Gloria Kisch’s bells, composed of hand-forged stainless steel squiggles, spheres and rounded-off squares, can extend up to twelve feet tall. Each one really deserves its own cathedral. But they are also extraordinarily impressive when hung in a dense array, as they currently are at dieFirma, a newly inaugurated space in Cooper Square, New York.
The exhibition, which also includes Kisch’s paintings, furniture and wall-mounted sculptures, is a fitting inaugural project here – and not only because the artist’s studio used to be in the basement of the building next door. The programme at dieFirma, which will include onsite retail and workshops alongside exhibitions, is positioned at the intersection of art, craft and design. Today that is a crowded intersection, but it was not in Kisch’s day. Along with other female artists of her generation whose careers have lately been reassessed – among them Diane Simpson and Charlotte Posenenske – she was way ahead of her time in embracing a non-hierarchical approach, in which thinking and making, art and design, had equal validity.
The bells came late in Kisch’s career, having been made in an intense creative burst from 2000 to 2003. She died in 2014 at the age of 72; she’d lived quite a life. She was born to a prosperous family – her father Max Stern immigrated from Germany with a few cages of singing canaries and went on to found the pet supply company Hartz Mountain. She married early, had children, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. So far, so predictable. But in 1963, like an art world version of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017–ongoing), Kisch jumped the rails of convention. She moved her young family to Los Angeles so that she could attend the Otis Art Institute, then a centre for the West Coast avant-garde.
She quickly absorbed her new milieu, developing an idiom of hard-edge painting that compares favourably to the contemporaneous work of Judy Chicago and Billy Al Bengston. She gradually transitioned to sculpture, and, for the next few years, had a strong career, showing alongside luminaries of the LA scene such as Ken Price and Ed Ruscha, as well as exponents of the feminist art movement. She returned to New York in 1981, and set up studio in a SoHo loft, positioning herself once again at the centre of the action.
Kisch had a different outlook from most of her peers, however, which, along with her gender and California provenance, made her entry into the New York art scene a challenge. In college she had studied with the mythologist Joseph Campbell and through him discovered Carl Jung. She thought of her sculptures as archetypal, representing the male and female principles, and declared that she aimed to create ‘a magical presence, which has curing properties’. This was her intention with the monumental bells. Their bodily scale and industrial materiality recall the heavy-duty postminimal sculpture that was current during her formative years. In a 2009 book about Kisch (the only one published during her lifetime), the late critic John Perreault wrote that ‘their sounds might better be characterized as hardy clanking than Edgar Allen Poe’s tintinnabulation’.
But what Kisch was really after was a totemic, mystical quality – more Hilma af Klint than Donald Judd. Presaged in the axial abstractions of her early paintings, this ambition was fully realized only when she started working in heavy metal. She spoke of ‘trapping energy’, and of ‘a symbiosis between primitive and futurist form’ – phrases that perfectly describe both her bells and her improbable, massively constructed chair designs. (Rose Slivka, the celebrated craft critic, rather brilliantly noted that her furniture forms ‘look as if they are gloating with the secret of their own utility’.) Toward the end of her life, working with an ease and freedom that sometimes comes to older artists, Kisch made a series of wall-mounted metal flowers. One exceptional example is mounted on a polychrome vertical stand, to fantastical, Dr. Seussian effect. Like the bells, the flowers are knowingly art historical; they merit a place in the pop-art pantheon somewhere between Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami. Yet, again, Kisch’s intentions were quite direct. Flowers, she thought, were simply a joyous motif. And at this point in her career, that is what she wanted to give the viewer: lightness, pleasure, and resolution. Message received.
Main image: Gloria Kisch, Flower IV, 2009, stainless steel, 112 × 112 × 28 cm. Courtesy: dieFirma, New York and Farzad Owrang