Lee Lozano, Untitled Drawing, n.d.
A Method in Her Madness
What is one to do with Lee Lozano (1930-1999)? A free-ranging survey of her art at P.S.1 in Queens (through April) prompts some thoughts. First of all, we get to see several bodies of work: large paintings and drawings of tools; drawings about sex, sometimes with tools as sex instruments; abstract paintings (but not her justifiably well-remembered Wave Series); and conceptual/performance pieces as spelled out in her notebooks.
The tool paintings recall the German painter Konrad Klapheck, but at their best are bigger, more expressionist and more menacing. The sex drawings point to Philip Guston or R. Crumb, but have a turbulent edge; the abstract paintings are both minimal and sublime; the conceptual works are dangerous. We get four careers, four styles, four takes on art for the price of one. Is this good or bad?
I particularly liked North South East West, last shown at the Corcoran in D.C. in 1969 but now reconstructed in P.S.1’s two-story Duplex space. It is an exceptional work: four widely separated canvases with arcs on each that if extended would describe a very large circle. It is certainly as good as the 11 paintings in the Wave Series.
Here I have the advantage because I saw and still remember the Wave Series (1967-1970) when it was shown at the Whitney in 1970. (For various reasons it could not be included in the current exhibition.) All 11 are owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Lozano wanted the paintings in the series to remain together as a single piece, and so they have.
Using the vast resources of my personal library I actually found the pamphlet produced by the Wadsworth Atheneum when the Wave Series and some of Lozano’s notebook pages were shown in 1998 in MATRIX 135. (MATRIX is the Atheneum’s ongoing series of intensive investigations of new art. MATRIX 152 is now offering “gangsta geisha” works by Iona Rozeal Brown, who is apparently fascinated by Japanese youth obsessed with hip-hop culture. Classic geishas are shown in blackface.)
From James Rondeau’s essay I learned Lozano wanted the paintings exhibited leaning on black walls to better show off the textures and sheen. I also learned (or perhaps re-learned) that the “waves” in each paintings were made in one continuous working session according to a preordained arithmetic. I remember them looking as if the paint had been raked by special combs, but now I know they were actually laboriously and meticulously applied by brush.
At P.S.1 it is relatively easy to sail through the big tool paintings, the sex drawings and the few minimalist paintings, but the last room is the problem room, displaying the notebook pages she considered drawings. Some of these pages are as raunchy as the sex drawings, yet here and there are sentences of strange illumination.
In regard to the cool North South East West, Lozano quotes Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and a ’60s guru sacrificed to the ravages of cynicism and anti-utopianism: “As soon as I complete the drawing of a circle, I wish to be outside of it.” Or her own thought: “At the center of circle is Beelzebub’s bung-hole.” But this is balanced elsewhere by “I WILL MAKE MYSELF EMPTY TO RECEIVE COSMIC INFO.”
This is the same year (1969) she painted North South East West and was still working on her Wave Series. In 1969, everything was going on at once. To some, the sex drawings and the notebooks will look a bit mad. The emotions are so raw and angry.How then can we account for the minimalist paintings? Are they merely a lucky break, or are they also “mad” — but with the madness of repression?
The wave paintings are a strange caesura. Did she here wake up or here fall asleep? Since Lozano, like all of us, was probably composed of several minds, did one such center suddenly gain or lose control? Or — and here reason must play a role — is it merely that we foolishly require continuities and are confused when such rules are broken? Perhaps she herself could not handle these discrepancies.
Lozano is an artist who cannot be packaged. After her Art Strike piece, in which she instructs herself to withdraw from the art world, she decided to boycott all women, which seems to mean not speaking to or having any dealings with anyone of her own sex. We are not privy to what led to that extreme stance, but I cannot believe this pleased some of her biggest supporters — for instance, feminist critic Lucy Lippard. To make matters worse, Lozano moved to Dallas, Texas.
But perhaps her biggest sin is that she was furious at the art world, not just at the usual suspects but at her fellow artists, too. Here are two 1969 pieces reproduced in the MATRIX pamphlet:
Art Piece (or Paranoia Piece):
Describe your current work to a famous but failing artist from the early 60s. Wait to see if he boosts* (*hoist, cop, steal) any of your ideas.
Real Money Piece:
Offer to guests coffee, Diet Pepsi, bourbon, glass of half and half, ice water, grass and money. Open jar of real money and offer to guests like candy. [The “guests” were all artists: Hannah Weiner, Steven Kaltenbach, Keith Sonnier, Dan Graham, etc.Some took money, some borrowed money, some did nothing.]
