Lee Lozano Private Books 1-3by Madeline Weisburg
Private Book 1-3
“Rebellion?” Lee Lozano asks in one of her late 1960s journals. “Ce-rebellion! Cerebellion.” The note, an offhand entry jotted out in ballpoint pen, seems a fitting way to describe the artist’s particular brand of artistic defiance, synthesizing as it does the tone, form, and ideology of her now-legendary conceptual practice, which manifested itself as a series of private acts of refusal. These acts reached an apex in 1970 with Dropout Piece, wherein Lozano “dropped out” of the New York art world at the high noon of Conceptual art and Postminimalism’s ascendancy.
“What type of world do I want?” she implicitly asked herself again and again. Her answer: not this one. Not quite a public rallying cry or attempt to galvanize a group into collective action, Lozano’s intellectual revolution and protest of art market strictures was instead an example of an artist carving out a space for herself in the world that was hers alone. Consequently, the idea of enacting a private rebellion of the mind—a “ce-rebellion”—is also part of the funny feeling of identification that occurs when reading through Lozano’s private notebooks, which the gallery and publisher Karma is now releasing, beautifully, in facsimile form.
Between 1967 and 1970, during a period of extreme intensity, Lozano kept a set of eleven pocket-sized and spiral-bound notebooks (three have been released by Karma so far), each cover numbered sequentially and emblazoned in chunky black marker with the word “PRIVATE.” While cited frequently in scholarly literature and understood as essential to her seismic experimentation with what she would call “Life-Art” (dematerialized art that involved action, information, and behavior as medium), these journals have remained largely out of public view. Now widely available and resting on my nightstand, these dutifully reproduced facsimiles could easily be mistaken as my own.
The handwritten notebooks are filled with a mixture of content banal and enthralling: friends’s phone numbers, political declarations, reading lists on math and science, aphorisms, horoscopes, puns, ideas for paintings, SoHo gossip, drug consumption. They include dozens of examples of Lozano’s “Life-Art” pieces, taking the form of highly personal instructions to herself, from No-Info Piece (“Live in solitary confinement for as long as I could stand it. No telephone, radio, records, reading, drugs, visitors, mail, window view, clock”) to Stop Smoking Cigarettes Piece (“Just do it when the current carton runs out. Do it abruptly, like the No-Grass Piece”) to Throwing Up Piece (“Throw the last 12 issues of Artforum up in the air”). Some texts read as artist’s statement: “Finally I must say something about why I write in such small books. It is to encourage myself to maintain terseness.” Others allude to her gradual turn out from the art world as already indelibly underway: “Stimulate interest in returning to private art, art ‘scene’ in artists’ cribs rather than public places…Just stimulate interest in this (no rules or boycotts, necessarily).” Importantly, although some of these texts were rewritten for public presentation in what the artist called “write-ups,” others, like Dropout Piece do not register in material form beyond the pages of her notebooks at all.
Details about Lozano’s daily life also flood the pages. Readers learn that she was in near-daily contact with Dan Graham: they watched the moon landing on TV together, attended a Grateful Dead concert, and shared a Thanksgiving dinner with Vito Acconci. She recalls complaining to her neighbors—to Joseph Kosuth about their broken elevator and to Christine Kozlov about the mailbox key. She projects an increasing reticence about meeting up with Yvonne Rainer and registers Eva Hesse’s death, unemotionally, by date and time of day. Her third notebook, which is filled with a pathologically detailed list of calls and visits she made and received between May 15, 1969 and July 21, 1970 likewise names prominent artists, dealers, and curators that made up her now-canonized cohort.
Although these details of Lozano’s personal life may read simply as gossip—and this is undeniably part of the pleasure of reading her journals—the notion of the private is closely related to overarching ideas that fundamentally formed her practice, in which boundaries between objectivity and intimacy, both in art and everyday life were often dissolved, or at least confused. While Lozano rendered personal behavior the subject of intensive study, her practice was not removed from the context of the greater cultural moment. Seen through the lens of Timothy Leary’s counterculture catchphrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” or Herbert Marcuse’s “Great Refusal,” which encouraged people to transform the system or drop out of it, inwardness could be framed as an organizing concept in which to create a new liberating intellectual reality in the private sphere.
This understanding of privacy, as a conceit circumscribing Lozano’s journal activities is amplified by the directness of the artist’s prose and the intimacy of the notebook form. Part of Lozano’s brilliance as a writer is her simultaneous forthrightness and ambiguity, the fact that she can so forcefully conjure ideas while still withholding details of the outcomes of her actions—a tactic that renders her texts a kind of projection screen for subconscious ruminations from the depths of the reader’s brain. Her statements, which are almost always caustic, and often magnificently obnoxious, contain a type of vigorous idealism about how to pursue personal liberation in the face of an antagonistic social and economic order, which can be genuinely gripping.
Moreover, while the journals are clearly marked “private,” there is an uncanny sense that Lozano was aware of her future audience. In January 1972, she retrospectively edited the notebooks and dated her amendments—perhaps a final reshuffling of her legacy with a reading public in mind—before she dropped out of the mainstream art world to Dallas, where she would remain until her death in 1999. Because of this, while Karma’s editions are true to the original form (including tipped-in notes and the recognizable gradations of cheap, sticky ink), the act of snooping in someone else’s diary feels less like a forbidden activity, and more like an invitation to deliberate on all the ways that privacy can be activated as a personal and political position. For Lozano, insularity was a matter of ethics, worked out on a level of scale: privacy was a means to refuse participation in systems and institutions that she disagreed with but also involved shifting the daily conditions of her art production and reception to a micro-sphere. In this sense, the artist did not merely espouse her ideals—she lived them. There is something unmistakably powerful about committing to an ideology that fundamentally dictates how one lives, socializes, and creates—and to such an extreme.
Unlike some publications in the recent uptick in facsimile editions, this series of Lee Lozano’s radically intimate notebooks makes a major contribution to knowledge and understanding of the rigorous and reclusive artist’s life on the level of both content and form. They maintain their primary identity as artworks, instead of relics. And, most significantly, they give us access to the primary location of her ce-rebellious work during the late 1960s and early ’70s—the precise historical moment into which we most wish for a peek.
MADELINE WEISBURG is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn.