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Lee Lozano: Drawn From Life: 1961-1971

Lee Lozano,
Lee Lozano, "Untitled (Triple Hammer)" (1963), oil on canvas. Photo by Eva Heyd. Courtesy P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.

If P.S. 1’s show of Lee Lozano’s work from 1961-1971 would have seemed crass, elitist, and in bad taste three years ago, the recent revival of Philip Guston’s late paintings spare Lozano from such a reading now. And, if Drawn From Life’s radicalism and ballsy fuck-off attitude don’t inspire similar rah rahs from the critical establishment, it has got to be at least insinuated that it is either because she did not legitimize herself enough by previously working in a "high" method associated with emphasis on technique (AbEx namely), or merely because she’s a woman.

Much of Drawn From Life is cold, mocking, and intentionally crude, revealing Lozano’s methodology as a type of reverse elitism, flying in the face of Greenbergian dogma and offering scathing social critiques that pierced deeper than escapist abstraction could by the early 1960s. De Kooning could be considered a contemporary kindred spirit and a fellow provocateur, but Lozano’s work is completely emptied of heroic gesture— it either burns with sloppy, obvious rage, or coolly repels with sarcastic smoke and mirrors. Lozano’s not a total unknown. She had a solo show at the Whitney in 1971 and was "known" in the New York art scene from the mid-sixties until the early seventies when she gave up art. Drawn From Life shows Lozano working several very different aesthetic and material tactics, but the text-based pieces from the late sixties and early seventies offer insight on the earlier, rage-laced work, and also on why she would later leave New York and abandon art making altogether.

Her obvious fury towards American sexual politics is hinted at indirectly in a series of paintings and drawings depicting tools from the early-mid sixties. The semi-abstract paintings feel especially caustic. They are all banal close-ups of smooth, shiny tools— decidedly masculine objects— painted in a brushy style that could be considered elegantly (femininely?) rendered abstraction. The care devoted to the surfaces of the shiny tools is precious and loving. The slippery smooth steel glistens like the chrome on a big Ford, like the aluminum curve of a can of Bud, like the glossy pages of Playboy. Look no further than John Waters for similar critiques of a macho attention span— his 1974 film Female Trouble features a particularly disturbing scene where Gator passes the time during another banal fuck with his wife by flipping through a tool catalogue.

If Lozano’s disgust with status quo America is ambiguous in the tool paintings, it crystallizes in her text pieces. An untitled 1970 piece is a cryptic self-portrait of sorts, offering essential factual information that composes her personhood: sex (1931, continuing), drugs (1959, continuing), art (1935, continuing), and rejects the traditional American middleclass female "role," crossed out and renamed "trip" (1944). Other pieces incite with Jenny Holzer-like truisms. "All Weapons Are Boomerangs" (date unknown) snaps, "Humans: Train your emotions away from hatred the way you train yourself to use the crapper," and "People: I can still smell on your breath the other people’s rule you swallowed whole so long ago." Probably the most angrily elitist of the text pieces is "Thinking Offer" (date unknown), in which Lozano imperiously claims, "I offer to think about something for anyone," an idea bearing obvious similarity to a recent project by Brooklyn-based artist Emily Jacir, who offered to fulfill practical and fanciful requests in Palestine for natives there and abroad in her "Where We Come From" (2001-3). But while Jacir’s gesture is poignant and sincere, Lozano’s is cryptic and mean. Where Jacir uses her U.S. passport as a law-abiding means of carrying out a conceptual project, Lozano rejects codes, laws, and niceties, focusing on the rancid McDonald’s breath of the people who may or may not have actually known what they were symbolically supporting when they swallowed their first burger.

The frank admission of drug use is another common theme in the text pieces, both subtly ("I paint stoned. I put acid into these paintings, metaphorically" is written within a dense field of text) and obviously, like in "Grass Piece" (1969), in which she plainly describes her plan to "Stay high every day. See what happens." She lists "smoke get high" as one of three things she likes to do more than make art. Lozano seems to seek escape from a mass culture and an art culture she clearly felt stark alienation from in drugs, and obviously she harbored no moral qualms about a concept of art that was merely stoned life. The text pieces culminate in the ultimate anti-art, 1969’s "General Strike," in which she vows to "Gradually but determinedly avoid being present at official or public ‘uptown’ functions or gatherings related to the ‘art world’ in order to pursue investigation of total personal and public revolution." She succeeded, if not entirely in 1969, then certainly in 1971 with "Dropout Piece," in which she withdrew from the art world entirely and relocated to Texas.

