In a photograph of Kazuko Miyamoto’s 1981 performance Stunt (181 Chrystie Street), she is nude save for a dark mask over her eyes. In a shoulder stand on the ground, with her legs scissored overhead, she looks toward the camera, striking a pose of impish seduction. Looming behind her, oddly, are some serious id killers: a couple of Sol LeWitt grid sculptures that she, in her job as his fabricator, had built for him. This is the body that makes that work, she seems to say, the softness of her flesh kinking the Minimalist’s cool logic. Here she is both model and maker—an object of desire amid desirable objects—teasing out questions about the role of women in art.
After moving to New York in 1964 when she was in her early twenties, Miyamoto braided herself into the fabric of the downtown art scene. A devout feminist, she counted the likes of Ana Mendieta, Nancy Spero, and Zarina among her cohort and colleagues, and she became an early member of the nonprofit women’s collective A.I.R. Gallery. Twelve years later, Miyamoto founded Gallery One-twentyeight, exhibiting the art of so many others while still making her own, most often from cheap or found materials. She’d met LeWitt in 1969, and he became not only her longtime employer but also her devoted friend, champion, and collector. Many of the sculptures, drawings, performance photos, and more in this enchanting show at Zürcher Gallery were from his private holdings, and most of those had not been displayed publicly for decades.
Perhaps it was this absence that seemed to give the works, all made between 1973 and 2005, the wattage of the long awaited. A vision of atomized majesty, Male, 1974/2021, is a sculpture from an earlier series the artist made by stretching cotton string between nails and allowing the strands to entwine with their own shadows to create voluminous shapes in space. Materializing line, Miyamoto dematerializes the object in such a way that it shape-shifts, depending on its distance from the eye. Seen from afar, Male is ghostly, ungraspable; at closer range it is no less wondrous a thing, though its meticulously plotted geometries are laid bare.
In the 1980s, the sight of a swan’s nest and the fact of her own pregnancy turned Miyamoto’s thoughts to nature and its structures. She began creating comparatively more solid works by weaving branches she collected in parks together with brown paper she twisted to look like thick ropes. Formation I, 1980, is an egg-shaped spiral that stands about eight feet high and has the dizzying presence of a kind of portal. Noting the impressive muscularity of its coils, one might wonder if the artist was trying to make paper into wood again; certainly she was playing with perceptions of gravity and the appearance of weight. Her material queries took on a spiritual aura with a series of bridges she built and installed not only in galleries, but also across treetops in public spaces. Outdoors, a viewer might look up to see the sky and her sculpture’s silhouette, its rungs cutting small frames through which to gaze at that unframable expanse. In this show, Constructed Bridge, 1980, arced down from the ceiling at eye level, its long ropes echoing the shimenawa that hang at the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Miyamoto’s art similarly sanctifies, in that what is sacred for her is the worldly, redefined otherwise.