New YorkWHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
March 2 – June 10
“When you become attuned to your attunement to scarring, then you’re on your way.”
Zoe Leonard has been making work—photography, installation, sculpture—crossing boundaries, and asking us to see for over thirty years. In one of the most acute essays ever written on her work, “Photopos: film, book, archive, music, sculpture,” 1 Fred Moten calls her “the philosopher of the sequence out of sync”—referring to the way her work makes room for the dissonance that is the musical language we call life, where the “commitment takes constant rupture and perpetual aperture,” as in the reprisal of her spot-on and now beloved I want a president (1992) as a 20 × 30 foot wheat paste poster mounted on the western pillar of the Standard Hotel along the Highline during the 2016 election.
When Leonard and I met to talk about her exhibition Zoe Leonard: Survey, we were both challenged by something that turns out to be at the very center of her show: the subjectivity of the viewer—me, who initially encountered the installation with a cranky irreverence. (You’ll see—it’s not about me thinking less of the work but me missing the point.) On my first visit, I was looking at the works as photographs (and installations) rather than at the exacting installation of the show that she and curator Elisabeth Sherman installed specifically on the fifth floor of the Whitney. To put a fine point on it: Survey is a new work by Leonard, and so for those who don’t get to see it here in New York in 2018, you will never see “this work,” although you will of course see all of the work in this show in other iterations, for instance, when it goes to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) in November (where it is organized by senior curator Bennett Simpson with curatorial associate Rebecca Matalon). The moment when this realization crystalizes in the conversation that follows is when Leonard, sitting across from me at her work table, remarks “installing is actually my favorite thing,” and I marvel because, as always, it is a small offhand remark in a conversation that displaces and elucidates by questioning everything, just like her photographs.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): So, there’s no internet in the studio?
Zoe Leonard: Right. It’s about making time for the work. The work doesn’t come over and ask us to make it. It’s not going to email or call or give us a deadline. So when you hit a blank spot or a knotty problem, it’s really easy to drift off . . . what if I just answer that email? And then you look up, and it’s 4:30 and it’s time to go home. Going online becomes the escape hatch. So, yes, no internet. When I am here, I am really here. It’s the old way, right? The art market, the milieu of contemporary art, has changed so much. Everything is on fast time now, like art fairs. I think of how artists used to be able to work—like the land artists in the 1970s would go out West, and their dealers wouldn’t hear from them for six months, and that was just fine. It was understood they were working. Today if you are offline for six hours, people are like, “Where have you been?”
Rail: Exactly. Turning off is the only way to make work, and yet you have to be turned on to enter the conversation. Speaking of which, in preparing to speak with you I noticed most of the writing on your show just discusses Survey, but there are actually two exhibitions up simultaneously, right?
Leonard: Are you talking about Homage (2018)?
Leonard: I definitely think of Homage as part of the show! It’s a new site-specific work made for the exhibition. It’s not in the same space as Survey or even on the same floor, but I think it frames the show—or spills the show out into and through the building.
Rail: So Homage is an extension of Survey? That’s important and I don’t think has been commented on.
Leonard: You’re right, it really doesn’t look at all like the rest of the work, and on a visual level it may not be obvious that it is connected to the show. I think what it does—or what I tried to do—is to create a kind of scaffolding within the building, to delineate a sub or super-structure around the exhibition. Homage is composed of excerpts from Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” screen-printed on the walls throughout the building, always in staff and administrative work areas.
Rail: So it’s not really accessible to the general public except if one is peering into the administrative offices?
Leonard: Actually, Homage is entirely visible from the public galleries and circulation areas. In a number of areas throughout the building there are glass walls between the staff work areas and the public galleries and circulation areas, allowing visitors to see into some of the conference rooms, curatorial offices, work areas, and hallways leading to various administrative offices. These interstitial spaces punctuate the museum. Elisabeth Sherman and I were interested in this recurring gesture in Renzo Piano’s design. I think Piano’s idea was to give a sense of transparency to alert the visitor to the other side of the museum—the back of the house.
But in a way, it’s a false or cursory transparency; you don’t get to see into the offices of, for instance, the director or chief curator, or the trustees’ meeting room. Nor is there a real indication of the tremendous amount of labor—of all kinds—that goes on behind the scenes. Much remains invisible to the visitor. Homage is a way of calling attention to the inner workings of the museum, and to ask about the effect any given institution can have on our larger culture. Originally, Elisabeth and I were trying to figure out a way to adapt my 1992 Documenta IX piece2 for these spaces, but because of the explicit nature of those photographs, it was complicated to get permission—precisely because they are visible from the public circulation areas.
Rail: All those vaginas would be so visible.
