PRINT April 2008


Lee Lozano, Real Money Piece (detail), 1969, ink and graphite on notebook paper, three parts, each 11 x 8 1⁄2".

VAN GOGH’S SUICIDE once seemed the epitome of artistic alienation, but by the mid-1960s, the dominant culture celebrated nonconformity and the gray flannel suit was the butt of jokes. As a new art public wrapped the artist in its sticky embrace—killing him by “smothering him with kisses,” as Art News editor Thomas Hess put it—perhaps the most radical action an artist could take was career suicide.

The negation of the economy is the fundamental condition for belief in art, as Pierre Bourdieu writes; certain artists simply take this principle to the extreme. No one has embodied a more stringent refusal than Lee Lozano. The attention recently lavished on her work exemplifies the irony that there is nothing that sells better than the principled rejection of money, status, and career. Indeed, as public interest in contemporary art has translated into enormous amounts of money—and vice versa—the art world has focused on artists, including Cady Noland and Charlotte Posenenske, who exercised their autonomy by rejecting conventional success. Diana Vreeland’s formula has been reversed: These days, refusal is elegance. The beautiful no can be seen everywhere from Steven Parrino’s severe, charged paintings (now proffered by Gagosian Gallery) to the new BMW ads (“As an independent company, BMW can say no. No, we will not compromise our ideas. No, we will not do it the way everyone else does it. . . . No, we will not sell out . . .”).

The most potent tool for understanding Lozano’s posthumous revival (the artist died in 1999) remains Bourdieu’s “circle of belief.” By circle, he meant all of the people it takes to make an artist’s reputation, especially dealers, critics, curators, and collectors. By belief, he meant to emphasize that, for the system to work, all those involved must be sincere; they must truly believe in the artist. (Indeed, when I interviewed Sol LeWitt for a feature on Lozano in Artforum, October 2001, the artist described Lozano’s supporters as “those who had faith in her vision.”)

The story of Lozano’s rediscovery has a large cast. There are curators, including James Rondeau, Connie Butler, and Helen Molesworth; critics such as Eleanor Heartney and myself; dealers Rolf Ricke, Margarete Roeder, Jaap van Liere and Barry Rosen (who have represented the artist since the mid-’80s), and Ursula Hauser and Iwan Wirth; and artists, old friends like LeWitt and Carl Andre and admirers such as Paul McCarthy, David Reed, and Jenny Holzer, who bought work when Lozano needed money and fueled private and public buzz around her importance. Finally, there is the critic Bob Nickas and the dealer Mitchell Algus, both polymorphous in their institutional affiliations and with little concern for turning their cultural capital into real capital. Algus gave Lozano a show in 1998, promoting her work—with no immediate success—and introducing Nickas to it; Nickas went to Van Liere and Rosen to buy a drawing and, discovering their collection of Lozano’s works, curated a show for P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York that grew organically into a large-scale exhibition in 2004. During that show—a major draw for Lozano’s peers, as well as for young artists—Hauser & Wirth took on the Lozano estate. According to the gallerists, their decision to represent her was triggered less by the strength of the particular exhibition than, simply, by finally seeing the work (Rosen had long urged them to look at it).

For the recovery operation to succeed, even the monetary aspect couldn’t be purely for-profit: Van Liere and Rosen took care of Lozano for years with little financial reward; Hauser & Wirth has an impeccable reputation for the seriousness and respect with which it handles artists, and the gallery elevated Lozano into company that included McCarthy and Eva Hesse. Hauser & Wirth’s cultural capital is backed by real capital, however, and it was only after the gallery took on the Lozano estate that all the pieces came together. As Algus testifies, press hardly matters if not accompanied by the right gallery context, and Hauser & Wirth’s endorsement was the decisive moment. The year after it picked up her estate, the gallery devoted an entire booth to her work at the Armory Show in New York; its backing ensured Lozano’s move from minor regional museums to a major, high-gloss exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel in 2006. During that show, Hauser & Wirth again dedicated a booth to the artist, this time at Art Basel. Between the time I saw Lozano’s paintings in a barn in Pennsylvania, in 2001, and their appearance in Basel, their prices had rocketed from the low tens of thousands to nearly a million dollars.

Lozano herself did not shy away from talking about money, class, and career. Her willingness to confront these issues is one of the most compelling things about her as a person and as an artist. In Real Money Piece, 1969, she put money into a mason jar in her studio; when people visited, she asked them to add to or take from the jar and then recorded their responses. In General Strike Piece, 1969, she gradually absented herself from “official or public ‘uptown’ functions or gatherings related to the ‘art world,’” as she wrote in her notebook, inaugurating the action by withdrawing from a show organized by Dick Bellamy. Ultimately, around 1971, she left not only the art world but New York as well.

