View of “Lee Lozano: Win First Don't Last Win Last Don't Care,” 2006, Kunsthalle Basel.

View of “Lee Lozano: Win First Don't Last Win Last Don't Care,” 2006, Kunsthalle Basel.

Lee Lozano

THOSE WHO KNOW of Lee Lozano know she ditched the art world and stopped talking to women. But the fact is most people don’t know of her, because she ditched the art world and stopped talking to women. Feminism taught us long ago that history is written as much through its exclusions as through its master narratives. This has certainly been the case for art history, whose neglect of, and outright hostility to, women artists is amply documented. It is doubly odd, then, to come across the problem of Lozano, for the version of ’60s and ’70s art that most of us carry in our mind is marked by the total absence of her short but major career. “Lee Lozano: Win First Don’t Last Win Last Don’t Care,” a traveling retrospective curated by Adam Szymczyk, aims to change all that. In this exhibition Lozano’s oeuvre lands upon us so fully and with such finitude—its beginning, middle, and end splayed out for all to see, all at once—that it’s hard to process.

Lozano, born in 1930, was active as an artist for only ten years. She graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960, settled in New York the same year, and, from 1961 to 1971, moved in rapid succession through gestural figuration, hard-edge figuration, hard-edge abstraction, task-based painting, and word-based conceptual pieces. These “styles” were enacted in oil paintings and through a seemingly rapacious drawing habit. In 1969 she began a conceptual piece called Untitled (General Strike Piece, Feb. 8, 1969), which was predicated on her systematic severing of all connections to the commercial art world. It’s a hilarious drawing in which she documents exhibitions not participated in, parties not attended (we should all be so lucky). Around this time she also decided to BOYCOTT WOMEN, as she succinctly put it in another untitled work. By late 1972 she had packed her bags and moved to Dallas, where she remained until her death in 1999. Her exclusion, unlike so many others, was willed, conscious, and an ongoing work of art.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself, which is easy to do with Lozano. It’s difficult to pace yourself through her decade when you know how her story ends. Indeed, the two major exhibitions of her work to date (the other, at New York’s P.S. 1, in 2004, “Lee Lozano, Drawn from Life: 1961–1971,” was curated by Bob Nickas and Alanna Heiss) have both suffered a similar fate, a difficulty finding the narrative line through the work. Like the P.S. 1 show, which included about 150 works, Szymczyk’s exhibition, weighing in with 212, evinces an aversion to editing—as if the curator is trying to compensate for Lozano’s long absence through sheer bulk. This is understandable but also problematic, because it disallows ways of thinking about the work’s potential to trouble and rearticulate the legacy of ’60s and ’70s art.

Consider, for instance, a group of paintings and drawings Lozano made between about 1961 and 1964, that show us the human form morphing with and becoming a variety of mechanical and inanimate objects. Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of the hookups between machines and bodies seem mild-mannered compared with Lozano’s whacked-out erotic porosity. Penises sprout from ears and are propelled out of revolvers. Toasters get plugged into cunts. Assholes spit Swingline staples. Tits harden in excitation to cocklike turgidness. In which permanent-collection galleries of a museum shall we hang these pictures? Maybe they should be installed in a room with an abstract painting by Philip Guston and a Willem de Kooning “Woman” picture? In a series of drawings of her studio, also made in the early ’60s, electric sockets, water spigots, and radiators are conduits not only of energy and heat but of a sexual life force that appears ready to vaporize the architecture. Next came the tool pictures—hammers, wrenches, vice grips, all lushly painted and lustily suggesting the violent, combinative nature of sexual desire. It’s around this point, as you moved through the Kunsthalle Basel galleries, that you began to realize that the inanimate is not a working concept for Lozano—everything possesses some kind of energy, life, or drive. This is true not only of content but also of form. In her graphite-and-crayon drawings, Lozano’s line conjures the great Bob Dylan lyric from “Visions of Johanna”: “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”

But the expressionist paint handling of the first tool paintings gave way to increasingly hard-edge cold ones. The warm browns and creamy passages of white, the wet-on-wet paint application, fade out as Lozano’s palette turns to a chilly, mean, gunmetal gray while the tools are magnified to fill canvases as large as six by thirteen feet. Ambitious to the core, Lozano was friends with the likes of Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton, and it’s hard to avoid seeing these works as her attempt to broker a deal between the intensely erotic passion of her art and what suddenly seems like the puritanical sublimated industriousness of much Minimalist sculpture. I write “suddenly seems” because I think one effect of encountering Lozano’s entire oeuvre at this moment is a kind of infinitely interesting recalibration of all that we thought we knew. Figures like Robert Morris and Donald Judd start to look nothing short of prudish.