Leonard: Right, there is no way to move a school group through the museum without encountering at least one of these spaces. But, the WMAA was willing to do it; Elisabeth worked closely with every department of the museum to get clearance, which was an incredibly involved process. So we were moving forward. We made mock-ups and did a test, taping up copies of the photos in the spaces, but as soon as I saw the images up, it was immediately clear to me that it didn’t work. In part, it was the bluntness—visually—I mean the photos looked great, but without the complexity of dialogue with other artworks— as in the original installation—the dialogue fell flat.
Rail: When did you decide to use the Nochlin essay instead of your Documenta IX photographs?
Leonard: Elisabeth held onto the spaces after we realized the Documenta piece wouldn’t work, and she asked me to keep thinking. As it turned out, we were on site with the mock-ups on the first of November last year. The Harvey Weinstein story had broken in early October, and shortly after that the Knight Landesman story. Just a few days after Landesman resigned, the news came that Linda Nochlin had died. On hearing of her death, I felt a profound sense of loss and despair at the irony of it, as I’m sure many people did. All of this was on our minds as we were discussing the work. Elisabeth and I had gotten attached to these spaces and the unique vantage point they offered within the museum. But at the same time, I thought: this is not the imagery we need right now. We don’t need more images of female bodies. I wanted to flip it somehow, to call attention to institutionalized sexism and misogyny without putting more women on display.
Rail: That was such a depressing conflation of events. We did a mini-tribute to her.
Leonard: Yes. I never met her, but it felt like a resounding loss.
Rail: I never met her either, but when her death came across my Facebook, there was this collective outcry. Martha Rosler posted: “Linda Nochlin’s feminist perspective led to the complete rethinking of art history.”
Leonard: After hearing of Nochlin’s death, I wanted to re-read “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” I hadn’t read it since my early twenties. I was heading back to Texas, and I printed it out to read on the plane. As I read I was struck by the way the essay is structured—she echoes her title question throughout the essay. It’s repeated over and over again, in each section of the essay. Right then, I thought, “This is it. I want to work with this.” The repetition of it, the fierceness of the question, and the way it still stings, now, because things haven’t changed enough. Elisabeth and I committed to move forward. Julia Trotta, Linda Nochlin's granddaughter, was incredibly supportive and gave us permission on the spot to use the text. Over the next month, I took the essay apart and selected about ten or twelve excerpts, and in conversation with Elisabeth, we fit the texts to the specific locations—in other words, which text to put near the trustees’ meeting room, the staff break room, or up in the classroom in the education department. In the end, it is a work as much for the staff as for the visitor.
Rail: It should be permanent. Wouldn’t that be great? But also, since it adds a whole meta-layer to Survey in terms of your interest in making work about where we are now, why wasn’t there more of a bridge between the two installations so the viewer would be signaled to discover Homage either before or after Survey? Holland Cotter didn’t even mention in it his review. Or is the point for Homage to remain a discovery?
Leonard: There is some signage. And there are wall labels. But we were also interested in seeing how Homage would unfold over time. If people would notice, respond, make the connection, not only to my show, but to the museum and beyond. I think what you say about a “meta-layer” is right. I didn’t want Homage to overshadow or over-determine the work in the show, but rather to be an extension of it, or in a way, to reveal the conditions of the show’s making—the context that I work in, that we work in, the conditions women work under every single day. A common perception is that the worlds of art and culture are progressive, and they may be, yet it is still so far from being a level playing field. Even though female artists of my generation have much more visibility than previous generations, there is still a glass ceiling, a double standard, all of that. My experience is that female artists are expected to be more flexible and to demand less. Often we are offered smaller spaces, smaller exhibition budgets.
Rail: Like MoMA putting Carolee Schneeman’s major retrospective at PS1 in Long Island City rather than in the main location. Although they have given Adrian Piper two floors!
Leonard: Exactly. It’s changing but so slowly, incrementally. In terms of the market and how work is valued on a financial level, there is still a huge gender gap. Perhaps even more exhausting than all that is the way that our authority—in regard to our own work—is constantly called into question. Women who speak up, who have clear and definitive ideas about how one’s work should be displayed, described, produced, etc. are often pegged as difficult. The very same kind of rigor or clarity of purpose that is admired in male artists is often seen as problematic in a female artist. Of course there are the exceptions, but what’s that they say about exceptions proving the rule?
Rail: What do you think about when you put a show like Survey together?
Leonard: For me, making a show is about assembling a group of works so they cohere as something more than the sum of their parts. Installing is actually my favorite thing.
Rail: Installing? That’s incredibly important.
