Brooklyn Dispatches: Resurrection of a Bad-Ass Girl, Part I

Where did they go, and where the heck are they now? If you’ve got more than a casual interest in contemporary art, and a memory that extends beyond breakfast, these questions can hold a morbid fascination. Pick up any copy of a Whitney Biennial catalog, or glance at a five-year-old art magazine, and you’ll undoubtedly run across artists who streaked across the art world firmament like comets only to disappear just as suddenly, a humbling note often overlooked by young artists with shortsighted career ambitions. The art game is tough, with bizarre politics, serendipitous trends, and general struggles with the vagaries of life; even for the few who do break through, it’s an extremely fragile achievement. Compound this with the notion that there are no second acts in American life, and you grasp the daunting challenge of gaining and remaining in the spot light.

Fred Gutzeit "Lee Wall Sketch" (2008) mixed media on paper.

Lee Lozano (1930-1999) was the name on the wall at P.S. 1 in 2004, and even though I pride myself on being an amateur art historian, I was totally oblivious of her work or back-story. Drawn from Life: 1961 - 1971 was a tantalizing overview of an intense decade; it followed Lozano’s development from Chicago Imagist to Pop, through Proto-Feminist Expressionism to text-based Conceptualism and Minimalism. As much as I enjoyed Drawn from Life, the troubling question was not how someone whose work was so prescient could slip through the cracks, but what kind of machinations and behind-the-scenes string pulling had enabled this oeuvre to suddenly reappear and garner so much attention? Was this an authentic new narrative of artistic alienation? A legend-in-the-making as memorable as slamming an Oldsmobile into a tree or hitting a pothole with a Harley on the way home from a New Year’s party? After all, none of this stuff just happens; there are no coincidences in the art world.

Longtime local painter Fred Gutzeit knew Lozano. He met her in the late ’60s soon after he arrived in the city. Lee was about ten years older than Gutzeit; they were introduced through connections at the Paley & Lowe Gallery in the nascent neighborhood of Soho. Because, at the time, his painting was abstract and based on scientific theories and mathematics, it was natural to assume he and Lozano would have something in common. Though they never became intimate friends (Lozano was known for her intensity and flighty relationships), the young Gutzeit considered her something of a mentor. He visited her at her loft, and is mentioned in her journal entries as one of her dialog subjects. Flattered, but slightly overwhelmed by her attentions and underground reputation, Gutzeit’s friendship with Lozano foundered and within a year they were no longer in touch. Lozano split New York for Dallas, Texas in the mid-70s, leaving a trail of wraithlike sightings among Soho’s bohos, but never again spending any extended periods in the city.

Before their parting of the ways, Lozano gave Gutzeit a notebook of graph paper similar to the ones she’d been using for most of her journals and text-based conceptual works. Inside the front cover is the inscription: “Love to Fred from Lee Lozano.” The notebook lay empty around the studio for thirty years, kept as a memento but never used. Even after Lozano’s death in 1999, Gutzeit couldn’t bring himself to draw in it. With the recent uptick in Lozano’s profile and a renewed interest in returning to earlier subjects, Gutzeit decided to create a gallery-filling tribute for Pocket Utopia in Bushwick, and the gridded notebook was finally put to use to develop his mural design.

Lee Lozano in the 1960s.

Gutzeit has based his work in part on Lozano’s “Wave Paintings,” which were exhibited in an elegantly spare one-person show at the Whitney in 1970. These were Lozano’s final works in that medium and, as some postulate, the beginning of the artist’s disenchantment and withdrawal from the art world. For his part, Gutzeit has compressed the multi-paneled “Wave Paintings” into a single section on the left side of the mural. Using a combination of hand manipulations and computer programs such as Photoshop, the artist improvised a highly-keyed palette with gradient fades (Lozano had been criticized for the dour and “minimal” browns and grays of the originals) and extrapolated his own black and white forms from the wave rhythms that swirl throughout the rest of the piece. The completed design has been digitally printed onto plastic tarps using a commercial billboard process. At 12 × 60 feet, “Lee Wall” runs the entire length of the gallery’s west wall, enveloping viewers in a vibrating environment of high-contrast, hallucinatory swoops and ripples. A selection of collage-paintings and the above-mentioned notebook are also on display, a fitting tribute to a complex artistic persona, and perhaps a goad for further investigation and a greater understanding of the seminal work of Lee Lozano.

