Art In Conversation
with Jarrett Earnest
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Lucy Lippard: When I was around twelve. Before that I wanted to be a professional rider—because I was horse-crazy and worked at a stable. I didn’t have a horse, but I imagined I had a horse. Then I thought, No, maybe I want to be a writer, not a rider. [Laughter.] My mother was a great reader and there were always books around. I read voraciously and unselectively. I read Moby Dick much too early and never really got it, but in eighth grade I got the high school prize for a story. I bought a tennis racket with the twenty-five bucks. It may have occurred to me then that I could make a living at writing. Reading just leads to writing. Isn’t that more or less how you came to writing?—Reading?
Rail: Yes. Reading a lot.
Lippard: I think that’s what does it. Then if you’re no good at it you figure that out eventually and do something else.
Rail: Did you study writing at Smith?
Lippard: No, I never studied writing. I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do about what I liked best. I had an English teacher in high school who was a classic New England “old maid”—and I hate that phrase but she was the prototype of it—and she was wonderful. She could tell I loved to write and she told my parents. In a funny way, her recognition made me think, Oh yeah, I do love to write. At Smith I took one course in creative writing with another wonderful woman named Evelyn Page. She wrote detective stories under the pseudonym Roger Scarlett with her partner Dorothy Blair. She limited us to one violent death per semester—that was the easiest way to wrap up a story. But that’s the only time I was ever in a writing class.
Rail: So then were you studying art history at Smith?
Lippard: Yeah. Studio art and art history—you could do them together there. I had George Cohen as a teacher—not a well-known artist—vaguely a sort of Social Realist. He praised something I did. I got all excited and came home to my parents and laid my art out on the floor and told them, Maybe I shouldn’t be a writer, maybe I should be an artist. And they looked at it and said—Writer! [Laughter.] That sealed it.
Rail: After you graduated and moved to New York City were you still writing fiction?
Lippard: Yes. I got another prize for a story when I graduated from college and thought I was hot shit. I’d get up really early and write for a while before going to work—basically awful, sarcastic love stories aimed at Redbook, Cosmopolitan, or the New Yorker. I thought I’d make a living at that and then do something “serious”—write the Great American Novel. Soon I got very involved in my own weird life on the Lower East Side and got to know some artists, mainly those who also worked flunky jobs at MoMA. I don’t think I did much fiction after a while. I was having too much fun living on my own for the first time. And I was having no luck whatsoever publishing with the magazines, for obvious reasons. [Laughter.]
Rail: How did you start writing criticism?
Lippard: Well that was unintentional. I think almost every art critic is unintentional. Have you ever run into someone who said growing up they always wanted to be an art critic?
Lippard: Exactly. Once I’d gotten to New York I immediately wrote some reviews and sent them to Arts magazine, where Hilton Kramer was the editor. Mind you, I knew nothing, but I wrote these little reviews and he wrote me back. He was very sweet, one of the few things I’m fond of about Hilton, because we later went head to head. He said, You’re a good writer, but come back when you’ve been in the art world a little while. In other words, You know nothing, and he was totally right. I felt so rejected that I didn't send anything in again for three years. By then I knew what I was doing. I wrote something for Art Journal on Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet. By the time I knew what I was talking about I ended up at Art International, which was the best magazine then.
Rail: What was the process of being edited like when you started writing for Art International?
Lippard: I don’t remember being “edited” much, since I hate being edited. Jim Fitzsimmons, who was the editor, was in Switzerland. I remember writing to him once to explain that I missed the Anthony Caro review I was supposed to do because I’d just had a baby, and he was horrified to realize I’d been going around pregnant to galleries representing Art International—apparently that is not what Fitzsimmons wanted his critics to look like! I’d only met him once. We had dinner one time when he was in New York. I lucked into that job because Max Kozloff recommended me. He and Barbara Rose did the “New York Letter” where you’d round up lots of shows and you could sort of work it your own way, make the reviews into a more cohesive article. Barbara quit and then Max quit and I ended up with the “New York Letter” which was a real lucky move. I think that was probably the time I figured out I might as well do this art criticism thing.