Leonard: Yes, I love it, and it’s also the hardest part. It’s where you bring your concepts and the materials of your work together in space, with the architecture. I was visiting Katie Hubbard at her show at Higher Pictures yesterday—a beautiful show, by the way. We had a conversation about the different phases of making work. In the process of making a show, there is a moment when you have to deal with the actual material you have, divorced from your original intentions. You have to give up your attachment to the backstory and look at the work more dispassionately; assess it. What do you actually have? What does it look like? What are its properties? The image, yes, but also in terms of materiality: scale, density, the formal qualities. And also, maybe most importantly: how does it function? What does this photograph do? Does it pull your eyes to the left or right? Does it draw you in closer? Is it highly detailed? Is it slow or fast? Does it focus attention or give a sense of energy, motion? Does it create a mood? Does it introduce a certain image, subject, or idea you want in the room? It’s a moment of reckoning—something more than liking or not liking—I have to get really clear on what I am trying to say with the work.
Rail: When installing an exhibition that includes so many different kinds of art, how do you balance the value of specific works against the overall impact of the show?
Leonard: It’s all about what they do in a room. It’s not just each work individually, but what each work does to the others, how they add up. You may have a beautiful photograph, but if it’s not in line with the ideas, then it’s distracting. It pulls you away from the meaning you’re trying to convey. So you edit.
Rail: Has installing always been so important?
Leonard: Yes, it’s always been a big part of the process for me. It’s not just about presenting the work but thinking it through in space. I understood something differently with this installation at the Whitney. I stopped thinking about what I wanted to show and instead I thought about what the viewer was going to see. Or what they would need to see in order to make sense of the work, in order for the ideas to come through as a visual experience. The show is where you give it all over to the viewer. You think about where they are going to enter, how they are going to move through the space. I leave space for the viewer. I usually hang in a minimal way, but it’s not just for the look of it. It’s to leave room for people to enter and move around. For me, that’s actually what the show is; it happens when people arrive and start looking. Did you get to see the show?
Rail: Of course. Yes, I did. And I was ambivalent, which surprised me. I was too aware of the austerity, of what it was supposed to do, which is odd because usually I love paired down formalism. But much of my problem has nothing to do with the work, but I think my own awareness of being in the museum. I was impatient for some reason—just too self-conscious about seeing the work.
Leonard: So, what was your experience?
Rail: I was too in my head. I knew I was interviewing you. I had been thinking about your work—what’s been written about it—and I was on a meta-level by that point. And in truth, I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so manipulated as I walked into the first gallery. Why it was working against rather than for me.
Leonard: Can you say more about that?
Rail: That I was so very aware of the framing as I walked through the entrance—directly ahead are the suitcases cutting across the space (1961 [2002 – ongoing]), with strategically sparse sets of photographs placed on the walls; in particular, Water no. 1 + Water no. 2 (1988) were the first on the left. The waves as a way into the show felt somehow coy. And 1961 too easy. And I became impatient because I’d also been reading the catalogue and was thinking too hard about the subjectivity of the individual works, and in the first gallery mostly, I wasn’t feeling it. I mean, this quote from Douglas Crimp in his catalogue essay: “What we see in these photographs is an angle of vision from which we intuit a subject looking through a camera lens, and indeed we take up that subjective position when we look at them.”3
Leonard: Did you regret that you had asked to do the conversation with me?
Rail: Of course not! It made it all the more urgent to do so. And it was mostly my experience of the first gallery because there are the works I love in their singularity: the clouds through the airplane window; the trees bound and expanding beyond the urban fences; You see I am here after all (2008); Strange Fruit (1992 – 1997).
Leonard: But I love that you have ambivalence. I don’t think everyone has to love my work. It’s a conversation, a proposal. Your reaction actually expresses the idea of subjectivity. People enter an exhibition with their own tastes and expectations and associations. What they want an exhibition to do or what they expect it to produce.
Rail: Exactly! That is what I mean—my crankiness had more to do with where I was at that day than my feelings about your work. Maybe I didn’t want so much room in the beginning—I think something about it being a retrospective made me expect to be led, to be told more. Holland Cotter put it this way: “I’m glad she makes us linger, makes us ask ‘what’s going on here?’”4 and I wasn’t doing that. Instead I was fighting against the installation, which makes the way you installed it even more telling—your restraint.
Leonard: It’s interesting you bring up the word “retrospective.” The word means “to look back.” It’s a mono-directional gaze that implies a kind of totality; a finality. A look back from the end of something. And yes, I exactly did not want to produce a conventional retrospective. I wanted the show to feel alive for me. Even though we are showing older work, I wanted to make something new and specific.
Rail: Well, it is actually called Survey instead of retrospective. What’s the difference?
Leonard: The word “survey” is more pliable. It’s both a verb and a noun. “To survey” means to look over a place or a situation. And it’s a particular kind of looking: not as generic as “to look” or “to see;” it doesn’t have the romantic implication of “to behold” or “to gaze.” It is less calculating than “to examine” and not as detached as “to observe.” “To survey” is to look at a landscape or a set of circumstances in an effort to understand it. To take in the component parts and see how they relate or form a whole. It’s about comprehension. And it’s related to mapping. A “survey” can also be a noun, like a land survey. Land surveyors measure from at least three points; you look at “here” in relation to “there.” It’s about relationships.
