Lee Lozano, an eccentric artist who pursued Conceptual Art and painting in the 1960’s and then left the New York art world for self-imposed exile that included an embargo on contact with other women.
Ms. Lozano was a confounding rebel whose decade long New York career seemed always to involve pushing one limit or another. Her early paintings, executed in an Expressionistic cartoon style, confronted issues of sexual and painterly decorum. They featured a robust messiness, distorted close-ups of the body, intimations of violence and suggestively exaggerated images of tools.
By 1967 she had taken the systemic approach of Minimalism, making nearly monochromatic ”Wave” paintings based on wavelengths that pushed the limits of visual perception. In the mid-1960’s she also began to execute a series of life-related actions (she didn’t like the word performance) that tested, among other things, her stamina, her friends’ patience and the conduct of everyday life. These works reflected her friendship with Conceptually inclined artists like Sol LeWitt, Hollis Frampton, Dan Graham and Carl Andre. They also reflected an increasing disenchantment with the art world that bordered on hostility.
Many of these pieces were proposed or recorded in written works that she considered drawings. Sometimes she designated everyday activities like thought, conversation or marijuana smoking as art, attracted by the idea that they were unsaleable and democratic. Her ”Throw-Up Piece” proposed throwing the 10 most recent issues of Artforum, the leading magazine of contemporary art, in the air and letting them fall where they may. In ”Transistor Radio Piece” she listened to a radio while attending a panel discussion on art.
Accounts of Lee Lozano’s vivid personality and combative career have done their part to keep her visible since her death in 1999.. One look and you know you’re in the presence of an artist with large and fully controlled ideas, and the technical chops to give them powerful form.
Lozano was in her early 30s, living in New York City. It was an odd, shifting time for art. Abstract Expressionism was dead but wasn’t gone. Pop, irrepressible, seemed to be everywhere. An incipient Minimalism was in circulation. Lozano drew something from all of this, but with a concentration that took her work way beyond sampling.
Technically, the paintings and drawings belong to the genre of the tabletop still life. But the table in this case is a machine-shop workbench, and the objects depicted, in extreme, pornographic close-up, are tools: hammers, wrenches, drills, screwdrivers and so on.
The results are still lifes the way that José Clemente Orozco’s 1940s paintings of disassembled dive bombers are: studies in the purposeful malice of supposedly inanimate things.
José Clemente Orozco, Dive Bomber and Tank, 1940, fresco, six panels, 275 x 91.4 cm each, 275 x 550 cm overall (The Museum of Modern Art)
Many of Lozano’s Pop-inspired color-pencil drawings from these years were wicked sendups of phallic aggression. Her tools too, with their squat, rubbery forms, have a faintly burlesque air, yet never seem less than dangerous as they wrestle, fornicate, devour one another or just hunker down to wait for some action to begin. What lifts Lozano’s work above cartooning, though, is her formal confidence and poise, which lends poise to the images.
The tools, far less recognizable now as utilitarian objects, are figured variously as malleably soft and unremittingly hard. In these works, the tools, screws, and drill bits are held in tension, barely touching and suspended in a moment prior to the aggressive act of smashing, hammering, screwing, and drilling. In addition to these pencil and crayon works, Lozano made a series of multi-panelled paintings of tools comprising similarly extreme close-ups of drill bits and screwdriver heads painted in shades of slick granite black, and gun-metal grey. These are painted in stark monochrome shades with a three-inch house painter’s brush, which creates thick, even fields of colour articulating sharp points, sheer angles, and hard-edged spiralling forms in careful, laboriously finessed lines—the thread of a screw, the flat end of a hammer. Tools here function as bodily correlates as much as they do cold, industrial machinery, as if to reveal the uncanny flipside to the industrialized and rational sphere of mechanized labour.
Lee Lozano, No title, 1964 © The Estate of Lee Lozano
The relationship these drawings and paintings have to their ostensible subject matter is perverse and rooted in a deeply charged eroticism and aggression. In Lozano’s tool drawings, objects mate and morph, multiply and engage. Cropped close-ups at times make it hard to discern what the tool being depicted is, while at other times the line between body and tool, subject and object, is obscured and made strange. In some drawings from this period, the body figures explicitly, but only as the object of violent acts—a vagina as electrical plug socket, or a pair of denim jeans with a large spanner shoved into the zipper in a humorous acknowledgement of the machismo then associated with the artist’s workshop.
Lee Lozano, No title, ca. 1962 © The Estate of Lee Lozano
Jo Applin is author of ‘Lee Lozano: Not Working’ and ‘Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture’. She teaches modern and contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.