Rail: Your early writing on Max Ernst is very interesting in retrospect because “collage” plays such a large role in your later work. It seems like his way of collaging images into a kind of disjointed literary narrative was an important influence.
Lippard: I wanted to write my master’s thesis at the Institute of Fine Arts on “Fantastic Landscapes” from the seventeenth century to the present, but my professors discouraged that because it was such a huge subject. Ernst was going to be part of it, and then I got to work on his MoMA show, when I was freelancing for the museum after I left the library, and it made sense to concentrate on him. You’re right, collage has been an obsession and a medium for me. The Dada and Surrealist idea of juxtaposition of unlikes as the source of a new reality probably underlies much of my work and even my cooking—stews being my favorite. I always say that collaboration is the social form of collage. So is street activism in a way, as we’re often introducing a foreign, even hostile, viewpoint into a public context—never so much as today.
Rail: When did you start feeling like you were a “critic,” like you accepted that as an identity or a role?
Lippard: I didn’t call myself a critic for long. I always disliked the term because I was an advocate for artists, not an adversary. I don’t recall any particular model, I just read the art magazines and went to a million shows and got to know some artists. Dore Ashton was writing for the Times when I first got to New York and she was something of a female role model. John Canaday fired her for “knowing” artists—biblically, I assumed—we were both married to artists. Similarly, I was always most influenced by the art and artists I hung out with. I didn’t write about things I hated. Well, every now and then I did—Jules Olitski comes to mind. I kind of went after the Greenbergians because they hated what I was involved with. I was called an “art critic” but I always just called myself a writer. Now it’s interesting because they call us “art writers”—they don’t say critics as much anymore.
Rail: Your early essays, gathered in Changing (1971), have a lot of close formal argument, which is different than your later work.
Lippard: That was pretty common then. In a funny way, when you look back at it, it was like I was teaching myself how to look at art. But I don’t think it was particularly original.
Rail: Do you think that kind of formal attention came into your writing because that was what was important to the artists, or was that just the critical discourse at that time? It sounds like you were taking cues from the artists more than what anyone was writing.
Lippard: I was always pro-artist because I was well aware that what I knew about art I learned from artists—not from criticism. I got a certain amount from just sitting around with artists. I had a painter friend named Hank Pearson, who you probably never heard of, but who was fairly well known at that point and was an interesting guy—son of a haberdasher from North Carolina. He always wore a suit and tie. He helped me paint the ceiling of my loft one time and he never took his suit jacket off. I remember going to the Met with him, and he had one long fingernail and he’d point it at a detail in a Raphael or something, See how that works, and see how the paint works here, and so forth. Going to the Met with an artist was far better than anything I’d ever gotten in art history class. I always pass the monographs I write by the artist first for corrections before the publisher. I was recently accused by a catalogue editor of “kowtowing” because I quoted the artist so often. I’ve always done that. They know more about the work than I do, and this artist was exceptionally eloquent.
Rail: Could you tell me about meeting Ad Reinhardt and the process of writing the catalog for his Jewish Museum exhibition in 1966?
Lippard: I don’t remember how I met him—it may actually have been in Paris—but he was an icon of the Minimalist-Conceptualist gang I hung out with. I guess I wrote a review and he liked it. I asked Rita, his wife, years later after he died, why he choose me to do the Jewish Museum catalog, and she said he just wanted to get away from the usual suspects and I seemed to be a fresh voice. We shared a certain iconoclasm, I suppose. And then he was just such a character—that’s what I liked about him, aside from his art. He was constantly bitching and whining about the art world and about his colleagues, but with such wit.
Rail: Maybe it was the “New York Letter” you wrote on “Rejective Art” which gestures toward Reinhardt as a relevant forerunner of Minimalism. The opening line is: “For some time the only valid approach to structural styles seemed to be to treat them as anti-art, to list everything they were not, in the manner of Ad Reinhardt, but without his leaven of wit and glancing profundity.” He was such a terrific writer, and I think his writing had a big influence on the Minimalist and Conceptualist generation as well. Like Robert Smithson’s writing—what was your relationship with him?