Rail: What you are saying reminds me of that sentence in Fred Moten’s essay in the catalogue I can’t get out of my head: “Those of us who are out of sync can’t help but be committed to sequence.”5 Meaning, sequence, connecting, are essential for those of us who feel perpetually “out of sync.” He even calls you “the philosopher of the sequence out of sync.”
Leonard: Yes, Fred’s essay is incredible. He gets to the pulse of something here—it’s something familiar to me that I’ve never put into words myself. This making of rhythm as a making of place. Repetition makes its own logic. It makes space for itself. That sentence really struck me, too and has stayed with me. So much of my work deals with fracturing, multiple viewpoints, compositions made with many small pieces, even when the work reaches monumental scale. Right from the beginning I made diptychs and multi-part photo works, and it follows through in how I make sculpture, with the stacks—suitcases, postcards, and even a sculpture like Tree (1997), which is a re-constitution of a whole.
Rail: He continues: “It’s not that the analytic of seriality demands the eclipse of any given photo’s singularity; it’s that analysis of any given photo’s singularity is a manifestation of an already given seriality without beginning or end.”6 Nothing is singular. His essay is so phenomenal in the way it deals with all his obsessions but brilliantly embraces your work. By zoning in on sequence he is getting at what you are talking about, and how my first experience of your show—via singular works—was bound to frustrate me.
Leonard: In a lot of traditional photography, the goal is to get the one perfect shot—the one that “captures the moment.” Early on, even while I was striving for that, I was never able to achieve it. And I slowly came to accept and embrace that my work was actually about contingency, complexity, the marginal, the inability to get it all right in one frame. Perhaps this failing was—or is—in fact what the work is about.
Rail: Which is so beautiful and so completely at odds with “fine art” photography.
Leonard: And maybe it’s related to what Fred is getting at—his text has so many of his preoccupations: negative space as an actual space that can be inhabited, blackness, rhythm, music . . . and yet it is directed towards my work. And there’s something else remarkable in the text; it is written in twelve sections, but each one is a different length, the pace keeps changing.
Rail: Oh, I hadn’t realized that.
Leonard: He writes into an idea and then away to another, but then loops back to the idea from a different direction. Each part of the essay is singular, but they all sew back into the others. He revisits certain works several times, but each time from a different angle, exposing another facet. His essay is in fact written out of sync. It’s off beat, syncopated like a bossa nova. It moves forward a little and then back. It slips out of itself and then circles back in. Which is what floored me when I read the essay, not only because it is so skillful and that it reveals itself in rhythm as much as in words, but also because he described something I was trying to make with the show—to echo and repeat themes through the show, until the parts accumulate into something whole.
Rail: “To echo and repeat.” I keep hearing Gertrude Stein in here too. I thought of her even when I was in the show.
Leonard: Interesting you say that. Stein’s writing has been important to me. And maybe that gets to some of the different reasons, or purposes, for repetition. What is it that repetition does?
Rail: Where others see seriality in your work (the obvious example would be You see I am here after all (2008)), I experience accretion. In other words, your relationship to repetition as accretion, which Stein calls “repetition” as “insistence.” But that’s just an aside. By associating you with Stein I’m placing your work in a modernist context that completely vacates the work of the social aspect, which, as you just alluded to when you said your work is about contingency, complexity, the marginal, the inability to get it all right in one frame, is what the work is about. Moten approaches your work on all those levels in your work and more.
Leonard: Fred and I didn’t do a studio visit. We didn’t even have a conversation about my work while he was writing, so when I read his text I could hardly believe my eyes. The way he just gets it. And how he connected my work to certain ongoing questions in his writing and thinking.
Rail: But that’s what I’m now understanding. The more I talk to you about this, especially in light of Moten’s essay, the more I see how the installation of Survey is kind of an essay by you on your own work.
Leonard: That’s a very nice way of putting it. Yes, I think that’s it. I decided to go counter to the normal strategies for this type of show. It’s very pared down. It’s not strictly chronological. It uses the museum as a site.
Rail: Like what you do in Homage. These are site-specific works.
Leonard: Yes, I selected less work in service of the total experience. Rather than showing a fully comprehensive overview of my work, I wanted the show to be a continuation of my work. To make a show that feels alive and present, in the present tense. It’s an experiment—each show is—and I never know if it’s going to work. But that’s the excitement of it: seeing how people respond, how the work changes with people in the room. So it’s interesting to hear of your initial, negative, experience, even if that wasn’t what I intended.
