PRINT April 2003


LAURIE PARSONS made a modest stir in the mid-’80s with her ephemeral interventions. Less than a decade later, she had all but vanished from sight. Another testament to the brutal vagaries of artistic success? Not exactly: BOB NICKAS’s year-by-year chronicle of the dematerialization of an art career puts Parsons’s disappearing act at the center of her project.


An artist sends her slides to a gallery and is asked to take part in a group show. (And how often does that happen? Does never sound about right?) She exhibits unaltered found objects in the show, most memorably two metal patio chairs stacked one on top of the other, paint-flecked and rusted, holding a package wrapped in plain brown paper. Seen up against all the shiny new objects on display in galleries at the time, the work takes me by surprise. What’s in that box? And who left it there? The artist, I’m told, doesn’t make anything at all. Her name is Laurie Parsons, and she collects things on walks through natural, industrial, and urban areas—mostly in northern New Jersey—brings them back to her studio, and lives with them for a while. Individually photographed pieces of wood, all dated 1986, account for one full sheet of slides. Parsons later writes that she was “interested in the presence they had that I found as powerful as that of a piece of art.”


A one-person show at Lorence-Monk Gallery, of objects collected over the course of a year. They are placed directly on the floor around the perimeter of the room in the order in which Parsons encountered them. A pile of charcoal, a weathered coil of rope, a battered suitcase, a yellow nylon noose, an uprooted log, and more. She later describes one particularly cryptic object, from 1987, as “an inverted triangle formed by three lengths of a bed frame with the two longer sides crossed at the bottom, which is titled V, to recall the Thomas Pynchon novel.” No one, if you hadn’t already guessed, buys anything.

Intent on opening up a greater engagement with viewers, Parsons shifts from gathering individual objects to large sections of the landscape. Field of Rubble, 1988, is drawn from a fifteen-hundred-square-foot plateau beside the Hudson River where rubble mixed with such oddities as “packets of soy sauce, keys, butts of lottery tickets,” the artist recalls. “I spent weeks collecting the detritus, to later entirely cover the floor of a gallery.” My immediate take is Smithson, entropy, non-sites, and a freewheeling spirit of adventure more ’60s than ’80s—a search for realism through the thing itself. About a year later, a worker at a storage facility will go into her unit, open up some of the containers, and, finding what seems to be merely gravel and grimy trash (in actuality, Field of Rubble), throw all of it away.


Rolf Ricke, whose Cologne gallery was one of the first European venues for artists such as Barry LeVa, Richard Serra, and Keith Sonnier, presents a Laurie Parsons exhibition. All the pieces from her New York debut are shown. This time, however, someone walks in and, with the idea of keeping the show together as a complete installation, buys everything. His purchase, followed by those of a few other intrepid collectors, will lead Parsons to request that dealers no longer offer anything of hers for sale.


A card comes in the mail, blank except for the name Lorence-Monk at the bottom, along with the gallery’s address and phone number. This is Parsons’s third solo show, and yet her name does not appear on the announcement, nor do opening or closing dates. The gallery has been retouched with a fresh coat of paint and the lighting has been redone, but the rooms are completely empty. She would later remark, “I felt it essential that I consider the gallery itself, rather than continue to unquestioningly use it as a context. With its physical space and intricate social organization, it is as real, and as meaningful, as the artwork it houses and markets.” I pass more than a few confused visitors and note that Parsons has enacted a reversal of sorts of Robert Barry’s famous 1969 piece Closed Gallery. She eventually removes the show from her bio, later saying that it felt “righter as opposed to wronger” to leave it off.

By year’s end, Parsons considers installing a videocamera in her bedroom/studio to transmit “live images continuously for several weeks into a gallery. . . . In some ways this project will recall the American Family television broadcasts of the Loud family in the early 1970s, but I will be alone with the camera and, unrecorded, the documentation will only exist in real time. I will try to be unaffected by the camera as I pursue my habitual activities. If I am out, the image will be of the unoccupied room, and at night, when the public venue is closed, the images will continue to be transmitted, though no one will be present to see them.”


