In 1969, three artists, all of them mothers and divorcees, met at the University of California, Irvine, where they had enrolled in the school’s newly minted M.F.A. program. Their introduction to each other would prove transformative. The artists, Barbara T. Smith, Marcia Hafif, and Nancy Buchanan, had all graduated from West Coast colleges and had each already demonstrated an inclination toward unconventional art-making. At a time when Abstract Expressionism was still favored at institutions, UC Irvine’s M.F.A. students and teachers—among them Robert Irwin and Larry Bell—were moving against the current, often using their bodies as vehicles in performances and making installations that were growing increasingly politically minded.
At UC Irvine, two of the artists established an alternative co-op called F-Space in a nearby warehouse with ten of their classmates, including Chris Burden. There they could experiment without much oversight from the school’s administration. “Irvine was different,” Buchanan said in an interview. “Everyone was interested in what one another was doing. There was this solidarity.”
It was at F-Space that Burden staged his notorious radical performance Shoot and Smith her Nude Frieze, both in 1971. In the former, Burden commissioned a friend to shoot him at close range; in the latter, Smith orchestrated naked models to be duct taped to the gallery walls, creating a human frieze. As Smith explained, the gallery was “a kind of sanctuary for the investigation of ideas that was not available in other arenas” or simply a “politically safe space.”
Smith and Buchanan both became involved in the L.A. Woman’s Building during the 1970s, a standardbearer of the feminist art scene in Southern California that became known as a hotbed for experimental art-making. Hafif, who died in 2018 at 88, took a slightly different path. She moved to New York shortly after completing her M.F.A., living there for almost 30 years before moving back to the L.A. area. She received recognition for her conceptually minded monochrome paintings, mostly in Europe. And now all three are the subject of an exhibition that mines their 50-year relationship, titled “how we are in time and space,” on view through June 12, at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.
“They all made such disparate bodies of work and really experimented,” Michael Ned Holte, the show’s curator said. With this exhibition, Holte wants to evaluate anew the output of these three artists through the lens of their long-term friendship and its understudied connections. He continued, “It really came out of spending a lot time with them and thinking about the points of intersection,” which he draws out in the exhibition’s three main themes, areas in which their practices converge: the body, communication, and dwelling. “This is my version of Nancy, Marcia, and Barbara, and not necessarily their versions of each other,” he added.
The art scene around UC Irvine’s students during the ’60s and ’70s has previously been the subject of a major exhibition: “Best Kept Secret,” curated by Grace Kook-Anderson at the Laguna Art Museum in 2011 as part of the Getty Foundation’s first Pacific Standard Time initiative. But Holte wanted to take a different approach to analyzing this era.
“In some ways it is about the social milieu,” Holte said of his show. “There is a kind of call-and-response aspect to their work,” adding that he took some creative license to “make explicit connections that are somewhat implicit” between the three artists.
One of the showcase’s centerpieces is the only collaborative work that Buchanan and Smith ever made. The black-and-white video installation With Love from A to B (1975) is a single-shot performance piece that shows the artists’ two hands laid on a table. Set to a dramatic score, their hands mirror one another, beginning to gesture as they act out a scene of unrequited love. Two versions are shown in the exhibition: one showing Smith slitting her finger with a metal razor blade and drawing blood, the other showing Smith sparing her finger. In Notes and Bob and Nancy (1970–77), Buchanan and her classmate Bob Walker appear in a string of montaged Super-8 film shot by Hafif, who narrates the film as if it’s a scripted movie, meditating on relationships that are at once authentic and performed.
Other works interrogate ideas about lived space. Holte sees two works using scaled models of homes as showing a common thread between Buchanan and Hafif, who had both left behind their middle-class marriages when they met. In the work, the two examine the demands of their previous domestic lives. In Buchanan’s American Dream #7 (The Price Is Wrong), 1975, a sculpture of an intricate living room interior plays a small-scale video about Reagan-era housing speculation in the late 1980s. In the video, Michael Zinzun, a Pasadena-based activist and former Black Panther who had become known for fighting against police brutality in Los Angeles, begins by repeating Walter Benjamin’s dictum, “I’m here to remind you that no document of culture is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Holte positions this in the same section as Hafif’s Oval Houses (2002), a miniature sculpture of an ultra-minimalist dwelling, that he describes as “austere and highly utopian.” Whereas Buchanan examines conspicuous consumption that manifested in Los Angeles’s housing crisis decades ago, Hafif imagines what the minimal conditions are for existing. “They’re both working in a similar kind of idiom, but formally it couldn’t be more different,” Holte said.
In another video by Buchanan, An End to All Our Dreams (1982), the artist focuses on anxieties related to gun violence and threats of nuclear war through a montage of archival images and documentary footage. Buchanan’s personal ties seep into the film: text and images echo her father’s concerns about warfare. A chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force in the ’50s, he advocated for keeping nuclear weapons out of government control. In much of her work, through drawings and video, Buchanan said, she is concerned namely with holding the viewer’s attention. “If you have to get close to something then the work is in your personal space, and perhaps it bypasses some of the conceptualizing that people do when they look at art—they step back,” she said. “I wanted people to lean forward.”
The personal looms large in many of the works on view. Some touch on primal themes related to motherhood and death. In Smith’s Kiss a Spot Forbidden, from 1975, the artist conducts an hour-long live performance inspired by an incident four years earlier in which she almost drowned. At that time, she was in the middle of separating from her husband, who barred her from seeing their children. While treading in a local ocean cove in California, Smith contemplated letting the water engulf—not swimming to safety as the tide became stronger. She asked herself, was there a reason to live? “The answer was yes,” she concluded. “You have to stay alive for your children.”
In the first act of Kiss a Spot Forbidden, which Smith carried out in front of an audience of onlookers, she re-creates this experience in a Las Vegas swimming pool that serves as a stand-in for the ocean waters in which she almost died. Here, an audiotape recording of Smith describing her familiarity with the ocean plays, while she swims to the pool’s bottom to retrieve a cross. In the second act, she leads the audience to a nearby desert where she discovers an “oasis” in the form of a water-filled cup. It ends with her escaping with an anonymous man, leaving the crowd to find their way back, to which Smith concludes, “I’m restored.”
Smith is skilled in pulling off intricate performances, often sacrificing both bodily autonomy and personal time. In A Week in the Life Of… (1975), Smith organized an auction to raise funds for a local artist co-op space that was in danger of shutting down. Artist Allan Kaprow was a runner for the auction, with other art-world figures, like Paul McCarthy, in the crowd. Bidders, among them peers and friends, competed for blocks of one-on-one time with Barbara. It took her a year to complete all 36 lots of time she’d sold off, documenting the encounter in diary entries and letters. One winning bidder was a writer who managed to buy a full week, using the time to study Smith for a book on performance art. “I spent a week living in his space,” she recently recalled. “That was very risky. It was more risky for a woman.”
The only work in the show that connects all three artists is Sympathetic Magic (1972), a mail art piece initiated by Buchanan. For its chosen participants, including Hafif and Smith, are instructed to send a personal item—a photo of a grandmother or a letter from an ex-boyfriend—to someone they didn’t know. Like the others in the showcase, the works relied on a collective of artists making disruptions in the social status quo, the roots for which were laid during their brief period together at UC Irvine. “It’s not typical,” said Smith of their decades-long friendship. “The bond of our experience” has eclipsed all other art-world connections, Smith added. “I’ve had other art friendships, none of them have had that longevity. It’s totally unique.”