Rail: I realize I was decidedly not engaging with your work, as Bennett Simpson said in his catalogue essay—about “apprehension,” which is such a beautiful way of summing up your work. I was not letting the work slow me down. My sophisticated meta-side was getting the point of the “generosity” and the “formally-aware anti-formalism,”7 yet my visceral, messy inside was feeling abandoned until I went into the room with Tipping Point (2016; the stacks of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time) in the same space as Tree + Fence, Out My Back Window (1998). That room was where your show came alive to me, because of the way the sequence of my walking from Tipping Point to the trees brought the association of the pain the trees carry. The metal fencing embedded in the trees suddenly made me think of African American bodies in shackles, and lynching; the brutality and the daily violence, and the association with Strange Fruit, which brings us back to Moten when he says: “All this shows up in sculptural displacement, its path breaking derangements of space, putting things together that had once been together, putting one foot in front of the other in that way that walking, that movement, serializes flesh, which pictures of moving hold.” 8 Strange Fruit is given a privileged position, not only because it is given its own room but because there was the incredible panel held at the Whitney.
Leonard: Strange Fruit is always shown in a dedicated space. When I first showed it as a completed work, viewers were allowed to walk through the space, stepping among the elements. But the Whitney gets a huge number of visitors, and the work is fragile, so that just wasn’t a viable option. We still wanted to create a situation that would allow people to spend a lot of time with the work, to look in an unhurried way. We designed the room with benches along one wall and with a very minimal barrier—just enough to let you know not to enter or touch, but still keep a sense of closeness, fragility, tactility.
Rail: Can you go over the background of the making of Strange Fruit again, briefly?
Leonard: One day I just sewed up two orange peels. I didn’t start with a plan. I didn’t know there would be 300 of them, that I would place them on the floor. I didn’t even know it would become an artwork—I didn’t think of myself as a sculptor. But there was something interesting in the process and in the resulting objects, so I kept going. I sewed over the course of five years or so, and gradually, it accumulated into an artwork.
Rail: It hasn’t been shown since 2001 when it was shown in Philadelphia, right? And it is such an iconic artwork of its moment.
Leonard: Yes, it hadn’t been shown in about fifteen years. I hadn’t seen the work in so long, I wasn’t sure how, or if, it would resonate today. Elisabeth and I had long conversations about this while she was writing the wall labels. I am wary of extended labels. Sometimes I think museum labels go too far in interpreting the work, and I think that can cut off the viewer’s process—short circuit the act of looking. I don’t want to withhold information; I mean I want people to be able to place the work in a world context—artist, date, material. But looking is active, and I have a lot of trust in visual intelligence. Anyway, after many conversations, Elisabeth and I agreed to keep most of the labels very short and basic. But with Strange Fruit, she was concerned that the political and social aspects of the work would be lost unless we gave more information. We did not want the work to be read only as a still life—a Vanitas study in decay. The work was made not only as a meditation on life and death in the general sense, but more specifically about mourning a life cut short through violence and discrimination.
Rail: David Wojnarowicz?
Leonard: Well, yes, David, but also many others. I lost a number of friends in those years.
A very close friend, David Knudsvig, died in 1993. Friends were testing positive, were getting sick, were dying. It was relentless. David Wojnarowicz was a good friend. Our friendship was formative for me in many ways. And his work influenced me. He made several works that incorporated sewing. One in particular was a loaf of bread that was broken open and sewn with a crimson red embroidery thread. The thread was left hanging like a loose pool between the two halves of the bread. But I think this work really became something else; it began with David’s [Wojnarowicz] death, but it became a meditation on many things: on lost friends, broken friendships, the wrenching reality of that time. The complicated way that desire and pleasure are tied to time, to the body and its fragile, short life. And as you brought up, connection to violence and oppression across race, class, gender.
Rail: And how did the title come about?
Leonard: I’ve never been good with titles; a lot of my early titles are Untitled or super basic: Two Trees or Nest no. 4. I am not good at it. Gregg [Bordowitz] and I were having a conversation about the sewn fruit. I thought it needed a title. He said, “Call it strange fruit” and I was like, “I can’t do that.” I cannot do that. That’s crazy. Billie Holiday has been one of my favorite musicians since I was a child. I grew up listening to her recording, and of course it’s one of the greatest songs, ever. But it’s a song about lynching—the strange fruit in the song refers to “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” I thought, “No, I’m not opening that can of worms. That’s not my can of worms to open.”
Rail: The difference from Dana Schutz.
Leonard: Gregg pushed me a little: “Think about the words ‘strange’ and ‘fruit.’ Strange is another word for queer, and so is fruit.” Even more significantly, I was involved in AIDS activism at the time, and many of us saw correlations between the oppression of African Americans in this country and the oppression of gay people. AIDS activists and queer rights activists drew on the examples set by civil rights activism. I’m not saying it’s the same. The experiences are not the same, our histories are not the same. But there’s a connection. The AIDS crisis didn’t need to happen. When a small number of people were initially infected, if the government had responded properly—treated it as a national health emergency—if there had been an immediate response—proper funding for research and public education on transmission—AIDS would be history. Like Legionnaires’ disease. We wouldn’t be in a global AIDS crisis. Everybody dies, we all lose people, we all grieve, but it’s something else when people die unnecessarily because of violence, because of discrimination, because of hatred. It’s a different kind of loss, a different kind of hurt. With AIDS, the first people to get sick were gays, needle users, and African Americans, and much of the official public response was: “Well your lives don’t matter.” People with AIDS were stigmatized, were ostracized. So in that sense, taking the title made sense. It connected my grief to the world.