These performance pieces powerfully acknowledged sociality—the personal relationships, parties, openings, and other encounters that connect and form the art world. They attacked the dominance of business connections and competition even in apparently radical or anticommercial circles. Lozano thus emphasized her own autonomy and, more exceptionally, that of others as well. Such concerns are evident in Dialogue Piece, 1969, which upended the normal distinction between artist and observer: The artist would invite someone to talk with her and they would meet as equal participants, without any script or public record of what transpired. Where General Strike Piece negates the social system of the art world, Dialogue Piece insists on equal relationships between individuals. As Lozano wrote in a September 1969 note, “People (in some ways) are more important than art.” Three years later, she removed the parenthetical.

In her notebook, the artist also gave herself the imperative to “seek the extremes.” But her withdrawal was conflicted. In the final note to General Strike, Lozano laments having hurt certain individuals in pursuing her larger artistic statement. And although she moved to Dallas in the early ’70s, she stayed in contact with friends in the New York art world and agreed to participate in exhibitions, arranging for her works to be released to various venues; she still wanted them to be respected and cared for. Lozano’s ambivalence is recognizable to anyone who has questioned the cost of social and financial success. Her desire to separate herself belongs on a continuum not only with artists who have deliberately retreated but also with the anonymous thousands who do not get shown or sold, who either stop making art or continue their work in involuntary privacy. (Even her eventual move to live with her family in Texas recalls the retreat of a very different artist, Jeff Koons, who licked his wounds at the Florida home of his parents in the early ’80s.) What Lozano did seems extreme, even crazy, and therefore properly avant-garde. But her work resonates because it dramatizes feelings that most artists, and in fact most people, have—even those to whom the world says no, rather than the reverse.

Lozano’s rediscovery by the art world, as much as her withdrawal from it, belongs to a larger market dynamic. In the recent past, museums, galleries, critics, and auction houses have been reviving older and dead artists in earnest. Categories include the “artist’s artist” (as opposed to the collector’s artist, I suppose) who has been seen as minor but begins to look major (Mary Heilmann); the artist who enjoyed initial success but floundered when money got tight or when fashions changed (Alan Shields); the artist whose production was inconsistent or ephemeral (Tony Conrad). Not by coincidence, these rediscovered artists represent good value: Now construed as the product of integrity rather than of failure, their obscurity serves as a substitute for the obsolete category of the avant-garde; they even rival emerging artists as a source of speculative reward. As Nickas pointed out in a recent conversation, unlike the freshly minted art school graduate, the rediscovered artist comes complete with oeuvre and provenance.

Why does autonomy look so appealing right now? In part, it offers a kind of digestif for the current bloated market, a reassertion of the artist’s agency amid the continuing and inequitable redistribution of income (and perhaps a bid for long-term value against fears of a market crash). Lozano’s early Pop attracts collectors, particularly those attached to Hauser & Wirth and thus accustomed to a diet of McCarthy and Louise Bourgeois, while her abstract painting remains a tough sell. But it is the artist’s late, fiercely determined work that appeals most to younger artists, resonating with a variety of contemporary strategies that include refusal and effacement. This interest in Lozano runs counter to the current penchant not only for celebrity but also for constructed personae and collaborative practices that risk reducing an artist’s identity to the sum of her social connections. Indeed, Lozano’s abstention from the radical chic of the Art Workers’ Coalition seems prescient in this regard. On another level, she attempted to escape fixed subjectivities throughout her career by engaging with more “objective” systems such as math (like many of her peers), astrology, and electromagnetic waves, this last interest generating her “Wave” painting series of 1967–70. In the early ’70s, Lozano began referring to herself as “E,” for “energy”—she had left “the ‘L’ universe.”

Of course, this assertion of autonomy—this career suicide—can ultimately be good for business, although someone other than the artist usually makes the money. (You may not be interested in the market, but the market is interested in you.) That’s one ending to this story. A happier version would be the correction of history achieved by putting Lozano back into the picture. But folding a handful of recovered names into the canon only slightly readjusts our understanding of art, increasing blue-chip inventory more than rewriting history. I prefer to take something else away from the tale: the value of Lozano’s attempt to confront social conditions, to insist on the equal worth of individuals, and to specify experiences that are difficult to name.

Katy Siegel is a contributing editor of Artforum.