Luchita Hurtado has been making art for decades, though, despite her close friendship with many famous artists, she was reluctant to show her work until the 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement provided encouragement. A small survey show in Los Angeles gives insight into the wildly fluid forms and experimental techniques in her paintings and works on paper. “Luchita Hurtado: Selected Works, 1942–1952” is on view at the Park View Gallery through January 7, 2017.
“PAINTING IS SUCH AN ESCAPING THING…almost like two lives coming together.” I found that line in one of my letters to my second husband, Wolfgang Paalen. We met at one of his openings. He asked me which painting I liked, and then he said, “Take one!” Next he signed it and invited me to meet him in Mexico and see the Olmec heads in La Venta. The pilot let me fly the plane on the way. Wolfgang proposed to me on that trip. No one was married to anyone at that time. He was living with two women at the time. Two ex-girlfriends.
I must have written that quote when we were apart from each other. There was a time when I was in Mexico and he was in New York. I always tried to make work, but I am surprised at how much of it has survived. Often, I worked in the corner of Wolfgang’s studio. I made little colorful paintings. He was very supportive of my work. The paintings I was making in the late 1940s had bright pinks that reminded me of my aversion to those blush colors that I avoided wearing in my native Venezuela. I also loved dark hues, blues, and key-lime greens akin to tropical flora. I was friends with Wildredo Lam at that time, and Noguchi. Long before I met Wolfgang, Isamu was like my brother; he had a beautiful studio on MacDougal Alley in New York and we often talked about art. So the paintings and drawings that Paul Soto of Park View is showing now in LA were done in dialogue with those figures in the 1940s.
I worked hard to become an artist. My family had immigrated to the United States in two sections. At the time, all the Latin Americans I knew lived in the Inwood neighborhood in New York. I chose to go to Washington Irving School near Union Square, where I majored in art without my parents knowing; they thought I would be a seamstress. I got married early and had two children, but I still kept making work. I just had to balance raising my children with my practice while freelancing for Condé Nast and Lord and Taylor. I found time at night to work on my paintings. But I was reluctant to show my work in the 1940s. As you know, Frida Kahlo was always referred to as the amateur wife of Diego Rivera. But Frida was really something and she showed in Paris. We knew them in Mexico along with Leonora Carrington and so many people who were going back and forth between all these cities.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that I began to have more freedom to make work. Things happened in my life in a weird order. At that time, I had gotten remarried, to the artist Lee Mullican, who along with Paalen had started the Dynaton art movement. We were living in Santa Monica, and our two sons, John and Matt, had grown up. I got my own studio. In the ’80s I was asked by the Guerrilla Girls to form a West Coast chapter of their group; previously I had been involved with a consciousness-raising group with Vija Celmins, Alexis Smith, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago. Miriam particularly liked my sewn-together canvases. I often worked in series. In my works from the 1940s, the mark-making is similar, and the biomorphic line also started influencing my desire to make a patchwork of the canvas. Mimi would come over to the studio and she encouraged me to show them. So even though I had been in group shows with Larry Bell and others, I finally had a solo show, called “Grandview One,” at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles.
If you live long enough, you will feel like you’ve had three lifetimes. There’s a story of a scandal I caused in New York, when Duchamp gave me a foot rub. I met him through Jeanne Reynal, who I was staying with. I was in my twenties. But he is long gone, along with the Lams, Breton, Isamu, and Agnes Martin, who was also a very close friend. Agnes was so much fun because she was a free spirit. Everyone thinks she was reserved because of the work and because she liked routine, but sometimes she would break loose and pick me up and careen through the streets. She was a terrible driver.
I still have a studio. Now my drawings are about my fears for the earth. We are doing our best to do away with the earth. In the studio I keep lots of textiles. For most of my life I made my own clothes, and when we traveled extensively in India, Europe, and Mexico, I collected patterns. My line work comes from these patterns. There is a piece in the show that has a seemingly amorphous shape that comes up often in my early work; later I remembered how much it resembled a little butterfly I saw as a girl in Venezuela. Painting is like that, though—a spiritual connection between what you do and the patterns found in the world.
Stephen Kaltenbach, Art Works, 1968–2005, bronze, 4 7/8 x 7 7/8 x 5/8”. Photo: Benjamin Blackwell.
