Light Metal: El Anatsui Weaves Delicate Tapestries From Rough Material

The best possible fate for a bottle cap

On a mild weekday morning late last month, a scrum of journalists and the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui stood inside a viewing room at an art storage building on 20th Street in far west Chelsea. They were flanked by a few of Mr. Anatsui’s new artworks—large, undulating tapestries that he and his assistants weave at his studio in Nigeria from thousands of bits of discarded metal, mostly bottle caps and folded-up foil wrappers. The press preview had originally been scheduled to take place down the street at Mr. Anatsui’s gallery, Jack Shainman, but Sandy had flooded Shainman’s basement, and the artist’s show had been to be postponed. It opens this Friday, Dec. 14.

Though you wouldn’t have known it from his quiet, mild-mannered demeanor—at the storage space, he spoke in a whisper that sometimes approached a mumble—Mr. Anatsui, 68, had recently been putting the finishing touches on his largest work to date, a tapestry that now spans the façade of an entire building along the High Line, just a block north of the gallery. Measuring 157 feet wide by 37 feet high, it is the sort of virtuosic performance that contemporary artists spend years preparing for, and serves as a monument of sorts to Mr. Anatsui’s now-cemented status as one of our era’s greats.

The piece, titled Broken Bridge II, is composed of about 100 interconnected panels of rusted metal or mirrors. It was first shown in Paris during that city’s triennale in April, but if you compare a photo of that installation with the one on the High Line, “they look completely different,” High Line Art curator Cecilia Alemani told The Observer earlier this week. And that’s not just because it’s hanging on the façade of a New York gallery building, as opposed to along one side of the neoclassical Musée de la Mode.

“In Paris, the work was at a lower level, and I wanted to take in the landscape at that level,” Mr. Anatsui said in a telephone interview. “But on the High Line, I felt the skyline is a strong defining element of this city, so the mirrors form large segments of the top. They invite the sky and skyline into the work in such a way that you do not know where mirrors end and sky begins.” Besides in a sense inverting the piece, he’s also made it a great deal larger, shipping over even more recycled, strung-together metal bits from his studio in Nigeria.

When you’re walking along the High Line, the work sneaks up on you, looking like a shimmering curve of sky that has somehow sliced through a building.

Until the High Line piece, most of Mr. Anatsui’s outdoor works use the same process that he employs for his metal tapestries, carefully marshaling those tiny bits of metal into intricate forms. “The one that really broke my heart in a way was the one that was at the Palazzo Fortuny,” Ms. Alemani said, recalling a visit to Venice in 2007. “It was the first piece of his that I saw outdoors.” The rectangular cloth of cheap metal, colored silver and gold, cascaded down part of the front of the building—despite its tough material, it appears sensual and soft in photographs, a classic example of the artist’s form.

For his third solo show at Shainman, Mr. Anatsui said, he has also been rethinking the look of his metal pieces. “I’ve given more attention to the shapes or outlines,” he said. “Previous work tended to have the rectangular or square format. These new ones each seem to explore the freedom to decide their own peculiar profile and contour.” They stretch out in strange and novel ways, and some are shaped like pools of water spread across uneven ground. One side of Seed (2012), which is filled with various shades of red, one of Mr. Anatsui’s trademark colors, has tiny lines of red, black and peach that jut out like little roots or even hairs. Awakened (2012) is perhaps his most unusual work yet, a jagged, vaguely quadrilateral shape that sprouts a row of hanging vines that drape onto the floor.

Mr. Anatsui has also begun encouraging “more flexibility to install them in varied orientations than before,” he said. “There’s no top, bottom, left or right, and in a few cases, no front or back.” In other words, in some cases, collectors and museums can hang many of the works vertically or horizontally, however they desire. It’s a bold move for an artist: he is certain these pieces will hold their own, no matter how they are displayed.

But this type of openness on Mr. Anatsui’s part has proved challenging for curators and art installers. Even when he was working in rectangles, he allowed those professionals to decide how to work folds and waves into the piece when presenting it. After seeing how curators at the Akron Art Museum installed works for his retrospective show this summer, which travels to the Brooklyn Museum in February, he remarked, “I’ve seen it done in other museums, and I have tried mounting them myself as well, but I did not do as well as this.”

These new works are also more painterly than ever before, reminiscent of the freewheeling canvases of Frank Stella or the sprawling paper constructions of younger artists like Dawn Clements or Amanda Freidman. “I have worked with a more subdued palette in most of these pieces,” Mr. Anatsui said. The bottle caps and cans that lend him his blacks and reds, silvers and golds are still present, but they are carefully integrated with other colors that are more pronounced than before. “They seem to have specific chromatic signatures, yellow, green, pale blue, russet brown and others.”

But even as Mr. Anatsui’s art has grown more formally complex and more refined, it continues to bubble with social and political content. He is now using old roofing sheets that, in Africa, come in a variety of bright colors. “In a way, an aspect of my environment is appropriated into the works,” he said. And those slices of punctured metal in the High Line piece are typically used to grate food, like root vegetables. In his work, common objects are transformed into art, but still remain recognizable as common objects.

In Basin (2012), for instance, those metal scraps form an airy, even lacy, web that, from afar, resembles a topographical map. Up close, it’s just metal pieces, carefully arranged, one by one. From one side, a deep black line cuts into the center of the piece like a river and then breaks apart into dozens of smaller streams—like “little tributaries contributing to form a mighty river, little financial indiscretions cumulating in a major economic disaster,” Mr. Anatsui said. “It’s about the power of seemingly insignificant trivia to grow into monumental events.”

When he begins making one of his tapestries, which often start near their eventual center, he does not know exactly how it will look in the end, or even what size it will be. “This one I feel has matte, subdued colors and its outline is not as loud as the others,” he said of Introvert, an eight-square-foot work with bumpy edges. “It seems to hint at statements hidden or locked inside itself.”

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