Udo Kittelmann offers Parsons a show at the Forum Kunst Rottweil. She proposes to move herself and a few personal belongings into the exhibition space for the seven weeks scheduled and to work in a local psychiatric hospital. Unable to speak German, she immerses herself in the language. She will ultimately split her time between the museum, the hospital, and a school for developmentally disabled children. Little by little, people come by to see this person living in the museum, many of whom have never before been inside. Parsons leaves the door unlocked and talks with everyone from the woman who owns a nearby bakery to a drunken man banging on the door late at night. Parsons had worded the announcement for the show to include her name, that of the curator, and Rottweiler Bürger—the people of Rottweil. At a big closing party it seems as if the entire town has turned out.

Invited to create a work for a Paris gallery during the winter, she proposes that the glass from the skylights be removed for the duration of the show—“it would just open things up to the sky.” Faced with the possibility of rain and snow, the gallery declines.


Parsons participates in “The Big Nothing” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Most of the artists play hide-and- seek with their work, installing pieces on the ceiling or in other unlikely locations. Parsons contributes a stack of dollar bills about four inches high (the museum provides half of the three hundred dollars) and tells the guards not to interfere when people avail themselves of the piece. It quickly disappears.


Asked to enter a competition for a sculpture park in Nordhorn, Germany, Parsons visits the site and comes away with a number of ideas, some of which are completely fantastical, with no hope of being realized. “I had the thought that the moon should be brought to settle over Nordhorn. . . . I do have issues with the format of proposals and art. What do you want? Make it. Pay for it. Anyway, this thought was not as tongue in cheek as it may sound. I meant it with warm feelings. Bring the moon to hang over Nordhorn each night that you may, that it is visible. I meant a sincere level of poetry here.” After seeing Joris Ivens’s film Rain (1929), and one by Kenneth Anger with fountains (Eaux d’artifice [1953]), she suggests “a fountain that goes straight up.” My favorite idea, part fairy tale, part Thoreau, had implications for all her work to date. She proposed that visitors to the park be told she had camped there for an entire year. “What would it matter if I didn’t? Indeed, isn’t that somewhat more interesting? People would bring their imagination to the project, regardless of whether or not I actually had been there. And it would be a departure for me from my rigid ‘real’ investigations of the past. Is not ‘deception,’ subterfuge, also real?”

From this point on, Parsons no longer participates in exhibitions, although a project developed with the New Museum is ongoing since ’92. That institution, like most, had an unspoken policy that guards shouldn’t volunteer opinions about the works being shown; if they spoke with visitors at all, it was to ensure that the art was neither touched nor photographed.

When curator Laura Trippi asks Parsons to propose a project for the educational component of the New Museum’s exhibition “The Spatial Drive” (1992–93), to think about how the show could be presented to the public, she recalls a recent experience there: “I had a four-by-eight sheet of plywood in the New Museum benefit; a friend visited and told me about listening to a guard go on and on to a visitor about the plywood. How ridiculous he had thought it was, and then how it grew on him. It was very clear to me what to suggest; this guard, Kimball Augustus, had already taken it upon himself to express stuff about the work. We spent a good year having the guards and admissions-desk staffers do studio visits where possible, or have museum meetings with participating artists, or at the very least full presentations of their work.” The security and admissions staff, having been given an opportunity to meet artists before shows open, visit studios, and learn about works they would otherwise simply be guarding or merely selling tickets to see, are able to directly engage the public during each exhibition.


Having come to the realization that “art must spread into other realms, into spirituality and social giving,” Parsons leaves the art world behind and focuses her energies on her own personal writing and on social work: interviewing children for a study on physical and mental health at a Newark hospital; taking part in an art program for adolescents with a history of psychiatric hospitalizations; most recently, working with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Her advocacy for the rights of the mentally ill who are homeless grew out of an encounter with a man she’d always seen around Hoboken. Shocked to discover that he’d lived in a tent for over ten years, Parsons spent months to help him find a subsidized apartment of his own. She tells me that what she learned about the long bureaucratic process will at least make it easier the next time.

Over the years, Parsons has kept a journal, which has evolved from more diaristic entries to “an abstract collecting of works and phrases.” She says that she collects words the way she used to collect objects, but that the writing is for herself and isn’t meant to be published—at least not in her lifetime. We meet in a park near my house to talk, but I don’t take notes. I mention that we’ll probably need to get together again, and she suggests that if I’m not clear about anything I can just make it up. Looking back on the afternoon, it’s something else she said that I can’t get of my mind: She never tells people about having been an artist. So when I ask if she’ll actually read this article, her answer comes as no surprise.

Bob Nickas is a New York–based critic and the curator of more than forty exhibitions since 1984.