Installation view of “Petah Coyne: Having Gone I Will Return,” Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, 2018, with Untitled #1379 (The Doctor’s Wife), 1997–2018. Photo: © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Petah Coyne: Illuminating the Blind Spots

Recipient of the 2024 Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award

Petah Coyne’s spacious studio is located in a tight-knit, working-class neighborhood in northern New Jersey, a community she loves. It is a world away from the glamorous anonymity epitomized by the Manhattan skyline just across the Hudson River. But Coyne is a fan, too, of the city’s perilously tall, snazzily asymmetrical new steel and glass towers (which I discovered when I admitted that I liked them myself). It is an enthusiasm surprising only if you overlook her longstanding penchant for irreconcilable realities—for languages in collision. On a recent studio visit, I asked her about the contrast between the literature she so deeply admires—much of it Japanese and almost all of it spare and lean: the novels of Yoko Ogawa, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Haruki Murakami; the nonfiction of Joan Didion and Heather Clark—and the visual extravagance of her sculpture, with its ribbons and peacocks, candlewax and silk. Coyne answered instantly, “I would love to be a Minimalist. Minimalism is so beautiful, it’s so simple.”1 Pointing to a sculpture in front of us, a turbulent sea of velvet, waxed flowers, and silk tassels, she freely noted the contrast: “This is complicated, full of emotion. It’s like churches in Mexico or Italy—it’s overwrought, you’re overwhelmed.” Her choice of this visual idiom, as she sees it, is simply non-negotiable. “We can’t help what comes out of us. We have to be honest about what’s in our guts.”

Untitled #921 (Hikari and Kenzaburo), 1997–98. Horse hair, plaster statuary figure, taxidermy, acrylic polymer emulsion, acrylic paint, CelluClay, glue, rice paper, hair dye, and pigment, 23 x 42 x 60 in. Photo: Wit McKay, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

The title of the work in question, Untitled #1379 (The Doctor’s Wife) (1997–2018), is borrowed from a classic, mid-20th-century novel by Sawako Ariyoshi. Based on fact, it concerns a remarkable Japanese doctor who developed anesthesia for breast cancer patients in the late 1700s, long before such pain blockers emerged in the West. But the narrative’s key dynamic is the relationship between the two women who vie for the doctor’s attention: his mother and his wife. Both voluntarily submit to his experimental treatments, trials that leave the younger woman blind. In Coyne’s representation of this tale, two faceless feminine figures, swathed in black velvet and discreetly adorned with black tassels, preside over a swirling mass of more velvet in midnight shades of green, blue, and brown. Cresting waves of the lush, dark fabric seem to phosphoresce as they catch light; between them are troughs thick with waxed blossoms that smolder like burnt jewels: garnet, amethyst, sapphire. In one section, a lightless cave extends under the velvet sea. Standing sentinel at either end, their backs turned to each other, the female protagonists take positions that are dignified, a little menacing, and, above all, implacably opposed—reciprocally deaf and blind. Looking at them, Coyne muses, “If women don’t get together, they’ll never win. If they’d given themselves to each other, they’d have had something.” She adds, “The mother was the real beauty. She had such thunder about her. Now, she has nothing. It’s very sad.”

Installation view of “Petah Coyne: Everything that Rises Must Converge,” MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2010. Photo: Elizabeth Bernstein, Courtesy the artist and MASS MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts

Coyne’s inclination to think of her sculptures as animate beings, and more specifically as vulnerable young women—she has long called them “her girls”—has run throughout her career, even with respect to the great majority of works that do not take explicitly figurative form. “I always think of my girls as invalids that need constant tending and constant caring,” she has said.2 This element of the uncanny is key to her work, which creates not just imagery but living worlds; one thinks of the imaginary companions sometimes conjured by creative children, perhaps especially by those whose families are often on the move. Coyne’s father was in the military; both parents valued Asian culture. Her mother had a master’s degree in ikebana, a discipline dedicated to precise, transcendent beauty. And they moved a lot.

When Coyne was between the ages of four and eight, the family (she was one of five children) lived for extended periods in a Japanese community in Hawaii, and she remembers vividly the complicated lushness of the landscape. “We saw volcanoes erupting,” she says. “There was an amazing beauty, and also horror. We watched volcanoes come up out of the ocean. It was beautiful but also shocking. When we returned years later, the ground was still hot—the soles of your tennis shoes would melt. We understood how visceral the earth is.” Coyne imagined that being a grown woman would be a state of beauty, she said in an interview with Carrie Przybilla, “an experience of floating on air.”3 But she would always be alert to its lightless opposite.

