by Madeline Weisburg
Writings by Julie Ault
In Part: Writings by Julie Ault
(Dancing Foxes Press/Galerie Buchholz, 2017)
Within the universe of Julie Ault’s work—in the dozens of exhibitions staged as a member of the collective Group Material, pages written on her artistic heroes, and histories recorded on alternative and hard-to-categorize creative practices—chronologies and an accompanying interrogation of the structures that guide them are perennial matters of concern. For Ault, a rigorous and creative thinker known for bridging political action and aesthetics via a variety of curatorial strategies that involve working collaboratively and in response to specific cultural contexts, chronologies are not merely a tally of dates and events. They are “narrative armatures.” And in their formation, they can critically engage with bedrock questions that the artist, writer, curator, and activist has long confronted throughout her career: how is history recorded and shaped? How does one make various perspectives visible to the public? What types of information are subject to elision? And who is served from such attempts at structuring the world?
With Group Material, the politically active downtown collective, which Ault co-founded and maintained active membership in between 1979 and 1996, she organized several installations that used that framework of the graphic dateline as both a spatial and temporal curatorial conceit: exhibitions like Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America (1984) and AIDS Timeline (1989-1990) documented their titular sociopolitical issues by scattering art and pop cultural ephemera across timelines emblazoned on gallery walls. Ault’s books, too, have played with the form of chronicles to present unconventional histories of collaborative, activist, and often ephemeral art practices: Alternative Art New York (2002), the indispensable history of the alternative arts movement between the 1960s and ’80s, is foregrounded by a detailed yet consciously fragmentary chronological scaffolding of collectives and exhibition spaces. Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material, an ambitious 2010 volume edited by Ault on the collective’s history, likewise uses a meticulous historical narrative structure to unite public and private archival materials. So when presented with the challenge of coalescing her own history as a writer, Ault naturally returned to thinking through how a framework in itself can determine how histories are either calcified or left open to breathe. With In Part: Writings by Julie Ault, Dancing Foxes Press/Galerie Buchholz’s thoughtful, carefully constructed collection of Ault’s selected writings from the 1980s through today, she affords her texts the latter, with theoretical agility and precision.
Edited by Ault alongside critic Nicolas Linnert, In Part is the result of a judicious editorial process that elevates the arrangement of texts to the level of conceptual exercise. It traces the manifold, intersecting threads of Ault’s personal life, work, and interests, charting her ideological growth from curator-as-artist to writer. It is, too, packed carefully with a chronological selection of excerpted texts, some of which are collectively authored, that operate as a kind of primer on her political-critical practice. At the most obvious, an engagement with the arrangement of texts, objects, ideas, and dates is the very foundation of any artist, curator, writer, archivist, or editor’s occupation. But, performed in the context of Ault’s multifarious postmodern practice, which embraces multiple perspectives and consistently refuses the impulses of finality, a critical approach to history-making or anthologizing becomes, above all, a methodology. Or, as Ault writes, “Historiography is a creative as well as an interpretive practice…it is a form of production.”
In Part skids between numerous topics but manages to do so without conflating them—a testament to the fragmentary timeline structure, a mode which Ault describes as being “capable of bringing seemingly incompatible information into confrontation.” A succinct introduction by Lucy Lippard pays homage to Ault’s editorial strategy by articulating the key subjects of her ongoing inquiries in the form of her own collection of brief texts. Sister Corita Kent, the California nun famous for her zippy anti-Vietnam silkscreens—and the focus of years of Ault’s art historical devotion—shows up in several lovingly composed passages. A memorable text, “Don’t Be Yourself,” recounts how Ault, the inveterate activist for progressive social causes, went back to college to study Political Science in her 30s and ended up registering as a Republican to try to understand conservatism from the inside. “Tim,” a particularly tender and affecting essay, charts the beginnings of Ault’s devoted friendship and artistic partnership with Group Material collaborator Tim Rollins, who passed away in late 2017. She describes meeting Rollins, age eighteen and donning black-and-white polka-dot platform shoes, on the first day of school at the University of Maine at Augusta in 1973: he gave her a Tootsie Pop as an invitation to friendship and would soon introduce her to the university art library and “the book, the one that inspired him so and changed his life,” Germano Celant’s Arte Povera, thus opening “the door to a larger world than [she] knew existed.”
Similarly, in an excerpt from her 2006 monograph on her dear friend Felix González-Torres, Ault remarks on the role of the “ephemeral realm” of personal relationships in her writing. “The fact of our closeness,” she writes, “rendered me witness to his ways of being. I cannot and do not want to discount this domain of shared experience and personal knowledge…” Applied at a larger scale, this idea is part of what makes Ault such a sensitive thinker and writer, as well as an editor: history and memory, work and friendship, and criticality and collectivity are all privileged, and without hierarchy. Taken together, In Part is simultaneously a book about Group Material, scholarship, art and activism, archives, Ault’s childhood in Maine, the significance of objects, the richness of collaborative artistic relationships, and creative heroes as diverse as Nancy Spero and Liberace, but it’s also a book about editing—how to construct a history. And as to be expected from Ault’s brainy, self-reflexive practice, it is somewhat of an anti-anthology.
Ault refers to the editorial strategy of In Part as a “chronology of thinking” based on “the notion that a portion of a text might embody a core thought.” Fittingly, the book is a collection of fragments—some no longer than a paragraph—arranged chronologically and periodically punctuated by longer topical essays. Foregrounded by this idea that tracing the kernels of an artist’s key concerns via short texts can function as its own type of intellectual timeline, In Part both forecloses the myth of completism—the idea that publishing everything that a writer has ever produced is either possible or even useful—while it vies for its own model for historicizing a writer’s corpus. In this sense, while the texts are partial and clearly represent only a small portion of Ault’s bibliography, they leave lasting, thesis statement-like impressions. There is something magnificently pleasing about this, the way that snippets of Ault’s texts can serve as a catalog of her thoughts even though her output is at once so remarkably unified and various.
In an excellent 2013 text, “Active Recollection: Archiving ‘Group Material,’” featured in the latter section of In Part, Ault writes on the difficult process of organizing disparate and multi-authored archival materials for her book Show and Tell. Among the text’s many insightful moments, Ault asks a key question, broadly applicable to any critical reading of In Part as an experiment with editorial structure: “Can one effectively challenge history writing while writing history?” Or, to transpose the query onto In Part more specifically: Can one effectively challenge anthologizing while compiling an anthology? Experiments like In Part can sometimes be best at exposing conflicts, instead of proposing solutions. But in this case, the editorial concept comes across so clearly and effectively that to think about these questions is almost a given. It is routine—and necessary—for writers and editors of anthologies and collected writings to acknowledge and qualify gaps. But it is rarer for the format of a book to confront this issue at a level of form and content so directly, or so assiduously.
MADELINE WEISBURG is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn.