Lee Lozano (1930–1999)
Lee Lozano, Surely Defiant, Drops In
By DOROTHY SPEARS
BY the time Lee Lozano died in 1999, her last high-profile artwork could fairly be judged a success. “Drop Out Piece,” begun in 1970, had consisted of removing herself from the New York art world, of which she was a highly visible member, and eventually disappearing altogether from the public eye. Her choice of burial, in an unmarked grave outside Dallas, was arguably the work’s final flourish.
Around the same time, though, Lozano’s artistic reputation, which had faded into the same obscurity as the artist herself, was beginning to revive. After a show of her late-’60s “Wave” paintings at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford in 1998 there were several surveys in the United States; a traveling exhibition organized by the Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006; and a retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, last year.
A few of her paintings and drawings are on view (in spite of Lozano’s notoriously dismissive attitude toward other women) in “Seductive Subversion,” the Brooklyn Museum’s show about female Pop artists that runs through Sunday. And on Wednesday an exhibition of her drawings and paintings of weirdly distorted tools, from 1963 and ’64, opens at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York.
Lozano has become something of a cult figure, her works on canvas and paper celebrated for their urgent, angry energy, which seems to have culminated in later, increasingly radical conceptual “pieces” like “Drop Out.” In the view of some experts her ultimate rejection of the art world may have much to do with the renewed interest in her work.
“In an art world which, for many, is dominated by the logic of art fairs and billionaire collectors,” said Helen Molesworth, a curator who featured Lozano in a show at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University in 2008, “the fantasy of walking away from it all is a powerful one.”
And it’s hard, in retrospect, not to see pieces like the roughly two dozen drawings and large paintings in the Hauser & Wirth show — close-cropped, menacing depictions of a three-headed hammer, a stubby-handled ax and other deformed hardware — as early expressions of the defiance that came to define Lozano and ultimately pushed her, some believe, beyond the boundary of sanity.
“Robert Rauschenberg used to talk about the space between art and life,” said Alanna Heiss, who knew Lozano and was a curator of a 2004 exhibition, “Lee Lozano: Drawn From Life, 1961-1971” at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, in Long Island City, Queens. “Lee was cruelly caught in the space between art and madness.”
Lozano, born in 1930 into a staid, middle-class household in Newark as Lenore Knaster, began her career conventionally enough, with a B.F.A. from the Art Institute of Chicago after getting her bachelor’s in liberal studies from the University of Chicago in 1951. In her mid-20s she worked laying out ads for the Container Corporation of America, and met and married Adrian Lozano, an architect.
After the couple separated in 1960, she moved to New York, where she looked up Richard Bellamy, an acquaintance from Chicago who had just founded the Green Gallery, which would propel the careers of artists like Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Claes Oldenburg. Lozano quickly became immersed in the downtown Manhattan art scene.
“She was brought up with pearls and twin sweater sets, so I identified with her,” said Dorothy Lichtenstein who, before marrying the legendary pop artist Roy, worked at the Bianchini Gallery on 57th Street, where Lozano had her first Manhattan solo show in 1966. But Lozano was in the course of changing her style, preferring men’s white shirts and black leather jackets. “Lee was punk before punk,” Ms. Lichtenstein said.
From the start Lozano’s art was wild. After her classical training at the Art Institute she began producing paintings that mixed the frenetic brushwork of many Abstract Expressionists with cartoonish, sexually freighted imagery. Many peers, including Hollis Frampton, Sol Lewitt and Carl Andre, were drawn to both her work and her personality.
“Lee was brilliant as an artist and a person,” Mr. Andre recalled in a recent e-mail, “and utterly unique as both.”
In 1963 she began her large-scale tool paintings, which were exhibited at the Green Gallery a year later with works by Judd, Dan Flavinand Mark di Suvero. Although more restrained than her earlier work these paintings still felt oddly provocative and aggressive in the company of the minimalist works around them. Mr. Andre said he was particularly struck by their “powerful phallocentric content.”
