Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine the modernist mood that existed among artists during the early 1970s. Back then I was still a surly Fine Art student at Leeds University in England and eager to stay one modernist jump ahead of my contemporaries: in my simple-minded perception of things (and I was by no means alone in this) the more ‘advanced’ art was, the better it was. Many of my pals had fallen very much under the influence of John Elderfield (who was a professor at Leeds immediately before moving to MoMA) and were making various sorts of abstract painting. So when Artforum provided me with an introduction to the weird and wonderful practices that are now often called conceptual art, it was as though I had seen the future. The problem was that the boundaries of this ‘movement’ (as I wanted to see it) were enormously vague. What I badly needed was some kind of guidebook to the new territory. When Lucy Lippard’s book Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object … showed up in 1973 (the full mind-boggling title is up there on the book’s cover) I thought it might be that guidebook. In fact it turned out to be something far more useful: a chronological catalogue that simply documented things that had occurred which Ms Lippard felt shared sufficient kinship to be considered together. It was fascinating and perplexing in equal measure and I plundered it shamelessly.
Now that we are approaching the fortieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object … is remembered as a classic. Somewhat ironically though, Lucy Lippard is generally associated with a rather different kind of work. She was honored this spring by Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art as the first feminist art critic, and it is the Sackler Center that is staging the current exhibition Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art.
As it turns out, Ms Lippard’s feminism and the remarkable contribution she made to the definition and comprehension of conceptual art are intimately – though far from straightforwardly – connected. This was one of the many things that I learned from talking to Catherine J. Morris, Curator of the Sackler Center, who co-curated the exhibition with Vincent Bonin.
When Ms Morris and I spoke last week we discussed how conceptual art gradually came to be understood at the time it was being made, its relationship with contemporary politics and emerging feminism, its humor, and a good deal more besides. Here, enumerated as though on the five fingers of one hand, is Ms Morris’s introduction to the show, and the thinking that brought it about:
One of my benchmarks as to whether a curatorial idea is good or relevant is if I see something happening in younger artists’ studios that they take for granted; or that they don’t see the roots that it comes from. Conceptual art is very much in the zeitgeist today, so an enormous part of what we wanted to do was to present Lucy’s book and the work it includes to an audience that has perhaps never heard of it. That’s so that young artists and students and graduate students will see the book in a new way, or perhaps for the first time.
In the early- to mid-1970s, the parameters of conceptual art were very much in flux, even amongst the people who were making it: not only people like Lucy Lippard herself, but artists like Joseph Kosuth. So Lucy included things that wouldn’t necessarily be regarded as conceptual art now. And we’ve included them in our exhibition. There are things that are more accurately considered land art or minimalism or post minimalism.
The things that made Lucy unique and particularly perceptive during that period were the fact that she knew and lived with the artists, literally, and her ambition to be a novelist: she didn’t see criticism as the most important thing in her life. She saw it as something that she did well and got paid for.
Six Years … is a book that exemplifies a thought process in development. Lucy was compiling it as the art was happening. She didn’t give herself the luxury of any more critical distance then she gave the artists that she included. She didn’t take an art historical position that would allow her to distill things. She believed in being additive.
Lucy has described feeling that conceptual art wasn’t political enough. She didn’t feel that what artists were doing in conceptual art contributed directly enough to the political climate that she found herself in. Certainly not in terms of the politics of the time, when politics had an impetus to be directly engaged with changing something very specific.
So she made the decision that conceptual art was not politically engaged in the way that she wanted to be, and that feminism was, so she turned to feminism. It would seem that this was a clear choice on her part.
For contemporary readers forty years later, there’s a lot of politics in the book. That’s a change that we see. After things like the Pictures Generation and the idea of appropriation and the examination of popular culture, what we read as political in the book has more to do with the idea – which is very much indebted to feminism – of the personal as political, or the idea of cultural critique as being political.
In fact we originally wanted to use the final parenthetical clause in the book’s full title – (With occasional political overtones) – as the title of the exhibition. That speaks to what we were trying to do.
The other thing that we are trying to do is very clearly link conceptual art to feminism. Lippard wrote Six Years … and then moved very aggressively into her feminist thinking and feminist writing and she didn’t see a clear connection between conceptual art and feminist practices. But what’s not so often talked about is how conceptual art was informed by feminism. There is a clear influence of the feminist artists that Lucy met (and that she went on to champion) when she was working on Six Years ... That’s why we end our exhibition with a step between Six Years … and what Lucy went on to do in the years following that.
This is the first time the Sackler Center for Feminist Art has done an exhibition on a person from the 1960s or 1970s, which is really the period that defines who we are. The first definitions of feminism that are still in play emerged during this period. So rather than doing a retrospective of a particular artist in our first foray into this period, I loved the idea of capturing a whole generation of artists some of whom had ostensibly nothing to do with feminism.
One of my personal ambitions for the Sackler Center is to use feminism as a methodology, rather than just describing it as an art historical period. This exhibition is an attempt to do that.
There’s a misconception about conceptual art: while there were certainly some artists who took themselves very seriously, I think there was a lot of humor there. That’s one of the things that I enjoy talking about to people who don’t know very much about conceptual art and find it intimidating. Starting with the humor is eye-opening.
It’s remarkable how much space dematerialized art takes up! You should have seen us trying to work out this installation. The checklist was like a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. There are whole levels of conceptual play going on here: taking a book and turning it into an exhibition and then taking the exhibition and turning it into a catalogue. It’s fun. It’s very enjoyable to set yourself those curatorial challenges. It was almost our own personal parlor game.
[P.S. Don’t miss the catalogue for this show. If you think a book is worth staging an exhibition about – as the organizers of Materializing “Six Years” clearly do – then any publication that accompanies that exhibition is going to have to be pretty remarkable. This one is, and there’s my recommendation for it over on the right of your screen – though I’m sure Brooklyn Museum would prefer you to buy it from them rather than from Amazon!)
Photographs in this post courtesy Brooklyn Museum.
“On the fingers of one hand ” is based on an original idea by Jacqueline Lewis.