Lippard: Bob and I knew each other, we hung out with the same people, but I was never in any of those social scenes. I’ve never been good at that, or I didn’t want it or need it or something. I mean I’m social, but not into “scene” things. Bob went to Max’s Kansas City every other night, and he’d bring a question to be discussed; he’d come ready to talk. I was there very rarely, but I love to argue so I’d argue with him. I remember a ridiculous argument we had where I was for infinity and he was for finity. You know, I liked him but I always said he was a more important writer than he was an artist, and that pissed him off, for good reason I guess.
Rail: You told him that? I think it’s true.
Lippard: I think I wrote it. Though I do agree that Spiral Jetty is iconic, for many reasons.
One time at a party Bob said to me plaintively, Why do you always argue with me? And I said, I thought you enjoyed it as much as I do! [Laughter.] Who knew then that he was quite as important a figure as he’s become. Then Sol LeWitt and I helped make Eva Hesse important after her death. I mean she was as important as all those guys, but if we hadn’t done that book on her work we might have lost her—Sol made me do it.
Rail: Your monograph Eva Hesse (1976) was important also because it was the first major work you did on a woman artist, right?
Lippard: She died in 1970, and I became a feminist a few months later. I always thought that she would have become more of a feminist than she was at the time, though she had read Simone de Beauvoir, and recognized every minute of it. I mean her experience was that she was beautiful and vulnerable—a very appealing combination—and smart and a great artist and so forth. Sometimes I’m not sure where we would have gone with our friendship after feminism. By the time I was writing that book I was a total feminist and I had written a lot of articles on women in the early seventies. I remember at that time I got into a real fight with my old and valued friend Max Kozloff while he was an editor at Artforum because I wanted to write a series of monographs on women and he called them “featurettes.” However, Max was open to change, and Joyce made sure of that!
Rail: One thing that is so impressive about the Hesse book is seeing all these aspects of your thought being worked out in their fullest form: the serious formal and conceptual intelligence joining with the feminist perspective. It’s also interesting because you and she knew each other so well personally.
Lippard: She even babysat for me. I say to my son, Tell people Eva Hesse was your babysitter! We were all really devastated by her death. Sol LeWitt was her dearest friend and he immediately went to her sister and said, We need to get a book done. Her sister said, Fine, and we got the estate to pay me, because I couldn’t afford to do it for free. It was difficult to write that closely about a friend, and I didn’t want to write about her neuroses or her lovers or whatever—it had to be about her art. In the writing I was always having to move away from personal things I knew, which was hard sometimes.
Rail: Did you interview a lot of people about her for that book?
Rail: I’m interested in how after people die you get these funhouse versions of them from other people, like it’s both sanitized and too dramatic at the same time or something. How did you experience that?
Lippard: I was very aware of not making a “Sylvia Plath” type mythology about Eva, as I think I said in the introduction. As a feminist I was extremely sensitive to that. But then here was this beautiful young woman who was a great artist who died. I hope the pathos isn’t too obvious.
Rail: What did feminism mean at that time in relation to writing about art?
Lippard: It meant being pissed off at the way women artists were being and had been treated. I mean, there was a lot more to it than that, but in terms of writing that is where I was at. As I wrote, I was trying to be sure that I hadn’t done any of the things the patriarchy had always done, which was hard to avoid. It’s the same thing with racism—it’s almost impossible not to end up doing some of the things you’ve been conditioned to do even if you are deeply conscious.
Rail: Your “style” as a critic is incredibly clear.
Lippard: Hopefully—that’s what it aims for.
Rail: But then there are moments where you do very experimental things—like the catalog for the Information show at MoMA in 1970, which begins with the long note: “The following instructions were sent to Kynaston McShine in lieu of an index to the Information catalogue, for which the necessary information did not arrive in time. When I realized it would not, I decided to substitute some absentee information arrived at by chance. I opened a paperback edition of Roget’s Thesaurus to ‘absence,’ hoping to get some ideas. The book had been given to me, secondhand, by a friend in December, 1969, I had not opened it until this point (Wednesday, April 15, 1970, 3:30pm Caboneras, Spain)…”
Lippard: I was so amazed MoMA let me do that. The same with the experimental text for the Duchamp catalog. It was Kynaston, who was at that point a dear friend, before politics got in the way, who asked me to do both of these. That was all coming out of Conceptualism, which really gave me room to breathe. It was changing people’s heads and it was like a group of people I could really play with.
