My first encounter with the work of American artist Roni Horn (born 1955) was on the grounds of the former Fort D.A. Russell, now the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Situated in an army barracks-turned-gallery space, Horn’s two-piece sculpture Things That Happen Happen Again: For a Here and a There, 1986-1991, provides a quiet introduction to the artist’s expansive oeuvre, introducing Horn not only as a sculptor, but as an artist interested in form, doubling, installation, and experience. The pair of hand-lathed, solid copper forms that comprise Things That Happen Happen Again sit at opposite ends of the space. Viewers are invited inside—no more than four people at a time—through a side door at the center of the barracks and are immediately faced with a decision: look left or right to experience the work—from this vantage point it cannot be viewed in totality, but instead must be viewed one piece at a time. Walking around one part of the work, taking in its tapering conical form, its volume and dimensions, how it shifts from three dimensions to two dimensions when viewing it from the flat end of the cone, and the way it appears to glow in the naturally lit space, the experience of the first object informs viewing of the second. As Horn describes, the doubling aspect of her work—which appears throughout her career in sculpture, photographs, drawings, and artist books—is a way to engage people and to sustain a more contemplative experience.
Exhibition view of Roni Horn at the DePont Museum, Tilburg, Natherlands, January 23-May 29, 2016. Photograph: Stefan Altenburger. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.Copyright Roni Horn.
This first encounter with Horn’s sculpture was significant to the development of my understanding of her work. The human tendency to hold fast to first impressions meant that I have always considered Horn a sculptor, though her diverse practice—conceptual photography, sculptural objects, environmental installation, drawing, writing, and collage—suggests that my inclination to situate Horn as a sculptor precludes more complete understanding of her work. Horn herself deemphasizes simple classification, as she describes:
I don’t necessarily think of myself as a visual artist primarily. A lot of my work is really very conceptual, and it has very little visual aspect to it, the sculpture especially. That work is more powerfully about experience and presence than it is about a powerful visual experience.
Yet sculpture has always been an important area of inquiry for the artist: Her earliest work as an MFA student at Yale University in the 1970s was based in sculpture, which continued to inform her practice as she transitioned to working in two dimensions by shifting her focus to drawing, collage, and photography in the 1980s. When speaking about joining the Yale sculpture department, Horn says, “It’s not because I thought, ‘Oh, sculpture, great.’ I was always much more interested in painting. […] One of the things that interested me was that sculpture wasn’t a medium, and so you have pretty much all the mediums available to you, unlike painting. Painting is paint.” Sculpture remains an important aspect of Horn’s oeuvre, and the artist frequently includes three-dimensional works in her photography and drawing installations. For her exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center, Horn has chosen eight large-scale cylindrical cast glass sculptures of various colors that she will install in one of the Nasher’s main galleries. The exhibition is the artist’s first U.S. museum presentation of her work since 2010 and the first to focus specifically on her cast glass sculpture.
Roni Horn, Untitled (“It is curious to think of all the social, economic, psychological preconditions that are necessary in order for a Jewish actress to win a horse race.”), 2014. Solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces 50 1/2 in. (128 cm) high x 53–56 in. (134.6–142.2 cm) in diameter (tapered). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Copyright Roni Horn. Photo: Genevieve Hanson, courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.
Horn began making cast glass sculptures in the early 1990s. Created through a labor and time-intensive process, the works require three to four months to complete. The sides of the glass sculptures reveal aspects of the process of their making: They have a matte, frosted appearance where they’ve taken on the texture of the mold, while the top surfaces have been fire-polished, lending a glossy, almost liquid appearance to the top of the sculpture. With their abstract forms and industrial fabrication processes, her sculptures often borrow from the visual language of Minimalism, though Horn imbues her work with personal meaning and references that distance it from the strictly autonomous objecthood characteristic of Minimalist sculpture. Her work instead acts as a critical bridge connecting Minimalism and Post-Minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s to contemporary art-making practices today.
With their sensuous surfaces, Horn’s sculptures often provoke instinctual interaction: Horn herself warned the Nasher staff that children have been known to lick her glass sculptures, convinced the works are actually Popsicles. While this type of behavior in museums is discouraged, the artist understands this kind of visceral reaction as one way of gaining a fuller experience of her work and the importance of engaging the body as well as the mind.
Roni Horn, Untitled (“Two thick ropes of dark blood and two slender rose like snakes from the stump of his neck and arched hissing into the fire. The head rolled to the left and came to rest... The fire steamed and blackened and a gray cloud of smoke rose and the columnar arches of blood slowly subsided until just the neck bubbled gently like stew…”), 2013-15. Solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces 52” height x 56” diameter. Installation: De Pont Museum, Tilburg, 2016. Photograph: Stefan Altenburger. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Copyright Roni Horn.
In all areas of her work, Horn draws inspiration from nature and language. American poets Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and German writer Franz Kafka, among others, have all inspired Horn, who uses excerpts of their writings for titles of her works in various media. Horn has turned to literature throughout her career as a way to reveal these literary influences and to catalogue the work in a point in time in her career. In speaking about the importance of literature to her art, Horn says, “My relationship to my work is extremely verbal. I am probably more language based than I am visual and I move through language to arrive at the visual.” The seven works (one work consists of a pair of glass sculptures) that Horn selected for her installation at the Nasher have subtitles that vary in literary genres as diverse as poetry, food writing, historical diary entries, and epic westerns. Untitled (“I deeply perceive that the infinity of matter is no dream.”), 2014—taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Power of Words” (1845)—contrasts both in brevity and style with another 2014 glass sculpture’s title: Untitled (“Supervise things closely for seven years, with the help of your diving girl. Any time after that you may open your oyster, and you have about one chance in twenty of owning a marketable pearl, and a small but equally exciting chance of having cooked up something really valuable.”), which Horn excerpted from the preeminent American food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s 1941 book Consider the Oyster. While it may be tempting to search for a connection between title and object, Horn denies any descriptive function of the title and instead views the purpose of a title as just one step in the process of looking at a work of art, as she describes: “I don’t like titles that—if you don’t read them, you don’t get the piece. I want a title that can be an entrance to something but never an explanation. A title is more about staying away from certain things but sort of showing you an entrance without naming it.”
Within the Nasher galleries, Horn’s sculptures will be infused with light, calling attention not only to their volumetric forms, but also the reflective and translucent qualities of glass. Roni Horn will celebrate the artist’s cast glass sculptures as unique and important examples of an artist defying traditional methods of glass art and expanding the genre into the realm of sculpture laden with weight and presence.
Roni Horn, Untitled (“...the Aga Khan arrived in Indian costume covered in precious gems... He has several dozen million...subjects and a fortune of untold millions in pounds sterling and, sitting next to Nijinsky with his jaw and vulgar face, was like a fat sack of real money next to a fantastic dream of wealth.”), 2014, solid cast glass, 50. x 56 inches (128.9 x 142.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York. Copyright Roni Horn. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, courtesy of the artists and Hauser & Wirth.
Written by Leigh Arnold, Ph.D., Assistant Curator, Nasher Sculpture Center
Roni Horn is made possible with support from Jennifer and John Eagle, Suzanne Deal Booth, and Hauser & Wirth.