The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) was one of the first museums to focus on collecting Conceptual art. Since the 1960s, it has amassed works by Tom Marioni, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Ant Farm, and this commitment has not waned since, as witnessed by the recent acquisition of dealer Steven Leiber’s collection. Constance Lewallen was instrumental in building Berkeley’s collection. As a curator at the institution for over three decades, she worked closely with many of the artists featured in “Mind over Matter,” a survey she recently organized of pieces by first-generation Conceptual artists within BAMPFA’s holdings. The exhibition, which she discusses here, is on view through December 23, 2016.
I CAME INTO THE ART WORLD during the seminal period of Conceptual art, which reflected the vast political and social changes taking place worldwide. In New York, working at the Bykert Gallery, I met artists like Michael Snow, Vito Acconci, Jan Dibbets. In Los Angeles I worked with artists who were connected to CalArts, including Jack Goldstein and Douglas Huebler; John Baldessari has continued to be a friend, and an inspiration. In 1980, I got a crash course in Bay Area Conceptual artists when I created a chronology for the catalogue for “Space/Time/Sound,” at SFMOMA.
With “Mind over Matter,” I wanted to emphasize that everything we’re seeing now in terms of “new” art internationally is derived from this early period. At the time, many people thought it was an endgame: “Where do you go from here?” But it turned out to be such an extremely fertile period. It was also a moment of innocence; I think people respond to this work because it’s not about commercialism, it’s not about money, it’s not about fame. It’s for artists to address their friends or each other, and there’s something so wonderful about that that’s really lost now.
Many Conceptual artists were interested in getting art into the world without announcing that it was art. Stephen Kaltenbach made bronze plaques bearing words—Art Works is the one I have in the show—that he intended to be buried in cement and unlabeled, so people wouldn’t necessarily know they were works of art. (He was also one of the first to place anonymous ads in Artforum, in 1968 and 1969.) Mail art, begun in earnest by Fluxus artists, was adopted by Conceptual artists as another new way of disseminating ideas—as were artists’ books.
When women come into the picture in the early ’70s on the wave of feminism, the body, which on the West Coast was already a new area of exploration, becomes very politicized (then came ACT UP and the Guerrilla Girls to illustrate that yes, art can effect political change). Carolee Schneemann’s iconic performance Interior Scroll is represented by a photograph of her pulling out a scroll from her vagina while delivering a monologue. At the time, men dismissed the piece, and many women thought she was exploiting herself—she got it from both sides. Now, she’s being recognized for her groundbreaking work. But it took a long time.
People often think Conceptual art is drily intellectual—that can be true, but it can also be humorous—and beautiful and emotional. In Mitchell’s Death, Linda Montano relates the story of her husband’s accidental death. You see only her face, eventually pierced with acupuncture needles; it’s the most emotional piece in the show. One ought not say “beautiful” in describing a work by John Cage because he wasn’t thinking about making beautiful art, nor were most Conceptual artists. Yet Cage’s Plexigram, which consists of several Plexiglas sheets bearing variously colored words and word fragments derived by chance from the dictionary—it’s complicated, as his work always is…but it really is beautiful.
I juxtaposed Jim Melchert’s film Untitled, in which an unclothed woman and man playfully throw buckets of water at each other, with the Relation in Space series Marina Abramović and Ulay performed in the 1976 Venice Biennale—again, it’s two naked figures, but their encounters become increasingly violent. Media Burn, a spectacular performance event Ant Farm enacted in 1975 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, is a funny and sharp critique—a collision between two American icons, the car and the television. They made a video out of the performance: It’s not just a document, it’s a landmark early video piece. And of course there’s Baldessari, who has always used humor to great effect. At first he was dissed by East Coast artists because they thought, “Humor?—can’t be serious.” But of course it can be; I’ve included his well-known video where he takes different poses while announcing, “I’m making art.” It’s a commentary on the Nauman line, “Whatever I do in my studio is art.”
Lorna Simpson, 1957-2009 (Detail/Comparison), 2009, gelatin silver prints, each 7 x 7", overall dimensions variable. Photo: James Wang.
Lorna Simpson, best-known for her body of conceptual photography, has recently been exploring painting. On the occasion of her solo exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which runs through January 15, 2017, she reflects here on her experience of this medium, and how it relates to her practice of imagemaking in general.
I APPROACHED PAINTING initially from a place of intimidation. I started my undergraduate studies as a painter, as perhaps all foundation studio students do, and yet when I proposed a series of paintings for the first time, for the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale in 2015, the response from the curators wasn’t immediately “Oh, definitely!” I had been thinking for a couple of years about how I might begin to explore this different way of making work. I could have picked my timing to start showing them in a less intensely scrutinized exhibit, but then again, I like the challenge of being uncomfortable, inquisitive, and a little nervous, but not fearful.
