New York CityHauser & Wirth
Lee Lozano: All Verbs
May 5 – July 29, 2022
What does it mean to show Lee Lozano’s work in a commercial gallery? And not just any commercial gallery, but Hauser & Wirth, one of the biggest and most profitable? It’s not a question actively posed by All Verbs, but after leaving the building it’s this problem, more than anything else, that remained on my mind.
The exhibition is composed of a number of abstract paintings, a smaller number of figurative paintings, and diagrams, sketches, and plans for abstract works, some of which were never realized. The abstract works which make up the “All Verbs” series that gives the show its title—all named for various verbs (e.g. Cram, 1965, or Butt, 1966)—are paintings in muted metallic tones evoking a sharp sense of motion and industrial form. Each takes the diagonal as its primary motif, the upward or downward thrust of the shape emphasized by repeated parallel brush strokes which both give the paintings the look of burnished steel and function as a kind of cartoonist’s rendering of motion. The diagonals are often contained within or take the form of tube-like forms, which, when combined with the metallic palette and speed-connoting brush strokes make the paintings resemble hydraulic systems seen up close, mid churn. The works correspond, sometimes loosely, to the chosen verbs: in Cram, for instance, a thin triangular slash of red is forced down the center of a gunmetal form, crammed into and then fusing with the thick density of the gunmetal and gray.
Compared to Lozano’s later “Wave” series (1967–1970)—in which the paintings seem to vibrate off the canvas in a miraculous representation of electromagnetic waves—the “All Verbs” paintings come across as somewhat cold exercises from a prompt. That is, the intent seems either ambiguous or underdeveloped, or worse, all too clear and labored. Though Lozano’s talent as a painter remains clear in these works, they are, alas, some of her weakest—even their metallic surfaces lack, upon extended examination, the vibratory potential she so deftly explored in the “Wave” series.
This comparison here is deliberate: Lozano started work on the “Wave” series in 1967, the year after the “All Verbs” paintings were first shown (at the now-closed Bianchini Gallery in New York). It seems plausible that the “All Verbs” series compares poorly because it marked a transitional period. Perhaps forms and approaches were still being sorted through between the immense accomplishment of the “Tool” paintings (1963–1964) and the “Wave” series that followed.
The “Tool” paintings developed Lozano’s earlier erotic and ironic drawings of human anatomy, intermixing with the mechanical and the object-world in general by erasing the distinction between flesh and metal in large scale canvases of conspicuously biomorphic, yet metallic, tools. Some of the complete or planned works for “All Verbs,” by contrast, retain just an ersatz eroticism, but typically in title only (Ram, 1964; Stroke, 1967–1970). Gone as well is the acute attention to the intricacies of organic and inorganic form and the ways they might mix—all that remains in “All Verbs” of the “Tool” paintings is their metallicity. But still, you can sense Lozano reaching for something in the quality of metal itself: the way it shines, and vibrates, and rings, and reflects light and image, changing its appearance based on the viewer’s stance. These are issues of representation Lozano would go on to explore much more successfully with the “Wave” series.
The figurative paintings on view at Hauser & Wirth offer a better insight into Lozano’s great talent than the “All Verbs” series. Completed between 1962 and 1963, just before the “Tool” series, the transition between these two bodies of work is even clearer. Here, the metallic tones of “All Verbs” and the “Tool” paintings are replaced by predominant earth tones punctuated by deep blues, a bright yellow, a safety-vest orange. Still, the machine is omnipresent even as it mingles with more organic forms, and the wild eroticism of the pre-“Tool” drawings, some of which were contemporaneous with these works, also remains present, if muted.
In No Title (1962), a hand—or is it a clay vessel?—holds a burnt yellow shape. The shape’s folds and pliability give it the look of a paper bag or a strange, fleshy, vaguely phallic form, but small red and green lights, as well as its somewhat jet-like wings and body suggest the mechanical. This shape recurs throughout the figurative works included here, appearing in four out of six.
In No Title (1962–63) the plane-like shape, rendered here in a deep rust, penetrates a human ear. A curious shape, like a gun or a blow dryer with a ruby studded handle, is faintly painted in the bottom of the canvas, blowing smoke or shadow behind the human figure’s neck—the ambiguity between shadow and smoke, itself a kind of shadow or afterimage of combustion, reflecting again Lozano’s fixation on the melding of the organic and the mechanical as well as her interest in the representation and mutation of energy.
Perhaps of greater interest than any of the paintings in this exhibition are the diagrams and plans displayed alongside Lozano’s finished abstract works. These sketches on paper reveal that the “All Verbs” works are in some sense modular—the artist meticulously planned the pieces, trying out different forms in different configurations (occasionally writing comments alongside the sketches—“CANT MAKE THESE FUCKIN CONCENTRIC CIRCLES WORK” one reads). The modular aspect of the diagrams, which underscores the industrial connotations of the finished pieces, suggests that the final products themselves could have taken any number of forms without losing (or, perhaps, gaining) anything at all. This is not to say that the finished products lack any inherent logic—in fact, their logic is somewhat stringently dictated by the verb-titles—but rather that the logic could well have been this modularity itself, which would likely have freed Lozano from the limiting constraints of the structure imposed by her verb-exercise.
Back to the beginning. What are we to make of the fact that some of the diagrams on display in All Verbs are now selling for upwards of $30,000? What are we to make of this in light of Lozano’s famous last work, the “Life-Art” (her term) work Dropout Piece (c. 1970), in which, after roughly ten years of inventive art practice across all manner of styles, she deliberately withdrew from the art world altogether? A work which, as writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer puts it in her fantastic 2014 book on Dropout Piece, was “about disrupting entrenched patterns of production (of value, of meaning) and unworking in the capitalist sense…To the detriment of her career and material resources, she would not automatically churn out quantities of ‘art’ for pay.”
We could see in all of this one more example of capital’s indomitable ability to co-opt, to seize resistance and reify the fact of that resistance, transforming it into yet another site of commodification. This appears inevitable in hindsight, turning Dropout Piece into the artistic equivalent of revolutionary suicide, but every opportunity to view Lozano’s work drives home an important aspect of her final refusal: her final refusal was a monumental work not because of the endurance or commitment required, but because of Lozano’s incredible talent, because of the physical works she left behind. With each passing day that Lozano refused to paint, with each day of mounting refusal, Lozano renewed her commitment to an artistically generative unwork. Her asceticism was more radical, more meaningful, than any piece made for the market.