Curiously enough, the hard-edge paintings gave rise to Lozano’s first significant works of conceptual art, drawings she would come to call “language pieces.” In an untitled 1964–67 work, Lozano made a list of titles for her paintings with the subheading ALL VERBS. Note the date: The work was completed before Richard Serra’s now-canonical 1967–68 Verb List; surely it’s worth mentioning that they knew each other. Unlike Serra’s Protestant to-do list of artistic activities, Lozano’s verbs, carefully handwritten in all caps, flush left, laid down on the page with the precision of a typewriter, suggest sex (ream, ram, butt), sport (pitch, slide, stroke), speed (veer, charge), and violence (cleave, clamp, breach). The simultaneity of her painting and conceptual practices poses some significant curatorial challenges. The paintings are massive, the language pieces (most done on the readymade ground of 8½ x 11 inch paper) inherently modest, and the fact is they don’t look good together. It feels like they were made by different people, so ingrained in the discourse is the putative hostility to painting on the part of Conceptualists. At the Kunsthalle Basel, Szymczyk bravely tried to integrate the painterly and the conceptual, hanging one or two language pieces in rooms otherwise populated by paintings and figurative drawings. But the paintings dominated in the end, and the majority of the conceptual work still wound up relegated to two small dark rooms, leaving the viewer, I fear, without a clear sense of what is shared, and hence at stake, between them. It’s a flaw that was partially redressed by the show’s exceedingly useful catalogue, which includes previously unpublished statements by the artist and her peers. (Full disclosure: As part of its compendium of essays on Lozano, the volume includes a reprint of an article I published in Art Journal in 2002.)

One possible effect of this division is that a gallery that could have been a focal point of the show—a large room of hard-edge abstract paintings made between 1964 and 1968, in which the image of the tool has been completely sublimated into the metallic sheen of paint on canvas—wound up being utterly mystifying. Lozano used a paint with a high ferrous oxide content, which gives the paintings a tripped-out, druggy, nearly extraterrestrial glow, but despite their technical bravura they look dead on arrival, a weak moment in an otherwise amazing oeuvre. The coldness of the palette, the monumental scale, the loss (or repression?) of erotic energy, combined with the utter mastery of paint handling, result in pictures that are corporate to their core. Accordingly, they evoke Frank Stella’s work of the same period. But whereas Stella was ultimately to embrace the corporate lobby, Lozano disavowed the grim demise of painting’s purchase on the public sphere by turning deeply inward. She did so largely, I think, through her investigation of painting’s intersection with language and the body. Hence the space of the studio, which had always been important for Lozano, became even more so.

Her language pieces had become increasingly task oriented, a running list of self-assigned activities, from masturbating to smoking pot, to perform in the studio. The most important, and ultimately long-lasting, was Untitled (Dialogue Piece, April 21–December 18, 1969), for which she invited people to the studio for the sole purpose of conversation. She kept a log of who came and whether or not the conversation was any good. At the same time, she was working on the “Wave Paintings,” abstract compositions of undulating shimmery lines painted over the course of self-assigned periods of time (culminating, with 96 Wave, 1970, in a continuous three-day painting session). These works were meant to function as metaphors for the electromagnetic spectrum, the collision of space and time. In an early drawing for the “Wave Paintings,” Lozano wrote, GIVE UP PUBLICITY, a statement in sympathy with General Strike Piece, in which she had resolved to “gradually but determinedly avoid being present at official or public or ‘uptown’ functions or gatherings related to the ‘art world.’”

The “Wave Paintings” were a consummation of much of what Lozano had been after. With them, her active working body has become the eroticized tool, the embodied and sexualized agent of production. They were meant to be installed in a dark-walled room, illuminated by spotlights; their viewing had been conceptualized by Lozano as a complete physical and intellectual environment, not a merely visual experience. As you walk back and forth in front of them you realize that they read differently from the left and from the right, like velvet brushed against the grain. Indeed, their surfaces are nothing short of paint transformed into corduroy. Lozano’s interest in the body as a holistic intellectual, psychic, and visceral apparatus was perfectly synthesized in these pieces, which are at once expressive, hard-edge, and conceptual (they’re indebted to the physics of color). It’s easy to imagine that they must have felt totally complete, so complete that Lozano could experiment with the idea of not painting anymore.

But it wasn’t only painting that she would ultimately be finished with. If to give up a burgeoning art career is a rejection of capitalism, then to “boycott” women is a refusal of patriarchy’s brutal gendering of the world. (While such a gesture is far from sisterly, it is definitely feminist.) Once again Lozano was to turn her own body, her entire being, into a tool of sorts, one committed to fashioning what she would call a “total personal and public revolution.” She was a tool dedicated to making her own world, one in which dialogue trumps matter, friendships win out over the market, and gender and power are rightly recognized by absence as much as presence.

What absence now engenders Lozano’s presence? We all know that at present the art world is almost exclusively governed by the forces of the market. What with the fairs and the steroidal explosion of Chelsea, it’s no wonder that even the New York Times realizes that the current model of success for many artists is monetary. Can the interest in Lozano be anything but the flip side of this coin? It’s up to us to heed Lozano’s cautionary quip, “Win first don’t last.” But the oxymoronic “Win last don’t care” is worth taking to heart as well. In the face of an autocratic regime bent on totalizing knowledge and war, many feminists have called for explorations of failure—as the only viable form of practice under today’s political and market conditions. Lozano offers a model not of failure per se but of a very particular form of achievement, in which when you win last and don’t care, you are capable of becoming a tool that transforms the rules of the game.

Helen Molesworth is chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH.