AOne of the names represented by master gallerist Sean Kelly is Marina Abramović, the Serbian conceptual and performance artist who has worked with James Franco and Jay-Z, and whose huge MoMA exhibition The Artist is Present her fans given the opportunity to sit opposite the star. and stare into her enchanting eyes. And now it’s time to celebrate another member of the Kelly stable, the German multimedia artist Rebecca Horn, born just two years before Abramović, whose work is no less groundbreaking and dramatic.
A new exhibition focusing on Horn’s drawings, now on view at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York before moving to the gallery’s Los Angeles location, functions as a primer on her furious talent and unfettered imagination. Butterflies and slavery, pianos and poetry, fingernails and feathers are just some of the images Horn obsessively features in her creations. Behind every piece she’s designed over the past five decades – like the self-inflating and self-deflating straitjacket, or the beautiful feathered wheel that transforms its wearer into a winged fantastical creature – have been the blueprints she’s used to work through her . sparks of inspiration.
“She belongs to a generation of artists who were really serious artists,” says Kelly, who has worked with Horn for 34 years. “She’s not doing a Louis Vuitton handbag or anything like that.” Filled with poetry and pain, her output plays with the possibilities and limitations of the human body. Even though she makes everything from short films and site-specific installations to body appendages and colorful, kinetic drawings, there is an undeniable through line.
Horn spent much of her early life recovering from a series of illnesses, and she reliably returns to her preoccupation with the constriction and solutions that go hand in hand with inhabiting a body. It’s right there in the series of “bodyscape” drawings she created from a fixed point on the floor of her studio, marking the paper as far as her arms could reach. The same investigation lies behind the finger appendages that Horn created to allow the wearer to scratch the wall across the room.
When Kelly and Horn first met, he was a young curator in Bath, England, and she was a rising star known for her surreal and sensual pieces. Kelly recalls a confident woman who refused to bend to the norms of the late 1980s art world, which was drunk on its veneration of male artists. “It was revealing to me,” he says. “Rebecca was a fiercely independent, beautiful woman who knew the difference between your worth and your worth,” he recalls. “Value is something that someone places on you and is willing to pay. Value is about the way you go through the world.”
Born to Jewish parents in Germany in 1944, Horn spent the earliest part of her childhood hiding from Nazis in the Black Forest. She was in her teens when she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a hospital. Confined to a hospital bed, Horn began to draw and developed her striking, searching style. Drawing was the medium she returned to in her early 20s when she stayed at a sanitarium after exposure to toxic materials such as fiberglass and polyester gave her lung poisoning. “Drawing became a very important and central part of her personality,” says Kelly. “She thought quite immobilized about how you reach for something, how you extend yourself in the world, how you pick something up, how you move, how you breathe.”
From the earliest piece at the new show, dating back to her teenage years, viewers can see the seeds of her performative works such as the automatic piano hanging upside down from a ceiling that has drawn the most attention throughout her career. “If you walk into a room, and the television is on, everybody’s watching the television,” says Kelly. “But the impetus for all those things came from drawing.”
Always a fairly private individual, Horn retreated from the public eye following the devastating stroke she suffered in 2015. The stroke affected her right hand, necessitating a new work process. She now spends several hours a day in her studio supervising a small team of assistants from her wheelchair. “She is able to communicate her ideas, but she will never be able to draw again,” says Kelly.
Most of the drawings on display come from Horn’s personal archive, which she kept away from public display for a long time. “To be quite honest, I thought the chances of us getting every job we wanted to show and have access to were zero,” says Kelly. Assuming many of the pieces disperse to the collections of their new owners, “It’s going to be very difficult to ever put together a group of her drawings like this again.”
Kelly’s appreciation for Horn doesn’t stop at her work. She taught him about art – and what it means to be an artist. “Rebecca demanded things from the world and from institutions and collectors that many other women have never demanded, and she got them,” he says. “She lived her life as it mattered, which it did.”