Seth Siegelaub (1941–2013)

WHAT TO SAY ABOUT SETH? He was pretty unique: such an intriguing mixture of hard-headed businessman and creative innovator. No nonsense, but plenty of lousy jokes. Though we stayed in touch for the rest of his life, I knew him best the two or three years before he absconded to Europe. Apologies to Lawrence Weiner, Bob Barry, Joseph Kosuth (and Doug Huebler, wherever you are), but I’ve always felt that Seth was the co-inventor of our particular brand of Conceptual art because distribution was such a huge part of its trajectory, built into the innovative forms many of you came up with. He offered a new context, a way for artists to bypass the institutions, the art world’s rites of passage—group show, solo gallery show, reviews, collectors, museum shows, fame. You all moved out into the world by ignoring the sacred cows, outrunning the critics and curators, and corralling some daring collectors. The “March, 1969” show, which took place all over the world at the same time, one work for each day in the month, and announced its existence in a calendar and documentation; the Studio International issue, which Seth edited and gave several curators (I was among them) a chance to try out similarly conceptual strategies; the “Xerox Book”; and all the artists’ books—a medium that was just being recognized as art. I’m not trying to give a history lesson here, but these innovations were all way ahead of their time. Or rather they made the times what they were: exciting, cantankerous, adventurous, outrageous, full of energy and new ideas and political revelations.

In the winter of 1968–69, when I met Seth, I had some similar ideas about dematerialization and alternative modes of getting art out into the world but not a clue about how to make them function. His models combined with the actions and activities of the Art Workers’ Coalition (we were both involved at the beginning) and all the artists cutting loose from the so-called establishment, were a big influence on my own work. He was a generous and egoless collaborator; among other things he helped publish the index card “catalogues” for my Numbers shows in 1969–70.

Times were definitely a changin’. In 1971, I called my first collection of essays Changing, because that’s what it was all about. I always say art can’t change the world alone, but with the right allies it can help challenge power with the kind of unconventional solutions that only the arts can offer. Seth’s no-nonsense approach to all of these issues veiled a true love of art.

Seth and some of the other so-called Conceptual artists—Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre among them—were very supportive when we formed the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee protests at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual exhibition, sculpture that year. It wasn’t easy living with a newly converted feminist. Despite his support, some of us bitched about the low percentage of female artists Seth included at an event he organized in Halifax. Enlightenment only went so far in those days. In fact, the advent of feminist groups helped spell the end of the Art Workers’ Coalition, since women were doing a lot of the work and when they split off it knocked the air out of the organization.

I finally made it to Amsterdam last spring, and stayed with Seth and Marja. I’d been putting it off for a couple of years, and I’m eternally glad I finally got there then. When I was leaving, I told Seth I worried about his health. The reply was totally Siegelaubian. Don’t. It doesn’t do anyone any good. So I guess we should feel the same way about his death, and be glad he was around, and we were there too.

Lucy R. Lippard is a writer and activist based in New Mexico.

Dan Graham, Carl Andre, and Liz Kotz reflect on Seth Siegelaub in the December 2013 issue of Artforum.