Sunday, November 4, 2012

From Conceptualism to Feminism

“When Lippard returned to America, she had a sense of how art and politics could dovetail.”

Lucy R. Lippard may claim that being a library page at the MoMA is the only real job she’s ever had, but as a freelance writer, art critic, and curator, she has worked undeniably hard. It’s evident from her list of accomplishments, and in her comment that editing other people’s texts resembles being on vacation compared to writing herself. For anyone who thinks curators sit back and let other people do the heavy lifting, get this: for her so-called Numbers exhibitions—the subject of a new book—she did favours like source out and shoot 400 photographs of purposefully mundane Seattle horizons for artist Robert Smithson who couldn’t be there to do it himself. Curiously, each Numbers show was named for the host city’s population and Canada was lucky to have one. First came 557,087 (Seattle), then 955,000 (Vancouver), then an overlooked 2,972,453 (Buenos Aires), followed by a touring c. 7,500 (Valencia, California). The fact that the third show was so overlooked (Pip Day highlights the absence of press coverage and the shortage of archival material) demonstrates the importance of publishing books on the history of exhibitions.

From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows 1969-74 (Afterall Books, 2012) is the third title in the Exhibition Histories series published in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna; the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; and Van Abbemuseum. It looks not so much at her shift in focus from conceptualism to feminism as the blending of the two: her final Numbers show was still heavy on idea-based art but it included only women artists, some of whom made work with a feminist bent and others who didn’t.

Lippard’s activist impulse was rooted in time she spent in Argentina in 1968 before the Buenos Aires show to jury an art award. It’s hard to imagine being exposed to the type of art being produced there without being affected. For example, Tito Fernández confiscated gallery visitors’ belongings and banned conversation inside the venue to comment on the police state. Characterizing the ‘dematerialization’ of art was Graciela Carnevale’s Acción del encierro (Confinement Action), for which she invited people to a gallery and without forewarning them, locked them inside until someone on the street broke a window an hour later and they escaped. The artists worked in solidarity, at one point burning their works collectively to protest police censorship of a single artist’s (Roberto Plate’s) work and reading a manifesto-like statement at a conference after cutting the electricity. When Lippard returned to America, she had a sense of how art and politics could dovetail.

I almost didn’t review this book because Conceptual Art really isn’t my bag (so many ropes, so many mirrors!). Much of Conceptual Art is text-based (Nancy Wilson Kitchel said it best: “My work would be different if you couldn’t read”) and I find myself agreeing to a point with Peter Plagens’ scathing Artforum review of Conceptual Art’s writing quality. Ultimately, though, I was won over by coverage of the many thought-provoking pieces, like John Latham’s Still and Chew (1966/67). A part-time art instructor at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, Latham was frustrated by the scholarly high-fiving of critic Clement Greenberg, so he checked out the school library copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture and proceeded to make a unique protest. He invited students, critics, and artists to chew a page from the book and spit it out in a flask. It was chemically treated, and when Latham received an urgent overdue book notice, he had the audacity to present the then liquid solution to the librarian, poker-faced. The next day he was fired.

From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows 1969-74 includes a main essay by Cornelia Butler, interviews with Lippard and several exhibiting artists, and reproductions of selected index cards that were used in place of traditional catalogues for the exhibitions.