Nicola L., an Overlooked Female Pioneer of the Pop Art Movement, Has Died at 81
The artist's advocates remember her as a steely, determined force of nature.
Conceptual French artist Nicola L., whose feminist work has been experiencing newfound recognition in recent years, died on Monday in Los Angeles at the age of 81. Her shape-shifting art, which spans sculpture, painting, performance, and furniture, often explored the human (and mostly the female) body.
L. “passed… peacefully in her sleep,” Loreta Lamargese, director of New York’s Arsenal Contemporary told artnet News in an email. The gallery’s current exhibition, “CHÈRE” (through January 13), pairs L.’s work with that of three young Canadian artists, Nadia Belerique, Ambera Wellmann, and Chloe Wise. (News of the artist’s passing was first broken by the artist Joseph Nechvatal, who posted a tribute to Nicola L. on his website, recalling his experience watching one of her performances.)
“Nicola was a free spirit and was shaped by the 1960s counterculture she emerged from,” Ruba Katrib, who organized the artist’s 2017 retrospective at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, told artnet News. “She pushed social and political boundaries in her work at a time when it was very daring for a woman to take ownership over her own body.”
Born in 1937 in Mazagan, Morocco, L. studied painting at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. But in 1964, Argentinean artist Alberto Greco asked her a question that would change her life: “How can you paint in the 1960s?” she recounted in a recent interview. In response, she said, “I burned all of my abstract paintings.”
Moving forward, L. developed her own unique practice, blending sculpture, design, video, and performance, all with a feminist edge. She moved to New York in 1979. For nearly 30 years, she called the Chelsea Hotel home, holding on to her apartment even as new owners transformed the longtime artist haven into a luxury hotel. In 2014, she released a documentary, Doors Ajar at the Chelsea Hotel, about the residence’s storied history.
Her first visit to the hotel was back in 1968, when she was performing at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. “For me it was unbelievable. It made Paris look like the provinces by comparison. But prostitutes and pimps were a part of the package of the Chelsea. And artists—I will not say that they are prostitutes, but they are selling themselves,” L. recalled to Vanity Fair in 2013. “It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and the Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can’t remember which. It was a crazy time.”
Immersed in that 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 Galerie Veranneman.
In 1970, she debuted her first work of performance art at the Festival of the Isle of Wight. Inspired by the political demonstrations of the era, Red Coat united 11 performers in connected body-obscuring hooded cloaks. The garment was one of her “Penatrables,” loose textiles meant to act as an extension of human skin, underscoring our shared humanity.
The work was later one of several of her pieces included in the exhibition “The World Goes Pop” at London’s Tate Modern in 2015, which examined lesser-known global and political strains of Pop art.
“In researching the many artists who were women and engaged with pop around the world, I encountered Nicola Ls work in the collection of a Belgian design and furniture collector who had acquired her incredible Little TV woman: ‘I Am the Last Woman Object’ (1969),” the 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 especially struck by the critical fusion and flexibility of her adaptations of art and design and of course set out to meet her,” she added. “Like so many artists who are women, Nicola’s work was later overlooked despite her early success. We all need to work harder to learn about these remarkable artists of the past who were written out of history.”
The Tate show marked a turning point of sorts for the artist, who had two solo shows at New York’s Elga Wimmer PCC in 2015 and 2016. Her first institutional solo show, “Nicola L.: Works, 1968 to the Present,” followed the following year.
Giving the exhibition the green light was an easy decision for the institution. “Nicola L. was an artist whose work defied easy categorization and who was significantly underexposed in the contemporary art field,” said director Mary Ceruti in an email to artnet News. “SculptureCenter champions many women artists for whom this is the case.”
Despite her recent resurgence, L.’s star was only 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 Oeil. Her work is in the collections of museums including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow; FRAC Bretagne, Rennes; MAMCO, Geneva; Art & Design Atomium Museum, Brussels; and M HKA Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp.
“Over her prolific career, Nicola L. carved unexpected paths through acts of making that led her from function to form, always with a wry sense of humor,” said Loreta Lamargese. “She expanded the human body, rounding it out, engorging its size, until it became robust and utilitarian—men as sofas, knobs as nipples…. Like her Red Coat, a multi-person coat meant to incorporate many wearers into a collective, her practice forefronted what dissolves and what is gained in the politics of gathering and sharing.”
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