Untitled #1383 (Sisters – Two Trees), 2013–23. Apple trees, taxidermied Silver Pied peacocks, taxidermied white peacocks, aniline dye, specially formulated wax, pigment, silk flowers, pearl-headed hat pins, silk/rayon velvet, felt, thread, plastic, wood, steel, concrete, chicken wire, wire, screws, bolts, washers, steel pipes, picture hangers, paper, glue, epoxy, shellac, and paint, 168 x 245.63 x 278.88 in. Photo: Lori Waselchuk, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

As an adult, she has continued to travel frequently. By preference, she began by traveling solo, “like a ghost,” often in places where she didn’t speak the language. “I just wandered from one place to another,” she has said. “There would be weeks when I didn’t speak to anybody.”4 Trips in the early 1990s took her to medieval and Renaissance houses of worship—Gothic cathedrals in France and, in Italy, churches where she was struck, among other things, by the clustered candles. She told Douglas Dreishpoon that she had considered becoming a nun at 17. As a child, she had attended mass daily; at home, she made altars with the family silver, china, and linen.5 While she has long since considered herself a lapsed Catholic, she acknowledges that it is impossible to dismiss Catholicism’s visual legacy.6 The Virgin Mary has recurred in her work. At the same time, Asian spiritual and cultural traditions loom large. A particularly transformative trip in 1992–93, on an Asian Cultural Council Rockefeller grant, took Coyne to Japan, where she was especially struck by Tadao Ando’s Water Temple. The following year, she was back in Japan (in the first of a number of return trips), this time visiting, among other places, a museum memorializing the horrors of Hiroshima. In some of the black and white photographs she began making in the early 1990s—all of them featuring moving figures blurred into ghostly near-abstractions—there are references to the harrowing traces left on surviving structures by those vaporized in Hiroshima. In making the photographs, Coyne also had in mind writings from the few survivors; many of the images, though, are from her imagination of their experience.

Untitled #934, 1997–98. Hair and taxidermy fox, 68.5 x 57 x 15.5 in. Photo: Wit McKay, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

This work is a particularly sharp demonstration of her willingness to see, and express, the worst that people can be. But Coyne has also sought out objects and experiences of jubilation: the colors of Mexican flora and fauna, the ecstasies of Catholic ritual. Her early sculpture seemed to have been dug out of the earth and the sea, beginning in the late 1970s with resin-coated fish that she hung in trees with fishing line or pinned on ropes stretched across a Manhattan rooftop. These initial interventions were followed by swollen forms heavily laden with dirt and spiked with twigs, branches, and wire, suspended by wire rope from gallery ceilings. Gradually, the work became more attenuated. A series of dark Fairy Tales (1997/98) featured commercial figures of the Madonna and small taxidermied animals—fox, coyote, pheasant, woodchuck—all of them caught in meshes and braids of black horsehair that massed on the floor or rose up walls.

By that time, Coyne was using black or white wax, which first appeared early in the 1990s. Wax has remained a primary material for her, covering ribbons and flowers in rococo confections that hang like great chandeliers, often serving as perches for splendid birds and other ornamentation. Opulently, even disturbingly beautiful, these works are an indissoluble mix of radiance and darkness. They have been associated with Victorian mourning culture (by critic Lilly Wei)7 and with the Southern Gothic literary sensibility (by Lauren O’Neill-Butler).8 Coyne herself has noted that white is the color of mourning in Japan, where it is linked with Butoh, a dance form that emerged in the late 1950s and early ’60s in which performers wear white body makeup and perform slow, exquisitely controlled gestures that take illness, death, and psychological breakdown as subject matter.

Untitled #1289 (The Year of Magical Thinking), 2008–17. Silk/rayon velvet, cotton batting, felt, thread, wood, chicken-wire fencing, wire, screws, washers, hanging brackets, and Oz clips, 33.5 x 66 x 17 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

If a sense of drama can be seen in all of Coyne’s work, she has on occasion engaged in performance more literally, setting her sculptures in motion in an extended collaboration with dancer and choreographer Iréne Hultman that began in 1991. For an exhibition soon to open at the Chazen Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, Coyne is considering creating time-based work in the form of projected video. Using found black and white footage, she plans to project moving clouds onto the ceiling, which viewers would watch lying down and looking up like stargazers; they will peer through 11 colorful small wax pieces titled The Color of Heaven. Another video component, this one in color, would feature people seen from above. Assessing the stark opposition, she notes, matter-of-factly, “When we’re alive we look up. When we die we look down.” The exhibition is being organized in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin’s literature department, which delights Coyne, who explains, “Literature is a big part of what I do. I don’t read a book and say, ‘I’ll do a piece on this,’ but writers and the characters they create are tied to almost all the works.”