Rail: How did you reconcile those extremely straightforward pieces with this more experimental stuff?
Lippard: Well the experimental stuff was “creative”—that was the part of me that was going to write fiction, and the other stuff was how I was making a living, and of course enthusiasm about the art, if not about the art world.
Rail: So the impulse you had to write fiction shifted into the experimental pieces?
Lippard: You could say that. By 1970 I thought I should give fiction one more shot. I sold some prints I’d bought one time in the ’60s and spent a few months in a Spanish village, in a house that belonged to the French critic Jean Clay, who I’d met when we juried a museum show together in Buenos Aires in 1968. Carboneras was then a tiny fishing village, and I lived there from March to June with Ethan, my five year old, son as I wrote the first version of my novel I See/You Mean (1979), along with that piece for Information—which gives you a sense of what I was up to. The experimental novel was an unreadable conceptual artwork—descriptions of photographs and an index with clues to the “plot.” When I got back to New York it evolved into a more feminist novel—still pretty unreadable, but great fun to write. Trouble is, I really didn’t enjoy reading experimental novels and I finally decided that I didn’t want to spend my life writing something I wouldn’t want to read myself. I See/You Mean was published but never distributed by Chrysalis, a feminist press. Years later it sold out at Printed Matter and it was translated into Spanish last year as Yo veo/Tú significas.
I did write another novel in 1977-78—really more for the pleasure of writing than any expectations of publishing it—when I lived on a farm in Devon for a year, with my then twelve-year-old son. It was called The First Stone and was about the role of politics in the lives of three generations of women. My friend, the novelist Esther Broner said the dialog needed a lot of work, and I ended up putting it away, because I’d gone on to something else, though there was some interest in publishing it.
Charles Simonds and I did an artist’s book called Cracking in the late-’70s that has finally come out in English, after being published in German years ago. It was images of his Little People’s dwellings and landscapes and my abstract erotic narrative about a woman archaeologist who falls for an earth spirit emerging from the land and the architecture and gets literally sucked in. Finally, around 1988, after a wild rafting trip on the San Juan, I started another novel called Upstream, I think, but it was awful and with that the fiction urge dried up.
Rail: In 1967 you wrote: “Formalism’s specificity did a good deal to clear the air and to bring the critical method closer to the anti-sentimental approach of the art, though its major drawback was a tendency to eliminate from its evolutionary systems an increasing amount of the better art being done.” I imagine that was directed not only at Clement Greenberg, but at the critics that were extending his project like Michael Fried. “Art and Objecthood” was published about five months before you wrote that. I’m interested in how you interacted with that group.
Lippard: Once I went to a lecture Greenberg was giving at MoMA. I went with Donald Droll, who was a very close friend, a gay gallerist at Fischbach who was the reason I got to do Eccentric Abstraction there, as well as the reason Eva Hesse showed there. Anyway, at this talk Greenberg was going on about his stuff, and he was a good speaker but very authoritarian, which always gets my back up. I raised my hand during the question period and asked, Can you explain what you mean by “Quality”? And he said, If I have to tell you that I have to tell you the difference between red and green. And I said, Rosenberg and Greenberg?—and everybody laughed, because those were the two critical poles at that point. Phil Leider was sitting a few seats down from me and later he wrote something to the effect that he was, So embarrassed to be anywhere near that woman! Anyway I went up afterwards and I introduced myself to Greenberg and I said, I’m Lucy Lippard and I’d still like to know what you mean by quality. And he said, Oh, you’re Lucy Lippard, I thought you were a school teacher from Queens. I said, No and I’d still like to know what quality is. Greenberg said, I can’t talk to you now, but I’m heading up to a party up at Larry Rubin’s if you’d like to come along. Now Donald wanted nothing to do with this—I’m not going up into that snake pit! Nobody wanted to go with me, so I went by myself to wait for the bus to head up to the party, because by that point I had the bit in my teeth—I thought, It’s time to get this Greenbergian monkey off my back. I was standing at the bus stop and Greenberg and his pals came out to get in a taxi and he said I could ride with them. In the cab nobody spoke to me. When I got to the party, nobody spoke to me. So I looked around Larry Rubin’s house at all the paintings and then I went home. I never got near him. That really freed me up on some psychological level, because he was an art world god at that point—Greenberg this and Greenberg that. He had great scorn for minimalism and conceptualism, God knows what he thought about feminism. A friend of mine ran into him in Canada and Greenberg told him, The art world is in such terrible shape that people like Lucy Lippard can be taken seriously. So my friend rushes back to tell me, and I was flattered! [Laughter.] That group was something else. They were vicious face to face. Once Kenneth Noland told me I had “mean little eyes and everything I wrote was beneath contempt.” [Laughter.] This was all pre-feminism, but when that came along I was ready.... Later Hilton Kramer wrote that at one point I was going to be an important art historian but then sadly I, ‘fell victim to the radical whirlwind.’
