NEW YORK - Abstract artists tend to be fairly intellectual sorts. The great ones—Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock—achieve a kind of transcendence by sifting out the visual detritus of life and focusing just on what’s necessary and vital, and nothing else.


El Anatsui’s Earth’s Skin from 2007 is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Photograph by Joe Levack, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

But what if a great artist used actual detritus in his work to compose brilliant abstractions? Well, one has: El Anatsui, whose show “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” is currently wowing visitors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and will be doing so until August 4.


El Anatsui’s Amemo (Mask of Humankind) from 2010 is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum. Photograph by Andrew McAllister, courtesy of the Akron Art Museum.

The Ghanaian-born artist, who currently lives in Nigeria, uses bits of metal that people throw away to make his hanging sculptures—he may be the only artist whose main medium has been the bottle cap and the bottle top. He uses other objects too, including linotype plates; he sometimes draws and makes wooden reliefs, too. 

The “monumental” of the title is not hype: The money-shot pieces in the show really take over the space at Brooklyn in the best way, especially the ones hung from the rotunda on the 5th floor, before the entrance to the galleries. Taken together, they create a kind of abstract art maze that requires winding in and around them for full effect.

Anatsui’s army of assistants attach the thousands of metal pieces together with copper wire, and the planes created when it is hung—imagine the wavy areas of a snowdrift or a sand dune—are mesmerizing. And they are never the same twice, as the look changes with each installation. That’s part of the point. In particular he likes it when one of the piece slightly touches the floor and pools up there, so that yet another area of visual interest is created.

I met with Anatsui back in November, when he was installing his piece Broken Bridge II alongside the High Line in Chelsea. He’s a very courtly and gentle soul who has been getting much deserved recognition of late. His obvious handle on the 3-D aspects of sculpture are matched by a mastery of color that not every sculptor can claim—he truly paints an almost pointillist picture with bottle tops. The influence of African textile tradition is felt in his pieces (both his father and his brother were weavers, he told me), but that’s only one of many inspirations that he brilliantly synthesizes. If you haven’t seen “Gravity and Grace,” make some plans soon.