Untitled #1408 (The Lost Landscape), 2015–18. Specially formulated wax, pigment, silk flowers, waxed taxidermy, tree branches, chandelier, synthetic feathers, paint, black pearl-headed hat pins, tape, chicken-wire fencing, wire, steel, weights, cable, cable nuts, cable crimps, quick-link shackles, jaw-to-jaw swivel, silk/rayon velvet, 3/8-in. Grade 30 proof coil chain, Velcro, thread, and plastic, 66 x 65 x 61 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Among the pieces to be shown at the Chazen is Untitled #1408 (The Lost Landscape) (2015–18), titled after Joyce Carol Oates’s unsentimental memoir of growing up in the hardscrabble farmland of western New York State. Coyne honors Oates’s unsparing prose in a roughly spherical hanging bouquet of black-waxed flowers, bedecked with birds that at first glance seem to be ravens, though a reddish beak and the webbed feet that grip the flowers suggest that at least one is a waterfowl; their glistening wings lift effortfully, as if from an oil spill. Another memoir, Joan Didion’s terse and similarly dry-eyed reflection on new widowhood, is honored in Untitled #1289 (The Year of Magical Thinking) (2008–17), an unusually unembellished wall work composed of swirls of black and brown velvets—a dark lake of quietly churning waters. Untitled #1375 (No Reason Except Love: Portrait of a Marriage) (2011–12) is dedicated to Coyne’s friend Leslie Scalapino, an experimental poet who died in 2010. A particularly extravagant sculpture that hangs almost to the floor, it consists of black-waxed silk flowers besieged by a flock of white geese and a pair of erect white peacocks, their cascading plumage interlaced with skeins of white threads fine as hair. As with many of the hanging sculptures, more waxed blossoms rest on the floor, cautionary objects that mark the work’s boundaries, keeping viewers from getting too close—the invitation to touch is nearly irresistible—while also expanding the work’s aura.

Untitled #1375 (No Reason Except Love: Portrait of a Marriage), 2011–12. Specially formulated wax, pigment, silk flowers, taxidermy, chandelier, candles, ribbons, black sand from pig iron casting, resin, paint, black pearl-headed hat pins, chicken-wire fencing, wire, cable, cable nuts, quick-link shackles, jaw-to-jaw swivel, silk/rayon velvet, 3/8-in. Grade 30 proof coil chain, Velcro, thread, and plastic, 81 x 71 x 66.5 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York
Untitled #1375 (No Reason Except Love: Portrait of a Marriage) (detail), 2011–12. Specially formulated wax, pigment, silk flowers, taxidermy, chandelier, candles, ribbons, black sand from pig iron casting, resin, paint, black pearl-headed hat pins, chicken-wire fencing, wire, cable, cable nuts, quick-link shackles, jaw-to-jaw swivel, silk/rayon velvet, 3/8-in. Grade 30 proof coil chain, Velcro, thread, and plastic, 81 x 71 x 66.5 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Untitled #1242 (Black Snowflake), though unconnected to literature, is of particular importance to Coyne. The heart-shaped blooms of this suspended sculpture refer to the artist’s father, who despite lifelong heart trouble lived to be almost 98. Begun in 2007 and completed in 2012, Black Snowflake was made, Coyne reveals, to encourage him to go on to the next “part of his adventure.” But, she continues, “like a good military gentleman, he waited until 2016 before he felt there was enough money from his pensions,” and that “the good Lord was really ready for him.” (A visit from Petah, assuring him of his wife’s financial and emotional security and exhorting him, “When the Lord calls you next time, please, just go,” was met with a look of deep relief. “And that night,” she reports, “after dinner, he passed peacefully away in his sleep.”9) The black tassels that adorn the sculpture invoke Irish Catholic funeral carriages; there is also a rather more obscure association with charred pineapples, which entered Coyne’s image bank during her earliest years on Hawaii, where Dole fouled the landscape. A final flourish on Black Snowflake is a pair of peacocks, which in Irish Catholicism are said to wander cemeteries, hoisting heavenward the souls of the recently departed when they are ready to ascend. (Flannery O’Connor, Coyne notes with satisfaction, was also an ardent admirer of this most majestic of birds.)

