Impairment as Impetus: Five Historic Works Spurred by Disability

These five artworks by disabled artists show that impairment has served as a creative force throughout art history. Before today’s disability arts movement, lived experiences of disability prompted countless artists to explore interdependence, reimagine existing tools to suit their needs, and emphasize the importance of mechanisms for well-being. 

Rebecca Horn: Finger Gloves (1972)

Before the melancholy machinic wonder of Tim Hawkinson’s figurative sculptures, before Stelarc’s half-fantastical, half-grim artificial body extensions of the 1980s, before so many artists made endless variations on partly useful, partly poetic objects that play with the prosthetic, Rebecca Horn made Finger Gloves (1972): two implements, like rakes fitted for hands, seem to stretch their fabric-covered metal fingers more than three feet in length. In Horn’s video performance from 1974, she wears the gloves and walks up and down the middle of an empty room in a slow and careful line, her arms outstretched from her sides. The gloves protract her reach, allowing her augmented body to graze both walls, completely occupying or consuming the cube with an eerie touch.

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Several years earlier, in 1968, while in school at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Horn developed lung disease from inhaling fiberglass. She had to withdraw from her studies and spend a year isolated in a sanatorium, where she was denied visitors. Both her parents passed away during her stay. Horn was limited to drawing during her isolation period, but her sculptural wearables from that point on bloom with references to clinical gear, realized with fanciful or sinister associations: harnesses and tubes meet elegant swaths of fabric, and “gloves” are fashioned to both threaten and protect. As in the works of Lygia Clark, Horn’s wearable gear displays or hides the body with a tender kind of armor.

In a 2006 essay titled “A Leg to Stand On: Prosthetics, Metaphor, and Materiality,” disability scholar Vivian Sobchack despaired of the prosthesis showing up in literature and art as mere metaphor: deriving pure formalism from replacement parts through chic and imprecise body-plus-machine assemblages, with this thing vaguely subbing for that. Historian Katherine Ott similarly insisted on “keeping prostheses attached to people”—or connected to concrete, everyday forms of access. In Horn’s oeuvre, access is prismatic, sometimes suggesting hardy, pragmatic use, and sometimes evoking an unresolved mix of constraint and possibility. Finger Gloves marks the achievement that eludes so many: the prosthesis that’s hard to pin down and hard to forget, with simplicity and gravitas and strangeness to spare.

—Sara Hendren

Ibrahim Nubani: Untitled (2006)

Abstract painting with heavy linear geometric outlines and zigzags green, red, yellow and black.
Ibrahim Nubani: Untitled, 2006, oil on paper mounted on wood, 19¾ by 27½ inches.

Ibrahim Nubani was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1988. His art has since been read through the prism of psychic fragmentation, his condition compounded by the internal struggle of a Palestinian living in Israel. One way of interpreting the thick black bars forming the top layer of a mazelike geometry in Nubani’s painting Untitled (2006), for example, is that they communicate a prisonlike understanding of both the Israeli occupation and the mind.

Yet the work of disabled artists is not always an index of symptoms, the sedimentation of illness into aesthetic form, or an unmediated reflection of the artist’s corporeality. The formal simplicity of Untitled—which otherwise involves flat blocks of color and doubled line segments perhaps suggesting two figures—belies a more complicated set of decisions behind the labyrinth. Nubani’s palette of red, green, black, and white, the colors of the Palestinian flag, cleverly lends the work a political tinge: in 1967, Israel banned the use of the colors of Palestine in all artistic and representational mediums. While the ban was lifted in 1993, its specter routinely resurfaces, most recently via efforts to criminalize the presence of the Palestinian flag in Israel. Nubani’s deployment of the colors, albeit with an imprecise
green and additions of gray and yellow, plays coy with the prohibition.

Still, these three types of imprisonment—occupation, illness, and diagnosis—may not be possible to separate. In How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind (2021), a central text in the burgeoning field of Black disability studies, scholar La Marr Jurelle Bruce proclaims that madness is “both place and process,” as in the phrase “go mad.” For Bruce, this argument is anchored in a discussion of the Middle Passage as a “deranged” project that “framed black people as always already wild,” but more broadly we might consider madness as a type of relation that entangles bodies well before they are objectified and commodified through diagnosis. The social dimension of this relation can be inferred from Untitled, where the number of possible figures as well as the limits and gestures of their bodies are left ambiguous, entangled. Even as viewers might attempt to parse these relations, Untitled suggests that diagnosis itself, the labeling of conditions, can be a form of entrapment.

—Jasbir K. Puar

Darrel Ellis: Untitled (ca. 1992)

Black and white drawing of a bearded man reclining with one arm above his head and the other resting on his stomach.
Darrel Ellis: Untitled (Reclining Self-Portrait), ca. 1992, charcoal on paper, 22½ by 30 inches.

Rendered in charcoal, a reclining figure rests one hand on his stomach and reaches the other over his head. The bearded man’s eyes are closed, his surroundings sketchy. This untitled self-portrait by Darrel Ellis (1952–1992) was one of the last he made in his too-short career, painted the year he died from AIDS-related complications. Many of his portraits were of himself and his family members, particularly his father, a photographer, who was killed by police two months before Ellis was born. Ellis would go on not just to depict his father, but also to re-create his photographs.

