The 2023 Nasher Prize, presented by the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, goes to Senga Nengudi, an artist whose influential five-decade career has been reevaluated over the past decade. As part of the award, which “recognizes a living artist who advances the understanding of sculpture and its possibilities,” Nengudi will receive $100,000 and be honored at Nasher’s Spring Gala in April, according to a press release.
Working across sculpture, installation, performance, dance, film and photography, Nengudi is best known for her “RSVP” series, which began in the late 1970s. These pantyhose sculptures are often filled with sand, then stretched and pinned to various points on a wall (often in a corner). They sag and hang in a way that can best be described as poetic.
She and others often appeared in these installations, twisting their bodies to create even more dynamic stretches in the fabric.
“What is said to be an artist’s greatest desire is to create objects that will last a lifetime for posterity,” Nengudi said in a statement. “That was never a priority for me. My goal is to create an experience that vibrates with the common thread.”
Other important works include the 1978 performance Ceremony for Freeway Fets she did with David Hammons and Maren Hassinger, and her Water Composition series, in which colored water—blue, red, purple, and more—bulges into plastic bags.
During a press lunch in New York on Tuesday to announce the winner, Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher, described Nengudi as an artist who has “developed an inclusive practice that defies easy categorization…. In different ways and at different times, these disparate forms are brought together in works that powerfully express the fragility and resilience of the human body, individual agency, and the importance of collaboration and friendship. These ideas have never been more popular.”
Since 2011, Nengudi’s important art historical contributions have begun to receive widespread recognition, most notably their inclusion in the important exhibition Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980,” which debuted in 2011 as part of the first Pacific Standard Time at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. This exhibition was organized by curator Kellie Jones, who also explored Nengudi’s work in her 2017 book South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.
Since then, Nengudi’s work has been the subject of numerous surveys across the country and featured prominently at the 2017 Venice Biennale and the 2019 redesign of the Museum of Modern Art. Also in 2019, Nengudi was the subject of a major touring retrospective, debuting at the Lenbachhaus in Munich before stopping in Denver, São Paulo and Philadelphia. In 2020 she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In addition to MoMA, her work is currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Nengudi’s RSVP series made its debut in 1977 at an exhibition at Just Above Midtown, the famous gallery founded by Linda Goode Bryant and a hub for black artists working in diverse experimental and avant-garde moods. Nengudi’s work will be featured in MoMA’s upcoming exhibition Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces, curated by Thomas J. Lax, which opens next month. In addition, Nengudi’s work was recently acquired by the Dia Art Foundation, which will host a permanent exhibition of her work, created between 1969 and 2020, at Dia:Beacon in February.
Former winners of the Nasher Prize, established in 2016, include Doris Salcedo, Pierre Huyghe, Theaster Gates, Isa Genzken, Michael Rakowitz and Nairy Baghramian. The winner will be selected from a long list of potential artists nominated by around 150 artists, scholars, curators and museum directors.
The jury for this year’s award also included Baghramian; Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of the Castello di Rivoli; Lynne Cooke, Senior Curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; Briony Fer, art historian at University College London; Hou Hanru, Artistic Director of MAXXI in Rome; Yuko Hasegawa, Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo; Pablo Leon de la Barra, curator at the Guggenheim Museum; and Nicholas Serota, Chairman of the Arts Council England.
“For me, Senga Nengudi made an indelible, undeniable contribution to sculpture as we see it today,” Cooke said on behalf of the jury over lunch. Referring to the RSVP works, she added, “What I find so remarkable is that she found a very everyday, inexpensive material associated with women and women’s bodies and created an abstract art out of it , which reflects on the relationship between a body – a female body – in outer space.”
Cooke added, “I think she’s a hugely important model for younger artists.”