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Arlene Shechet’s ‘Girl Group’ Nudges Heavy Metal Men at Storm King

The recent late-life critical embrace of a generation of underappreciated major female artists — the 91-year-old nude self-portraitist Joan Semmel, the 84-year-old visual artist and sculptor Barbara Chase-Riboud, the 87-year-old performance and multimedia provocateur Joan Jonas and the Cuban-born abstractionist Carmen Herrera, who died two years ago at age 106 has brought a measure of satisfaction to the sculptor Arlene Shechet.

Also, a good bit of eye rolling.

“C’mon now, Carmen had to get to her 90s before people cared,” she says, standing in her roughly 5,000-square-foot Kingston studio, about two hours north of New York City, on a rainy late spring morning, attired in her usual work garb of a knitted cap and an indigo Japanese frock coat now used as a smock, flecked with clay dust and wood chips. “Everyone says ‘Oh, isn’t it so great that these women are getting their due?’ Actually, when you think about it, it’s pretty horrifying.”

The 75-year-old Shechet — bemused, kinetic, indomitable — is not in danger of having to wait to be recognized, but you might not realize that, given the furious pace at which she continues to make art. Although she spent the early years of her career teaching at her alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design, and at Parsons, and raising two children, now in their 30s, in an 1866 building in TriBeCa, continuing to sculpt in a basement studio after their bedtime, she has made up for lost time.

Since the mid-1990s, her vast output, in a range of materials, often in combination, including wood, metal, paper and concrete, but especially ceramic, which she is widely credited as having helped lifted out of the decorative arts doldrums, has been rhapsodically reviewed. She has had solo shows at Washington’s Phillips Collection, at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and at the Frick, where she added her own slyly subversive works as a foil to the museum’s Meissen porcelain collection. For the past seven years, as her pieces have grown steadily larger, she has been represented by the global behemoth Pace (her smaller works command between $90,000 and $120,000). In 2018 she made her public art debut in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, presenting an outdoor gathering space, based on her grandparents’ sunken living room in the Bronx.

Pieces of Arlene Shechet’s sculpture “As April” being lifted into place and covered in protective plastic at Storm King Art Center. “I wanted to fit in but I also wanted to stand out,” Shechet said. Her works stand as a comment on the collection itself, which is, like public sculpture, dominated by men.Credit…Cole Wilson for The New York Times

Next week, she will likely reach a career crescendo, doing something she has never done before. “Girl Group,” an exhibition of six monumental welded sculptures in steel and aluminum, each painted in supersaturated shades, will debut on May 4 in the vast rolling landscape of Storm King Art Center, the 500-acre Hudson Valley sculpture park that is considered among the world’s most important commissions. Some of Shechet’s sculptures are 20 feet tall, others 30 feet long, far larger than anything she has ever attempted.

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