Joyce Kozloff

In the mid ’70s Joyce Kozloff’s name was synonymous with the Pattern and Decoration movement. P & D threw down the gauntlet to Minimalist austerity; however, within the kaleidescopic progressions of the Post-Modernist art world, it was rapidly subsumed, accepted as another branch within the pluralistic thicket. For Kozloff, the flourishing of that shoot lay in the arena of public art, a logical extension for an artist who had progressed from painting, through an exploration of printmaking and craft forms, to an ever more encompassing multimedia environmental art. Between 1979 and 1985 she completed five major commissions, including mosaics for subway and train stations in Wilmington, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Cambridge, and for the International Terminal of the San Francisco Airport. In conjunction with the completion of the Harvard Square Subway Station installation, the Boston University Art Gallery organized a retrospective of Kozloff’s work from the past fifteen years.

Unfortunately, the Gallery’s single cavernous room proved inhospitable to Kozloff’s art, with its alluring combination of totality and intimacy. Although the work was laid out in logical, developmental groupings, and many passages of seductive detail were accessible, one sensed that to appreciate Kozloff’s achievement fully a more intimate scale was required. This was the case with the major installation piece, An Interior Decorated, a lush, complex amalgam of ceramic tiles, printed silks, and lithographs that was redesigned for each site in which it was installed between 1979 and 1981. Sections from this work were on view, yet these were unable fully to convey the grandeur of the artist’s obsessive, celebratory ornamentalism.

Still, it was impossible not to be impressed by the dénouement of Kozloffs casting-off of Minimalist shackles: an integration of imaginative decoration and public art. (Post-graduate canvases such as Agrigento, 1970, with its soft tones, variegated patterning, and references to ancient Greek architecture, signified early rebellion.) With such extraordinary projects as the Suburban Train Station, Philadelphia, 1985, a synthesis of craft, art, and architecture, Eastern and Western cultures, and flatness and illusionism, Kozloff has emerged as a mature artist at the height of her powers.

Along the way, Kozloff’s art was fueled by feminism and a questioning of the hierarchical structures of high art. Male-dominated Minimalism, with its “masculine” framework of austerity and logic, was challenged by Kozloff’s incorporation of the “lesser” decorative arts (such as quiltmaking), executed by anonymous women, into the realm of high culture. In some sense, Kozloff’s work acted as a bridge among the rigid divisions within Western art, divisions whose validity grows increasingly suspect through revisionist examinations of the relationship between, say, Cubism and primitive art.

It all seems pretty mainstream now, but the question is, have we experienced a change of content or of style? We still have a male-dominated art world, but with a somewhat frayed twist, that the "feminine’’ province of feeling has become once again the raison d’etre of new expressive painting. Kozloffs most recent work, a series of whimsical watercolors that act as a foil to the all-inclusive, determinate quality of the public commissions, reflect a relaxed knowledge of these ironies. Such fanciful works as Matisse at the Green Mosque, Bursa, 1985, tweak the nose of exclusionary interpretations of Modernism, affectionately reasserting Henri Matisse’s own love of decoration.

Nancy Stapen