Lee Lozano, untitled, 1963, conté crayon on paper, 23 7⁄8 × 18 3⁄4”.

Lee Lozano, untitled, 1963, conté crayon on paper, 23 7⁄8 × 18 3⁄4”.

Lee Lozano

The first exhibition in Denmark to focus on Lee Lozano (1930–1999), “The Ultimate Metaphor is a Mirror,” was not a retrospective survey but rather a focused zoom into the early years of the artist’s short but prolific (and paradoxical) career. More than one hundred works—mostly drawings along with a handful of paintings—spanning the period from 1959 to 1964 were on view. These were Lozano’s first years in New York, after she finished her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1959. Her production during this time foreshadowed aspects of her future practice and the myriad directions in which it would unfold in its idiosyncratic take on whatever images, forms, and moods the isms of the day—from Pop art to Minimalism and Conceptualism—seemed to suggest.

Across six sections, the exhibition drew forth a range of recurring motifs that would become hallmarks of Lozano’s visual output, among them fragmented bodies, Joker-like leering grins on otherwise anonymous faces, erect phalluses as stand-ins for limbs and other body parts, and tools devoid of all functionality and imbued with an implicitly violent, sexual charge. In claustrophobic, nightmarish tableaux scribbled mainly in graphite, pencil, and charcoal on paper, these appear with a frenetic energy that may be less obvious than in her paintings of the same subjects. Raucous and indisputably figurative, they form the first chapter in Lozano’s practice, preempting her move toward muted tones and Minimalist forms in the mid-1960s. They also anticipate the “Language Pieces” that she started making in 1968 before fully extricating herself from the social mechanism of the art world with her final Dropout Piece, begun around 1970.

One drawing from 1962–63, with the words MAN W/ COCKED HEAD scrawled across a corner of the page, showed exactly that: the head of an erect penis poking out of a businesslike buttoned-up pin-striped shirt and tie. In yet another undated pen-and-ink drawing, a bodiless head with a phallus nose (ubiquitous in Lozano’s iconography) spews a spray of what is likely meant to be shit (if the word ASSHOLE written in a neat cursive hand underneath is anything to go by) out of its tightly puckered mouth. The crass humor on display, openly courting bad taste and evading any attempt at political correctness, is the kind that could be easily transported into some dive bar, to be drunkenly slurred sans social pretense. Masculinity wasn’t Lozano’s only target. She also did not spare religion, as evidenced here by a series of drawings (all dated 1963) in which crucifixes, crucifixions, and the Star of David were simultaneously instruments of torture and gateways to sexual satisfaction.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, such as Judith Bernstein or Anita Steckel, whose politics powered their art, Lozano’s open disavowal of feminism and of political engagement in general has often confused and confounded her admirers. But, not unlike her later “Language Pieces” from the late 1960s, these early works suggest the artist’s urge to evade classification, to sidestep anyone’s idea of what feminist art, or art by women, should look like or say. What she wanted to dismantle, it seems, was power and authority—anyone’s—full stop.