Rail: Were there other writers that you were not necessarily competitive with but felt an affinity for?
Lippard: Not very many except conceptual artists were all writers and in that sense, yes. I could play with them, and sometimes we’d do things together. But that’s part of my authority problem: I’ve never had a mentor, or studied what I should have. Of course I read my colleagues and think, Oh that’s great. Certainly I read every art article and went to some thirty shows a week and endless openings for twenty-five years—I was steeped in this stuff, paid my dues.
Rail: I’m interested in the formation of Printed Matter in 1976 from that minimal-conceptual-feminist scene, all of which entailed a lot of writing and documentation.
Lippard: Well Printed Matter was ten years after conceptualism really started. Again, it was Sol who was doing these artist books that his dealers would use to promote his work. They were come-ons to spend big bucks on a sculpture, but he saw them as equal works of art. And we were seeing other artists doing similar stuff. Seth Seigelaub, who I had lived with for a while in the early ’70s, had his publishing project International General, and he promoted artists books too, so I was very into that, and Sol just said, Let’s do something. We got Walter Robinson and Edit DeAk—she was a mess but very smart and a good writer—they came over and we brought them in. Sol was seeing Pat Steir then and so she was an important participant; she had been a book designer. It was just a matter of finding a vehicle for these things, because they weren't traditional “art books” so bookstores wouldn't take them. They weren't art and they didn’t sell so the dealers wouldn’t take them. So, Printed Matter started in a one-room office on Hudson street, in the same building as Artist’s Space and the New Museum. But Sol was the impetus, because he was the one making artist’s books, and I was an advocate.
Rail: Around the same time you helped found the collective Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics (1976). How did it help shape your work?
Lippard: We all have different memories of Heresies’ origins. My memory is that I was at Joyce Kozloff’s kitchen table. I think we were alone, but other people remember being there too. Anyway Joyce and I were talking, this was I think 1975, and we felt it was time for another move in feminist art discourse—that it needed to be more intellectual and more political. We thought there should be a voice and a space. The magazine was going to be the voice. And Mimi Schapiro was the advocate for the space—a school like the Women’s Building she had co-founded in LA. I was very close to Judy Chicago but I never knew Mimi particularly. When she got to New York she took me aside and said, We are the leaders. And I said, I’m not a leader—feminism means collaboration to me, and I love collaboration. So she and I never really got along very well. Also, she had some kind of problem with lesbians, who were and are some of my best friends. Anyway, Joyce and I had a meeting and this bunch of women got together and for about a year we had endless open meetings about what we wanted to do. It finally formed into about twenty or so people. Out of that, nine of us were Aries—I’m one of them—which means bossy noisy people. [Laughter.] I wanted to call it Pink, but luckily I think it was Mary Miss who came up with Heresies after a Susan Sontag quote, and there turned out to be a British journal called Pink.