Over the past five to seven years I have had a deep obsession with collage, and the collages have operated as a parallel to the paintings. At times I feel compelled to make paintings with appropriated images, taken from Ebony magazine’s pages, or bits and pieces from AP news photos—a volcano erupting, or a picture of a dam, or ice that has fallen on branches of a tree, and so on. My current exhibition, “Focus,” at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, embraces these themes.
The bridge between the early work from the late 1980s and 1990s is conceptual—a consideration of the viewer, how the viewer looks at photography, and upending expectations. I came to painting through a large series of works called “1957-2009 Interiors,” 2009, which were based on found photographs of a black woman. She is in a suburban living room in California around 1957. My assumption is that she is posing in order to create a portfolio for an acting or modeling career, and I reenact her postures. In most of my earlier work I do not appear in the photographs, but in this body of work, I sometimes do. I wanted to challenge the idea of subjectivity, how we come to know the subject, and our desire to get to know the subject through details. My mimicry visibly expanded her project as well as challenged my own. I imitate and mirror her poses and expressions, and in the same manner I also imitate the man that appears in the images. Using appropriated images engages my past work and also engages the appropriation of desire, in terms of the legacies of portraiture, and also of visual information. The discomfort I had about appearing in that body of work is similar to how I felt operating outside of the language of my earlier work.
Excerpt from Lorna Simpson’s interview for 500 Words
The advent of my career was supported not by institutional photography departments, but by painting and sculpture departments. I had difficulty navigating the photography world, because it didn’t seem to affirm what I did or the context of the work that I was making. And I was told that what I was doing didn’t apply, so I said, “That’s OK, that’s fine, it doesn’t need to.” As a young woman, and a young black artist, I felt like I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, because I didn’t quite have the assurance of success, but I had a strong desire to create as many of my personal friends who were artists, writers, curators, and filmmakers did. The assumption that I think everyone operated under was that we were not waiting on acceptance but made conscious decisions about bringing to fruition in an uncompromising fashion the work we were inspired to make. That is a commentary on the value of images, imagemaking, and the temperature of the time we live in.
For more than two decades, Wendy Jacob has been steadily building a practice that manages to intertwine ideas of care, architecture, and transgression. From her days as a cofounder of Haha, the collective that contributed Flood, 1992–95, a hydroponic garden, to Mary Jane Jacob’s Culture in Action project in Chicago, to her collaboration with animal scientist Temple Grandin in the early ’90s on an armchair that would gently squeeze users, Jacob has continually looked beyond conventional structures. For her current exhibition at the Radcliffe Institute’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jacob has unearthed models of architectural landmarks both real—such as the United States Capitol building—and fictional—the Tower of Babel—that were made as learning aids for the blind in the ’30s and ’40s. The show is on view through January 14, 2017.
WHEN I WAS INVITED to do a show at the Radcliffe Institute, I was thinking, What can I do at Radcliffe that I can’t do somewhere else? A number of years earlier, I had toured the Perkins School for the Blind, in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts. The basement of the main building looked like an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities. There was a shark on the wall, a taxidermied bear, and then there were these models of buildings including the Parthenon, Tower of Babel, and a Catholic church. To have the Parthenon next to a shark was both unexpected and marvelous. When I learned that Radcliffe was Helen Keller’s alma mater, I thought back to my visit to Perkins, because Keller had been a student there too. I thought, This is my chance to do something with that collection.
I discovered that the models had been commissioned in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA, of course, mobilized thousands of workers to build bridges and roads, but they also hired craftsmen to create models of buildings for the blind. Through touch, blind students could apprehend the scale and proportion of a skyscraper, for example—they could “see” it with their fingertips. The same project also produced plywood cutouts of trees: oak, maple, ash, and poplar. Without sight, it’s hard to understand proportion and scale, especially of something as big as a tree or building.
Perkins wasn’t the only school that had these models. The Ohio State School for the Blind had a pretty good collection too. So I went to Columbus and found all these amazing models—again in a basement. This time the basement happened to also be an old bowling alley. A bowling alley for the blind actually makes a lot of sense—think of the sound of the ball rolling down the lane and hitting the pins.
In the exhibition, I have ten WPA-era models. They range from the Parthenon and the US Capitol to more prosaic buildings, such as a Cape Cod cottage. They’re not architectural models. Architectural models are made to sell a concept to a client—and they’re not necessarily made to be handled. The WPA models, on the other hand, are a little bit clunky. More like dollhouses, more durable. There is a document that details the techniques and materials that they used in making models. I also built a model of the gallery at Radcliffe myself, loosely following these guidelines.
