Materializing Six Years: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art
Review by Wendy Vogel
Brooklyn Rail Art Books Section, November 2012
Catherine Morris and Vincent Bonin, eds.
Materializing Six Years: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art
(MIT Press, 2012)
In their 1968 essay “The Dematerialization of Art,” John Chandler and Lucy R. Lippard argued that the developments of Conceptualism would transform art criticism. “If the object becomes obsolete, objective distance becomes obsolete,” they wrote. “Sometime in the near future it may be necessary for the writer to be an artist as well as the artist to be a writer. There will still be scholars and historians of art, but the contemporary critic may have to choose between a creative originality and explanatory historicism.”
This passage perfectly describes the shift then occurring in New York-based critic Lippard’s work. From 1966 to 1972—a time of social unrest and consciousness-raising about class, racial, and gender inequalities—Lippard participated in the nascent Conceptual art scene as a critic, curator, and most importantly, artistic collaborator. Alongside artists who abandoned traditional materials for an experimental, process-based course, Lippard pursued a singular practice of art writing, exhibition-making, and political activism. In 1973, Lippard documented various strands of “dematerialized” practice of this period in her book Six Years. The edited anthology framed a network of Land art, Minimalism, Anti-form, and Systems Art through Lippard’s unique perspective—one deeply informed by her growing involvement in the feminist movement.
Materializing Six Years, an exhibition organized at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, presents Lippard’s work from this time period as a corpus for feminist art-historical analysis. Although Lippard herself began to identify as a feminist only around 1970, Materializing Six Yearspresents three distinct strands connecting feminism and Conceptualism from 1966 onward: the demystification of artistic processes that encouraged women’s entry into Conceptual art, the blurring of artistic and critical practice, and a growing political consciousness among artists regarding issues of labor.
The exhibition brings together works from Lippard’s curatorial endeavors with related works documented in the Six Years book. It opens with selected objects from Lippard’s post-Minimalist exhibition Eccentric Abstraction (1966), some of which were also reproduced on the first page of Six Years. The show continues to chart groundbreaking work of the era, from text-based works to experimental film and the multiples-based magazine-in-a-box Aspen. Materializing Six Yearsconcludes with works from c. 7500 (1973), the last of Lippard’s groundbreaking “Numbers” exhibitions titled after the population of the cities where they were staged. Described as a curatorial “coda” because it took place outside the purview of Six Years,this exhibition featured exclusively female Conceptualists like Eleanor Antin, Hanne Darboven and Martha Wilson. c. 7500 marked the moment in which Lippard’s interests in Conceptualism and feminism dovetailed; from here on forward, Lippard’s work would take a more explicit political turn.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue offers three scholarly essays that contextualize Lippard’s increasingly hybridized identities as curator, critic, and activist. Significantly, all three texts detail how Lippard’s political consciousness and commitment to feminism became indissoluble from her professional work during this period. They bring to light the historical circumstances of Lippard’s work, including the sexism she faced as a trailblazing art worker.
Sackler Center curator, and exhibition co-curator, Catherine Morris’s essay elucidates a clear history of Lippard’s curatorial efforts, highlighting her historical debt to Dadaist tactics and her connections to collaborators such as dealer-turned-curator Seth Siegelaub. Morris underscores Lippard’s ongoing identification as a critic, as opposed to artist or “exhibition maker,” the title adopted by fellow independent curator Harald Szeemann in the late ’60s. Lippard’s collaborations, Morris suggests, avoid the big-ego ambitions of Szeemann’s projects, in which artworks could be reduced to the role of illustrating a larger curatorial theme.
Exhibition co-curator Vincent Bonin discusses Lippard’s diverse, funny, self-aware writing projects from the period, such as her collaboration with artist Robert Barry for his 1971 solo show at Yvon Lambert Gallery. Barry brilliantly skewered the accusations leveled at Lippard for being a “secret artist” in her metaconceptual curatorial projects by presenting Lippard’s work (her index card catalogues produced for her “Numbers” shows and a newly commissioned “review”) as the art in his show. Bonin’s essay concludes by helpfully articulating feminism’s contribution to Conceptualism and vice versa. Feminism, he writes, added substantive complexity to the often-didactic Conceptual art of the time. Likewise, the reductive, ephemeral procedures of Conceptual art inspired a body of feminist artwork that operated in the gap between feminist “essentialist” figurative iconography and the theory-heavy “deconstructionist” feminism of the later ’70s and ’80s.
Julia Bryan-Wilson, author of the excellent survey Art Workers (2009) about the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) political collective, parses Lippard’s practice in light of her participation in the anti-war, women’s liberation, minority rights, and artists’ wage struggle movements. (Art Workers provides an important model for the Materializing Six Years project, as it analyzed Lippard’s artistic labor as a contingent but equal practice to the artworks produced fellow AWC members such as Carl Andre and Robert Morris.)Crucially, Bryan-Wilson’s essay foregrounds the deep ambivalence Conceptual and feminist art workers felt toward art institutions in the ’70s. Their efforts to circumvent the traditional channels of production, display, reception, and commodification of art questioned the “relevance” of institutions, while at the same time, they worked to reform these very institutions. Bryan-Wilson’s essay ends on a hopeful note about the “relevance” of institutions such as the Sackler Center and the revived attention to issues of artistic labor by new artist coalitions such as W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy).
The exhibition’s only oversight may be its dogged adherence to the “material” specificity of historical Conceptual art. Ever the critic, Lippard’s introduction to theMaterializing Six Years catalogue reflects on how the “restaging” of Conceptual art may appear a bit precious in light of contemporary aesthetics and cutting-edge technology: “Now that ideas in the air are quite literally floating around in cyberspace, those typed sheets of black-and-white snapshots look quaintly obsolete.” While the documents and ephemera of Conceptual art undoubtedly look fresher in catalogue reproductions than under the museum vitrines, their physical presence provides a sobering object lesson. These yellowing pieces of paper remind us that even the most “dematerialized” forms and revolutionary ideas cannot escape the relentless system of commodification, while the “immaterial” labor of the precariat remains in crisis. Ultimately, the questions posed in Lippard’s 1973 edition of Six Years—How can art be political? What is the value of artistic labor? How is difference articulated?—remain open to debate.
For all of Lippard’s radical reformulations of critical practice, Materializing Six Years is a feminist historical reclamation project. There are no metacuratorial interventions, no graphic design gimmicks, no new commissions to detract from the intention of Lippard’s work. This is a conscious choice—and a noble one—by the Sackler Center to give Lippard’s political and intellectual project its due. In the 40 years since Lippard published Six Years, commissioning, collaboration, and site-specificity have become curatorial buzzwords nearly emptied of meaning, and feminism has gone through another wave. This exhibition restores a context to these tactics, reminding art world-weary viewers that Conceptual art changed the way we think about and through art through its revolutionary aspirations, sense of humor and creative use of a shoestring budget.