One’s immediate impulse when encountering the work of a developmentally disabled artist like Judith Scott – she was born with Down’s syndrome, and was largely deaf and mute until her death in 2005 – is to use her biography to inform criticism. In this exhibition of over 60 of her works at the Brooklyn Museum, most of them three-dimensional fabric assemblages, this is largely dissuaded. ‘Such a narrow focus can undermine a full understanding of the work’, reads an introductory wall text. But what makes a work of art compelling is an artist’s unique viewpoint, whether it is informed by abuse, oppression, physical or intellectual disabilities, or banal context. In Scott’s case, that viewpoint is informed not only by her inability to communicate in a conventional manner, but also by her cloistered existence, first at the institution in Ohio where she lived for 36 years, and later at Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California, where she shared a communal studio space exclusively with other disabled artists. What emerged from this personal experience were dense, complex forms consisting of various fabrics woven tightly around found objects such as twigs, shopping carts and electric fans. The works might be made by a developmentally disabled artist, but they could arguably be made only by Scott, and this makes them exquisitely sui generis.
The exhibition is organised chronologically, with the objects laid horizontally on low platforms throughout the two galleries. A single untitled work (all of the works in the exhibition are untitled) from 1988 hangs on a wall near the entrance. Consisting of colourful ribbons, balloons and cream fabric woven around wire rods bundled together like kindling, it energetically spirals away from the flat surface, demonstrating Scott’s ability to generate friction in empty space. Visual references to deep-sea creatures abound throughout, rendering the space a surreal sort of aquarium. A work from 1989 made from a tangled web of red, periwinkle and copper threads resembles a manta ray. Another from 2002 could be an earth-toned sea anemone. A 1994 piece created using paper towels scavenged from the bathrooms and kitchen in her studio is redolent both of a barnacle and the sculptures of Lee Bontecou. The comparisons are admittedly superficial. What the works really comment on is the power of Scott’s abstractions. A messy, olive-green piece from 1989 elicits the question: ‘Did Scott experience sexual desire?’ Of course this reveals more about the viewer than the artist.
It’s tempting to read some sort of evolution in Scott’s practice, but the only thing that seems to change are the colour palettes she used and the materials she was given to work with. The wall texts betray that powerhouse collectors such as Beth Rudin DeWoody, Eileen and Michael Cohen, Pamela and Arthur Sanders, and even MoMA have acquired some of her later work. No doubt credit for this is due to Matthew Higgs, director of the nonprofit space White Columns, who along with organising this show at the Brooklyn Museum also paired Scott with Dan Miller, another Creative Growth artist (he suffers from severe seizures), in a 2013 exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in Ridgefield, Connecticut. There’s a certain do-gooder aspect to championing art made by people with disabilities. But just because Scott had an extra copy of a chromosome doesn’t make her any more of an outsider than the type of artist who creates for no other reason than that she is compelled to create. Today, this is the real aberration.
This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.