly colored, Russian-inspired peasant blouses her mother wore. Ruskya Certza, centrally dominated by an opaque heart-like shape, is anatomically complete with painted and stitched veins and aortas. The heart is nestled on and supported by a crocheted coil. It is held within an elaborately crocheted, scallop-edged net form, very delicate and refined in appearance, not unlike an old-fashioned doily.

Boy in a Tree is roughly the scale of a young boy’s head and torso. Genderless, legless and armless, the body ends slightly below the buttocks. The crochet is extremely dense and bark-like, allowing only the slightest amount of light to come through. The head is comprised of plant roots formed and stiffened with paint and resins to resemble a nest or a head. Like some character in mythology, this boy seems to be in trapped in transition from human to plant.

Boy in a Puddle, the most disturbing of these three, is densely wrapped in fiber. A splash of red marks his heart and he is also without arms, torso and legs. His expression is fixed and unfocused, showing neither pain nor discomfort. Similar to Boy in a Tree in terms of his general air of inscrutability, the poses of both provide more questions than answers.

Rebirth of Venus is one of many Minkowitz sculptures inspired by classical themes. The title refers to the Venus in Botticelli’s painting, The Birth of Venus, and Minkowitz has borrowed certain elements from it such as the flowing hair and scallop-shell. Minkowitz’s Venus hangs suspended from an enormous scalloped-shaped, transparent form that billows out around her head and shoulders. Her posture is typical of Greek and Roman sculptures of women – contraposto, head slightly turned. The punch line in this pose is far from classical; her lovers may get it right between the teeth from the boxers’ glove that adorns her right hand.

Minkowitz creates multi-figure sculptures that illustrate her fascination with mythology, the passage of time and other kinds of transitions. She refers to these groups of forms as ‘sequential’. This method sometimes uses juxtaposed figures or brings together slightly modified but similar figures, each originating from the same template. The meaning of the piece is created from sequence and proximity. She has made many of these serial pieces, but Goodbye Goddess and Dreamers Descent typify her use of this form.

Goodbye Goddess is a series of four nearly identical, smaller than life-sized statuettes hanging off the wall over a long net. They are arranged in an arced line that leads to a fifth shape hanging above them. Their contours are blurred, their features indistinct. Each is dressed in Roman style, in a toga-like outfit that falls well over the feet. The changes in each figure represent symbols of passage. The fifth and final form bears the same impassive features as those on the figures, yet it is now disembodied like a soul departing the body.

Dreamers Descent is similarly sequential. The two wall-hung, life-sized figures hang in front of a delicate scrim of striped crochet that ranges in coloration from light at the top to dark at the bottom. These two figures are headless, arms and legs fused to their torsos. Their features are less important than the content of their dreams, symbolized by a real shell resting at the top of each neck, precisely where their heads would be. Other dreams are arranged like crocheted cartoon speech balloons on the mesh above them. Each of these beautifully transparent shell-like shapes are painted different colors – red, ochre, dark brown.

Every inch of Minkowitz’s work bears the visual evidence of her hand. No two pieces are alike although they are often comprised of the same materials, employ serial imagery, and use the same techniques. This astonishing variety and individuality within her body of work is what makes it both fascinating and significant.

A unique aspect of this technique is how it emphasizes and preserves the sense of time it took to make the work. It calls attention to the repetitive nature of her touch on the surfaces and evokes a shared sense of touch with the viewer. These sculptures are among the few objects that remain in our technological culture that generously provide us with answers to the quest ion ‘where does the labor go’? The investment of time, energy and touch manifested in her work surrounds her objects like a corona. It is a rare artist who is able to control the juggling act of image, technique and reference. It is Minkowitz’s skillful and seemingly effortless ability to perform this feat that makes her work so magnetic, memorable and emotionally charged.

Kathleen Whitney is a contributing editor to Sculpture Magazine, and author of the monograph Norma Minkowitz, The Portfolio Collection; Telos Art Publishing, Bristol, England.

Norma Minkowitz is represented at SOFA CHICAGO 2004 by Bellas Artes/Thea Burger. All images courtesy of Bellas Artes/Thea Burger.

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The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA) Fair in Chicago is the premier gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. On par with Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, SOFA is produced by Urban Expositions.

Critically acclaimed and continuously running since 1994, what distinguishes SOFA from other top art events is its focus on three-dimensional artworks that cross the boundaries of fine art, decorative art and design.  SOFA is noted for its exceptional presentation, with an elite selection of international dealers presenting for sale one-of-a-kind masterworks in handsome, custom-designed gallery exhibits.

SOFA is held annually in the fall at Chicago's major destination, Navy Pier, with an average of 80 dealers and 35,000 people attending.

SOFA CHICAGO / Tickets & Showtimes

Urban Expositions presents SOFA CHICAGO 2015 at Navy Pier's Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611) Nov. 6 - 8, with the Opening Night Preview Thursday, Nov. 5.

Day Date Hours Purchase Tickets
Thursday Nov. 5 7 pm to 9 pm Tickets ($50)
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One general admission ticket of $20 admits visitors to the fair, related lecture series, special exhibits and events. $30 three-day passes and discounted student, senior and group tickets are also available. The public is also invited to the Opening Night Preview, Thursday, Nov. 5, 7 to 9 p.m. Preview tickets are $50.