Rail: Exactly—that’s what bothers me about the way the piece is discussed—as though it’s only about the past, only about that period in your life and the life of the country, which it is, but it’s also now: all those damaged, battered, sewn up and withering bodies are still with us, and strange fruit is the African American body. The work reminds me of Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock, when she talked about coalition as this uncomfortable place; a place of risk.9
Leonard: Exactly, that title is a risk. And at times I’m still not sure if it’s right. But the connection is that we were losing our friends because their lives weren’t valued. It’s worth the risk to make that connection. The fruit is on the ground; it could be an orchard.
Rail: It could be about immigration, too. I think about a field of immigrants picking fruits.
Leonard: Or it could be a battlefield. Or a graveyard. Using the symbol of fruit taps into art history, the genre of Vanitas. In still life, fruit is a symbol of the sweetness of life, of sexuality, the physical pleasure of being alive. And at the same time, it implies the shortness of the season, the fact of mortality. Maybe the title opens it up. This gets back to something we keep returning to—the idea of the past in the present tense; how the meaning of an artwork changes over time. What does this work mean now? That was our impetus to have a public conversation around this work, and especially to see how an intergenerational conversation might unfold.
Rail: How did the panel come about? Did you select the speakers?
Leonard: Megan Heuer, who does public programming at the Whitney, Elisabeth, and I came up with the idea together and then talked about participants. Conservator Christian Scheidemann came to mind right away because of his history with this work. Then Gregg, who knows the inception of the work, and Fred who had written so beautifully in relation to it. But we also wanted voices of younger artists who could approach the work from their own practice and from a current perspective without that shared history. So we invited Katherine Hubbard, Jonah Groeneboer, and Cameron Rowland to join the conversation.
Rail: It honestly was one of the most powerful panels I have been to.10 Gregg was phenomenal—he was so in the moment of AIDS as he experienced it then and of course as he still does in the present. He brought it right into the present; brought all that affect to bear; all the panic and pain and powerlessness that provoked ACT UP. And the way he pointed at the audience and said, “Get your intersectionality on—AIDS was never just a white issue.” He was pre-empting the discussion of the title Strange Fruit and what it means for you as a white artist to have used the Billie Holiday song about lynching. Which was what made Cameron Rowland’s presentation absolutely essential as the final one of that day.11
Leonard: I feel like I am still recovering from the event. Every speaker went so deep.
Rail: I can imagine—luckily the Whitney has a link to it on YouTube for people who weren’t able to attend. What was so powerful was how the work is not about the past (which, as you point out, is what the word “retrospective” does), but the work is about it as a living work now; how it affects or relates to now.
Leonard: Right, connecting to the present was part of my thinking from the beginning. And yes, that goes for the show as a whole. I worked on the show by walking the spaces and thinking about the context of our current moment. I knew I wanted the exhibition not only to display my work, but to somehow enact some of the principles or concepts in the work. If we are going to survey this site, then: where are we? We are in New York City. We are at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is so specific—American is right in the title. What is it to be an American artist in 2018? I began thinking about that western view from the fifth floor and realized that could be my starting point. That view is always going to be more interesting than any artwork you put next to it: it’s moving, it’s real life, it’s beyond cinematic. So how can I pull that energy into the show, make it part of the show? How can I use the membrane of the window as a connective tissue between the exhibition and the world outside?
Rail: Actually, when I walked into that fifth gallery and saw How to Take Good Pictures (2018) I laughed out loud.
Leonard: That’s so great! I wanted to put something between the viewer and the window—to interrupt the view—not to block it, but to mediate it. This view is a link to the city, and it is also an iconic view—a constructed view that brings in a sense of history and a reminder of our current day situation. There is the art historical reference to the Hudson River School of painting, the idea of the sublime. And there is a highway and the sanitation department freighters, and tug boats going by. It’s a history of labor and commerce, of industry and trade. And the pier just to the south is where Gordon Matta-Clark made Days End, and just south of that is where the queer sex piers from the 1970s and 80s were, a history now erased from that view. Looking farther south, you can see the Statue of Liberty. This is New York Harbor; it’s immigration. It’s Ellis Island. This is where generations of people have arrived. It’s a quintessential American image, complex and layered. I thought, “How can I tune my work to this site, make this show site-specific? So I had the idea to make How to Take Good Pictures (2018). It’s very similar to a piece I made a couple years ago called How to Make Good Pictures (2016). Both were made by stacking copies of different editions of the same book, a Kodak manual that has been in print since the beginning of the 20th century. The stacks track about a century of amateur photography, a skeleton history of the snapshot. So, in that room, the view and building are as much a part of the work as the sculpture itself.
