Where do you possibly begin with an artist who was as protean and prolific as Lee Lozano? In the Pinacoteca Agnelli’s current Lozano survey in Turin, on view until July 23, the first room presents a bevy of the frenetic drawings that she made in early 1960s New York, at the start of her 30s. Disembodied mouths—red lips, menacing grins—abound in these works. Cartoonish penises do, too, as well as bulging tools (hammers, crowbars) that suggest body parts, ready to inflict damage. “It will be like a punch in the stomach,” Pinacoteca Agnelli director Sarah Cosulich, who co-curated the show with the museum’s chief curator Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti, said in a video interview ahead of the exhibition’s opening. Cosulich thinks of these formative pieces as “violent, ironic, surreal, sarcastic, and very instinctive.”
Lozano did nothing half-heartedly. Soon she was painting precise geometric abstractions and embarking on wild conceptual endeavors. She smoked pot constantly for more than a month for one work, she abstained from it for another, and she invested in stocks for a third. The Pinacoteca show’s title, “Strike,” alludes to another radical effort, General Strike Piece (1969), which Lozano described like this, writing in capital letters, as was her wont: “GRADUALLY BUT DETERMINEDLY AVOID BEING PRESENT AT ALL OFFICIAL OR PUBLIC ‘UPTOWN’ FUNCTIONS OR GATHERINGS RELATED TO THE ‘ART WORLD’ . . .” In 1972, two years after she had a solo outing at the Whitney Museum, she vanished from the scene entirely—a move that may or may not have been an artwork unto its itself—and her whereabouts became hazy.
“Strike” is Lozano’s first survey in Italy, and it is the latest milestone in the posthumous rise of her reputation. When she died of cervical cancer in 1999 at the age of 68, she was impecunious and little known. She had been living off the art-world grid in Dallas, where she had family since 1982. The year before her passing, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, had shown her final paintings, the “Wave” series—11 panels of bewitching waveforms made between 1967 and 1970—while three Manhattan galleries had highlighted various aspects of her career. One of the dealers, Mitchell Algus, has said that he had trouble moving her drawings at $1,500. In 2018, a modestly sized graphite and pastel drawing of a razorblade, Hard (1964), went at auction at Sotheby’s for $175,000. The powerhouse mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth now represents her estate and has staged seven Lozano shows since 2007, more than she had during the dozen or so years that she was actively exhibiting.
There are plenty of tales of underappreciated artists experiencing sudden market booms, of course. What makes Lozano’s story intriguing is how charged—how distinctly unconfinable and indigestible her work can still seem. She makes even some of her vanguard contemporaries look tame. “SEEK THE EXTREMES, THAT’S WHERE ALL THE ACTION IS,” she once wrote.
For decades now, Lozano has been an artist’s artist par excellence. The painter David Reed argued that her “late abstract paintings were the most advanced paintings being done at the time,” when art historian Katy Siegel published a package on Lozano in Artforum in 2001. Sol LeWitt, who regularly visited her studio, said of her beguiling “Wave” paintings in that feature, “everyone agreed it was a major statement.” Algus, who is also an artist, said in a recent phone interview that her work appeals to artists because “it’s very smart. It’s out-there.” (Her associates in New York had included Carl Andre, Hollis Frampton, and Dan Graham. “If you read the text pieces,” Algus said, “she’s interacting with everybody in the Downtown scene in the ’60s.”)
“When I first saw her work, it looked to me like a visual translation of the riot-grrrl sentiments I shared, of the desire to be perceived as non-binary, or a kind of basic rage in living as a woman in the patriarchy,” the artist Davina Semo, 41, said in an email. “I felt a kinship with her, this person who was all-in with her work; the way her work seemed to be inextricably linked to her being.” (Semo makes tough, elegant, industrial pieces—hanging bells, cast-bronze wall works—and recently had shows at Broadway gallery in New York and Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco, which closed earlier this month.)
But despite Lozano’s growing renown, it has stretched only so far. “Believe it or not, texts on Lee Lozano in Italian and French do not exist,” Cosulich said. The Pinacoteca show will travel to the Bourse de Commerce in Paris in September—its founder, luxury magnate François Pinault, is a deep Lozano collector—and the two institutions will release a catalogue that will remedy that.
Lozano did not exactly make it easy for people to become her supporters, it has to be said. In 1971, she stopped speaking with women, a temporary experiment that became her practice for the rest of her life, it is believed. That blunt reckoning with gender and power has a particular resonance at the Pinacoteca, a former factory for Fiat cars that Renzo Piano transformed into arts center in 2003. “We are in a place that was dominated by men,” Cosulich said. The museum’s permanent collection also happens to have a churning 1913 painting by the Futurist Giacomo Balla, Velocità astratta (“Abstract Speed”) that parallels Lozano’s abstract works, she noted.
New generations have come to Lozano’s art via a steady stream of shows, but also through her writings. Primary Information published some of her notebooks in 2010, and Karma has been releasing meticulous facsimiles of the 11 little spiral-bound notepads (each labeled “PRIVATE” on its cover) that the artist used from 1968 to 1970 to record her activities, ideas, and sometimes-distressing thoughts: “I AM AFRAID OF MYSELF. I DON’T LIKE MYSELF.” (There are stories of substance abuse and mental illness. Reed told Artforum that Lozano stayed with him in the 1970s after she had lost her SoHo loft, but that he had to kick her out after a few days. He saw her as “a kind of warning about what could happen if you mixed art and life too closely.”)
In 1972, as Lozano seems to have been heading toward the exit, she edited those 11 journals. As the writer and curator Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer put it in her perspicacious 2014 book, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece, they are “Private but edited. Protected but prepared. We are trespassing, and yet she has been expecting us.” Lozano would not be surprised by her current profile, I suspect. She knew she was important. In a notebook entry quoted by Lehrer-Graiwer, she recalls telling the powerful German curator Kasper König, “I’m a very good painter and not a nice girl!” (He had contended that she was a “good painter and a nice girl,” she claimed.)
Given that today’s artists are expected to perform on the international social circuit at a certain level of professionalism, Lozano’s decision to depart looks potently refreshing. Who has not mulled a career change during an interminable gallery dinner? But the danger when discussing an artist who made such bold, indelible work—and life choices—is that it all becomes a mere series of one liners: the lady who smoked pot, who quit the art world, etc.
The truth is that Lozano seems to have always been on the hunt for better ways to make art, to understand people, and to live in the world. After boycotting women, she hoped, “COMMUNICATION WILL BE BETTER THAN EVER.” She pursued her General Strike against art events “IN ORDER TO PURSUE INVESTIGATION OF TOTAL PERSONAL & PUBLIC REVOLUTION,” she explained. A Dialogue Piece she wrote up in 1969 involved her asking “PEOPLE YOU MIGHT NOT OTHERWISE SEE” to visit your loft for dialogues—“JOYOUS SOCIAL OCCASIONS,” she termed them.
Lozano grasped for community at the same time as she shunned it, and imposed rigorous systems on her life as she ceded control of her place in the New York art world, a sphere in which she had exceled. “She’s full of constant contradictions,” Cosulich said, “and the challenge is to explain to the public that these contradictions make up her coherence.” True of Lozano, true of us all.
Correction, April 17, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti‘s museum affiliation. She is chief curator of the Pinacoteca Agnelli, not an independent curator.