The show includes sound as well. There are giant transducers attached to the studs inside the gallery walls. They carry sound miked from outdoors that you can hear if you put your ear to the wall, so you have to touch the actual building to hear anything. The human auditory range is between 20 Hz and 20 KHz, and as you go down in frequency there’s a shift from hearing to feeling. With the lower-frequency sounds, like thunder, or a truck going by, you can feel it as well as hear it. But here you really have to lean against the wall to feel it. Most of the time it’s pretty quiet, but if you’re lucky enough to be in the gallery during a rainstorm, that would be really nice. In addition, I am playing a streaming NOAA weather broadcast through another set of transducers.
The title for the show, “Calm. Smoke rises vertically,” is taken from the Beaufort scale, which has a really poetic way of describing the wind. It’s an empirical measure, meaning that it describes what you perceive, or what you see: observable effects of the wind. The lowest step on the Beaufort scale is described as the conditions where smoke rises vertically.
The show is made up of layers of information. For example, the card for the show is printed with an image and text, and then overprinted, or embossed, with braille. You can feel the bumps when you pick up the card. I like how one notation is right on top of the other. And in a similar way, through sound, there’s a verbal description of the weather on top of the audible effects of the weather. Everything is superimposed.
Deborah Stratman, The Illinois Parables, 2016, 16 mm, color, sound, 60 minutes.
The American film and video artist Deborah Stratman has made a number of works that use sounds and images in elliptical ways to lead audience members to question their awareness of their own surroundings. Her recent hour-long film The Illinois Parables (2016) tells eleven stories set in the titular state (and, by extension, the United States), between the years 600 C.E. and 1985, that refer to past traumas through voice-over, music, and reenacted scenes combined with present-day landscape studies. The Illinois Parables is distributed educationally in the US by Grasshopper Film and will screen from November 16 to 22, 2016, at Anthology Film Archives in New York, with Stratman appearing in person November 16 and 17.
A PARABLE uses concrete phenomena to illustrate abstract or ephemeral ideas. To realize The Illinois Parables, I made a series of pilgrimages to landscapes filled with physical things: munitions bunkers, chalkboards, riverbanks, go-cart tracks, ice floes, dioramas, cave paintings. I was thinking about historical events that could be understood as ethical dilemmas around which questionable decisions were made: the Indian Removal Act, COINTELPRO operations, nuclear bombs, vigilante mob murders. I was thinking about what we do when faced with something we can’t explicate. I was looking to artifacts and to sites for nuanced perspectives on fraught situations. Think about how something as dumb as the height of a curb has inscribed within it a whole litany of decisions, reflecting trajectories of infrastructure, engineering, commerce, and state power.
The confluence of political and geological forces in any place is unique. I started filming in Illinois for the simple fact that I live here. An artist friend, Kate Brown, had proposed the idea of fifty filmmakers each doing a piece about a state. (She made one about Utah.) My initial balk became a creeping interest in Illinois’s ignominious, random histories. I looked for sites where the threshold was thin between the present and the past, where history is heavy due to an erasure or oppression—of indigenous groups, African Americans, seekers of religious freedom, storm victims, and others.
This thinness could also have been paranormal, a myth grown out of collective anxiety. I was attracted to stories I couldn’t resolve. Irresolution activated the sites, destabilized them, but productively. It was faith I went looking for, but what kept showing up was exodus. So that became an organizing conceit, with each of the film’s eleven chapters containing a journey narrative, or else the seed of some nascent expulsion. The episodes unfold chronologically, but they can stand on their own and be mobile as discrete entities in viewers’ minds.
I chose to shoot The Illinois Parables on 16-mm film partly due to its ungainliness. Pilgrimage means something different to me on celluloid than it does digitally—a strip of gelatin being materially altered by light represents a distinct kind of witnessing. There’s a necessary physicality to the process that mirrors the integrity of site, of traverse. And when I shoot on 16 mm, I also edit on 16 mm. The slowness suits the pace of my thought. The film’s editing is often associative. For example, a cut goes from an X-ray image of a living bird to a close-up of a fake cardinal in the native peoples diorama at the Illinois State Museum—from something monstrous to something quotidian, from something animated to something frozen, with the confluence evoking the uneasy fallout of “progress,” be it scientific or social.
