Sunday, February 1st, 2004

Lee Lozano, Drawn from Life: 1961 – 1971

PS1 Contemporary Art Center
22-25 Jackson Ave at 46th Ave in
Long Island City, New York

January 22 – May 1, 2004

Lee Lozano Hammer Diptych 1963 oil on canvas, 94 x 100 inches

Lee Lozano, Hammer Diptych 1963 oil on canvas, 94 x 100 inches

I went to see the Lee Lozano show at P.S. 1 with a friend of mine who used to be her pot dealer and (briefly) her lover. In the reception area there is a painting done in Lozano’s expressionist style that depicts a hammer with three heads. Broad, straw-like brushstrokes and a deceptively understated palette infuse the hammer image with an organic vitality. It fills the rectangle like a restless, mythical beast. In the exhibition rooms where the majority of Lozano’s works are displayed there are more paintings of tools: hammers, wrenches and clamps.

The objects are pictured much larger than life size. Standing in front of one of these images allows one to feel like they are climbable, like the limbs of trees. The tools coil in on themselves, tucked under in a cramped, interior space. The paintings seem to be about imagining what it must feel like to be alongside a growing penis stuck inside trousers. They have a murmuring, heroic air about them, like awakening animals. Lozano’s tools are more personal then those in Claes Oldenburg’s repertoire of “object pornography” and infinitely more bracing than Jim Dine’s coy little tool drawings. Lozano makes the reference specific in a drawing of a man’s lower torso with a wrench handle bulge in his pants and the adjustable wrench head sticking out of the pants fly. Lozano was fascinated by sex and would discuss her sexual experiences and those of her friends with great specificity.

The rooms also exhibit her slightly better known drawing and painting style, an obsessive bundling of subtly toned curves and directed force lines. In a number of works on paper Lozano makes various conceptual proposals concerning society and observes the behavior that surrounds her drug-taking. Here is evidence of the drug influence on the post-minimalist generation of artists. The lettered grid paper evokes the lofts and bleak streets of lower Manhattan in the late sixties and early seventies: (I’m quoting from memory):”Well, you can’t go over to La Monte and Marians without smoking a lot of hash” she writes. Or, “Alan Saret just got a pound”. The public and private, the visionary and the anecdotal converge in these candid, irascible graph paper notes.

In the further rooms on the first floor there are the more freehand drawings. I first saw many of these at the Philadelphia house of art collectors Helen and Milton Brutten in 1976. These works, on sheets about 16 x 20in., feel executed on the run. They are also are filled with penis and tool imagery but continue into depictions of crayons, flashlights and many other disparate objects amid pronounced textual rantings. Lozano conflated advertising catch phrases with street talk. One page combines a crayoned mouth with heavy graphite letters that scream “I got my Blow Job through the NY Times!”

By the early seventies, Lozano had stopped making art except (perhaps) for some of these drawings. “This is now the age of information” she told my friend, “the most important work that will happen in the future will be the exchange of information between people; I see no real future for studio art”. She got money by selling work from her collection of drawings by Judd and Andre. Lozano was taking a lot of LSD. When she was seen around SoHo she had the faraway look. When I met the Bruttens a few years after that time, they were selling her drawings for her and would send her the money. They told me that she was mostly living on the street.

I remember I wanted to buy a Lozano drawing with some boiler and pipe imagery and the phrase ‘I got fucked in the G^ass by Con Ed!” at the time for $250 and had to pass on it because I needed the money to move to New York City. Lozano’s drawings moved me and inspired me like nothing else at that moment. I had just finished art school and the only thing that interested me was the nascent punk movement. Lunatic rage seemed the only appropriate expression and I was looking for the visual equivalent to what I had been listening to. When I moved to New York, I would be asked what artists interested me and I said “Lee Lozano.” Either she hadn’t been heard of or there were vague rumors that she was a “shopping bag lady”.

Within a few years many younger artists had found the visual equivalent to punk music in neo-expressionism. It wasn’t until seeing this work of Lee Lozano’s again that I understood why I found neo-expressionism so contrived. Amid the expressionist assault, there’s a depth and complexity–something wavy in the lines, soft in the edges–it’s neither piercing nor brittle beneath the first look. A good artist’s attention during execution has the ability to twist and counterpoint one’s impressions of a work.

Like punk music, her drawings have a way of conflating aggressiveness, ridiculousness and vulnerability. Years after their brief recording life, the Sex Pistols album reveals a musicality and spaciousness that was not apparent at the time they were performing. All the other bands of that era have fallen away. In the same way, I’m a little amazed at the resonance of Lozano’s work. The full-throated sexuality and profound irritation of the work is tempered with an unusual tenderness and clarity. How rare to see work so unguarded, so strange and refreshing.