Andrea Bowers and Suzanne Lacy: Drawing Lessons consisted of drawing lessons provided by Bowers over the course of nine days at The Drawing Center in Manhattan. The performance served as a platform for conversations amidst an on-going drawing lesson, complete with a studio environment—lights, platform, drawing easels, etc. As they worked together under the scrutiny of a daily audience of visitors, Bowers and Lacy explored questions they engage with in their individual practices. For example: what are the problems of representation in public practice art? How do artists reconcile activist and field-based practices with the necessities of production for galleries and museums? What is the relationship between second and third wave feminist artists?
Drawing from the history of immersive performance, both artists camped in the gallery over the nine days. The practice of personal vulnerability and revelation, ushered in with feminist and performance art during the ’70s, was a subtext of this work where, in the course of teaching, learning, argument, and speculation, the artists also explored their relationships, using the performance of teaching to “map” interiority and desire.
Suzanne Lacy: What ideas about ’70s era feminism, if any, were dispelled by this project?
Andrea Bowers: I somehow always believed that 2nd wave feminists were committed to the dematerialization of the art object for political reasons, as a critique of the market and a critique of modernist practices. And so, I was surprised by how many of the feminist artists of your generation embraced drawing as a practice, and how many feminists that participated in our Drawing Center project had also taught drawing. I seemed to be the most critical of traditional drawing pedagogy. This project was a way for me to investigate some of the patriarchal thinking embedded in traditional drawing lessons, to experiment with and investigate feminist drawing strategies.
Bowers: For this project, we asked feminists of your generation and mine to participate, by teaching a drawing session or drawing with us. Many of the women from my generation were very leery of our project, asked pointed questions, and some declined. Your generation thought it was funny and immediately agreed. How do you explain these differences?
Lacy: Well, it might be a function of the people I asked, people who drew as part of their practice, but who were conversant with performance and conceptual art—many were activists as well. What distinguished them was their sense of humor (maybe that was necessary for survival at a certain point) and their willingness to experiment. They came of age in a moment when art was extremely experimental in language, when bodies were a prominent materiality. About this humor thing, although we were often portrayed as iron-jawed and boot-wearing, most of the feminists I knew had a strong sense of irony.
Today’s experimentation is in a relationship with the market. Remember, the market wasn’t, in the ’70s, something that we thought about quite as much, so perhaps we didn’t have as much to lose. Or maybe none of your friends are funny, which I find hard to believe given how funny you are!
Lacy: What is valuable about the way your generation approaches art that I should learn?
Bowers: If there is anything we have to offer, it might be a bit of pragmatic professionalism: accessing tools like social media, crowd sourcing, promotion, etc. I don’t know if I can generalize about whether my friends are funny but I’m not sure my generation of feminists has much of a sense of humor in their work. The institutionalization of theory in art academies destroyed a considerable amount of play and experimentation in art production. When I was in graduate school in the early ’90s, I spent much of my time trying to read texts I couldn’t understand and feeling very insecure about it. I worried that my work had to be theoretically sound, every aspect of every move planned out. One of the millions of things I have learned from you is the need for experimentation and allowing for a project to evolve publicly in real time. Figuring out ideas in the midst of a project can be a valuable methodology rather than a sign of incompetence. I think my generation is too concerned with being perfectionists and professionals. There is a lot of fear attached to that, perhaps a lot of fear of failing. I still don’t feel a sense of equality so I worry that one mistake can cost me everything I have accomplished.
What my generation does offer yours, however, is a lineage. We are proud stewards of the work and ideas of your generation. It’s inspirational, courageous, and motivational to us. This is why apparent rejection is so hard for some of us when we reach out and the response feels prickly. Although my generation has more opportunity than yours, we still do not have equality.
Lacy: Do you consider this a feminist work, and if so, why?
Bowers: I haven’t told you this but the Drawing Lessons project is probably one of the most powerful art experiences of my life. As you know, my mother had passed away the day before our project began. She had survived 12 years with brain cancer that she fought valiantly. I think people may have judged me for not cancelling this project. But my mother was a 2nd wave feminist in her own right. I felt that there was no more appropriate place for me to be than surrounded by powerful feminists. Your generation truly lives by the motto, “the personal is political.” I felt safe, protected, and taken care of, but I also felt challenging and difficult questions were asked of me. Our performance and your friendship really pulled me through the toughest time of my life. The beliefs and values of the all the feminists we worked with helped me begin to recover. So on a very personal level, this is where feminism has the most meaning for me. It offers alternative forms of collectivity and support that manifest in the way we treat each other. It’s important that my generation not only express their feminist positions theoretically, but also enact feminist behaviors in their everyday lives as well. It seems that your generation has always done that.
Bowers: I think many people will be surprised to read this because some women my age feel that second wave feminists are unaccepting of younger generations. What do you think about this perception?
Lacy: I think there were mistakes in the transmission of feminist art ideas by what I might call the “first” generation feminist artists. Some early feminist artists were more committed to ideological purity than to making bridges between generations. In order to do that, you have to be committed to accommodating difference, and as many women of your generation had different perspectives, ones that were considered adaptive rather than radical, they often felt they were “disapproved” of by my generation. In general, I think political movements can be quite judgmental in ways that are counterproductive to the long haul in a culture based on persuasion rather than force.
Bowers: So what about you, Suzanne? Did you learn anything about drawing? Do you consider it to be part of your practice now?
Lacy: This piece was, formally speaking, a nod to that era and the emergence of women into performance art—women like Bonnie Sherk, Linda Montano and, of course, Barbara T. Smith. Framing experience was the goal. In the end, I considered this work a performance.
I did learn some things about drawing. But I respect mastery enough to think that the idea that I could learn drawing in a week is absurd. I mean, I know you are a very good teacher, but the whole premise was a bit ridiculous. One thing I learned for sure was the relevance of observation as fundamental to drawing, and it was interesting to see how much more entertained I was by my own ideas about what I was seeing. This is probably why I became a conceptual artist. It wasn’t that I didn’t have some innate abilities—I’d been recognized by teachers for my drawing as a child—but the rigor of the training was daunting. So you could say I deeply respect drawing and therefore did not, in one week, learn to draw.
Bowers: Well, drawing is about process and not perfection, Suzanne!
ANDREA BOWERS, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist, explores the intersection between activism and art. Her main focus is the necessity of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience in the lives of women. Her intricate photorealist drawings, large-scale graphic works, videos and ephemera pay homage to activists and movements dedicated to social justice, feminism, workers rights, and climate justice.Suzanne Lacy
SUZANNE LACY is a performance and conceptual artist who often focuses on social and political issues. Her work takes various forms, from installations and video to large scale and intimate performances. But it does not include drawing.