Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. I is a sculptural environment composed entirely of two ordinary materials: pantyhose and sand. The pantyhose—ten worn pairs—are tacked onto and stretched between two walls in the corner of a room: the taut nylon mesh evokes spidery limbs, while the center gusset, filled with sand, is twisted and knotted into bulging sacks that sag toward the ground. R.S.V.P. I highlights the formal concerns of abstract sculpture, such as weight, tension, and spatial relations, yet is undeniably redolent of fleshy associations, particularly those of the female body. Referring to her works as “abstracted reflections of used bodies,” Nengudi created R.S.V.P. I in part as a response to the changes her body had undergone during pregnancy and as a rumination on the more gradual physical transformations that come with age.
R.S.V.P. I was included in Nengudi’s eponymous exhibition at New York’s Just Above Midtown Gallery in 1977, a commercial enterprise on Fifty-Seventh Street that had opened three years earlier with the mission of representing African American artists. As implied by the title—the commonly used French acronym for “please respond”—the objects on view were meant to be interacted with, not merely observed passively. Indeed, Nengudi and artist Maren Hassinger, her frequent collaborator, staged performances during the run of the show in which they probed and manipulated the sculptures.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
R.S.V.P. I followed Nengudi’s first pregnancy and her experience of watching her changing body. “I am working with nylon mesh because it relates to the elasticity of the human body,” she explained. “From tender, tight beginnings to sagging… the body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its original shape.” The sculptural installation debuted in 1977 at Just Above Midtown, a gallery that focused on work made by African American artists. During the exhibition, R.S.V.P. I functioned as a performative object for Nengudi and others, who would entangle themselves in its limb-like forms, stretching the pantyhose even further and reaching for the swollen pockets of sand.
Gallery label from 2019