Nicola L. Leaves Behind a Legacy of Fearless, Offbeat Sculpture
Portrait of Nicola L. with Le Femme Commode. Courtesy of the estate of Nicola L.
Artist Nicola L., best known for her anthropomorphic, functional sculptures, died on December 31, 2018, at age 81. From a white, foot-shaped sofa to a curvy yellow cabinet with a round face and suggestive, nipplesque drawer pulls, L.’s artwork cheekily merged principles of art, design, and furniture. The female body, in particular, was a favorite motif.
L.’s son, cinematographer Christophe Lanzenberg, announced her passing on Instagram. “Please remember her for the laughter, the fun, the craziness, the strength, the madness, and the good times that we all had with Nicola,” he wrote, accompanying the note with a photograph of an illustration of a giant foot that L. made in Ibiza in 1969. Via an email to Artsy, Lanzenberg added: “We would like her to be remembered for her humor and creativity.”
Nicola L., Installation view of I Am the Last Woman Object, 1969, at the SculptureCenter, New York, 2017. Photo by Kyle Knodell. Courtesy of the SculptureCenter, New York.
In the last decade, L. finally began to receive the recognition she deserved for her multidisciplinary practice. In addition to her sculptural work, she was also a documentarian whose filmography includes a 1980 taping of punk band Bad Brains at the iconic New York club CBGB, and a 1981 movie about activist Abbie Hoffman.
Indeed, her oeuvre and biography intersect with some of the city’s most storied cultural developments. L.’s pop-infused sculptures are warm, feminist counterpoints to the work of Donald Judd and Richard Artschwager (whose sculptures similarly straddle the line between utility and pure concept). L. was a forerunner of young contemporary figures who dissolved the line between art, furniture, and design.
Born in Morocco in 1937, L. studied art in Paris at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. She abandoned painting for performance in the 1960s, at the outset of the Conceptual art movement. A much-loved piece from the era, I Am the Last Woman Object (1969), looks like a vinyl doll with a television for a stomach—warning viewers against objectifying women with a provocative message that blares across its screen. L. became friendly with Yves Klein, Marta Minujín, and their coterie of “nouveau réalistes.” Her subsequent “Penetrable” series included elaborate costumes that require performers to truly activate them. One of her most famous performances, Red Coat (1969), features a large red garment with holes, hoods, and arm slits for 11 people to don simultaneously in a kind of collective dance.
Throughout the 1960s, L. began visiting New York, and the Chelsea Hotel in particular. “Anything could happen in the elevator,” she recalled in a 2013 Vanity Fair article. “It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and the Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can’t remember which. It was a crazy time.” In 1979, she became a permanent fixture in the building, maintaining an apartment there for around three decades.
L. received scant institutional attention until 2015, when Tate Modern included her in its exhibition “The World Goes Pop.” Two years later, curator Ruba Katrib organized L.’s first-ever institutional retrospective at SculptureCenter in Queens, New York. “As an ambitious female artist working in an invigorated yet male-dominated art world, she was given both expansive possibilities and confining limitations,” Katrib wrote in the catalogue, discussing L.’s as-yet-unrealized scripts, screenplays, and ideas for sculptures.
This winter, L.’s work is on view at Manhattan’s Arsenal Contemporary, alongside painting and sculpture by contemporary artists Chloe Wise, Ambera Wellmann, and Nadia Belerique. L.’s head-shaped bookshelf (Library Head, 2004) and plush man-shaped seat (Sofa Homme, 1970) posit that the body itself—its natural contours and political meanings—is all the source material an artist could ever need. “She was turning objects into women, or women into objects, during the height of second-wave feminism,” gallery director Loreta Lamargese said recently. “People didn’t know how to add a discursive level to that.”
Additionally, Lamargese is helping invigorate L.’s reputation by connecting her work with that of other young artists. It’s a fitting strategy for an artist who was always devoted to unity. Lamargese cited “radical community-making” as one of L.’s major concerns—in addition to maintaining a studio practice, she was particularly skilled at bringing people together. As Lanzenberg, the artist’s son, wrote to Artsy, “her friends, her art, her family meant everything to Nicola.”