By the late ’60s her own work had become more Minimalist, in the form of her “Wave” paintings, each of which was an undulating representation of an electromagnetic wave composed of multiple tiny rills of paint painstakingly applied with steel combs and stiff wire brushes in a single session so they would not dry out. It was as if the emotional intensity of her artworks — at least the physical ones — had shifted from the content they depicted to the way they were produced.
They were recorded on a surface “striated like a phonograph, but much coarser,” said the artist Stephen Kaltenbach, a frequent visitor to Lozano’s Grand Street studio. The series of 11 paintings — each one more complicated than the previous one — was completed when Lozano could no longer physically endure even one more striation, he said, adding that her final painting session involved three straight days of the grueling work.
The “Wave” paintings were featured in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970, then a notable distinction for a female artist. But Lozano’s appreciation of this achievement was largely undercut by her increasing disenchantment with what she saw as the hypocrisy and careerism of the art world. In a journal entry from May 1968 she wrote, “Artist, critic, dealer and museum friends, in fact, almost everybody: I still smell on your bad breath the other people’s rules you swallowed whole so long ago.”
Meanwhile she also was starting to practice a different kind of art: conceptual pieces turning on self-prescribed tasks, sometimes witnessed by no one but herself and often involving her accelerating drug use. In April 1969 she planned a series of identically sized paintings, never realized, that she would execute first high on a drug, then drunk and finally sober. (“Since I’m usually stoned or half-stoned when I paint,” she wrote in a notebook at the time, “the drug for this painting would have to be stronger or harder than grass or hash.”)
The same year, according to Mr. Kaltenbach, she embarked on a work requiring her to drop 30 hits of acid in 30 days. After this endeavor, her friends agreed, Lozano was a changed person.
“Sometimes I felt I was talking to whatever drug she had just taken,” Mr. Andre said.
Lozano’s use and abuse of her body in conceptual pieces was not unique in that era; in 1971, in the name of art, Vito Acconcimasturbated under the floorboards of a commercial gallery, and Chris Burden convinced a friend to shoot him in the arm. But many began to feel that she had passed a point of no return.
The artist John Torreano, a friend of Lozano’s, recalled a holiday party at the end of that year when, dismayed by the evening’s bourgeois atmosphere, she shouted, “I’m so bored!” and smashed a plate on a table, then threatened to cut her wrist with a shard. “She had gone over the top,” Mr. Torreano said.
Yet, according to Mr. Kaltenbach, when Lozano mentioned the incident to him afterward, she insisted her outburst was simply another artwork.
In August 1971, enraged by what she saw as the self-defeating isolationism of feminists in a leftist art group she had joined, Lozano scribbled in her notebook, “Decide to boycott women.” The piece that resulted, which began with a simple gesture — tossing a letter from the feminist critic and curator Lucy Lippard onto a stack of unanswered mail — eventually escalated to the point that Lozano refused to greet or take phone calls from female acquaintances and insisted on having (male) guards at her shows, from which she tried to deny women access, Ms. Heiss said.
“Lee wanted to be a bad boy very much,” Ms. Heiss said. “Then she got irritated because she always a girl in the end.”
Ms. Heiss recalls seeing “scraps of paper, stretcher bars, and then a painting” tumbling down onto the sidewalk as she was walking down a SoHo street years ago. Ms. Heiss looked up, and “there was Lee, throwing things.” she said.
Wondering if the attack was personal, Ms. Heiss recalled “holding up a scrap of something, and saying, ‘Hey Lee what are you doing?’ ”
Ms. Heiss said Ms. Lozano replied: “Get away from me! I wasn’t throwing anything at you. I wouldn’t take the time or trouble.”
Having briefly considered a return to the site to search for anything worth keeping, Ms. Heiss said, “it occurred to me that I could be discovered and — who knows? — killed.”
After all, she said: “Lee was such a great artist. But she was also a pretty dangerous person.”