Tuesday, June 2, 2015

LEE LOZANO - Dropout Piece - By Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

We can begin by saying that Dropout Piece, first and foremost, is a title--a concise fragment of language indicating, with the word 'piece', the application of art's frame around a certain zone of defiant, difficult and joyously (ce)rebellious thinking represented by the ambiguous but decisive compound 'dropout'. Being a title, the piece functions as a verbal object to be considered in the literary context of the artist's writings. Dropout Piece is the name Lozano gave to her wrenching transformation from insider to outsider, her declaration of willed marginality. She named her position to the world, or rather to the art world, as a designation of otherness and refusal, rejection and critical defection...

...The poet Vladimir Majakovskij committed suicide in 1930 (by coincidence the year of Lozano's birth) to widespread shock, but Roman Jakobson noted soon after, 'This theme of suicide had become so real that it was out of the question to sketch the scene anymore. It had to be exorcised... and it was Majakovskij who wrote that even a poet's style of dress, even his intimate conversations with his wife, should be determined by the whole of his poetic production.' Picasso repeatedly sketched the features of Marie-Therese years before they met and became lovers; as Rosalind Krauss put it, 'Picasso dreamed a type; and then he found her.' Life matters as a function of art. Lozano's self experimentation not only took real risks and suffered heavy consequences, but her very concept of art became explicitly predicated on danger and disruption. A break such as hers cuts through to our present: her exit forms my entry. Tracking the thinking that produced Dropout Piece, this is a story about what art can do to a life and the extremes it can lead to that are not necessarily agreeable or benevolent...

Lozano maximised the transformational capacity of language according to an imperative of literary economy--she packed punches with neologisms, compounds, puns, metaphors and mathematical equations. As a matter of ecology, terseness was her ideal: 'condense meanings for modern communication.' At the same time that Dropout Piece identified withdrawal as an aesthetic gesture, it condensed meanings and linked associations in the strategic specificity of its title. Again, dropping out consummated the turning on and tuning in of Lear's psychedelic mind expansion and the self-realisation that Lozano manically pursued. It flashed back to dropping acid and the heaviness of being stoned. 'Dropout' signaled physics and physicality: gravity, weight, density and mass--a burden or attraction and its letting go, the relief of orgasm and evacuation. The word also had a free-floating spaciness, like dropping out of orbit. 'Dropout' structured an oppositional relationship to institutions, to the academy and the sanctioned, dominant art world. It suggested a fascination and affinity with so-called failure, otherness, marginality, quitting, suicide and detachment: 'win first dont last/win last dont care'. 'Dropout' declared an allegiance with misfits and underdogs, hippies and punks, outsiders and awkward outliers. Even as she acted out negation and withdrawal as dead-serious protest, Lozano stressed the 'pout' in 'dropout' with a sharp tweak of self-deprecation. But the artist's stealth decision, fundamentally tied to an aesthetic pursuit, is best tracked in visual terms: dropping out of view, out of sight, off the radar, disappearance.

Tool-mania transitioned her stylistically from energetic expressive to hard-edged precision; she began rendering the cold grey sheen of her metallic subject matter to create illusionistic textures. The threaded shafts of screws and drill bits loomed large on multi-panel paintings, with the tool shapes gradually distilling into smooth, hard diagonals, thrusting dramatically like well-oiled pistons--dense, sharp and pointed. The geometric abstraction that evolved out of her tool paintings zeroed in on a clash of dynamic forces: compositions were built around moments of contact, tension, speed and the collision of conical sections and tapered rods, diagramming her passion for mechanics. These were the paintings slated for the Green Gallery; instead they were shown at the Bianchini Gallery, in her first solo show, which opened on 5 November 1966 -- her thirty-sixth birthday. The show was well received by critics like Jill Johnston, Michael Benedict and Diane Waldman. Dennis Adrian marveled in art forum at her 'genuine and polished ability to compress, within a deliberately restricted range of forms, a ferment of energetic perception.'

The Wave Series demands a direct physical encounter, as Lozano's directional brushwork produced continuous parallel ridges that reflect sheen depending on the lighting and shifting position of the viewer--now you see it, now you don't. Charging the medium with the task of resisting description (and photographic reproduction), Lozano wanted to make paintings 'which can only be seen, not described verbally'. Instead of description, she serviced the instinctive, tactile desire to literally stroke her paintings' textured grooviness when she made a swatch of discarded canvas available to touch at her solo exhibition of the Wave Series at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art (2 December 1970 - 3 January 1971).


In May 1969, Lozano named her breakthrough: 'I found it! My new "Life-Art" pieces'. A few months later she called it her 'Life-Situation-Art'. It formed a complementary and at the time parallel corollary to her painting practice, projecting artistic agency onto the everyday, as though translating notions of composition, texture, contrast and mark-making into the banality of daily living. Bound in an ever-tightening feedback loop, personal behaviour and aesthetic labour aligned asymptotically to approach an elusive singularity. Such exaggerated intercontamination and mutual administration mimicked the wrap and blur of drug use that characterised Lozano's methods. This lee-quid relation suffused artistic mediation transparently across the lens of perception and rendered it undetectable, like the Murine eye-drops that glazed her bloodshot eyes.

Questioning what serious intelligence looked like (and how it was recognised), Lozano decidedly rejected the brand of Conceptualism advanced by her male peers that dominated the New York art world in the 1960s. She did not pretend to the ironic posing, dry neutrality or absurdly businesslike and often academic tone affected by Dan Graham, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson and Lawrence Weiner, among others. They each made a point of rationalising (or deliberately over-rationalising) art making: minimising personal decisions, removing the freehand and automating voice. Lozano leapt furiously in the opposite direction, overstating her subjectivity and the private, exasperating fact of embodied perception.