Worth More Dead Than Alive

Katy Siegel’s very insightful “Market Index” article from the April 2008 ARTFORUM clears up some of the questions surrounding Lozano: “Between the time I saw Lozano’s paintings in a barn in Pennsylvania, in 2001, and their appearance in (Art) Basel (2006), their prices had rocketed from the low tens of thousands to nearly a million dollars.” This fact would focus the attention of the New York art world like a laser. My own research into the “Lozano Case” has encountered obstacles and obfuscations that you might expect from a B-grade film noir. Again and again I was cautioned that comments were “off the record” or not for attribution. One dealer who’d exhibited her work simply said he was “uncomfortable discussing this” and abruptly hung up. Timelines were revised, relationships discovered. Friends from her Soho days were happy to recall her eccentric behavior, drug use, and contacts with an amazing network of art world stars, exemplified by a photo, prominently displayed in her loft, of Lozano mugging with Andy Warhol.

Having arrived on the scene in the early ’60s, with huge dark eyes and an attractive yet doctrinaire presence, by the late sixties she was seen by some younger artists as a role model, part of a group of emerging female artists that included Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, and Hannah Wilke. Her work was presented in two group shows at Dick Bellamy’s Green Gallery on 57th Street, who also represented the likes of Don Judd, Ronald Bladen, Robert Morris, and Larry Poons. Plans for her own one-person show fell through when Green closed, leaving the artists scrambling and flummoxed. Bellamy helped to arrange her presentation at Bianchini Gallery, and she debuted there in 1966. Like a natural-born surfer, Lozano rode the crest of every new wave of artistic expression, collecting artists from every neighborhood and clique. Somewhere in the late sixties, along with the dope, the social unrest, the constant strain of competition and perhaps the onset of middle age, things started to go wrong. The culmination of a decade of work was the exhibition of her “Wave Paintings” in the Whitney’s Lobby Gallery. Though critically well received, it didn’t lead to the kind of career-making recognition or financial security she had hoped for. A box containing nail clippings from her fingers and toes, hair and other bodily castoffs was included in the show, running counter to the austere Minimalist qualities of the paintings and causing some to question Lozano’s vision. Shortly thereafter, in arrears with her landlord, Lozano was evicted from her Grand Street loft. She stopped painting and began concentrating more on her notes and journals, which soon became her pioneering efforts in Conceptual art. The “actions” she set for herself, with titles like “Masturbation Piece” and “General Strike Piece,” were a program for her rejection of and eventual expatriation from the art world.

The preservation of one’s work is a constant concern of artists. Horror stories like the loss of Stuart Hitch’s life’s work occur all too often. It’s notable and fortunate for us that the cagey Lozano, having lost her loft, down on her luck with little cash and no permanent address, was nonetheless able to make an arrangement with a reputable collector from Philadelphia to maintain and store her work.

For a while she lived with Scott Billingsley, known later as half of the Underground Film team of Scott and Beth B. During these last scrappy years in New York, crashing on couches and living on air, friends began to notice the toll—she looked haggard and people believed she’d gone nuts. In the early ’70s she spent time in London and eventually ended up in Dallas living near her parents.

Once she landed in Texas the story gets hazy. Beginning in 1985, through her inclusion in a show at PS1, she was brought to the attention of Barry Rosen by Donald Knollbert. He, along with partner Jaap van Liere, committed to represent Lozano. They supported her with occasional sales and were eventually the executors of her estate. Van Liere was one of the few New Yorkers who remained in touch with Lozano via phone. When asked if Lozano continued working after leaving New York, van Liere mused, “Lee never denied, condemned or destroyed any work. She considered her studies and continuing dialogs as her art, but as far as creating objects, paintings or drawings? No. She made obsessive notes of her activities and lists but as far as we know that was it.” Apparently she spent much of her time in the library of Southern Methodist University reading Scientific America and other scientific and philosophical journals, and to an extent maintained her network of artist friends with occasional phone calls.

In the late nineties Lozano was diagnosed with inoperable cervical cancer. As an appropriate last hurrah, a retrospective exhibition of the “Wave Paintings” was scheduled in 1998 at Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum along with three concurrent shows in New York at Mitchell Algus, Rosen & van Liere and Margarete Roeder. The accumulative exposure and critical attention of these shows started wheels in precipitous motion.

Lee Lozano died on October 2, 1999, in Dallas, Texas, at the age of 69.

Part II of “Resurrection of a Bad-Ass Girl” will appear in a future issue of the Brooklyn Rail. I’d like to thank: Sarah Lehrer-Granwer, Katy Siegel, Jaap van Liere, Fred Gutzeit, and friends and acquaintances of Lee Lozano who wish to remain anonymous.

Contributor

James Kalm

winter-2014
×