By James Kalm
Life is messy, but death is messier. And at least while you’re alive, you can bust ass in the clean-up—scrub away the stains and sweep what you don’t want seen under the rug.
Recently the ghost of Lee Lozano has been haunting me like Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. I began Part I of this essay with a simple idea: track the process whereby an artist’s oeuvre is discovered, promoted, and canonized without the direct intervention of the artist, a study at the nexus of where the market meets art history. Lenore Knaster, aka Lee Lozano, aka E, seemed the perfect case, an ambitious young artist with a brief but intense ten-year career that encompassed nearly every major artistic tendency during New York’s tumultuous ’60s. This decade’s worth of artifacts were set like a gem in a ring of actions, rumors, and myths that, because of their complexities, both obscured and enhanced the seductiveness of the work. Lozano’s final twenty-five-year self-imposed exile from the art world, her decision to stop creating physical works and divorce herself from her own production (leaving it like an orphan in foster care), carry all the implications of one of her “actions.”
Armed only with published reviews and oft-repeated historical anecdotes, I assumed I could track down the particulars easily—google a few articles, collect some factoids—and so I went ahead and published Part I. But Lee wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easy. Almost immediately the accepted dates and received myths that Lozano had so carefully constructed started to evaporate. A ten-thousand percent increase in the value of the extant work seemed to raise an E-fever in some witnesses, while at the same time, because of the powerful forces involved, it intimidated others into an uncomfortable reticence.
I was contacted by Lee’s cousin, Mark Kramer, who was living in Dallas when Lee showed up on her parents’ doorstep there in 1982. Mark spent several years as Lee’s closest confidant and hapless provider of a crash-pad when Lee couldn’t face hanging out with her parents. He’s established a website with the mission of straightening out the Lozano legend at www.leelozano.net. Available at the site is Robert Wilonsky’s incredibly tragic article, “The Dropout Piece,” which appeared in the Dallas Observer of December 9, 1999, just a few short months after Lee’s death. This cautionary tale documents the life and death of Lee, and should be required reading for anyone dreaming of risking their all in the pursuit of becoming an “artist.”
So here’s a brief, revised update: despite what’s been recorded in many chronicles of the period such as Robert Hughes’ Shock of the New (1980) and numerous articles in publications like ARTFORUM and Arts Journal (that Lozano left New York for Texas in 1971), it seems she remained in or around the Downtown Manhattan scene for at least another decade. This ten-year gap in her visibility testifies both to her success at “dropping out” and to the apathetic myopia afflicting a shocking percentage of local critical and historical pundits. According to Kramer, it was the death of Mickey Ruskin, owner of Max’s Kansas City and Lee’s longtime meal ticket, that ultimately led to her departure from Gotham and arrival in Dallas as a fifty-two-year-old indigent. Moving in with her retired parents, a strained relationship begins, which ultimately deteriorates to a point where, in desperation, her father is forced to have a restraining order issued against Lee (he complained that she’d kicked his legs bloody during tantrums). Apparently the abuse had gone on for years, and calling in the cops, who removed Lee in handcuffs, was her father’s final act of resistance, and took place only a month before his untimely death.
With the passing of her mother not long after, Lozano’s last lonely decade is spent in and out of various institutions. By 1998 she seems barely aware of the retrospective exhibition of her “Wave” paintings at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, or of the concurrent shows at three Manhattan galleries, Mitchell Algus, Rosen & van Liere and Margarete Roeder. She’s diagnosed with inoperable cervical cancer in the same year and dies in October 1999, laid to rest at public expense in an unmarked mass grave in Grand Prairie, Texas. Perhaps Lee’s quarter-century pilgrimage into obscurity can be posited as a millennial antithesis to Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, a heartbreaking performance without a safety net, an ambitious exploration in the aesthetics of failure. Here, at the last frayed nub of this artist’s life, you’d expect the story to end, and for Lenore Knaster it does.
“The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” In an ironic twist on Mark Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar, it’s the artifacts (not necessarily the evil) that live after, but how and why do they reemerge into the conscious world of the living?
In her April 2008 ARTFORUM “Market Index” article, Katy Siegel makes reference to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “circle of belief,” explaining, “By circle, he meant all of the people it takes to make an artist’s reputation, especially dealers, critics, curators, and collectors. By belief, he meant to emphasize that, for the system to work, all those involved must be sincere; they must truly believe in the artist.” With the passing of Lozano, this virus-like “belief” entered a latent phase, but as with any good virus, it needed only one profligate and passionate believer to transmit it. Enter a vector of taste-making.