Drugs are agents of rapture and animated interiority; they involve taking in toxic foreignness and self-obliteration. Being high and overdosing exaggerate the Heideggarian 'thrownness of Being'. And that desired thrownness, as Avital Ronell has deconstructed, can be as much 'an experience of nothing or nullity', of boredom or anxiety, as it can be one of vitality, intensity or obsession; drugs operate in both directions as an amplifying technology. Structured upon craving and measured dosage, anything could function as a drug, even an idea: 'dont tone down your fantasies. Give in to the wildest fantasies'. Lozano had no patience for moderation of any kind: no middle path, no middle class, no middle management, no mainstream, no mediocrity, nothing half-assed.

To seek the extremes was also to theorise a serious bipolar or manic-depressive volatility. Not only extremes, but their reversal got her off. The oscillating highs and lows of the Waves registered the whiplash of mood swings as a logical extension of Newtonian physics, in which every action elicits an inverse reaction.


Lozano once wrote that she was married to art but, as she put it, science was her mistress. The latter enforced an absolute commitment to precisely observed empirical truth--reality, objective or otherwise--while the former unleashed the transformational power of her singularly excessive intentionality to alter that reality, subjectively or otherwise. So she merged them on a microscopic level in the making of her highly artificial life; her art aspired to be a modern everyday science, an intelligent self-regulating technology for the high-info future. 'Science' and 'art' became equated to such an extent that Lozano started using the terms interchangeably. Our heuristic he(u)ro was after discovery.


Living the self as an unknown thing to be studied and taken apart was very destabilising. The experience of self-experimentation warped her findings, confusing presumed cause and effect while merging fact and perception--thereby forming the basis of her hybrid notion of 'infofiction'. Heisenberg's paradigm-shifting uncertainty principle, published in 1927, addressed the fundamental limits of how precisely pieces of related information, like a particle's position and momentum, can be measured simultaneously in a wave-like system As one thing comes into focus, another falls into blur. For psychologists, it's the 'observer effect': the act of observation always influences the behaviour of the observed. And when observer and observed are the same, wires get crossed and sparks fly: 'the body, like photons, changes under observation'.


I am not sure if what can be gathered about latter-day Lozano should be read in direct relation to Dropout, implying simple causation. The piece asks: How far can aesthetic intention be read into behaviour? Is Dropout equal to fallout? Is its radioactive, half-life aftermath also part of its content? Her notebooks make me take everything about her seriously, from what she smoked to what she wore to the names she called herself and the music she danced to. At her most far out, I picture her in control -- even in choosing not to be.


Morehead is unequivocal on this point: Lozano conceived of what she was doing--her activities, actions, walks, language--as her work. She explicitly proclaimed as much, even though, intangible, private and undocumented, her work continues to be nearly impossible to know. Everything, from her domestic dictionary-dancing to unannounced social experiments, was executed with an exceptional rigour that was recognised and taken seriously by those who knew her.

The inaccessibility of her practice after Dropout connotes freeing and paranoid aspects, utopian and self-destructive impulses. In fact, self-destruction is twinned to the awful bliss and horrible rush of transcendence. Beyond practical problems of poverty and loneliness, there was the risk and reality of non-recognition. In retrospect, from the context of our over-exposed present, the idea of emphatically choosing non-recognition, invisibility and anti-suckcess is downright exhilarating. Not participating in the art world in a classifiable way pushed 'Life-Art' out of discourse. The fusion she sought in her notebooks between life and art, reached an untenable point of equivalency and non-differentiation: neither entirely joyful, nor benign.


Delivering thought to dance, I think of Nietzsche, who 'would not know what the spirit of a philosopher might wish more to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his art.' Nimbleness of mind and exuberance of spirit translated into physical poses that engrained attitude on a cellular level through muscle memory: the feeling of stretching and of sweating. The explosive energy and speed of a kick, jump or fall. The meditative hypnosis of shutting the mind off with the body. The aural intoxication of rhythm and pattern. The orgasmic, addictive rush of losing oneself. The assurance of impermanence.

What might be diagnosed as illness (according to ever-changing, culturally defined standards) falls somewhere on a slippery continuum of complex neurochemistry and behavioural expression that makes diagnosis not particularly helpful in understanding a difficult artist now dead and distanced by history. Disorder, like Dropout, is a relative term on a sliding scale that gains more than a significant degree of volition when considering that Lozano explicitly trained herself through art to seek the extremes, investigate danger and be an agent of 'dis-ease'. She did not moderate herself to be more palatable; she endeavoured to be emetic. Self-medication framed her consumption of all things--substances and ideas, more or less toxic--so that the management of her condition aligned in inextricable ways with the failure to manage risk.


Persistent holes in our knowledge of underground, post-Dropout Lozano signify the importance of not knowing and not seeing as a vital extension of the privacy and incommunicability built into 'Life-Art'. In fact, we can think of Dropout Piece, which crystallised concerns evident throughout her conceptual practice, as the zugzwang in a continuous conflict between art as a totally private experience inside one's head and art as the public exchange of cultural information, where the artist is both particle and wave. From one angle, Dropout represents a hermetic internalisation of the art piece and the art experience, both ecstatic and traumatic; it involved opting out of public recognition, gallery representation and self-representation. The artist became unknowable and impenetrable by others: singular.

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