You Are What You Art
By Rebecca S. Cohen
July 14, 1997: You have so much stuff!" a friend commented when she came to visit. It sounded suspiciously like criticism, but she was right. In my house there is art on the wall, art on the furniture, art on the floor. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Enter your own house one day wearing someone else's eyes and try to imagine who lives there. Or better yet, visit the University of Texas Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery and see "Sniper's Nest: Art That Has Lived With Lucy R. Lippard," then try to reconstruct Lippard -- author of some two dozen books, feminist, political activist, and art critic -- from the available clues. What's an art critic doing with a collection, anyway? "Should critics, ethically, even collect art?" That last question comes from a Lippard catalogue essay by Elizabeth Hess. As you can imagine, it amplified my interest in the exhibition, and my interest in Lippard, who writes that most of the work was given to her by artists:
I was... horrified when Bob Huot gave me a painting... When I said so, he got really pissed off and said, "Fuck you if you can't forget you're a goddamn critic and you can't just accept a present from a friend." I felt bad and gratefully accepted Lucy's Lolly, and from then on I avoided the rhetoric and just said thank you.
Is this, then, a huge accidental art collection, a hodgepodge of unsolicited gifts? What sort of mind -- let alone house or loft -- could welcome works as diverse as Huot's elegant, red Minimalist painting and Bessie Harvey's visionary concoction of painted sticks and wood, or Sol Lewitt's cool wall sculpture (Hockey Stick) and Faith Ringgold's funky White Lady doll?
Lucy Lippard says that the paintings and prints and drawings and constructions with which she has lived don't constitute an art collection so much as a collection of evocative "stuff." This "stuff" stirs memories of friends, family, the causes she's championed over the years. It is also, says one of the essays in the catalogue, a view of art from Minimalism to multiculturalism, as seen through a wide-angle lens. The art critic purchased these memories through her commitment to ideas and ideals. By her own direction, then, we are being asked to consider not only her critical eye but her life.
Within this assortment of valuable, semi-valuable, and oddball stuff, there's something to interest everyone, from Mexican chotchkes to Pop Art painting, outsider art to art by the ultimate insiders. It is a collection that describes the values and priorities, friends and lifestyle of its owner, and defeats -- once and for all, I think -- the notion that without serious money you can't collect art. Lippard's collection is about love (and obsession) and getting to know artists. It is about showing interest in what artists do and in who they are and encouraging their efforts. In Lippard's case, acquiring art has been quite literally about love; she has been married to or involved with several artists whose work appears in the show and is close friends with or related to a number of others.
Consider son Ethan Isham Ryman's Hamburger with Bug, a bold, Pop Art-style rendition of the subject, painted when he was young. Lippard was married for a time to his father, painter Robert Ryman, whose lushly painted white canvases are among the best works in the show. Margaret Isham Lippard's 1949 watercolor of Florence, Florence Isham Cross' elegant Shell (1903), and Mrs. Joseph Giles Isham's 1827 sampler represent a family that certainly provided inspiration for little Lucy. She studied art as an undergraduate but knew all along that she was more writer than studio artist. Elizabeth Hess writes, "Art critics are not born. They are constructed by a series of social manipulations that sometimes turn into jobs and, for better or worse, careers." Lippard lived in the right place (a loft in Lower Manhattan) at the right time (before Soho's shee-shee eateries and dress shops outnumbered its serious art galleries). Artists such as Ryman, Eva Hesse, Robert Mangold, Charles Simonds, and Sol Lewitt were her friends and co-workers.
Photographs in the exhibition describe the loft where this art lived with Lippard. It was never a fancy place. Exposed pipes, a makeshift cluttered desk, and mismatched furniture make for a kind of Sixties, post-college dorm decor. In the photographs, Leon Golub drawings are pinned on what appears to be a support column in the center of the space. Below, Papo Colo's domino and wood cross sits atop an amplifier. The rest, including works by Judy Chicago, Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Spero, Sol Lewitt, and James Rosenquist are hung salon style alongside lesser known artists and a little Goya print from his Caprichos series.