Rail: Or the new work itself? That’s it—that’s what I wasn’t allowing myself to get. Although unrelated, the installation of How to Take Good Pictures reminds me of the camera obscura you built for the second to last show of the Whitney at the Breuer building. That was so pitch perfect for that exact show. You brought the view from the window—Madison Avenue live—physically into the space so it felt like the viewer was immersed in the building’s own future nostalgia. Like it was already remembering that this was about to be its past.
Leonard: Yes, it’s actually a very similar impulse. Wanting to connect the museum experience to life outside the museum. I didn’t realize it until after we’d built the space, but actually the dimensions of that last gallery are almost identical to the dimensions of the room we built out for the camera obscura for the 2014 Biennial at the old Whitney—the Breuer building on Madison Avenue. We basically made the same space.
Rail: Wow, that’s fascinating. So if that view gave you access to a framework for the show as a whole, how did you then plan the specific rooms—map out the journey for the viewer to that room?
Leonard: The first thing you see on entering the first gallery of the show is 1961, a long row of blue suitcases. It’s a self-portrait, composed as a life in progression. That work introduces several ideas key to the show: repetition, the found object, accumulation, and color—the tones of blue that will later show up in You see I am here after all (2008). The walls are hung with aerial photographs and photographs of a model of the city of New York.
In the far corner, is a work titled Survey (2009 – 2012).
Rail: Which one is that?
Leonard: It’s the table with stacks of postcards on it—my old studio work table actually. All the postcards depict Niagara Falls and are arranged on the surface of the table in relation to location and vantage point. The works in this first room are about mapping patterns—the built environment—as seen from above. And there’s a big vertical window that faces an older brick building: the city.
Rail: And then one enters the second gallery.
Leonard: Yes, the second gallery contains works that are about the museum, modes of collection and display—the belly of the beast—a seven-part photo work of two young kids—girls—running around the museum of natural history; photographs of wax anatomical models in vitrines; Chastity Belt (1990/93); Preserved Head of a Bearded Woman (MuséeOrfila) (1991), and in the center of the room, a long case with The Fae Richards Photo Archive (1993 – 1996).
The next gallery is a long, wide gallery, a 100-foot long wall with You see I am here after all—around 4,000 postcards of Niagara Falls hung in grids. This long gallery runs as a kind of baseline to the exhibition, all the way to the last gallery. It can be entered and exited at three points along the way, leading into and out of the other galleries. Next there are two smaller, square-ish galleries; The Analogue Portfolio (1998 – 2006) is in one and Strange Fruit in the other. These two rooms are at the heart of the show, forming the center, if you can say that. Both works consider shift, change, decay, a physical—bodily—experience of living in our time, in our city.
Rail: The density and clarity of the themes for each room are so precise. The room that really moved me was the one containing Tipping Point, the graffiti, and the trees.
Leonard: That gallery is what we loosely referred to as the “urban landscape” room. I mixed a few different bodies of work—the Tree + Fence series (1998/99), the bricked-up windows Red Wall (2001/2003) and Wall (2002), the tiny photos of bathroom graffiti, and against the far wall, Tipping Point (2016). We all wanted to include these bodies of work in the show, and even though these works are from different time periods and have a wide range of subjects or images, they just worked together. These are close views of details of the city, the city as a physical, material, place, but also as a social landscape. There’s a theme of resistance and struggle running through the gallery—the bricked up walls, the trees—and the idea of voice—from the scrawled bathroom graffiti words to the stack of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time that make up Tipping Point. I want a president is also installed in that room. It’s just a standard sheet of 8.5 × 11 inch typewriter paper—a facsimile of the original typewritten piece from 1992. I no longer have the actual original; it got lost somewhere along the way.
Rail: But you say it’s the last gallery with the western view where your ideas for the exhibition as a whole came together? Say more about that.
Leonard: Yes, you enter the last gallery alongside How to Take Good Pictures (2018), with the huge window view of the Hudson just behind. Aside from the sculpture, this room has three pieces from a recent body of work, all of which are photographs I took of family snapshots. 1952 or 53 (2016) is a photograph of a portrait of a young woman standing in front of a map of Europe. New York Harbor I (2016) and New York Harbor II (2016) are photographs of family snapshots from the mid-’50s. If you look at the images in the little snapshots, you can see they were taken on a ferry in New York Harbor. You can see the Statue of Liberty in the background, the New York City skyline, and an American flag blowing in the stern of the ferry. I wanted to make that connection—to place these snapshots taken a generation ago in relation to this view, to this place. To think about what it meant to arrive here in the early ’50s, right after the Second World War, and what it means now. I wanted to—how am I going to say this—think about history in the present tense. History, not as something in the past, but as something that is with us right now in the present.
