Nicola L., an overlooked pioneer of the Pop Art movement, died at 81

French conceptual artist Nicola L., whose feminist work has seen new recognition in recent years, died Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Her metamorphosed art, which encompasses sculpture, painting, performance and furniture, often explored the human (and especially female) body.

L. “passed away… peacefully in her sleep,” Loreta Lamargese, director of Arsenal Contemporary in New York, told artnet News in an email. The gallery’s current exhibition, “DEAR” (until January 13), combines the work of L. with that of three young Canadian artists, Nadia Belerique, Ambera Wellmann and Chloe Wise. (News of the artist’s passing was first announced by artist Joseph Nechvatal, who posted a tribute to Nicola L. on his website, recalling his experience watching one of his performances.)

“Nicola was a free spirit and was shaped by the 1960s counterculture from which she emerged,” Ruba Katrib, who curated the artist’s 2017 retrospective at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, told artnet News. . “She pushed social and political boundaries in her work at a time when it was very bold for a woman to take ownership of her own body.”

Born in 1937 in Mazagan, Morocco, L. studied painting at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. But in 1964, the Argentinian artist Alberto Greco asked him a question that would change his life: “How can one paint in the 1960s? she recounted in a recent interview. In response, she said, “I burned all my abstract paintings.”

Installation view, “Nicola L.: Works, 1968 to the Present” at SculptureCenter, New York. Photo by Kyle Knodell.

Moving forward, L. has developed her own unique practice, blending sculpture, design, video and performance, all with a feminist twist. She moved to New York in 1979. For nearly 30 years, she called the Chelsea Hotel her home, keeping her apartment even as new owners transformed the longtime entertainer’s paradise into a luxury hotel. In 2014, she released a documentary, Doors ajar at the Chelsea Hotelon the rich history of the residence.

Her first visit to the hotel was in 1968, when she performed at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. “For me it was unbelievable. It made Paris look like the provinces in comparison. But prostitutes and pimps were part of Chelsea’s lot. And artists, I won’t say they’re prostitutes, but they sell themselves “, reminded L. to vanity lounge in 2013. “It was either Janis Joplin or the tall woman from Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I don’t remember which one. It was a crazy time.”

Immersed in this creative milieu, L. lived in an apartment full of her own art. She is perhaps best known for her large-scale sculptural furniture pieces that often take the form of women’s bodies – a literal objectification – which she began showing in 1969 in Paris at Daniel Templeton and in Brussels at the Galerie Veranneman.

Nicola L., <em>Red coat</em> (1973).  Photo courtesy of a private collection, ©Nicola L.” width=”840″ height=”533″ srcset=” /nicolalredcoat1973.jpg 840w,×190.jpg 300w, /01/nicolalredcoat1973-50×32.jpg 50w” sizes=”(max-width: 840px) 100vw, 840px”/></p>
<p class=Nicolas L., Red coat (1973). Photo courtesy of a private collection, ©Nicola L.

In 1970 she debuted her first work of performance art at the Isle of Wight Festival. Inspired by the political demonstrations of the time, Red coat brought together 11 performers in hooded capes concealing the body. The garment was one of his ‘Penatrables’, loose textiles meant to act as an extension of human skin, emphasizing our common humanity.

The work was later one of several of his pieces included in “The World Goes Pop” exhibition at London’s Tate Modern in 2015, which examined the lesser-known global and political strains of Pop art.

“While researching the many female and engaged pop artists around the world, I came across the work of Nicola L in the collection of a Belgian design and furniture collector who had acquired her incredible Little woman of television: “I am the last woman object” (1969),” exhibition curator Jessica Morgan, director of the Dia Art Foundation, recalled in an email to artnet News, calling the piece “a feminist work that brilliantly satirized the use of the female form in art and commerce”.

“I was particularly struck by the critical fusion and flexibility of his adaptations of art and design and of course went to meet him,” she added. “Like so many female artists, Nicola’s work was then forgotten despite her early success. We all need to work harder to learn more about these notable artists of the past who have been written out of history.

Nicola L., Little TV Woman:

Nicolas L., Little TV Woman: “I am the last female object” (1969). The television displays the message “I am the last female object. You can take my lips, touch my breasts, caress my belly, my sex. But I repeat, this is the last time. Photo by Kyle Knodell, Xavier Gellier collection.

The Tate show marked something of a turning point for the artist, who had two solo exhibitions at New York’s Elga Wimmer PCC in 2015 and 2016. His first institutional solo exhibition, “Nicola L.: Works, 1968 to the Present,” followed the following year.

Giving the green light to the exhibition was an easy decision for the institution. “Nicola L. was an artist whose work defied easy categorization and who was vastly underexposed in the realm of contemporary art,” director Mary Ceruti said in an email to artnet News. “SculptureCenter stands up for many female artists for whom this is the case.”

Nicola L., <em>Eye</em> (1969/99).  This work, a set of lamps, set the artist’s record auction price with a sale of €31,200 ($34,942) at Artcurial, Paris, in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Artcurial , Paris.  “width=”640″ height=”295″ srcset=” 640w, /news-upload/2019/01/picture-300×138.jpg 300w,×23.jpg 50w” sizes=”(max-width : 640px) 100vw, 640px”/></p>
<p class=Nicolas L., Eye (1969/99). This work, a set of lamps, set the artist’s record auction price with a sale of €31,200 ($34,942) at Artcurial, Paris, in September 2016. Photo courtesy of Artcurial , Paris.

Despite its recent resurgence, L.’s star was just beginning to rise. According to the artnet price database, L.’s record at auction is just €31,200 ($34,942), set in 2016 at Artcurial in Paris for a pair of lamp sculptures titled Eye. His work is part of the collections of museums including the Center Pompidou, Paris; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow; FRAC Brittany, Rennes; MAMCO, Geneva; Art & Design Atomium Museum, Brussels; and M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp.

“During her prolific career, Nicola L. has forged unexpected paths through acts of fabrication that have taken her from function to form, always with a wry sense of humor,” said Loreta Lamargese. “She expanded the human body, rounding it out, engrossing its waist, until it became sturdy and utilitarian – men like sofas, buttons like nipples…. Like her Red coata multi-person coat meant to incorporate many wearers into a collective, her practice highlighted what dissolves and what is gained in the politics of gathering and sharing.

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Christopher S. Washington