Heresies had a different audience than anything I had written up to that point. I don’t think it changed the writing itself very much but it made me a lot more relaxed—giving me a sympathetic, if contentious, base from which to take off. At Heresies I didn’t have to worry about “mainstream” editing. By the late ’70s I knew I was a good writer—though I never had any illusions or even the urge to be a “great” one. The form wasn’t much up for grabs, but the content was new and that came from daily ongoing conversations and readings with other women whose experiences were different from mine. Of course, this started for me in 1970 but continued to be eye-opening through the decade. Some of the other “heretics” were more intellectually and politically advanced and I learned a lot from them.
Rail: I’ve always thought of Heresies as having a strong lesbian presence.
Lippard: It did. Harmony Hammond was a founding member and she did the issue “Lesbian Art and Artists” in 1977 and the Lesbian Show at 112 Greene street in 1978. Now we live across the creek from each other in New Mexico.
Rail: You said Miriam Schapiro was weird about lesbians and I wonder if it was a point of contention within your feminist art world—I don’t know how you identify, but I think most of your romantic partners are men.
Lippard: They’ve all been men, for better for worse. I always thought it would be lovely to be a lesbian—didn’t happen. [Laughter.] I’ve had friends who’ve tried to convince me. [Laughter.] And people always thought I was a lesbian. Marcia Tucker and I both did this at least once: during feminist lectures some guy would jump up and say, You must be a dyke! and I’d say, Damn right!—So I guess that got around.
Rail: One of the things you’ve done a better job of than most people is being straightforward about how your personal and romantic relationships relate to your work, as though it’s just factual and not a big deal—which to me is the most intellectually honest position anyone could take.
Lippard: There was a time I thought about making an art piece: a stack of transparent sheets mapping affairs and friendships and other relationships between everyone in the art world, all laid on top of each other, overlapping, so to speak [Laughter.] Once someone said to me—and I think it’s true—that you could always tell who I was with by my work. For instance, you had the Bob Ryman period where I was writing about Minimalism and painting. Then John Chandler, co-author of “The Dematerialization of the Art Object” —he was a student of analytic philosophy, and that part of the essay came from him. And Seth Siegelaub, which was conceptual art. Harmony Hammond jumped me at one point when From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976) came out, because one of my experimental fictions in the back of the book, which was sort of sexy and feminist, was dedicated For Charles because I was living with Charles Simonds whose very sensual landscapes were definitely another influence on my work, especially Overlay. Harmony said, It’s a feminist book and you dedicated this thing to a man! I think I fall for people because they know about things I’m interested in. For the last nineteen years I’ve been with a lefty social anthropologist raised in New Mexico, and my last three books have been about the archaeology and history of New Mexico, and a diatribe about land use.
Rail: I want to talk about Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (1990), which is a book that describes itself as about “the ways cross-cultural activity is reflected in the visual arts, what traces are left by movements into and out of the so-called centers and margins.” Was it through the work you were doing with Heresies that you get interested in the problems of what was then called “multiculturalism”?
Lippard: Not so much Heresies as the general climate in the 1980s, and the political work I was doing with PADD [Political Art Documentation/Distribution] and others. I asked friends from every ethnicity and gender whether I should do that book, and they all said yes—throw her to the wolves. I’m glad I did it. Of course at times I put my foot in it, that’s inevitable. My grandfather was the last white president of an all-Black college in Mississippi and my mother worked in what they called “race relations” in Louisiana in the 1950s, so I was raised with an old fashioned anti-racism. Howardena Pindell, who was and still is a close friend—we have the same birthday—called me a racist at one point and from then on I knew that if I was going to work on “multiculturalism,” as it was then called, there’d be times that would happen and times I deserved it.
Rail: What was the process of doing the research for Mixed Blessings like? There are some well known names but many are interesting artists I’d never heard of from all over, and it seems it took a lot of travel and primary research around the country.
Lippard: Yes, but I was already doing that. When the book came out a MoMA curator said to me, How do you find all these people? And I said, Well, you know there is the American Indian Community House. There is the Studio Museum. There is the Asian American Art Center. There is the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art and El Museo del Barrio—all in New York City—that’s where you find all “these people.” They were everywhere, it’s just that to most of the art world they weren't on the radar. And because of my politics I knew about all of them and I was interested in what they were doing.
