The Breakthrough Review
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LIPPARD: Art and Feminism
by Charlotte Moser
Lucy Lippard is the most influential feminist art critic in the country today, but she got there the hard way.
Born in New York City in 1937, she majored in art at Smith College,
spent her junior year in Paris, and returned to New York in 1958 to look
for an art gallery job. She ended up with a job at the Museum of Modern
Art Library as a page and researcher. The first art reviews she wrote were
turned down by Hilton Kramer, then editor of Arts Magazine and now critic for the New York Times. She.felt so rejected that she didn't attempt
art criticism again for almost six years.
At nights in the meantime, she worked on an M. A. from New York
University's Institute of Fine Arts. In 1962, her first academic piece of art
criticism was published in the College Art Journal. In 1964, her son Ethan
was born and she began her career as a free-lance art critic. Max Kozloff,
editor of the newly formed magazine Artforum, asked her to write reviews
of New York shows and later that year, she became critic ior Art International magazine. She began to organize exhibitions and, in 1968, received
a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on a book on Ad Reinhardt, one of the
leading artists of Abstract Expressionism.
That same year, Lippard took a trip to Argentina that "radicalized" her.
By 1970, she was involved with New York's Art Workers Coalition and
had discovered feminism. She helped found the Ad Hoc Women Artists'
Committee, the Women's Art Registry and W. E. B. (West East Bag).
Today, Lippard occupies a unique and independent position in the hierarchy of the art world. She has never written a regular column but supports
herself principally through free-lance writing and lecturing. She is author
of several important books on avant garde ideas and artists. In 1976, her
collection of art criticism essays, From the Center, was published as the
first volume of feminist art criticism. She now lives in New York with her
son and artist Charles Simonds.
On February 19, Lippard will lecture in Houston at the Rice Media
Center, co-sponsored by the Houston chapter of the Women's Caucus for
Art and the Breakthrough Foundation. Her lecture is entitled Stones: A
Feminist Approach to Ancient Images in Contemporary Art and will discuss art by both men and women with a feminist interpretation. The lecture is free and begins at 8 p.m.
The following is taken from a telephone interview with Lippard:
CM: When you got going, did you find
many obstacles from the male art criticism profession?
LL: It's very hard to tell because I was
free-lancing. Also art criticism paid so
little and there were so few people who
wanted to do it that the competition
wasn't really very strong.
CM: Why do you feel that writing art
criticism from a feminist point of view is
LL: I'm less interested in making history than provoking artists to make history.
I go around speaking, bringing issues to
the fore, showing artists what women are
doing, why they're doing it, what their
struggles have been, how they've managed
to overcome them. It's the artists who are
the models and it's just a matter of getting them out where they are visible, which
they weren't before. I'm writing about
women because that's what I'm committed to. I might be making more money if
I was writing about men, but I'm not trying to make more money. I'm just trying
to make a living.
CM: You say in your book that you
write for women. How is that different,
say, than writing for men?
LL: I think women's culture is entirely
different and women are very different
from men. I'm glad when what I write
communicates to men because it's important for this stuff to get across to men or
nothing is ever going to change. The main
difference was when art criticism was objective, so called. I think objectivity is
mostly useful as something off there in
the distance that one halfway works toward. But I don't believe in its existence
when you come right down to it. The
most objective criticism is highly subjective.
CM: So you think subjective criticism is
more accessible to women?
LL: I think it's easier for women because we're always being accused of being
subjective and so forth, so we're not as
ashamed of it as men are. Since we've gotten in closer touch with our own identities, we've realized that subjectivity is not
something terrible but something really
very valuable that no one else had.
CM: What sort of aesthetic guidelines do
you use in your art criticism?
LL: None. It's absolutely intuitive. It
has to do with what I know and what I
feel merging at some place that I can't
put my finger on. My personality is very
much involved in my criticism.
CM: Is that an unusual position for a critic to take?
LL: Oh, only admitting it, I suppose.
The idea of always being objective used
to be the criteria in the '60s. In the '70s,
in fact, the main trend has been more toward subjectivity with both men and
CM: Does your perspective come from
LL:. My perspective comes from the present, which is why I'm a critic and not a
historian. But, of course, all that information is back-up and it's lovely to have and
it's necessary to have. It strengthens my
feelings of the present to see that these
things all existed in the past. There are
more feminist art historians than there
are feminist art critics.
CM: You discuss in your book the idea
of encouraging women who have started
late in their work. Do you have a conflict
between wanting to nurture and wanting
to maintain whatever standards of quality
you establish for yourself?
LL: I don't find it that much of a conflict. You want to nurture people you see
the quality in, although I don't like to use
the word quality because it's been so
CM: Do you find a conflict between
knowing the artist and writing about the
LL: Heavens no. I think it's by far the
healthiest part of it. I can't imagine avoiding the artist, finding out the actual real
source material about the art just because
you have some half-assed principle about
not knowing the artist. It's ridiculous. We
tend to meet people whose work we like.
If you like someone's work, you inevitably want to meet them and find out more
about the work. God forbid, we should
just read criticism about the art. The artists are the ones who know about it.
CM: You discussed in your book at great
length the moral dilemma you have about
being a critic, about being a part of the
art establishment hierarchy. Are you still
grappling with that?
LL: Yes, I'll do that as long as I'm writing criticism, but I make a living and support myself and my son with it.
CM: Do you get into many conflicts
with artists about that, the power of the
artist vs. the power of the critic?
LL: It's a basic thing we all know about,
but it hasn't been a personal problem for
me. I identify very strongly with artists
and I think it shows to some extent. Needless to say, there are artists who hate my
guts because I don't like their work.
CM: Do you have problems with women
whose work you don't like?
LL: Not really. I don't think anybody is
so unrealistic to think that one person
can like everything that's done. No artist
likes to hear that somebody doesn't like
their work. They prefer to think that you
don t understand the work, which may be
perfectly true, and that's their privilege. .
CM: How has feminism influenced art-
making in general today?
LL: I think feminism has influenced all
this '70s art, a lot of diaristic work and a
lot of performance work that makes people very vulnerable and so forth. There
were men who were in there at the begin:
ning too, and a tremendous number of
women who have done this kind of work.
And there are men who have literally
CM: Do you think the rise of pattern
painting has been stimulated by feminism?
LL: Several years ago, Lawrence Allo-
way named something pattern painting.
It's been primarily women who've
brought that rich decorative quality to it.
Mimi Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, Amy Gol-
din's writing all gave "permission" to
bring the decorative into art whereas it
had been a pejorative term before. A lot
of the decorative comes from traditional
women's crafts like Navajo blankets.
CM: What do you see happening in
women's art today?
LL: Luckily, nothing specific. It's never
been a style and everything is happening.
It's just what women are doing. Fifty-five
percent of the population is women. The
difference in volume of work produced
by women now as compared to 1970 is
CM: Do you feel it is being well received
in terms of getting good coverage and serious attention?
LL: That's difficult for all of us because
there are few magazines and few critics
and the editors do decide what they want
written up. I'd like to see things be better
but it has improved immensely.
Charlotte Moser is the art critic for the