Ann Gillen

Toward Civic Art

November 17, 2022 - January 28, 2023

Maquette for Flying Red, 1973, sheet aluminum, 4 x 4 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches
10 x 11.4 x 16.5 cm, (dimensions including base 5 1/4 x 11 1/2 x 7 3/4 inches,13.3 x 29.2 x 19.7) / Photo: Steven Probert

Polina Berlin Gallery is pleased to present Toward Civic Art, an exhibition of sculpture by American artist Ann Gillen. On view from November 17, 2022 through January 14, 2023 and co-curated by Miles Huston, this marks the artist's first one-person gallery exhibition in twenty years.

Over the course of more than five decades, Gillen’s prodigious artistic output has encompassed sculpture, drawing, design, print-making, and book-making. Her process employs material translations, iterative distortions, and scalar transformations similarly found in architectural planning. Concerned with structure, construction, and scalability, her sculpture practice has taken shape in monumental and intimate scales; with works realized in a wide variety of materials. Toward Civic Art investigates the numerous civic projects envisaged and carried out by Gillen throughout her career.

Everywhere in Gillen’s work there is a constant choreography of folding and unfolding, leaping and coloring, of holes filled by light and planes drawn by shadows. The artist makes use of geometric forms, of line and planes, gravity and axial relationships to configure works that highlight their making. Structural decisions are also aesthetic ones. Her sculptures are first developed as a maquette, sometimes articulated in sheet metal or cardboard or made as a loose three-dimensional paper sketch. The full size construction follows: forms are cut from planar materials; plywood, metal, or stone; and color is used to delineate relationships between them.

Gillen approaches the parameters of creating sculpture meant to exist in the world as a context or reality with which to engage. “For a sculptor, the artwork begins with needing to get it through the door,” she says. “I revel in showing in real spaces with people walking by and with the vagaries of weather, daylight changes, site effects.” Her consideration of siting, environment, and conservation are the cornerstones of her process. This sensibility cements her as an eminently civic and social artist. Her work fulfills the call expressed by the 1970 essay, by Hungarian artist and theorist Gyorgy Kepes, from which Toward Civic Art takes its title: to make art that develops “consciousness of social interdependence, and builds the sense of living freely according to ways in which everything fits together.” Gillen’s studies at the Pratt Institute, where she practiced the Bauhaus exercises of material, taught her the attributes of structure and medium that to this day inform her work.

The artist’s prolific practice draws upon a wide range of inspiration: from the women’s art movement of the 60s, to the Black Mountain poets, to older traditions; notably those that depicted bodies and imagery throughout public space. The frieze at the Parthenon, the reliefs bordering Buddhist stupas, and the façades of the Italian Baroque all find themselves refigured in her work. Her sculptures, often conceived to stand alone and as part of a series, convey a quiet harmony between individual and group.

Gillen forged a singular path and made the civic realm a home for her work. By the 1960s and 70s, her interest in Bauhaus principles and aesthetics was met with indifference by an art world saturated first by Abstract Expressionism and, later, Minimalism. The abiding sexism that followed her career as a sculptor posed another obstacle. Still, she achieved notable success functioning largely outside the traditional commercial gallery system, exhibiting through commissions in New York City and its environs. To date, Gillen has completed thirty public, private, and corporate commissions. Her myriad maquettes and proposals reveal the ingenuity and nimbleness that competing for public and corporate commissions required of her.

In her Soho studio, where Gillen has worked for nearly four decades, new proposals are waiting to be realized: a humble piece of paper pierced with wire is transmuted into tiny reclining figures by the seaside. And further uptown, her exuberant Flying Red, installed in 1987, stands triumphantly on 55th Street and Third Avenue, not far from this gallery.

Ann Gillen (b. 1935, Washington, D.C.) has lived and worked in Manhattan since 1959. Her sculptures have been installed in public parks in every borough of the city; in galleries, her work has been shown in twenty one-person and sixty-one group shows, and is included in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Fogg Art Museum, the Tibor de Nagy Collection, the Pierre Matisse Collection, and the collection of Mildred Constantin. Her public, private, and corporate commissions have included sculptures, murals and reliefs designed for the ice-skating pavilion of the XIII Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (1980), the garage at Lincoln Center Plaza (1994), and a stairwell of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism (2007).

This exhibition is dedicated to artist, writer, curator, and gallerist Jenni Crain for befriending Ann and introducing us to her work.

Press release 


New York Times - Ann Gillen: Sculpting in Plain Sight

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