Lozano’s crude drawings from the early sixties were not nearly as "cool" as these smartass conceptual text-actions— they burn with alienation and anger, revealing just a hint of optimism in their naked rage, which has all but disappeared by the time of "Dropout Piece." P.S. 1’s press release calls the drawings "explicitly humorous." They’re definitely explicit, but there is little that is humorous about these grotesque gems that challenge Guston in their radical and graphic political immediacy— all done ten years before Guston’s crassly critical Poor Richard drawings, which satirize Richard Nixon’s foreign and domestic policies. Lozano’s drawings invite easy reading as aggressively stupid, and they completely are. It looks as if they were drawn left-handed (assuming Lozano was right-handed), and most are executed in bold crayon. Details are abstracted as scribbles. But it’s a little too easy to chalk them up (disclaimed as potentially inappropriate for younger viewers) to juvenile immaturity. Yes, there are tools, including a particularly harsh drawing reading "CANAL STREET" (with the "C" crossed out) coupled with a screwdriver and hammer. There are also plenty of other symbols of power, like the drawing of three hands, one holding a cross, another an ice cream cone, the other a cock. Conspicuously disembodied dicks drift ambiguously through other pictures as well, sometimes poking out of holes where they shouldn’t be. Gigantic tits poke out of the Atlantic Ocean. Men are occasionally represented as cocks, nothing else. Women have tits for heads, visibly erect nipples, and shaved genitals. In a particularly brutal drawing called "9 Out of 10" (1961) from this series, a faceless woman with big red lips, sticking her ass out, drops dog shit into a city trash can. "9 OUT OF 10. EAT CUNT FOR MENTAL HEALTH" screams Lozano’s caption. Once again, the masculine dream— the sexy babe needs no face— just red lips, a short skirt, and some nice tits scores her 9 out of 10. More frat boy fantasies? Sure, most hilariously with the 1962 crayon drawing of a typewriter and a big grin wearing a bow tie with the evil caption, "I got my blow job thru the n.y. times." This approaches and exceeds sordid back-of-the-Village Voice territory that the venerable Leon Golub has begun to explore in paintings recently shown at Ronald Feldman Gallery. While Golub’s images focused largely on sex advertisements geared toward fetishists, both artists seem interested in the body as dictated by capitalism— an object of power and money. And everyone knows power and money isn’t held by the fairer sex. More than just a jab at the stultifying male gaze, Lozano’s early drawings represent a dialectical rejection of a set of values that blatantly projects women into the realm of fantasy and fetish.

That’s why it’s initially difficult to reconcile this body of work with Lozano’s seemingly apolitical, quasi-formalist paintings like "Slide" (1965). Curator Bob Nickas does a terrific job with the presentation of this piece, as well as "Punch, Peek & Feel" (1967-70) in the adjacent room, neither of which would make much sense without long tables of contextualizing documents and sketches. Both of these pieces hang on walls, but the pages of sketches are the clue to getting inside Lozano’s head to figure out why she would want to make coldly minimalist, nearly Op-like pieces in between her rage-filled tools and text-based work. Lozano notes that the sketches for "Slide" are stolen from the book Great Ideas and Theories of Modern Cosmology— demystification number one. Then, on another sketch she writes, "Add to paint silvering, metal flakes, sparkles, etc. Surface could look ‘crusty.’ And ‘expensive, elegant, showy.’" The resulting painting is totally showy in all its gaudy, glorious crustiness. Three tones each of gold and silver "elegantly" reflect the light, producing a spectacular optical experience. Only "expensive" paintings could be this "showy"!

In one of her text pieces, Lozano writes, "There’s no justification for form…unless it’s used to expose content which has meaning." Lozano’s late text pieces and abstract canvases abandon representation entirely, and when she uses form, she seems to be ridiculing the arbitrariness and inconsequentiality of formalism. "North South East West" (1967) is another confusing abstract work. The piece consists of four canvases, with the north and south ones hung vertically, and the east and west horizontal. Each canvas is spread out from a central point on the wall and the only representational mark on each is an arcing gesture that would appear to form a circle, seeming to connect the canvases despite their distance from each other. Like the other abstractions, "North South East West" is a tough sell without context, which comes in anecdotal fashion in a text piece further in the exhibition. A sketch of the same layout of shapes is accompanied by a Bucky Fuller quote: "As soon as I complete the drawing of a circle, I wish to be outside of it." Drawn From Life tells a story about confinement and isolation, and the depression and alienation that can result. In her early years, it’s clear that the circle is U.S.A.-at-large, which is a country Lozano finds sickening and depressing. By 1967, and certainly by 1972, the circle had widened to include the art world, which continued to be heavily influenced by a hard-line, usually masculine, minimalist influence. Seen in this context, "North South East West" may be Drawn From Life’s only image drained of rage and sarcasm, replaced by resignation and sadness.


Nick Stillman


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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