Lee Lozano: Not Working
An extract about Lee Lozano’s life
Lee Lozano (1930–1999) was a major artist in the New York art scene of the 1960s and early 1970s. During her ten-year career, she produced paintings and conceptual works. Despite being highly regarded as a painter, Lee Lozano is best known for two conceptual actions. In General Strike Piece (1969) she withdrew from the art world and around the same time she started to boycott of women which continued until her death in 1999 by which time she was all but forgotten. With a new exhibition of Lee Lozano’s works opening at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh on 10 March and Jo Applin‘s new book Lee Lozano: Not Working published on 20 March, it is time to re‑engage with Lee Lozano. We are celebrating her as one of our Remarkable Women of Yale University Press on the 2018 International Women’s Day.
Lee Lozano: Not Working is the first in‑depth study of Lee Lozano’s idiosyncratic career in 1960s New York, assuring this important artist a key place in histories of post-war art. The book charts the entirety of Lozano’s production during this period, from her raucous drawings and paintings depicting broken tools muddled up with genitalia and other body parts to the final exhibition of her spectacular series of abstract ‘Wave Paintings’ at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970.
Well-regarded at the time, Lozano is now perhaps best known for Dropout Piece, a conceptual artwork and dramatic gesture with which she quit the art world in 1970. Shortly afterwards she announced she would have no further contact with other women. Her ‘dropout’ and ‘boycott of women’ lasted until her death. This book tackles head on the challenges that Lozano poses to art history – and especially to feminist art history – attending to her failures as well as her successes, and arguing that through dead ends and impasses she struggled to forge an alternative mode of living. Equally, Lee Lozano: Not Working looks for the means to think about complex figures like Lozano whose radical, politically ambiguous gestures test our assumptions about feminism and the right way to live and work.
‘Dropout Piece was a conceptual undertaking that involved Lozano withdrawing from the art world, gradually cutting all ties and contact with her peers, and in so doing bringing her ten-year career as an artist to an abrupt end. By labelling her decision a ‘piece’, Lozano accorded her ‘dropout’ the status of a conceptual work of art that was in line with the numerous other art-life ‘pieces’, ‘investigations’ and ‘experiments’ she had been undertaking and documenting since 1969, during which time she shifted her attention away from her earlier drawing and painting practice to work primarily with language, words and ideas as her chief materials. Lozano had in fact experimented the previous year with the idea of a temporary work stoppage in her General Strike Piece, which ran for several months over the course of the summer of 1969. During that time Lozano had refused to participate in the circuit of art-world openings, exhibitions and parties in protest at its machinations. In 1971, just over a year into her ‘dropout’, Lozano embarked upon one further withdrawal, dubbed her ‘boycott of women’. While Lozano considered both Dropout Piece and the boycott of women as only temporary actions, she never did return to either women or work. For the rest of her life, Lozano reputedly acknowledged other women only when absolutely pressed to do so. Waitresses, her friend Sol LeWitt later recalled, could expect Lozano to ignore them completely.’
‘Seen from one perspective, then, Dropout Piece and Lozano’s follow- up boycott of women can be considered culminating endpoints, but it is important to remember that for Lozano, for a time at least, they signalled a new beginning and the start of something else. That is, Lozano’s stoppages imagined a possible future, of freedom and a subject unfettered by the constraints of either gender or the working conditions imposed by others. Such a position was, of course, deeply flawed, as utopian as it was untenable, as apolitical as it was simply inexplicable to many. It is for these reasons, however, that Lozano remains such a compelling figure, and her project so provocative and fruitful to think with, but also against. It raises urgent, contemporary questions about freedom and feminism, about work, and a world beyond, or post-work. Certainly, Lozano’s rejection of feminism was often accompanied by comments in her notebooks proposing the eradication of gender – although, as I argue in what follows, she remained entangled with the emergence of a feminist politics that needs to be addressed and which presents a more complicated picture of the times – of what it was to work, live and make art in a world in which women had to fight for the space and right to be heard. Lozano was a part of that, however much she tried to dip in and out, or to distance herself with declarations of androgyny or that gender didn’t matter. Yet Lozano was not alone in dissociating herself from the label ‘woman artist’ – such a position was par for the course for many artists who came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the formalisation of a feminist politics that would only really become galvanised by the 1970s.’
Jo Applin teaches modern and contemporary art at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.
Find out more about Lee Lozano’s life and work in this short audio clip from Jo.
You can purchase Lee Lozano: Not Working here.