David Medalla, an artist whose open-minded output spanned participatory gestures and sculptures that created themselves, has died at 78. Curator Adam Nankervis, who was Medalla’s partner and longtime supporter, said on Facebook that the artist died in Manila on Monday.
Medalla was something of a cult figure until recently, with his pioneering sculptures of the 1960s mainly known to European curators and historians, who have featured them in major biennials and surveys over the past decade. But a growing fan base has also come to recognize the artist, who was known for cofounding a key London gallery in the 1960s, his role in a series of influential collectives, his writings, and much more, in addition to a practice that defies easy classification.
Today, Medalla is best known for his “Cloud Canyons” sculptures, which feature looping organic-looking forms that emit soap bubbles. Medalla labeled these works “auto-creative art”—a phrase meant to recall the auto-destructive art produced by his colleague Gustav Metzger and others. Unlike Metzger’s art, Medalla’s sculptures were generative—they made themselves rather than destroying themselves, and they continued doing so over the course of their exhibition.
The “Cloud Canyons” sculptures, which have also been identified as pioneering examples of kinetic art, may appear poetic, even transcendent in some inexplicable way, but their beginnings lie in a personal trauma experienced by Medalla. When Medalla was a child living in the Philippines, he witnessed a Japanese soldier kill a guerrilla. “The sight of him lying there dying, red blood bubbles foaming from his mouth, made a strong impression on me,” Medalla told Nankervis in a 2011 interview for Mousse. But Medalla went on to enumerate less disturbing associations as well: vistas glimpsed during a flight over the Grand Canyon, a visit to a soap factory in France, sights seen at an Edinburgh brewery.
Medalla’s other most famous work, A Stitch in Time, was also begun during the 1960s. Having been started in 1968, it initially involved giving two lovers handkerchiefs and allowing them to sew whatever they would like into them. But, because the project was deliberately open-ended, and since it has been restaged using many different methodologies, it often blossomed in unexpected ways. In the Mousse interview, Medalla recounted that he re-encountered one of those handkerchiefs years later in Bali.
Medalla was born in 1942 in Manila. By the time he had turned 14, he was admitted as a special student to Columbia University in New York, where poet Mark van Doren, a faculty member, had recommended him. By the ’50s, he had linked up with some of the day’s most famous writers and thinkers, and when he came to Paris during the ’60s, Marcel Duchamp and the philosopher Gaston Bachelard were among his fans.
In the French capital, Medalla witnessed the growth of an avant-garde whose paintings, sculptures, and performances were pushing art in new and increasingly strange directions. He imported that sensibility when he came to London, where, in 1964, with artists Gustav Metzger and Marcello Salvadori, critic Guy Brett, and curator Paul Keeler, he cofounded Signals Gallery.
Though short-lived, Signals, which closed in 1967, became a crucial connector for cutting-edge artists from around the world. Its Signals Newsbulletin became a must-read publications for the artists of the day, and the gallery placed an emphasis on Latin American art, showing work by artists such as Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Hélio Oiticica, Jesús Rafael Soto, and many more, though it also showed European artists such as Takis.
When asked to assess the greatness of Signals’s impact during a recent interview with Sotheby’s, Medalla responded bluntly: “Not much.” The enthusiasm for the gallery and its offerings suggests otherwise. In 2018, Thomas Dane Gallery and Kurimanzutto joined forces to stage a two-part exhibition in London devoted to Signals, which they positioned as a major force within postwar Europe’s art world.
Throughout his career, Medalla participated in spreading collective gestures whose parameters were ill-defined, often on purpose. He was a member of Artists for Democracy, an activist-oriented group formed in 1974, and in 2000 he launched the London Biennale, an exhibition held in the British capital that was open to whomever wished to participate. “Medalla himself sees the biennale as an extension of the participatory ideas he has been pursuing for more than forty years,” Guy Brett wrote in Artforum the year it was founded.
Although the London Biennale was formed as something decidedly less selective than other exhibitions of its kind, Medalla’s art has become a staple at the world’s biggest art festivals. A Stitch in Time figured in Harald Szeemann’s storied edition of the Documenta quinquennial in Kassel, Germany, in 1972. Okwui Enwezor included Medalla’s work in the 1997 edition of the Johannesburg Biennale, and his art was also featured in the 2017 Venice Biennale in Italy (under the moniker Mondrian Fan Club, a two-person group cofounded with Nankervis). Medalla’s art was also included in “Postwar,” a landmark survey of art after World War II organized by Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes for the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2016.
“His spirit has transcended and moved so many artists, friends, strangers and the art loving public over time and space, inspired by his genius as an artist, poet, activist, wit, philosopher and raconteur,” Nankervis, the artist’s partner, wrote on Facebook. “His curiosity, joy, his immense curiosity, his alchemical spirit knew no bounds.”