By Irina Sheynfeld
Marta Minujín flew into the world of art on top of a striped mattress when she won a prestigious Di Tella Prize in 1964 for her interactive striped creations. Now in her 80s, Minujín is still prolific, and recently she went back to making more mattress art.
A survey of her exuberant career, Marta Minujín: Arte! Arte! Arte!, is on display at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan until March 31, 2024
A multidisciplinary master of color, texture, performance, sculpture, and immersive environments, Minujín was born in 1943 in Buenos Aires to a prominent Jewish family that immigrated from Russia in the 1890s. Her father started as a tailor, and he made his fortune by cornering the market on professional uniforms. The familiarity with the world of fabrics was in Minujín’s blood. She moved between New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires and was part of art informel, new realism, pop, psychedelia, and happenings. Her groundbreaking work in the 60s involved political activism and public art installations, but her interest in the ways of the textile remained the common denominator of her career.
The origins of the mattress story go back to the artist’s time in Paris where Minujín often took her raw materials from the street or just stole them from places where they were not too well guarded. In 1963, she created her first immersive environment, which was essentially a mattress-padded room Chambre d’amour (The Room of Love). Around the same time, Minujín also created her memorable La Destrucción (The Distraction) (1963) event at the end of which a group of participants led by the artist destroyed and set on fire her works of art. These two happenings — Chambre d’amour — an environment constructed out of mattresses and La Destrucción set in motion the two most important themes in Minujín’s world: mattress as a site of life and its ephemeral status as an object.
Since permanence and preservation were anathema to the artist’s goals, very few of her early works have survived to the present day. One of these rare objects is Mattress (1964, restored in 1985), displayed in the first room of the Jewish Museum’s show. Mattress is a three-dimensional sculpture that is attached to the wall. It is constructed from elongated phallic shapes that are made of painted fabric and attached to a large, king-sized pillow. Most of its parts look like colorful bologna displayed at a butcher’s shop. The original handmade stitching seems to be restored by sewing machine-made repairs. What is left of Minujín’s original stitching makes it clear that the artist didn’t mean for this hanging sculpture to last. The biomorphic shapes look sad and old: it is a story of the time that is past and the youth that will never return. Like a human being, the sculpture almost looks its age. This mattress work has seen its share of births, lovemaking, and death, and the sadness of the passage of time hides in its soft folds.
Minujín’s mattress creations are neither examples of fine craftsmanship associated with traditional women’s work, nor a sturdy and practical job by a craftsman making practical objects, but rather they are something else entirely — works of art that have no use. Minujín’s relationship with hand-made materials inspired generations of feminist art to create immersive environments that are ephemeral. Her textile interactive environments predate such woman-made icons as Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Womanhouse by ten years. The ephemerality of Minujín’s art still resonates in the ease with which later feminists were willing to destroy their work as a way of subverting the tradition of Western art that is meant to outlast its creators.
In the interview with the associate curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, Rebecca Shaykin, Minujín says that in 2007 she went back to her mattress-making roots after a 40-year hiatus. One of her most recent works, a giant sculpture, Conseptos Entrelazados (Intertwined Concepts) from 2019-22 greets visitors at the entrance to her show on the first floor. It is constructed out of colorful striped fabric that is reminiscent of her earlier soft padded environments. While Intertwined is not interactive or immersive, like her earlier work it also looks handmade, tactile, and inviting. The stripes are roughly painted and some of the paint is cracking and peeling, the stitching is coming apart. The organic (98 ⅜ x 102 ⅜ x 51 ⅛ inch), free-standing, vertical sculpture is constructed mostly of mattress fabric, foam rubber, acrylic, tempera, and lacquer. Intertwined evokes memories of kids’ jungle gyms and consists of colorful semi-obscene noodles that are locked in a tight embrace with vulvar-shaped pillows. All these tubular and elliptical puzzle pieces are sewn with a quick whip stitch. Minujín’s shapes remind one of the moving and pulsating world of Joan Miró. Her organic creations form tightly bound amalgamations that are traveling forward like a giant Portuguese Man of War — colonies of zooids that are on a voyage to a far-away mattress utopia-land.
Despite zany colors non-threatening softness, and surface energy of vibrant reds next to explosive hot pinks, Minujin’s work is more than just fun and games. Her stripped creations are as sensual, decadent, and impermanent as if they were made of flesh and bones and not of fabric, foam, and carcass. They are living to the fullest the short life of an object of love. Her other recent creation, For Making Love Inconspicuously (2010), like Intertwined is monumental and not perfect: it sags, fades, and seems past the peak of its game.
Minujín’s use of stripes in all her works is form-defining and personal. Chief curator of the Jewish Museum, Darsie Alexander, notes in her chapter of the show’s catalog,
Minujín’s stripes are both a compositional device and a means to evoke personal expression through clothing, an industry her family knew well. For the artist, the bright stripes and eye-catching patterns are critical features of her own vibrant style and persona, an extension of her canvas onto her personal couture.
In the stripes’ diminishing sharpness there is also a sense of impermanence and inevitability of the end. The fading colors of For Making Love are a tribute to the memento mori tradition in Western art, for indeed, softening edges and peeling paint serve as reminders that fun is not forever and that death will soon follow in the footsteps of sex and birth.
Behind the multidimensionality of these sculptures, viewers can have a glimpse of the artist’s process. In a series of seven small drawings on one of the back walls of the gallery, we can observe how Minujín explores and manipulates her medium to shape the outcome. The drawings are the studies for future sculptures. They get recreated as sculptures by a team of Minujín’s assistants and they demonstrate that nothing in Minujín’s work is accidental. The shapes are all planned to evoke a unique burst of energy and evoke a distinct feeling of memories and lives impressed upon the mattresses.
Five decades after Mattress (1964/1985) Minujin’s soft creations are still important because the artist defines them as sites that hold memories. The artist describes a mattress as a place where all that is important in life occurs. In her book Marta Minujin: Our Woman in Buenos Aires, Minujín writes “We spend half of our lives on mattresses. We are born on one and one day we will most likely die on one.” Minujin’s mattress works are thoughtful and deliberate meditations on age, death, and decay.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Irina Sheynfeld grew up in Odesa, Ukraine. The artist moved to NYC where she continued her studies at Parsons School of Design and she earned her MFA at the School of Visual Arts. In her practice, Sheynfeld uses a wide range of media: oil pastel, watercolor, oil, acrylic, printmaking, and computer-generated mixed media collages. Sheynfeld exhibits her work nationally and abroad. She is a recipient of the COJECO’s Blueprint Fellowship and Grant, and she was also selected four times to be an NYC Sing for Hope Piano Artist. In 2022 Sheynfeld participated in The Other Art Fair in LA. Sheynfeld is one of the founders of the Odesa Peace Fund which provides humanitarian aid to Ukraine and the artist regularly donates proceeds from her art to the fund. Sheynfeld lives and works in New York City with her three sons and a miniature labradoodle Luke Skywalker.
Ceres Gallery New York , Magic Mountain. Solo Show
January 30-February 24, 2024
547 West 27 Street, Suite 201, New York City
Opening Reception: February 1, 6-8pm
Benefit for Odesa Peace Fund: February 15, 6-8pm
43rd Annual Western Spirit Juried Art Show and Sale
March 2–April 14, 2024