I See / You Mean
(Chrysalis Books, 1979)
(New Documents, 2021)
Lucy Lippard wrote I See / You Mean between 1970 and 1975 at a pivotal moment in her career, disenchanted with the shortcomings of the conceptual art movement she had once championed, as macho energy was pulsing through the New York art scene. As she drafted the book, she was also drastically shifting her aesthetic and political sensibilities towards feminism: to curating women-only exhibitions, writing about and promoting women’s art, and to initiating alternative publication and distribution channels for feminist cultural production of all kinds.
First published in 1979 by Chrysalis Books, many of those first 2000 paperback copies remained unread and unsold due to the financial failings of this California-based feminist imprint, a sister-arm of the more widely known Chrysalis Magazine. The novel—Lippard’s only published one to date—was reissued by New Documents Press in 2021, bearing a simplified hardcover and more spacious margins (at Lippard’s request), with an updated afterward by Susana Torre, the feminist architect to whom the book was initially dedicated.
The novel is a sensual and provocative self-exploration, one that reflects Lippard’s growing desire to understand what it meant to identify as a writer, a critic, and most importantly, a woman in the mid-1970s. Lippard wrote it using a collagist’s methodology, interweaving sections of fictional, diaristic, and appropriated text with written descriptions of photographs and theoretical meditations on different forms of perception to create a loose narrative arc between four characters—A, B, D and E. The characters are part of an energetic system, a latticework of emotions that Lippard refers to in her dedication to Torre as the “sensuous grid”—a network or structure that merges the organization and constraint of minimalist and conceptual art practices with more erogenous, esoteric, even erotic forms.
This sensuous grid contains Lippard’s characters and expresses their relationships between one another. She connects these four people through a series of literal and metaphoric currents: using water, waves, and wavelengths as settings for action, symbols of interaction, and schema that explicitly trace connections.
Lippard divided the text into a series of enumerated logs that both mimic a ship captain’s record of events and set up a systematization of the observations that are transcribed within them. The first page opens on a shoreline, “... a beach. Is that symbolic?” the narrator asks the reader, immediately inviting us into her internal monologue. Rather than answer this question, she presents us with two written descriptions of color slides: one hazy and pale, depicting “sky, water, surf, sand”; the second—overexposed—is an image of five people, three women and two men, grouped at the shore’s edge. Lippard gives us precise details about the shapes of the subjects’ faces and bodies, their hair, the tone of their muscles, the color of their bathing suits. The characters’ physical relationships to one another are also described—which person is taller, closer to the camera, touching someone else. “He wears a black bathing suit and spreads one hand out on the girl’s back. He is leaning on it,” she explains. And of one of the women she notes, “She is flicking back a strand of long hair with bent wrist.” Written with an economy of means—straight-forward language, few adjectives, and no subjective embellishment, Lippard’s style here riffs on that of French writers like Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, who were popular amongst her circle at the time of the novel’s writing.
We witness the characters’ actions in the book only through these written descriptions of photographs—sixty-one in total placed throughout I See / You Mean, interspersed between narrative dialogue and appropriated texts by Marshall McLuhan, Carl Jung, The Kodak company, and others on photography, color theory and optics. These texts reinforce how central states of seeing and being seen are to the book. The narrator reinforces this too: “Your first introduction to them, then, is visual,” she says early on. The group on the beach, and their visibly enmeshed interrelations, becomes a focal point.
The changing currents and wavelengths that connect them is further emphasized by the series of chromatic diagrams Lippard uses to track their emotional bonds: A red line from A to D to show ”anxious anger”; a violet line from D to B to show a truce; a blue line from B to D and E to show “emotion neutralized by oppositions”; and so on. Our understanding of who each of these characters are hinges then, not only on how they relate to one another physically, but also on their emotional and psychological connections. Yet, how we might actually perceive them, based on these descriptions, and how they may be perceived by one another, remains ambiguous.
Equally obscure but nonetheless effective is the way Lippard has also constructed her characters as collages. They are amalgams of real people created by combining personality data generated from horoscopes, tarot pulls, handwriting analyses, color tests, and palm readings of her friends and lovers (a note in the back of the book tells us so). These self-identification devices provide an alternative way of “seeing” these people, a way to go beyond outward appearances and access their more intimate interiors. Lippard’s collage tactic here both obscures her real-world subjects and allows her a means by which to have critical reflection on how she was coming to see them.
To the reader attuned to art history, I See / You Mean hints at a particular network of relationship—“a sensuous grid” even—between Lippard and other artists, writers, and curators of her day. One might make the argument then, to include it in the prestigious canon of autofiction, and to see Lippard take her place alongside the likes of Chris Kraus and Maggie Nelson. One might also place the novel on a shelf next to volumes by Olivia Lang or Rachel Cusk. Right now, for me, it’s stacked up with Michelle Tea’s Valencia, a dog-eared copy of Sontag’s On Photography, and my second-hand edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.