Hammered, bent, ripped, smashed: slang terms for drunk can be associated with almost all the objects Lee Lozano depicted in a series of paintings and drawings from 1963–64 recently on view at Hauser & Wirth. Sexual innuendo, though, is what they’re generally said to deliver, and indeed they also do that, especially if you add “screwed” and “shafted” to the list of mangled “tools.” Either way, the vocabulary suggests an inclination to provoke, as does the work’s execution, which is ferocious.
The untitled diptych that introduced this show features an unidentifiable hand tool, enormously enlarged—the painting is 9 feet high and 11 wide—and jammed up against the canvas’s surface. Its contours are blearily softened, which only enhances its menace. A slightly smaller painting features a hammer’s handle wrapped tenderly around the tool’s own head, the glowing, fleshy surfaces executed with de Kooningesqe bravura. By contrast, the thunderous wallop with which the three heads of another hammer strike down has all the delicacy of a mastodon. In most of these paintings, Lozano’s palette is restricted to shades of gray warmed with touches of brown and yellow. But in a few she uses a fiery carmine to bump up the savagery, as in a massive image of a prostrate hammer whose shaft glows molten red.
If the paintings suggest Lozano developed as an artist under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, the drawings more obviously place her among Pop artists of her own generation. Vigorously drawn in graphite and/ or conteÌ crayon, her screwdrivers, razor blades and wrenches have an animate presence that in several examples evokes drawings by Claes Oldenburg, who like Lozano showed at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery in the early 1960s. But Oldenburg’s famous bent-screw image came in 1969, half a dozen years after Lozano’s tool drawings, just as her focus on imagery that could be associated with active verbs—which she herself noted with glee—anticipated Richard Serra’s verb list of 1967–68. Skewering the big guys’ macho posturing with her tool images, she could also clearly beat them at their own games.
Just as clearly, she took little pleasure in it. The several varieties of intoxication and anger that Lozano expressed so strongly in her work also played a darker role in her life. Moving at great speed through various styles and theoretical positions, including Minimalism and Conceptualism, she arrived by 1969 at a piece that required her to drop acid for 30 days straight, and another, unreal- ized, that would have involved a series of paintings rendered three times each, when she was stoned, drunk and sober. By 1971, in keeping with her infamous Dropout Piece, she had cut off all rela- tions with other women. The following year, she departed from the art world altogether. She died of cancer in 1999.
Dropping out has had paradoxical effects on some artists’ careers—Agnes Martin, Lee Bontecou, Jay DeFeo and of course Duchamp are among those whose extended absences from the art world later helped consolidate their reputations. Lozano’s star has been rising for several years. In this show it blazed.
Photo: Lee Lozano: No title, 1963, oil on canvas, 65 by 80 inches; at Hauser & Wirth.