“I don’t know if I’m qualified to talk about this, I just wanted to buy a drawing,” states the well-known critic, author and co-curator of Lee Lozano, Drawn from Life: 1961-1971 at PS1, Bob Nickus.
“I’d seen the show at the Atheneum, and had known about Lozano before that through the Cologne dealer Rolf Ricke. He’d shown her work in the late ’60s. Ricke also worked with both Steve Parrino [another posthumous art success story] and Cady Noland, a couple of my favorite artists, so we have a shared sensibility. But it wasn’t until some time later that I saw drawings at Mitchell Algus. I had no intention of curating an exhibition, I was just interested, and Jaap van Leire invited me to his apartment and showed me stacks of her work. I was impressed with the quality, the personality and anger that came out of it. That’s what you look for.”
When I asked Nickus during a phone interview about the re-emergence of the Lozano oeuvre at this particular point in time he opined:
“I think we’re in a period of rediscovery and consolidation. It seems about every 15 or twenty years we go through a cycle of looking back and being influenced by what happened in the past. Lozano is an artist whose work resonates with today’s ideas. A lot of the art in the late–80s/early–90s was referring to work from the sixties. Now we’re looking back to the early–90s again, taking stock. It’ll take us another twenty years to sort out what’s truly significant today.”
Nickus’ Drawn from Life co-curator Alanna Heiss is a longtime fan:
“I’d known her work from the ’60s and organized a well-received show previously at the Clock Tower in the early–80s. By then Lee might have traveled back and forth between here and Texas, but she was in New York, I spoke to her almost every day while we were planning the show [another myth bites the dust]. Funny, she thought being around other women would draw away her essential energy, but she was still in contact with me, at least telephonically. Even then the eccentricities were becoming apparent. One of Lee’s demands was that there should be only male guards. We might get into trouble with something like that today, but back then we agreed because we didn’t have a huge staff and our guards could use the overtime.”
On the question of Lozano’s re-emergence Heiss states:
“She had a small group of very loyal supporters, and these people also happened to be very influential in the art world. Berry Rosen and Jaap van Leire had developed relationships with committed collectors who maintained an interest. Bob Nickus is a very passionate and agile advocate. I knew the work was beautiful, but Bob has such a deft hand at designing and hanging exhibitions. I don’t know exactly how many people saw the show, but if one person sees it and loves it that’s enough. You saw it and loved it, and Ronald Lauder saw it.”
(Ronald Lauder acquired “Untitled” (1963), a large gnarly hammer painting from Drawn from Life, which was subsequently donated to MoMA and prominently featured in their controversial exhibition What is Painting in the summer of 2007.)
Once the prestigious gallery Hauser & Wirth comes on the scene, securing the estate after the PS1 exhibition, Lozano is on track for art world canonization. With their international reputation and timely focus (they mounted Lozano mini-retrospectives at their booths at both the 2005 Armory Show in New York and the 2006 Basil Art Fair—coinciding with the traveling exhibition Lee Lozano: Win First Don’t Last Win Last Don’t Care, curated by Adam Szymczyk and originating from the Kunsthalle Basil—and a one-person show of dark, nearly abstract paintings from the mid–60s at their Zürich gallery in late 2008) Hauser & Wirth presented Lozano as a seminal force in feminist and conceptual art theory, rather than a downtown eccentric who didn’t play well with others and had trouble sticking to the rules. (At the time of this writing, queries made to Hauser & Wirth regarding Lozano’s estate and the artist’s re-emergence have remained unanswered.)
Dave Hickey has stated that one of the measures of great art is its ability to morph and change yet remain in memory, and Lozano proves the point. A body of work that was created in the ’60s, abandoned in the seventies and forgotten by all but a minute few over the next two decades suddenly pops back into popular consciousness, as fresh and relevant as if it were made this morning. In that span of forty years, the work hadn’t changed, but the world has, and so has our perception of Lozano’s art. At the end of our conversation, Alanna Heiss left me with a cautionary note, “Don’t present Lee’s path as a recipe for success, she was unique.” I agree: who in good conscience would encourage that kind of self-destructive sacrifice, even on an enemy? Still, I can’t help but think I hear a faint, coy chuckle carried on the wind from the dusty barren planes of East Texas.
Special thanks to Mark Kramer, Bob Nickas, Alanna Heiss, Katy Siegel, Jaap van Leire, Stefan Eins, and the friends and acquaintances of Lee Lozano who wish to remain anonymous.