Untitled #1242 (Black Snowflake), 2007–12. Specially formulated wax, pigment, taxidermy, candles, tassels, ribbons, hand-blown glass bulbs, chicken-wire fencing, wire, steel, cable, cable nuts, sash weight, quick-link shackles, jaw-to-jaw swivel, silk/rayon velvet, 3/8-in. Grade 30 proof coil chain, Velcro, thread, and plastic, 71 x 75 x 50 in. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Broad as the symbolic range of Coyne’s imagery is, it is easily matched by the variety of her work’s constituent materials. Listed in the caption for Untitled #1375 (No Reason Except Love: Portrait of a Marriage), along with those already named, are black sand from pig-iron casting, black pearl-headed hat pins, chicken wire fencing, cable and cable nuts, quick-link shackles, Velcro, plastic, and a chandelier. Coyne, whose work ethic is legendary, relishes the pursuit of such components—sometimes a treasure hunt, sometimes a salvage operation. The teardrop-shaped Untitled #720 (Eguchi’s Ghost) (1992/2007) is partly composed of what looks like silver thread but is actually half of a scrapped Airstream trailer, shredded into the finest of stainless-steel wire. The title refers to Yasunari Kawabata’s notorious novel of a geisha house where men are allowed to look at the beautiful women but not to touch them; instead, the men are encouraged to sleep and pursue the geishas in their dreams. With characteristic aplomb, Coyne risks the novel’s misogyny, which she acknowledges, for the extremity of its vision. Another recycled vehicle is put to the service of edgy eroticism in a work that was in progress when I saw it. Provisionally titled Black Listed, it is centered on the curvaceous red-enameled body, suspended in black netting, of an old motorbike manufactured, a logo says, by Radio Flyer, best known for its more innocent-looking sleds.

Coyne’s career now stretches over four decades, years characterized by social, cultural, and environmental upheaval. During that time, the language describing the natural world in which her work is grounded has changed—swamps and jungles have given way to wetlands and rainforests, tainted metaphors to (ostensibly) more scrupulous science. While our emotional lives have come to be seen as centered in our physical selves (a still top-10 bestselling 2014 book tells us that bodies “keep the score” for trauma10), progressive culture has increasingly cordoned off those bodies in the interests of safety and privacy. At the same time, social media pour forth avalanches of erotic imagery, and the most personal of stories are routinely broadcast indiscriminately. One more highly conflictual recent cultural shift affects the place of spiritualism in art, which was ignored, at best, in the era of conceptually driven work during which Coyne began her career, but is now widely embraced. Her own ambivalence toward faith and its imagery is a touchstone for her work.

Untitled #720 (Eguchi’s Ghost), 1992/2007. Stainless-steel wire, brass wire, phosphorus wire, steel wire, chicken-wire fencing, cable, cable nuts, PVC pipe, plastic, paper towels, silk Duchesse satin, thread, Velcro, jaw-to-jaw shackles, quick link shackles, and 3/8-in. Grade 30 proof coil chain, 120 x 68 x 75 in. Photo: Wit McKay, © Petah Coyne, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

If this is a time marked more than most by complexities and contradictions (to say nothing of rampant violence), Coyne is its muse. Ever more buoyant and luxuriant, her work has, at the same time, grown progressively darker, in a fusion of opposites that can feel explosive. In a preface to a 2002 interview, Lynne Tillman wrote, “Few artists, or people, generate as much good feeling as Petah does just by existing.” That is true. In the conversation that followed, Coyne remarked, “I think the only way for an artist to know or understand anything is to make work almost from a blind spot, and what you produce speaks to you: and as you get older, you know it more clearly.” She has a gift for speaking from those blind spots to correspondingly obscure places inside the rest of us, and inviting us to ponder their mysteries.

Petah Coyne’s survey exhibition, “How much can the Heart Hold,” opens in September 2024 at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin.

1 Unless otherwise attributed, all quotations are from a conversation with the author.
2 Interview with Carrie Przybilla in Petah Coyne: black/white/black (Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1996), p. 33.
3 Ibid, p. 29.
4 Lynne Tillman, interview with Petah Coyne, BOMB magazine, July 2002, <>.
5 Douglas Dreishpoon, “The Still Point of Time,” in Petah Coyne: Above and Beneath the Skin (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2005), p. 17.
6 Tillman, op. cit.
7 Lilly Wei, “Petah Coyne,” Sculpture, vol. 38 no. 3 (May/June 2019), pp. 89–90.
8 Lauren O’Neill-Butler, “Petah Coyne: Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Artforum, May 2010, <>.
9 Email correspondence with the author, January 10, 2024.
10 Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Random House, 2014).