“Lee was a very careful and skilled person,” says Barry Rosen of the Lee Lozano Estate, with deceptive subtlety. However innocuous, the description runs countrary to the sensationalism that has dogged the artist’s legacy. After her struggle with cervical cancer ended in 1999, Lozano has been pegged with the ghettoizing “insane” or “outsider” tag. This is in part for notoriously getting evicted from her SoHo loft and “dropping out” of New York’s art world in the 70s, at the height of her career, to move to Dallas. Viewing the recently opened “Lee Lozano Tools,” an exhibition of graphite drawings and large oil paintings made by the artist in 1963 and 1964 (now on view at Hauser & Wirth), one finds work marked by rigor, precision and formal grace. The works—which include a handful of large-scale oils and several graphite studies—have never been shown as a group. Most have never been exhibited at all.
NO TITLE, 1964. COURTESY HAUSER & WIRTH
The conjecture about Lee Lozano’s mental stability seems unabating (virtually all essays discuss or allude to theories of her psyche, including a recent long-form piece in the New York Times by Dorothy Spears, wherein PS1 founder Alanna Heiss waxes poetic: “Lee was cruelly caught in the space between art and madness”). In their most helpful moments, these amateur diagnostics lead us to contemplate her peers’ and contemporaries’ compulsion to speculate.
Rosen, who with partner Jaap van Liere has represented Lee Lozano’s work since the 1980s, picks fact from fiction. “She wasn’t insane,” says Rosen, who was acquainted with the artist until her death, “She allowed herself flexibility to live her life and make the work she needed to make.” Prior to representing the estate, Rosen had heard stories about her temperament. “Is it crazier to be an artist who defines a way to make your art, or to be Dick Cheney and feel like you have to kill everybody who is in your way?”
What Lozano’s paintings and drawings bring most to mind is the idea of creative, emotional and psychological boundaries. She began work on her exquisite close-up studies and renderings of tools in 1963, and they preface a somewhat better-known body of cartoonish tool images. Here, one finds a lovely, rhythmic graphite detail of screws (No title, 1964), which suggests the mind of an artist manually investigating the precise formal properties of a household object.
Each piece in the exhibition examines a familiar object so closely that it finally becomes, by virtue only of true intimacy, something foreign and new. When rendered in oil, Lozano’s tools grow larger than life, and they breathe. No title, her 1963 depiction of a hammer with three heads denotes the action of hammering (one never strikes the same place twice) and percussion—as well as an anthropomorphous notion of sex. “Her work is always tied to language, there’s double entendres with tools. Lozano was tremendously and unapologetically sexual,” says Rosen. “And she was dealing with tools, which wasn’t really something women were supposed to be doing.”
These works contextualize the greater oeuvre, including Lozano’s infamous Boycott Piece (1971), a conceptual work wherein the artist chose to avoid contact with women (this work reportedly remained active, by degrees, until her death in 1999). Rather than focus on the sensational aspects of such a piece (Lozano’s Times obituary featured the piece in its headline), it is interesting to look at the telos of the piece. Eliminating women from her life, the artist was also, in effect, boycotting an aspect of her own identity, vis-à-vis her own identity as a gendered person. By its rigid, determinate negation, the work asks us to consider the delineation and segregation of the sexes, and the self.
One sees something of a kindred in Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, whose “pandrogyny” transformation—based on intensely original philosophies concerning self, identity and the boundaries of love relationships, and very much part and parcel to her visual practice—has been met with both acceptance (P-Orridge’s visual work has been collected by the Tate Britain) and derision as kitsch. Truly challenging artwork is not easy for audiences, however forward-minded they imagine themselves to be. “Lozano would say, ‘People think I hate women, but that’s not true,'” explains Rosen. “She was disciplined: she decided to do that piece, and she did it. And it wasn’t easy, and she did it for a zillion years. Would I want that life? No. Do I respect that someone does that? 100 percent—because it’s hard to do.”
LEE LOZANO TOOLS IS ON VIEW THROUGH FEBRUARY 19. HAUSER AND WIRTH IS LOCATED AT 32 EAST 69TH ST, NEW YORK. ABOVE: NO TITLE, CIRCA 1964. COURTESY HAUSER AND WIRTH