Along with the "real" art, Lippard's button collection is displayed in a glass case, denoting her emergence as a feminist, her opposition to the Vietnam War, to U.S. intervention in Central America, and her interest in multiculturalism. Also displayed are artists' books and burnished stones (artifacts of little value except that they probably feel wonderful in your hand). Lippard mentions donating one artist's book to raise money for a political cause. She was told it would have brought even more money, had it not been obviously "overperused" by so many people. "But what's art for if not to be seen?" she says. What other response would you expect from a woman whose son bounced a ball off the corner of one of his father's paintings and rode his tricycle (repeatedly) over a fiberglass Bruce Nauman sculpture? In fact, the final essay in the catalogue is written by the show's registrar (a highly unusual contribution), whose job it was to see to the objects' well-being and preservation. "By museum standards, they had been through hell," she confides. On the other hand, the woman lauds Lippard's ability to collect people as well as art, people who were friends. This collector treated the art objects in her home, not as honored guests so much as good friends, perhaps as surrogates for those friends. Lippard allowed her works of art to pretty much fend for themselves while they lived with her.
Neery Melkonian, the show's curator, says she has arranged the works according to groups: "chronological (Minimalist, Conceptual), thematic (feminism, war/protest), by artist (Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse), by medium (photographs, posters), and sometimes in idiosyncratic combinations arising from the inherent qualities of the collection itself...." The visitor may experience some moments of disorientation.
I looked for friends and familiar faces to help guide my way through what might otherwise have been an overwhelming display (there are 200 objects!) of paintings, prints, and constructions. I was delighted to see San Antonio's Kathy Vargas and Luis Jimenez, who lives in New Mexico and teaches in Houston, and Regina Vater. I visited again with Judy Chicago, represented by a wide variety of prints and paintings (Red Flag is the strongest). Nancy Spero, who taught me a thing or two about feminism via an exhibition years ago at the New Museum, still pulls no punches. Her husband Leon Golub's work is present as well. Eva Hesse and Hannah Wilke are each represented, posthumously, by small works on paper that are both playful and intellectually stimulating. Outsider artist Bessie Harvey's energetic painted wood sculpture is every bit as compelling as the wax Femme Dieu by grand dame of the art world Louise Bourgeois.
In addition to the artists I knew well were others whose work I want to know better. Poppy Johnson, Donna Byars, Harmony Hammond, Gene Beery, and Joanne Leonard all struck up conversations to which I'd like to return. But the work that remains most firmly planted in my brain is an anti-war poster created by the Art Workers Coalition, an organization to which Lippard belonged. The image is a color photo taken after the My Lai massacre. Women and children -- some of them infants -- lay dead, strewn on a dirt road. The words on the poster come from a television interview with one of the soldiers who'd been present:
Q: And babies?
A: And babies.
It seems appropriate, given Lippard's life as an activist -- her obsession with process over the preservation of objects -- that this is the image that most troubles me yet draws me near.
For additional insight into Lippard, the three videotaped interviews in which she participated are worth watching on a VCR set up in the gallery. Even more important are the wall labels, which feature excerpts from Lippard's writings. She speaks with a clear, insightful voice. Visitors are encouraged to thumb through several of her books, arranged on a table surrounded by chairs. The Huntington Art Gallery missed an opportunity by not stocking Lippard's books for purchase at the front desk in addition to the show's catalogue. Finding even her most recent volumes, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (1990) and The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Feminist Essays on Art (1995), in this town is nearly impossible. I would have been delighted to read more of her smooth, direct, often passionate prose, to enter more deeply into her world. Lucy Lippard's empathy for artists -- in fact, her empathy for all individuals who struggle against great odds to thrive in the world -- clearly drives this assemblage of images. The collection reflects her association with artists who are similarly obsessed.
The Huntington Art Gallery will be bringing two fine art collections to Austin this year. "Sniper's Nest" is the first; the second, "From Minimal to Conceptual Art: Works from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection" is scheduled to open November 1. In the next few weeks, this publication will explore several notable Austin-based collections assembled by people whose affection for and commitment to artists rivals that of the Vogels and Lucy Lippard. Next: The personal collection of Chuck Cooper.
"Sniper's Nest: Art That Has Lived With Lucy R. Lippard" will be on display at the Huntington through July 20.
Rebecca Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.
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