While I was cutting the Parables, I thought a lot about liturgical forms, about how a liturgy is expressed as a communal response to the sacred or the ineffable. I was hoping to evoke the spiritual vis-à-vis the political, and vice versa. I’m interested in reenactments as performed monuments. Belief gets fortified through rituals of repetition, as does history. Reiteration delivers the past.
Making a film about historical events is making a film about today. It is always a combination of two moments, with the gap between past and present as primary charging agent. This is why history needs continually to be revisited, renamed, recounted, interrogated, doubted, reassessed, reenacted.
The resonances between habits of the past (forced removal, for instance) and their contemporary manifestations are part of the Parables’ poetics. What are the ways that we speak history? How does belief fit in? What makes a certain version of events the one that gets passed down? The film doesn’t answer these questions. It only concretizes a manner of asking.
Rodrigo Braga, Inland Sea, 2016, 45 stones, dimensions variable.
During this year’s edition of Nuit Blanche, Brazilian artist Rodrigo Braga inaugurated Inland Sea, 2016, an al fresco installation in Paris of forty-five stones carefully plucked from French quarries, weighing between 1,100 pounds and six tons apiece. The stones are placed in the shallow pool on the esplanade between the Palais de Tokyo and the Musée d’Art Moderne. With the Eiffel Tower looming nearby, Braga’s selection of prehistoric boulders provides a counterpoint to the metropolitan environment, which is ordinarily smoothed of geological traces. The raw and the man-made constantly face off in the artist’s work, from his project of excavating bones and objects found in the former Brooklyn horse rendering plant and landfill that is now Dead Horse Bay, to the arresting 2004 series “Fantasia de compensaçao” (Fantasy of Compensation), in which he surgically stitches a dead dog’s facial features onto his own. Braga’s work pulls from body art and Land art, always employing nature as a rudimentary yet limitlessly rich source of material. Inland Sea for the Palais de Tokyo, funded by SAM Art Projects, is on view through December 18, 2016.
PARIS WAS LITERALLY MADE FROM LIMESTONE. It was a sea forty-five million years ago. As a foreigner and an artist, I try to see something that interests me in the city related to nature. Brazilians in Paris recognize how nature is so obviously controlled here. We have a square in Rio de Janeiro, the city I live in, called Paris Square, and it’s completely different from all the squares in Brazil. The trees are landscaped.
The sandy, monochromatic color of the limestone reminds me of the beach. I went to quarries in Chantilly and Nancy to choose the stones. Normally they cut them in cubes to sell, but I went there to choose raw stones with visible little fossils. Unique small shapes petrified from the sea are everywhere. There are billions, even when you go down to the Seine. Not everybody sees them. But nature is there—visible, tangible.
My work is not so conceptual—the start is very simple. The installation will change with sun and rain, dryness and wetness. Maybe things will grow on it—it becomes a living installation thanks to nature, and I would like it to be as organic as possible. I didn’t want the wood platforms, but they were necessary to distribute the weight of the stones. Below the installation, there are 350 iron pillars propping them up. Because of this engineering aspect, I had to follow a pattern for arranging them. So that’s an imposed order. But there’s no real measuring—I just followed the distribution of the pillars.
My parents are biologists. I am very familiar with the natural sciences; I started looking at books on biology and archaeology at home, and drawing. The connections I draw between art and the environment are valuable. It’s what I have in common with my parents. But they put another perspective on it, which is defending nature. I don't kill animals to do my work, it’s the system—humans do it. I deal with animal rights, but from a different perspective than my mother and father.
I study how men deal with nature, and the systems that men create for controlling or using nature. I work a lot with my own body, and with animals—always found. I do not examine pure idyllic nature, but where people put their hands in nature and turn it into something else—it’s this interface that intrigues me.
I started to introduce change to nature. I started fighting with nature, pushing and pulling between nature and man. Some works I make really bother people, get them angry, because I deal with expectations of life and death, and of the animality within ourselves. We are animals, yet we forget this.
Normally my work is image-based: photos and videos. I think like a painter; I did paintings and drawings in the past. Everything is composed visually—I cannot escape from this. This installation is very visual too. My preferred point of view is coming up from the street, from the “real world,” not from the museums. I want people to find the stones, stop, and just see them.
I have never done a performance for an audience. I do it in nature, in the countryside, mostly alone with my camera, tripod, and timer. I take the picture, not entirely seeing what I’m doing. I dialogue with the material around me—stones, earth—by touching it. Because I tend to work with nature directly, this project was really a challenge, more so than I thought. But many forces came together to make to make it happen. Believing in art can be a crazy, empowering thing.