Rail: How did you start working on Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (1983)?
Lippard: As I mentioned, I was living with Charles Simonds at the time and originally we were going to come out to the Southwest for a year—we’d saved some money and we figured we could live very cheaply in northern Arizona or New Mexico, where we’d first come together in 1972. Anyway, Charles got a DAAD Fellowship in Berlin, but I wanted my son to go to school in English and I wanted to be out in the country and there was none in Berlin in the days of the Wall. Through a whole series of marvelous coincidences, I found a cottage on a farm in Devon. Then we went back and forth and spent vacations together, but his work was definitely one of the reasons the megaliths in the English countryside made such an impression on me. Well, that and land art generally, because these prehistoric megaliths were earthworks. I wrote about outdoor art and public art from the early seventies on, so it was an interesting extension of that. An artist neighbor told me about them and I wandered up onto the Dartmoor in the fog and there was this line of stones going off into the distance. It was recognition, and love, at first sight.
Rail: Overlay also seems like an ingenious solution to the problem of your writing post-feminism as it was about art that no one owned, art that had some collective or social function.
Lippard: Right. It was also my “goddess period.” My present partner hated Overlay. When we first knew each other he gave me a few off-prints of things he’d written, because we were both writing about Native Americans and photography when we met, and in one of them he talks about, This crude and unfortunate book by Lucy Lippard called Overlay. I ran into him and said, Remember this? [Laughter.] Ever since, if somebody comes up to us and says, “I just love Overlay,” I nudge him. [Laughter.]
Rail: Your parents must not have messed you up as a kid. You seem to have a healthy ego for people to say such horrible stuff to you all the time and you can just roll with it.
Lippard: Actually people don’t often say horrible things to me, it’s just that when they do it’s hard to forget. [Laughter.] I was an only child and a wanted child, and my parents were intellectually interesting and encouraging. My father was very proud of what I did but sometimes just horrified—like when I was living on the Lower East Side and sharing a bathroom in the hall with a Puerto Rican seaman. Or the Bowery bum I brought up to Maine to meet my parents, or the risqué puns I used in a Village Voice piece about feminist sex workers.
Rail: You have a tough skin.
Lippard: I don’t hang onto hurt feelings. I just get angry. Which has served me well.
I’m eighty now—I’ve lived through all of this. I don’t think I was that tough in the early days.
Rail: In a way Overlay seems like the opening of the whole later part of your writing life, which is much more concerned with landscape and the environment.
Lippard: Yes. I wrote the book on place, The Lure of the Local (1997) after spending time in the West and then moving to New Mexico. I thought I should practice what I preach, and started doing the local stuff. Overlay was definitely the door to all of that. I was always trying to get out of the art world—escape this and escape that—I still give a lecture on conceptualism, feminism, and political activism, called “Escape Attempts.” But I never really escaped except when I was backpacking, camping out, or wandering around the countryside and finding megaliths or petroglyphs. There was no art world there.
Rail: What does that tell you about what art is?
Lippard: I love saying that we need to “expand the definitions of art,” and certainly social practice and a lot of Eco Art has expanded it. “If an artist does it then it’s art”—that always made sense to me. But when someone says to me, Your criticism is art, I say, No. Anything a critic writes or a writer writes is writing. Because that’s what I am. I’m not trying to be an artist. Art does keep expanding. I often quote Rick Bass, who said something like, The activist is the artist’s ashes. And I say, Out of those ashes rises a new definition of art. I love the idea that art is all over the place. I originally wanted to call The Lure of the Local “All Over the Place,” and my publisher said, it’s a little too close to the truth. [Laughter.]
Rail: How do you see the environmental work you’ve been doing as related to your earlier art writing?
Lippard: Frankly, unless I’m asked, I don’t think much about my earlier or later work at all, I just do it. I wrote a few odd little columns for Studio International in the early ’70s and in one of them I said something to the effect of, No art has ever moved me as much as nature, so that sensibility was always there. I’ve always loved being outdoors, mucking around in boats, and since the early ’70s have hiked and camped. So the “environmental” was a thread all along.
