Lutz Bacher (1943–2019)

Lutz Bacher turning on one of the “Buddha Machines” for The Accidental Tourist, 2016, Greene Naftali, Brooklyn. Photo: Monica Majoli.

WHEN LUTZ DIED THE WORLD SHRANK. In those ethereal days immediately following her stark exit, magic was the word I heard most to describe her effect. A magical phenomenon requires an effortless delivery, the mysterious sleight of hand where one is made incapable of conjuring the method of transmutation. Magic happens before our eyes, but points to a hidden blindness revealed by the omnipotent magician. Lutz had a way of locating the real in reality—the fact held in abeyance in plain sight. Her sense of where the art resided in the world was as spontaneous and self-assured as it appeared. She was a believer in the coherence of her response; her precision in manifesting her reactions was so honed that her work could feel as if it were supernaturally powered. She seemed as awed by this phenomenon of arrival as any admirer.

Over the three decades of our friendship, Lutz beckoned me whenever I was in her town to see her most recent capture. I was one of what she later termed her “first responders,” a small group of followers dating from the mid-1970s to the early ’90s. “I think something’s . . . happening . . . here. . . I want you to see it,” she’d say, her foxy, light-aqua eyes sparkling and a rippling, chesty, murmuring laugh rising up periodically. A deep knowing nod, with an eyebrow lift and a smile stretched thin throughout with the thrill of the kill was her contribution to the studio exchange, in which I did almost all of the talking, among other forms of emoting. Locating, pointing to, and distilling through the perfect foil of form were her methods of attack and her delight. Lutz’s work was in identifying and amplifying the predestined, undercover significance in the chance occurrence or already-made thing. Her materials were most often “pre-owned” or off-loaded and, even through the collective din, inexplicably personal. The poetry at hand informed her collecting methods; the world as it coincided with her momentary location was the point of view. What was seized in something like the casual surveillances of her video work, for instance, ofttimes veered from mundane establishing footage to hallucinogenic, existentialist catharsis in one unedited forty-five-minute camera roll. I’m thinking now of Organic, 2006, and the epic Crimson & Clover (Over & Over), 2003. She was a master of reduction, at pulling a singular affective note from the noise of a thing. As her work shifted from image and text to video, and finally into large-scale installation, I came to see gesture itself as her medium—a practice actuated in an unconstrained space between categories commonly grounded in material properties and histories. The viscerality of her work in various media breached each form to exist in the experiential.

In the ’70s, Lutz opted to become a network, a stream of uninflected material building on past broadcasts. For her art to be everywhere at once and as spectral as possible, she made herself part-fiction, shadowless—she disappeared into its apparatus. On seeing the small, silkscreened Sex with Strangers canvases from the late 1980s, I recall the general sense of dysphoria among those of us caught in the riptide of identity politics’ first wave in the early ’90s. “Lutz” was reputed to be older than we were, female and living in the hills of Berkeley with her husband. She maintained a neutral position on rape, for instance. Exchanging glances, we realized that this upper middle-class woman in Northern California had trounced us queers on the score of radical sexual politics. Was it politics that motivated her, we wondered to one another, or something else?

Lutz had a way of locating the real in reality—the fact held in abeyance in plain sight.

Subscribing to the Lutz Network meant receiving things in the mail without explanation: a handwritten dream from the night before; an erotic musing about a random younger man or the puckish leading actor from an obsessively watched film; a shared horoscope torn from the local paper annotated on both sides; a still from a recent video or a drawing for an installation; a beaded heart-shaped coin-purse with a puff of gray fuzz tucked inside for Valentine’s Day. After the phone became a computer, the Network moved to text in the form of brief videos from the street, the studio, or her apartment balcony on the twenty-fourth floor; photographs snatched from the living-room mirror revealing the day’s outlandish outfit; or a string of them at once and assorted material from others (meticulously credited) in the Network. They were playful or beautiful interruptions in the everyday that Lutz delivered steadily, pushing against the incidental or grave matters any day might bring. The Gift, 2011, was something similar, though potentially odious. Lutz eventually documented the work in a book of the same title, wherein she contacted the gift’s recipient about the contract of ownership, which involved potentially opening up one’s home to the public or quickly packing the gifted object for international shipping in case it was required for exhibition. The Gift was a kind of oblique portrait of the receiver in the form of a vagrant object with strings attached. I suspected, or she may have mentioned, that it was an open-ended piece linked to her ongoing madcap issue of art storage, an ever-looming cyclical predicament for years.

Ironically, what was demonstrated by her strategic cloaking in the ’70s was also transparent—Lutz was an intensely private person. One who, despite our years of closeness, I didn’t know absolutely in the conventional sense. The last time we had dinner in New York, late last September, I heard her sister’s name (they spoke weekly) for the first time. Her refusal to partake in the orthodoxies of authorship and meaning as directed by an artist—in the form of interviews, artist statements, press releases, and lectures—proposed an extreme approach to the conundrum of controlling a larger narrative in favor of the deeper possibilities and benefits of total withdrawal. She displayed the dimensions of absence and its dwarfing, mythmaking potential for thirty of the forty years of her career. Then she shocked us with the about-face intimacy of her books following the sudden death of her husband of forty years. One after the other, she published family photos in tandem with documentary images of her archive of work. It was as if holding onto the memory of her actual life became a need so great it required public allocation. Work was her method of forbearance—work through grief, “Put it in the work,” was a message I received more than once over the years when navigating far lesser losses. Lutz was a guide, an example of a way it could be done.

There’s a curious way that, in death, knowledge suddenly circulates freely, guardrails off. The desire to grasp the one vanished is heightened and impressions held individually are checked for accuracy before safekeeping. The week she died, her mourners compared notes: We realized that Lutz’s uncanny, comprehensive view led us to feel as if we were preternaturally protected from the unaccountable vicissitudes of life. Her instinctive mode of drawing parallels to fashion a mutuality of experience made her appear a twin to those close to her. As unflinching as her work was, paradoxically she chose her words vigilantly, seeking the gentlest way to break bad news. She gave counsel elliptically, often through storytelling or recollection with an emphasis on expression—much was said through the pregnant pause, the edit. She remembered everything. She listened closely and collected details of stories told, which would reappear decades later in conversation on a related topic. Nothing was transitory or too small to be key in her knowing someone. There wasn’t aloneness in the world of her making.

Monica Majoli is an artist and a professor of art at the University of California, Irvine.