The questions raised by these and other “pieces” in her notebooks — most self-assignments, some dealing with drugs, some with masturbation — are worth thinking about. Can you make art only for yourself, or is art necessarily social? Can something be art even if it is not recognized as art? Can you make art outside the art system? And if so, to what end?
Did Lozano intend the scrawlings in her notebooks as art? I’d say yes. Some of them were exhibited in the Dwan Gallery. She was, as it were, on the scene. The participants referred to in her Real Money Piece prove this. She knew activist critic Lippard and Sol LeWitt and was friendly with many others in the art world.
And she most likely knew the work of Vito Acconci (who at this point did an artwork that consisted of walking around St. Patrick’s Cathedral over and over again) and of Adrian Piper (who, intentionally reeking of garlic and other so-called bad odors, stood in movie lines as an artwork). Or of Scott Burton, who walked on Manhattan’s 14th Street in full drag, totally undetected by friends and other artists. Hannah Weiner, whom we know Lozano knew, contacted and met with another Hannah Weiner listed in the phone book; she hired a hot-dog cart and renamed it Weiner’s Weiners. And she leaned against a doorway on the Bowery pretending to be hooker during one of the time- and location-bound mass Streetworks yours truly helped to organize in — you guessed it — 1969. Lozano may have even known of my own ongoing Streetwork: Any time I am recognized in the street by someone I do not know is a Streetwork.
Many of the Street Workers and guerrilla performance artists and poets either documented their works themselves (some documents were, alas, destined for galleries) or participated in mass situations that made documentation likely, even if only in the pages of the Village Voice, the East Village Other or Vogue.
Lozano herself seems not to have had any consistent goal. This is why many of her performances, which were either private “dialogues” or, more important, instructions to herself alone (unlike Yoko Ono’s earlier command pieces that can be performed by others), partake of what I have now come to call categorical risk.
* * *
The important thing about Lozano is not that she embraced wild erotic art, cool minimalism, and private performance art, but that in so doing she engaged in categorical risk. Serious art, because it must make the viewer — and perhaps even the artist herself — ask if what they are looking at is art at all, is art that engages in categorical risk. The same can be said for an unusual art career or an atypical, perhaps inconsistent, oeuvre. As Lozano wrote: “Seek the extremes, that’s where all the action is.”
Those involved in Streetworks were testing audience boundaries. An action or an object could be art even if the audience — often accidental and uninformed — does not know the action or object was intended as art. This “audience” might not even have art as a category of reference, never mind knowledge of arcane works by Kurt Schwitters or Marcel Duchamp. Lozano took an additional categorical risk: There did not have to be an audience or viewer other than herself.
Can we deal with that? Given the premise, one might never know if the person sitting across from you on the subway is or is not an artist. His little snooze may be his performance piece, or whatever he is or is not thinking about might be his conceptual art.
We already know from Outsider Art that a maker can create art without intending to and, in fact, may not even grasp the art category, but instead be proselytizing for some vision, praying or performing odd and grand magical techniques.
But artists embracing categorical risk are doing so consciously. Categorical risk is the key characteristic of important modern and postmodern art. Unlike normal art, which looks like and even smells like art, the art of categorical risk induces doubt (at least at first) that it even belongs in the art category.
The philosophically inclined should know that by “categorical” I do not mean absolute, as in Kant’s categorical imperative, which is usually defined as a moral obligation that is unconditionally and universally binding. Although I do like to think of categorical risk as being the absolute and binding art definition of our time, I think we need a little leeway, since categorical risks are now often immediately absorbed. Some risks are riskier than others. And then again, just because something doesn’t look like art or act like art doesn’t automatically make it art.
Some historical examples of categorical risk will serve to clarify my term: the first cubist, futurist, constructivist paintings; Duchamp’s signed urinal or his bicycle wheel; Pollock’s drip paintings; Yves Klein’s jump, but also Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and Joseph Beuys’ lectures. More recent examples might include Mike Bidlo’s Picassos, Pollocks, and Warhols; Damien Hirst’s preserved shark, Jeff Koons’ glass porn.
The best art work in the P.S.1 show is Lozano’s 1969 General Strike Piece:
GENERALLY BUT DETERMINEDLY AVOID BEING PRESENT AT OFFICIAL OR “UPTOWN” FUNCTIONS OR GATHERINGS RELATED TO THE “ART WORLD” IN ORDER TO PURSUE INVESTIGATIONS OF TOTAL PERSONAL AND PUBLIC REVOLUTION.
Lee Lozano was stepping off into the void (in a bigger way than Klein’s faked dive). She left the art world!