Dec/Jan 2013

Material Swirl

Finding the hidden narrative in an early Conceptual art compendium

Johanna Burton

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The cover of Lucy Lippard's 1973 volume about the emerging Conceptual art movement.

In the art world, 2007 was dubbed the year of feminism, with two major exhibitions (“WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” and “Global Feminisms”) and a conference (“The Feminist Future”) devoted to the topic. One might imagine critics’ fatigue at this designation. Indeed, some feminists, myself included, though delighted with the riches at hand, also had real criticisms of aspects of said ventures and, moreover, worried that a “year of feminism” would supersede the imperative for a more lasting and perpetual engagement. Yet, thankfully, the momentum has persisted.

As a feminist critic and historian, I’ve watched with interest over the past half decade as the terms for feminist endeavors have become more nuanced and debated and, following from this, as rigorous reassessments of the histories and potentialities of feminism—and the art and lives it affects—have continued to appear. This year saw the publication of two books devoted to activist, critic, and curator Lucy Lippard, a much-admired and long-respected figure in the art world. Even as these books take stock of Lippard’s extended curatorial projects, they do so with the overt goal of placing her politics—in particular her feminist politics—front and center. One volume, From Conceptualism to Feminism: Lucy Lippard’s Numbers Shows 1969–74, edited by Cornelia Butler, comprises extensive archival materials and critical responses from that period, as well as interviews both past and present. Crucially, however, the emphasis is on new analysis and contextualization—it stresses how important it is to reassess Lippard’s work of the late 1960s and early ’70s in order to track and retrospectively consider what was at the time her emerging feminist position.

Such a quality of emergence is also the focus of Materializing “Six Years”, a tome produced on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name, which was curated by Catherine Morris and Vincent Bonin and opened this past September at the Brooklyn Museum. Morris describes the exhibition as an “experiment in curatorial thinking,” taking Lippard’s classic 1973 compendium Six Years and producing a show that “reflects the breadth of [her] original intentions.” The new book is not a catalogue, for while it accompanies the exhibition, it operates alongside it. Such a separation is wholly understandable—even called for—given the peculiar status of Lippard’s original project. Six Years is a book, but from its inception, Lippard aimed to think of it more as an exhibition that took printed and bound form. Less a volume than a vessel, Six Years feels as though a glut of information was poured into it and then shaken, not stirred—though, in truth, Lippard’s process was both painstaking and precise, the original planned contents edited down by half. Most of us own the reprinted 1997 version (copies from the first run are now few and far between), which opens with a thoughtful essay by Lippard, who assesses her endeavors some three decades after the fact and provides readers with “the necessary grain of salt, to provide a context, within the ferment of the times, for the personal prejudices and viewpoints” that follow.

Now Materializing Six Years” reassesses yet again, positing that untapped potential remains within Lippard’s seminal—if constitutively speculative—project. While Six Years is recognized as a primary source for Conceptual art, that status also has been hotly debated. The controversies revolve, mostly, around just what the volume is and what it aims to do. Another concern, one that was raised with regard to Lippard’s practice in general, was whether she operated as an artist, rather than a critic or curator—utilizing other artists and their work as her “material,” which she assembled into configurations that ultimately served her own authorial voice. And, of course, there were questions about whether Six Years offered any true portrait of Conceptual art. The many competing paradigms assembled in the book—to say nothing of those left out altogether—present the category in anything but stable terms.

This last point, in particular, was what Morris and Bonin took as their premise for what they call the “materializing” process. For them, going back to Six Years offers a way of plumbing the as-yet-unresolved aspects of Lippard’s project, and they argue these are central to recognizing the endeavor’s real effects. We rarely see exhibitions and their attendant publications devoted to curators, and while Materializing takes Six Years as the jumping-off point, both the new book and the exhibition focus less on that one influential project than on Lippard’s lifework. That Six Years itself didn’t aim for distance or retrospect meant that it was an on-the-ground endeavor. Morris and Bonin utilize both distance and retrospect to highlight what simply couldn’t be seen at the time.

The profound, and historically exciting, argument that Materializing makes is that Lippard tracked not only tenets of Conceptual art as they emerged but also her own emergent position. As she completed Six Years, she also experienced life-changing events that delivered her to feminism and led her to begin critical examinations of globalization, war, the environment, and cultural conditions relating to class, race, and gender. These two modes are forcefully brought back together in Materializing, and the implication is clear. Lippard is often described as having moved slowly but surely away from a life deeply engaged in art and to one deeply engaged in politics, but here we are given a counternarrative, one that insists on an imbrication between the two. While Lippard has frequently discussed the ways in which the hermetic sphere of Conceptualism felt isolated and somewhat politically disconnected, Materializing suggests that her feminist framework, burgeoning though it was, radically recasts how we might now reconsider its reach.

In other words, reading Lippard’s trajectory backward allows for a new consideration of how some evolutions in art and curatorial practice might enumerate not breaks but subtle continuations. As the authors write in their introduction, they seek out what Lippard has called the “hidden narrative” of politics in assembling the materials around Six Years, including work by artists easily recognizable in this capacity (Hans Haacke, for instance) as well as many less-immediately obvious, but compelling for being so (Agnes Denes, for instance). Such a focus allows for a new way of considering not just Six Years but other art histories as well.

Materializing “Six Years”—the book—is a project with aims I admire: It examines a pivotal figure and dives deeply into the subtext (even the subconscious) of a canonical object we think we know. Yet it should be said that Materializing, too, suffers from not knowing quite what it is, and in just the opposite way that Six Years did. Where the older book was sprawling and unwieldy, Materializing attempts to tidy up, with awkward results. The second, longer section of the 2012 book is given over to images and descriptions of artworks and exhibitions associated with Lippard, but it feels strangely cut off from the first section. The amassed documents—described as a “selective overview of significant works and events” included or mentioned in Six Years—are necessarily too much and yet not enough. The result is that the original Six Years is both expanded (privileging new elements) and reduced (because so much had to be left out). The first section is made up of an introduction (coauthored by the curators) and three essays. For the two essays by the curators, they split up tasks, with Morris devoted to detailing Lippard’s curatorial endeavors, and Bonin describing her work as a writer. Yet, as is pointed out repeatedly in the book, Lippard’s modus operandi is deeply hybrid—it’s nearly impossible to untangle the strands of her work, so the two essays are often redundant, with the same anecdotes told and insights offered multiple times. And while many of the perceptions are new and speculative, some are chestnuts. I wish the strong impulse to reread and recast had carried through, in the spirit of the methodology as set forth.

The third essay, by Julia Bryan-Wilson, performs a fresh reading, though. Bryan-Wilson opens by reflecting on a public conversation in 1971 at the Brooklyn Museum, where a group assembled to discuss the question “Are Museums Relevant to Women?” Using the trope of “relevance” as a red thread, Bryan-Wilson deftly moves through the various roles assumed by Lippard—not to mention the internal tensions that arise between, say, spending time as a devoted activist and as a devoted mother. She smartly considers the competing paradigms that “relevance” might address and asks us to think anew about our own relationships to the art world and to our roles inside and outside of it. In 1971, women were concerned equally about fair exhibition practices (was art by women represented in museums?) and whether there would be day care provided when they came to see shows (the answer was, and still is, no). In our own moment, Bryan-Wilson strongly suggests, the question of relevance remains crucial, for even while the contours of feminism ostensibly attain increasing finesse—the result of a much-heightened awareness of our critical, political, and feminist pasts—there is always the risk that perceived integration is, in fact, merely occlusion.

Johanna Burton is an art historian, critic, and curator based in New York City.