Rail: Water, immigration, your ancestors arriving in New York Harbor. You set up a circuit of looking: the photographs of your relatives arriving here in New York, which when we look at them with our backs to the window, we are looking at them looking at New York at the time the original photos were taken. But in truth, by putting them on the wall behind How to Take Good Pictures, they are looking at the same harbor right now in 2018. I’m struck now how Water no. 1 + Water no. 2 connect to In the Wake, like a wake at the entrance into the show, so you have us circle back to the arc of how your essay begins.
Leonard: Yes, exactly! The newest body of work in the show—(the group of works is loosely titled In the Wake)—considers family, immigration, displacement, and statelessness. In a way it ties all of my work together because in a sense it all has to do with landscape and perspective, questions not only of topography and place but also the idea of home. Ultimately, maybe it’s about committing to a point of view from that dispersed, unstable position. That is why Fred’s essay means so much to me when he talks about rhythm and proposes this idea of finding those in-between beats that you can occupy. That out of sync-ness, which is actually our rhythm. He thinks so deeply about the body of the disembodied and the occupation of negative space—displacement as a place; an actual place.
Rail: Your trees, which are uprooting the fences, sidewalks…
Leonard: Right, that uprootedness is the point. While I was working on the In the Wake series, I came across a word in my grandmother’s papers that really struck me: “uprootment.” It’s such a strong and strange word—the violence of being torn out by the roots. I was thinking about the reach of war, the reverberation of history,12 how it vibrates through our lives. I was also reading some of Fred’s work and kept returning to a book he wrote called I ran from it but was still in it (2007). The idea that, as individuals, we are caught in a much larger storm of circumstances beyond our control. We live in our time, and we cannot outrun it. And this circles back to “Those of us who are out of sync can’t help but be committed to sequence.” Right there, he taps into displacement, which I guess you could say is the theme that runs through my whole practice. “Dig into your own displacement and live there,”13 he says. Make a home in that homelessness; actually use that uprootment itself—the displacement—as your baseline, as a starting point.
- Fred Moten, “Photopos: film, book, archive, music, sculpture,” in Zoe Leonard: Survey, Essays by Douglas Crimp, Elisabeth Lebovici, Fred Moten, Elisabeth Sherman, Bennett Simpson, and Lanka Tattersall (New York: Prestel, 2018), 144-147.
- Zoe Leonard, Untitled, 1992. For documenta IXin Kassel, Germany Leonard hung black-and-white photographs of female genitalia among the traditional paintings installed at the Neue Galerie.
- Douglas Crimp, “Zoe’s New York” in Zoe Leonard: Survey, 203.
- Holland Cotter, “Zoe Leonard’s Messages Strike Hard–and Cast a Spell,” The New York Times, March 8, 2018, accessed April 18 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/arts/design/zoe-leonard-photographer-sculpture-whitney-museum-of-american-art.html
- Moten, 144.
- Ibid, 145.
- Bennett Simpson, “The Interior Outside,” in Zoe Leonard: Survey, 50.
- Moten, 146.
- Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” speech given at West Coast Women’s Music Festival, Yosemite National Forest, 1981 accessed April 30, 2018 http://web.colby.edu/ed332/files/2010/08/Coalition-Politics.pdf
- Whitney Museum of American Art, March 24, 2018. Speakers: Gregg Bordowitz, Jonah Groeneboer, Katherine Hubbard, Fred Moten, Christian Scheidemann, Cameron Rowland, and Elisabeth Sherman. On March 16, 2018 there was an in-depth discussion between Zoe Leonard and Rebecca Solnit, which we were not able to discuss due to length, but it is also available at https://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/37003
- Cameron Rowland read a history of lynching, based on a speech Ida B. Wells made to a Chicago audience in 1900. The text of Wells’s speech is available at http://www.blackpast.org/1900-ida-b-wells-lynch-law-america accessed May 14, 2018.
- Zoe’s family came to New York after World War II, escaping the Nazi occupation of Poland. They were Polish Christians active in the resistance in World War II.
- Moten, 146.
Leonard: It was a Christian family, but pretty much everyone in the family—my mom was a child—my grandmother and her generation and their parents—pretty much everyone was in the resistance. Actually, my grandfather was in the Polish army, but then my grandmother and my aunts were in the resistance. So they stayed for the war. And then it was a real struggle to get out.
Rail: Did any of them get picked up and put into camps?
Leonard: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Most of them didn’t make it.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a writer, editor, artist, interviewer, and former ArtSeen editor for the Rail. She currently teaches several graduate programs at SVA.