Lee Lozano left the art world almost 30 years before her death in 1999, ending a decade-long career in New York that included drawing, painting, Performance and Conceptual activities. In spite of the accomplishment of her paintings, she is best known (in so far as she is known at all) for two acts of refusal, both of which she undertook as artworks. In General Strike Piece, begun in 1969, she decided to withdraw from the art world, and recorded the process by documenting the last times she visited museums or attended gallery openings. That same year she began a month-long ‘boycott’ of women, which she then extended and continued for the rest of her life.
This survey of Lozano’s work – the first major effort since her death – included a wide selection of notebook pages, drawings and related paintings. Lozano’s paintings have drawn new praise in the last few years (David Reed called her ‘Wave’ paintings, 1967–70, ‘one of the three great series of American painting’, placing them in the esteemed company of Barnett Newman’s ‘Stations of the Cross’, 1958, and Andy Warhol’s ‘Shadow’ paintings from 1977–8), and her Conceptual works prefigure many relational aestheticians of the 1990s (such as Christine Hill and Rirkrit Tiravanija). Nevertheless she remains an enigmatic and elusive figure, fraught with contradictory positions on questions that challenge efforts to canonize her work.
Lozano was born Lenore Knaster in Newark, New Jersey, in 1930 and attended The Art Institute of Chicago before settling into the New York scene in the early 1960s. Many of her early drawings share the formal humour and line quality of Philip Guston’s later works on paper, and her gendered icons evoke early Claes Oldenburg in their cartooned stylization. With a few exceptions, however, most of the drawings in this show seemed unremarkable and almost insistently immature (in development rather than style). Although Lozano’s emotional investment is evident, her cutting anger begins to feel dulled into a mannered passion, dampened and constrained by the limited iconographic approaches she takes in the drawings. Phalluses of all types are paired with funnily irritated one-liners such as ‘fuck you it’, or with other suggestive formal equivalents (a crucifix, a flashlight) that sometimes amount to more than a silly visual pun, but often don’t.
The notebooks shed light on the rigour of Lozano’s regimented approach to painting, and describe some ideas for paintings that anticipate the obsession with subjectivity that would characterize later stoner artists such as Charles Ray. A note from 1968 suggests that ‘if the canvases are on warped stretchers, let them be hung on specially built warped walls’, which could easily have described a convex self-portrait photo for which Ray built a convex wall to match. Lozano also proposes a series of paintings, each to be executed while stoned, drunk or sober, for the sake of comparison. (She also envisages painting while tired, horny, sick or in love.) Lozano examines basic questions of perception on both sides of the table – the altered mental state of the artist (is it visibly manifested in the work?) and the viewer’s knowledge of this state (does it affect our perception of the work?).
Included among the notebook pages are her better-known Conceptual projects, such as Dialogue Piece (begun 1969), for which she invited people over to her loft for conversations, including those whom she ‘might not otherwise see’ because of the General Strike Piece then underway. This convenient loophole existed within another artwork, which poses some complications from a critical perspective. If we are to evaluate General Strike Piece on its relative asceticism and doctrine of negation, how do we accommodate relaxations of the project’s rigorous constraints if conducted in the course of a different ‘piece’?
More challenging is Lozano’s seamless intermingling of artifice and real life. ‘I will be human first, artist second’, reads a 1971 note, though she had already rendered this distinction practically meaningless. To whom, in any case, is this declaration addressed? Perhaps the most disturbing and interesting aspect of this show was her conspicuous consciousness of audience, co-existing alongside sentiments that seem pointedly reclusive. ‘Note to myself’, she writes in one case – lest we think the thought was intended for us. It’s a bit like discovering that the diary you’ve been peeking into has been written with you in mind. How much of this is as honest as it might first appear? Honesty, though, seems beside the point. Lozano’s confusion between private thought and performed emotion, both in art and in life, remains richly nuanced, intriguing and irresolvable: all characteristics of enduring art.
Very little is known about Lozano’s life after she moved into self-imposed exile in Texas in 1972. Even less is certain of her struggle to stay true to her last two projects. The strictness and boldness of her goals for General Strike Piece and the boycott of women demand that we evaluate these pieces by the degree to which she maintained her stringent programmes. Quite deliberately, Lozano didn’t want us to know more. Why not honour that choice? The most responsible appraisal of this troubled artist’s final exit from creative life may be to offer no reading at all – a refusal to engage with a work critically, albeit under the guise of criticism.