Art review: Lee Lozano: Slip, Slide, Splice, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Detail from an untitled painting by Lee Lozano, c 1962. PIC: C. The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth  Lee Lozano at the Fruitmarket Gallery.
Detail from an untitled painting by Lee Lozano, c 1962. PIC: C. The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Lee Lozano at the Fruitmarket Gallery.
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According to the late American artist Lee Lonzano, Kaspar Konig, a German museum director, had once said to her “You are a good painter and a nice girl.” “Wrong on both counts!”, she claims to have retorted, “I am a very good artist and not a nice girl.” Whatever else, Lozano had attitude, and from about 1960 her principled pugnacity drove her career through a decade of remarkable creativity. In the end, however, turning her life itself into art in a search to bypass the artwork became self-defeating. She withdrew from the art world. She lived on until 1999, but by 1972 her career as an artist had ended. Slip, Slide, Splice at the Fruitmarket gives a good introduction to her work, even if there is an inherent paradox in reincorporating this rebel into the art world she rejected.

Lee Lozano: Slip, Slide, Splice, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh ****

She spent her creative years in New York where she was the contemporary and friend of artists like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. Her first work here, however, a series of drawings and small paintings, has a visceral, graphic immediacy that links it to the previous generation of the Abstract Expressionists and to the roots of their art in Surrealism. Neither paintings nor drawings have titles and, indeed, roughly executed, the latter have the casual quality of graffiti. Like much graffiti too their theme is sex de-socialised, depersonalised and reduced to raw erotic energy. The tone is set by one of the largest: three fists side by side, one holds a crucifix, the second an ejaculating ice cream cone and the third a penis. There are more visual puns on similar themes. A figure with both male and female characteristics has a penis for a tail and is inscribed, “He had one cocktail.” You can guess the imagery of another inscribed “man cocking his ear.” Five objects that seem to mutate between phallusses and deodorant sticks are labelled rather chillingly “finally cut them off.” In other drawings, nuts, bolts, tools and domestic appliances mutate to create violent sexual conflict. It seems to be – in part at least – a kind of fierce kitchen rebellion defying the contemporary smooth-talking advertising directed at women, extolling the supposed liberating power of domestic machines.

Lozano was more purposefully transgressive than taking an extreme feminist position, but she was angry all the same and this underlies the paintings, even their size, for they are all tiny, defying both the fashion for large pictures, but also the art market. It is difficult to put a huge price on a tiny picture. The imagery carries on from the drawings. Cigars become noses, become penises. Aeroplanes take on phallic significance. A red-lipped mouth with glittering white teeth becomes a ferocious vagina dentata with in one case, for good measure, breasts added for eyes. Lozano seems to have tapped into some subterranean region of the collective unconscious for the only thing I have ever seen remotely comparable to these paintings is a collection of grotesque erotic tokens produced in a Flemish medieval sub-culture that inspired Hieronymus Bosch.

But then from these fierce little works, Lozano swung to the opposite extreme and produced a series of big, cool paintings, which she planned meticulously and then executed strictly according to her plan. The whole process is documented in minute annotated drawings. She even notes the proportions to mix the colours she proposed to use. One large untitled painting from 1964 is of an enormously magnified steel bolt. It could be like Warhol or Oldenburg’s elevation of the banal to the monumental except that she subverts any such pretension. A bit droopy at its threaded end, the bolt is a monstrous semi-tumescent phallus. The two other paintings here, Clamp and Lean from 1965 and ’66, are wholly abstract. Their titles, like the title of the show, Slip, Slide Splice, are words that are both nouns and verbs. Lozano made lists of them. Like works of art they are at once agent and object and they evidently fascinated her.

Clamp and Lean are made of shaped canvases interlocking to form rectangles. The interlocking elements are then distinguished by the direction of the brushwork, though the meticulous and perfectly regular striations in the surface of

the paint hardly seem compatible with anything as casual as a brush. The effect is to create a severely formal structure of cones and cylinders described by light and shadow.

These paintings were the last tangible artworks that Lozano made. In 1969, she moved on to create a set of actions, or rather programmes for intended actions. Critical among them was General Strike Piece. “Gradually but determinedly avoid being present at official or public ‘uptown’ functions or gatherings related to the art world in order to pursue investigation of TOTAL PERSONAL & PUBLIC REVOLUTION (her caps and underlining.)” Thus she described on a sheet of paper how she would withdraw entirely from the art world and the compromises that it made necessary. This indeed she did, but at the same time she also embarked on a series of dialogues with art world individuals setting them out in the same programmatic form.

Dope was an important ingredient of both actions and dialogues. In Grass Piece, for instance, she set out a proposal to stay high every day for a month. In No Grass Piece she set out to do the opposite with rather less success. Her partners in the dialogues were all men. She would not speak to women on such matters, not because she was anti-feminist, but in pointed acknowledgement of the brute fact of male domination of the art world.

All art involves an exchange between artist and viewer and as an exchange between artist and interlocutor these dialogues were art reduced to no more than that bare essence. The circumstances were recorded, but not the content. No notes were taken. She had devised what was really the purest form of conceptual art that anyone came up with. There was no material object. It could not possibly be commodified, although she did apparently recognise as a problem the need somehow to find financial reward for her mental activity.

Perhaps though the absolute purity of her peculiar form of conceptual art was ever so slightly compromised by the existence of her written programmes. Her last exhibition, held in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1971 and called Infofiction, was a display of a selection of the texts for her actions. Now those no doubt have value. The tentacles of commerce are long; it seems impossible for an artist to escape them in death even if she did succeed in life, albeit at a price. She ended up a boomerang child and moved back in, for a while at least, with her ageing parents in Texas. The drugs took their toll on her mentally, although her death in 1999 was from cancer.

Until 3 June