Yet for all this specificity, Ellis also made intentional gestures of opacity, layering materials including ink, acrylic, gouache, and charcoal in ways that sometimes shielded his subjects. In several portraits of his mother, a rectangle covers her eyes; in a print, one figure in a kissing couple has her face similarly covered. Even when the figures are recognizable, they are often warped by Ellis’s unconventional use of the photographic enlarger: he created uneven sculptural surfaces for the projections and then photographed the distorted images. These strategies indicate the artist’s interest in toying with legibility, especially as imposed on and demanded from marginalized artists. “People often tell me,” he said in an interview with scholar David Hirsch, “my work doesn’t really look like it’s done by a Black person.”

Ellis’s self-portraits further illuminate his explorations of how one’s identity seems to shift depending on who’s looking: some paintings were modeled on photos that Allen Frame, Peter Hujar, and Robert Mapplethorpe took of him. This 1992 drawing is more inviting of, or ambivalent toward, the viewer’s gaze, depicting the artist in a candid and vulnerable pose, free of obfuscation. Ellis lies on what looks like a couch, likely in the Greenpoint apartment where he spent his last years. While this timing may lead to a funerary interpretation, bolstered by the black-and-white palette, closed eyes, and rough linework, I choose to see a depiction not of death but rest. The drawing reads as a turn inward, with what resembles a closed door in the distance; the artist negotiates his own body privately, at a time when he was acutely aware of, but not public about, his diagnosis. After a life of so much looking, perhaps Ellis was claiming the importance of repose.

—danilo machado

Alice Rahon: La balada para Frida Kahlo (The Ballad for Frida Kahlo), 1955–56 

An abstract painting with deep blue background and an amorphous form in mottled greens.
Alice Rahon: The Ballad for Frida Kahlo, 1955–56, oil on canvas, 47¼ by 70 inches.

At first glance, this painting, nearly six feet wide, seems to depict a twinkling cityscape. But up close, you’ll find that many of the building-like shapes are actually crowds of creatures forming a parade that culminates at a Ferris wheel. The details can be difficult to see, as Rahon scratched some of them into wet paint, perhaps using the “wrong” end of her brush, to create white outlines. But once you catch glimpses of the jubilant giraffes, people in hats, and kite-flying animals, some background helps decode them, perhaps allowing the work to be seen, in part, as a Surrealist portrait of crip friendship painted in a secret cipher. One disabled artist (Alice Rahon) painted it for another (Frida Kahlo) the year after the latter died. Kahlo had nicknamed Rahon “giraffe” for her height and her brown eyes. At the bottom of the canvas, Rahon scratched frida aux yeux d’hirondelle, or “Frida with the eyes of a swallow,” referring in turn to Frida’s dark eyes. The canvas is overwhelmingly a rich blue, an homage to La Casa Azul, Kahlo’s home in Mexico City.

This shared symbology is a testament to the pair’s intimate friendship, which we know, from both artists’ writings, revolved in part around their mutual experience of being disabled and women and artists in Mexico City. (After relocating there from Paris during WWII with Kahlo’s encouragement, Rahon switched her focus from poetry to painting.) It also demonstrates that disabled people have found and supported one another throughout time in countless ways and contexts. Whatever the two may have discussed about disability in private, it was remarkable to find evidence of their exchanges displayed so prominently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as this piece was last year in “Surrealism Beyond Borders.” As artist Park McArthur once put it to me, these moments are “affirmation[s] that our people are everywhere.”

I’m left wondering if there are other aspects of the painting that might be legible to Rahon and Kahlo alone, that will remain forever coded. And I’m dying to know what their conversations were like, even as part of me feels that, to some degree, I already know.

—Emily Watlington

David Hockney: Tennis (1989)

A collage of black and white forms and line drawing that suggests human forms and movement.
David Hockney: Tennis, 1989, Xerox, collage, construction paper, and felt marker on paper, transmitted by fax, 102 by 168 inches overall.

In his 40s, after finishing his iconic pastel swimming pool paintings, David Hockney noticed that he was starting to lose his hearing. First, he realized he was struggling to understand the voices of the women enrolled in a seminar he was teaching in San Francisco. Then, he remembered his dad had begun to go deaf at around the same age. As his deafness progressed, he started to find the fax machine more useful than the telephone. His messages to his friends became increasingly playful, and eventually he was faxing an entire museum exhibition.

The earliest works he made employing the machine, begun in 1988, are line drawings in black and white. Any shade of gray was achieved through meticulous hatching or scanning a texture that the machine interpreted as pixelated noise. Many faxes got thrown away, but those in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are mostly portraits and still lifes: fruits in baskets, vases on tables. They manage to feel distinctly Hockney even without his signature color palette.

Hockney has said more than once that his deafness has made him rely more than others on vision when perceiving things in space—he avoids crowded environments, where it’s hard for him to pick out a voice from other noises—and this heightened attunement shows in his work. It’s clearly what prompted him to use the common fax machine in a new and intriguing way. In 1989, he stopped abiding by the standard paper size limitations. Instead, to make Tennis, an abstract composition with a central netlike form flanked by tubular, figurative-looking shapes, he sent 144 faxes to a curator at Salts Mill in Saltaire, West Yorkshire, with instructions that they be arranged into an image of monumental scale. Time and again, he turned the tool’s constraints into creative prompts.

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—Emily Watlington


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