Judith Scott retrospective leads three new shows at Aspen Art Museum

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Judith Scott's 'Bound and Unbound' exhibit opened at the Aspen Art Museum in March.
Jeremy Wallace |

If You Go …

What: Judith Scott, ‘Bound and Unbound’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through July 10

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What: Mickalene Thomas, ‘Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through June 12

More info:

What: Rachel Rose, ‘Everything and More’

Where: Aspen Art Museum

When: Through June 12

More info:

Judith Scott’s sculptures offer ordinary things in a larval stage. Shrouded in yarn and fiber, her found objects appear to be transforming into something new and extraordinary.

The pieces invite investigation. Spend enough time looking at one and you might glimpse, under the layers of yarn and fiber, a piece of wood or wicker, a hat, a bicycle wheel, a table fan. The color scheme never repeats. Nor do the shapes. Each is its own unique being. Thirty-three of them are laid out on four tables in the Aspen Art Museum’s spacious second-floor gallery. The walls hold drawings on paper, which reflect the same heavy-shrouded, womb-like shapes.

Scott’s “Bound and Unbound” includes 47 untitled pieces, spanning her career from 1987 until 2004. She died in 2005. The exhibition, first shown at the Brooklyn Museum, is the first comprehensive retrospective of Scott’s work.

“I think they are among the most important art made in the United States or anywhere, in fact, from the post-war period,” Matthew Higgs of White Columns said on a walk-through of the show last week. Higgs curated the show with the Brooklyn Museum’s Catherine Morris. “I think Judith’s work should not only be shown in the Brooklyn Museum and the Aspen Art Museum, but one of these objects should be in every major collection of post-war contemporary art.”

Because Scott was deaf, mute and had Down syndrome, she never articulated how her work should be shown. Tom DiMaria, who worked with Scott at the Oakland-based Creative Growth — an art center for the disabled — said Scott spent her first two years of art-making on the drawings. He pointed out the overlapping scribbled forms in the drawings and how that aesthetic anticipates the sculptures that she focused on for the rest of her career.

Higgs met Scott in 2002 at Creative Growth, which he called “a radical, utopian, wildly imaginative place.” Her silence and her genius were a revelation for Higgs — and for leading conceptual artists like Rosemarie Tockel and Anne Collier, who were early champions of Scott’s work. She shook up a contemporary art world in which conceptual theory can sometimes seem to overshadow the work itself.

“It challenged everything I thought I knew about art,” Higgs said.

When Scott finished a sculpture, DiMaria said, she would simply push it aside.

“She had no subsequent interest in the work, as far as I’m aware,” he said.

This puts curators, like the teams from Brooklyn and Aspen that put together the show, in a unique position with no direction from the artist. Higgs compared it to exhibiting prehistoric artworks, where no context has been given by the creator.

The curators don’t know, for example, which way is up for the sculptures. They’ve previously been hung on walls or placed on pedestals. For the Aspen show, they chose to display them on tables, in keeping with the tables on which Scott created them.

“They are complicated objects, and they complicate our relationship with art,” Higgs said. “They make our relationship with other kinds of objects more complicated, too.”

“Bound and Unbound” is one of three exhibitions that opened in the Aspen Art Museum on March 11.


Aspen Art Museum artist-in-residence Mickalene Thomas spent the past year on a new body of work that fills two basement galleries with riffs on the public personas and influence of black women as mentors, muses and celebrities. Titled “Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities,” the multimedia show fills the walls with paintings and photos of figures like Celie from the novel “The Color Purple,” as portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film, and Eartha Kitt, whose “Angelitos Negros” inspired the show.

Thomas is best known for intricate paintings made of rhinestones, acrylic and enamel. The Aspen show marks a departure from that style and features Thomas’ first foray into film and video work.

One gallery features projected footage of black women in pop culture, from Wanda Sykes to Mo’Nique, Nina Simone to Pam Grier. Across from them is an installation of 12 video screens, displaying shifting colorful patterns and a nude video portrait of Thomas.

“I put myself in an extremely vulnerable position where I am exposing all of myself but also making these correlations to art-historical images that I looked at, in a collage/kaleidoscope way where my black body is this mirror image of the things I respond to,” she said last week.

The show may be best experienced, though, in the homey and inviting living room spaces that Thomas has created in the center of each gallery — where sitting stools, plants and a rug invite the viewer to sit and peruse piles of selected books. The books range from feminist theory to African-American history, from classics like W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” to newer titles like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists.”

Thomas would like visitors to spend time reading in the gallery spaces and offers books for the taking (so long as visitors leave at least one replacement).


When Rachel Rose showed “Everything and More” last year at the Whitney Museum of American Art, she projected the video work on a window — leaving the viewer to experience the world outside and their own reflection as part of it. For an Aspen update of the piece, she reworked it to respond to the small cube gallery in the Aspen Art Museum’s lower level.

A small video screen is inlaid into a wall, near the floor, best seen if you lower onto the rugged gallery floor. If you do, two large speakers sit behind you, playing audio of an interview Rose conducted with former astronaut David Wolf. The astronaut speaks about the effect space travel has on the body — what it feels like to be on a space walk, how the body reacts when you come back to Earth. Haunting vocals isolated from an Aretha Franklin song go in and out.

On the screen are images of a NASA neutral buoyancy lab (where astronauts learn how to space walk) and images of an outdoor EDM concert, stylized with food coloring swirling in water over the images. An egg made from electrocuted glass sits nearby.

Rose said making this kind of abstract work, but grounding it in real experiences and something as basic as how a human body feels, gives her a path into making art in our current moment.

“I have a tremendous amount of doubt about art and making art,” she said. “I feel very skeptical about the whole thing, given the pronounced difficulties of our time and what it means to be an artist in that time. … It starts in me but needs to be grounded in real things.”

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