After I started spending time in the west and finally moved to New Mexico twenty-five years ago, I got an entirely different take on “landscape” and am now more interested in “land use.” Today, when I’m lecturing on my recent book Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014), I have to keep reminding myself that this is an art audience and go easy on the seductive statistics. With my other books, I’ve lectured on them while they were in process and never after publication when I was sick of them and off on a new tangent. But with this one, I’m still babbling about it because the issues are continually evolving and they are different in every geographic area so I can almost write another “chapter” each time. I’m doing a talk in Missoula next week and found the recent special election there grimly fascinating, as well as the advent of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who’s from Montana, and his threats to public lands.
I was immediately interested in this place [Galisteo, New Mexico] when I first saw it in the late 1980s and came out to visit Harmony Hammond in the early ’90s. I’d ask, Where’s the book about Galisteo?—It’s a well known place that nobody knows about—famous because all of the Pueblo ruins in the Galisteo Basin. Finally I got to Eric Blinman, an archeologist and the director of the state office of Archaeological Studies. He was writing a book on this area but finally said, You might as well go ahead and write it because I’m never going to get time to finish this. I’d been researching for years and he became my mentor on the archaeological part of Down Country: The Tano of the Galisteo Basin, 1250-1782 (2010). He probably doesn’t agree with some of what I said, but he really kept me from making a total fool of myself. I got two history prizes for it.
Rail: Just visually, it’s a really beautiful book.
Lippard: That is because of my friend Ed Ranney. He has photographed Peruvian archaeological sites for years—Inca ruins, beautiful stuff. He has a sensibility that makes something out of what looks like nothing in ordinary images. This landscape is hard to photograph, and archaeologically there are often just a few stones and earth mounds left. I met Ed through César Paternosto, who wrote a wonderful book called The Stone and the Thread: Andean Roots of Abstract Art. He brought Ed to meet me in New York and when I moved out here it turned out he lived right across the Basin. Recently Ranney did a beautiful book of photographs with Yale called The Lines (2014), about the Nazca lines in Peru, and I wrote the text. I like working with photographers. I wrote the text for another friend—Peter Goin—in a book on Chaco Canyon.
Rail: That connects again to your commitment to collaboration. There is an aspect of your work that is not just what you’ve written but the interplay you've orchestrated in the images and texts in relation to each other.
Lippard: It’s nice that you saw that. I don’t think most people do. It’s so sad now with Powerpoint because I used to really love putting two slides side by side for lectures—I re-did them every time and I could say something new with the juxtapositions. Two images look awful in Powerpoint—too small. Now I just have one image and it pisses me off.
Rail: You mean back when you had two slide projectors side by side?
Lippard: Yes, with two images next to each other—big! It was such fun playing with the pairs, and what you could say that way.
Rail: As a process, as your work developed, “collage” means a couple of different things. You’ll put together different kinds of texts—quotes, things you’ve written, different voices—then there are captions, extended captions, sidebars, marginalia. It’s the same things with images—there are images that are “art” then images that are “not art” but inform the art, so when you talk about collage, especially when you get to a book like Mixed Blessings or Overlay, it clicks into a holistic work—those books almost feel like image-text knots.
Lippard: I’ve always liked what feels like the impossibility of writing about images, and I always welcome the chance to mess around with form in ways that try to address that. I used to think that I wrote differently when confronted with different kinds of art, though I’m not sure that’s true anymore. In my experimental fiction I was trying to make photographs act as “readable” paragraphs in a narrative, but I never figured that out. Writing parallel to the art, or collaborating with it, is what I’ve been trying to do, and it’s certainly more fun than just acting alone.
Rail: What’s interesting when looking at your work as a whole is both how much it covers and evolves, and at the same time that it’s remarkably consistent and coherent.
Lippard: I always like change. I get bored easily. It doesn’t bother me if someone says I’m illogical—so what? Long ago I wrote something about criticism called “Consistency and Small Minds.” Nor am I a theorist. I always say, I like ideas, but theories are like ideas with hardening of the arteries—I know that sounds pretty anti-intellectual. So be it. When I’m asked about my “methodology” I just say: One thing leads to another.