Harriet Bart: Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection
A frame of "abracadabra" repeatedly written in the shape of a triangle

February 1 – November 29, 2020

On the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States, WAM is proud to open the career survey exhibition Harriet Bart: Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection. A cofounding member of WARM (the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota, one of the first feminist art collectives in the United States) and of the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art in Minneapolis, Harriet Bart has been experimenting with genre and materials and collaborating with artists and writers for more than four decades.

During her career, she has commemorated the lives of the forgotten—from the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York City to American troops killed in Afghanistan. She has drawn inspiration from wide-ranging sources—from medieval incantations to objects found on her global travels. She has sought imaginative ways to represent the self—from categorizing her life through five garments to containing it in seventy test tubes. Across her practice, Harriet Bart has called on her Jewish cultural heritage, collective memory, and her own personal experience to produce an intensely creative and innovative body of work.

Curated by Laura Wertheim Joseph, PhD, curator of exhibitions at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul (and also a University of Minnesota alumna and former E. Gerald and Lisa O’Brien Curatorial Fellow at WAM), this exhibition celebrates and elucidates Bart’s early role in the breakthrough moment of American feminist art in the 1970s and her continued creative development as a conceptual artist since then. Accompanied by a slate of public programs including an artist and curator dialogue, a Bart-inspired student design showcase organized by the WAM Collective, and a day-long convening of speakers, workshops, and embodied practices, Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection opens on February 1 and runs through May 24, 2020.

As Wertheim Joseph explains in her catalogue essay, the import, mystery, and magic in Bart’s works were critically called out in a review of her first solo exhibition at the WARM Gallery in downtown Minneapolis in 1978. Kathryn Johnson described the experience of the gallery space, filled with commanding and totemic black fiber objects, as “descending into the core of the earth through layers of meaning and texture.” Drawing on this initial presentation, Wertheim Joseph worked with the artist on this first retrospective of Bart’s work to embrace and amplify the cave-like interior searching quality that remains in her art today. Over her career of more than forty years, Bart has created evocative content through the narrative power of objects, the theater of installation, and the intimacy of artist’s books. She has a deep and abiding interest in the personal and cultural expression of memory; it is the core of her work. Using bronze and stone, wood and paper, books and words, everyday and found objects, Bart signifies a site, marks an event, and draws attention to imprints of the past as they live in the present. Despite the wide variety of material and subjects in her art, a consistent aesthetic and set of themes recur, enriching each object and tableau. This career survey comprehensively illuminates key aspects of her practice and concerns. 

A black, diamond-shaped textile with fringe across the middle and bottom hangs open.

From her earliest textiles, Bart strove to create mystery and strength in her objects. In 1979, she stated that she wanted her weavings “to have some power of their own as they confront you.” Ascension (1976) is one such piece: created to hang directly on the wall like a decorative item and a painting, this black woven work references ceremonial clothing, protective garb, and wings. Bart’s fascination with the power of fabrics and weaving to denote complex content is also evident in her five-part installation Processional (1978), in which silk and linen are woven with grass and copper and arranged to suggest the human form in ceremonial motion.

A book resembling the Nazi flag, with thick black and white rectangular lines, and a hint of red, is enclosed in a metal cage.

Arrangement and subtle alteration also heighten meaning in her more recent work Abracadabra Universe (2007). Bart utilized found vintage chemistry materials, gold leaf, and a framed text to create a mysterious and compelling tableau. The title of the work (eponymous to this exhibition) directly alludes to an ancient idea of mystery and magic. The exact history of the word abracadabra is unknown, but it may be of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, derived from the Hebrew words ab (father), ben (son), and ruach hakodesh (holy spirit) or from the Aramaic avra kadavra, meaning “it will be created in my words.” The individual parts of Abracadabra Universe are composed of scientific and art materials, and the work speaks to the richness and potential otherworldliness of both practices. 

Bart’s engagement with the book—both as form and as content—also highlights its complex and enigmatic nature. Her granite books Abracadabra (1994/2018), like the framed print in Abracadabra Universe, reveal the word in its graphic, magical form. Besides these letters on the books’ surfaces, however, the granite books are volumes only in external form, suggesting both the ideal book and also the infinity of the book’s meaning. Caged History (1995) uses the book form in a steel, cage-like case to speak to the historical event of the Jewish Holocaust. On a larger scale in Forms of Recollection (1989), altered books are stacked and arranged in the ancient form of a spiral to create a monumental assembled sculpture.

In Consilience (2009) Bart assembles an open book in an antique cabinet. In the cabinet, two vials are next to the book, and a small pendulum is suspended above its center. The unknown content of the vials and the pendulum speak to the mystical nature of common materials and forces. A staple of science museums and carnivals, the suspended pendulum makes manifest to us the undetectable rotation of our home planet. Its elegant form appears many times in Bart’s oeuvre, including in the monumental Pendulum (2003), and is compelling in its reference to the body. 

Harriet Bart: Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection will include an installation framework based on geniza. The Jewish practice of geniza stores sacred texts: for centuries, documents have been saved, guarded, preserved, and concealed in these storage areas prior to proper burial. Through her sculptures, installations, and artist’s books, Harriet Bart also protects language and memory. This newly created form in the gallery houses, and protects, Bart’s artist-selected, unique, and resonant objects.

Geniza has also inspired the organization of the exhibition and its fully illustrated, scholarly catalogue: seven themes each hold seven of Bart’s projects, presenting individual works through images and narrative. Each of the seven sections includes a poem and an essay by renowned writers who have been influenced by Bart’s ideas and projects. Those contributors are Betty Bright, Stephen Brown, Robert Cozzolino, Elizabeth Erickson, Heather Everhart, Nor Hall, Matthea Harvey, Joanna Inglot, Lyndel King, Eric Lorberer, Jim Moore, Diane Mullin, Samantha Rippner, Joan Rothfuss, John Schott, Susan Stewart, and Sun Yung Shin.

A wooden chest with a door of glass sits on top of thin, wooden legs. Inside the chest is an open book, with pages fanned. A red prism-shaped pendulum hangs by a string, hovering over the book.

Harriet Bart’s art has been exhibited extensively throughout the United States and Germany, and she has completed more than a dozen public art commissions in the United States, Japan, and Israel. She has received fellowships from the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, NEA Arts Midwest, and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Since 2000, she has published more than two dozen artist books and mixed-media bookworks. She has won three Minnesota Book Awards, most recently in 2015 for Ghost Maps. Her art is included in many museum, university, and private collections.

The Weisman is proud to present the first career survey of this prominent Minnesota artist. Bart’s work has broken ground on the levels of materials, practice, and content. As a pioneering feminist artist whose work in the 1970s not only altered the discussion but enriched the field of American art, Harriet Bart is essential to Minnesota’s history of art and artists and also to national and international discourse on the subject of women and art.


Be the first to view Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection at the exhibition preview party on January 31. Learn more here >>


Image Credits (top – bottom): (1) Harriet Bart, Abracadabra Universe, 2007, gold leaf, vintage chemistry materials, altered book, vinyl text, and wood. Collection of the artist. (2) Harriet Bart, Ascension, 1976, linen. Collection of Michael Shea. (3) Harriet Bart, Caged History, 1995, mixed media. Collection of the Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of the artist. (4) Harriet Bart, Consilience, 2009, mixed media, found objects, and steel. Collection of Jennifer Dick and Nick Swenson.