“Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art” at The Brooklyn Museum

John Latham, Art and Culture (1966-69), leather case containing book, letters, photostats and labeled vials filled with powders and liquids, 3″ x 11″ x 10″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art; Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller Fund. © 2011 John Latham (Digital image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY)

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This review of Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art doesn’t matter: the exhibition’s potential is confirmed by its existence rather than by its content. Conceptual art, after all, inherently bypasses criticism. Judging it is less interesting than following through on its ideas—ideas that reveal the invisible apron strings of the “real world’s” power structures. But don’t take my word for it. Take it from Lucy R. Lippard, the pioneering art historian whose words I have quoted, almost verbatim, in the preceding sentences.

Lippard was fundamental in establishing the free-for-all that is today’s mainstream art world—a milieu rife with woolly intellectualizing, political posturing, and (ahem) “aleatory strategies [that] de-center the authorial function and thus reevaluate the role of logical argumentation and hermeneutics as the guarantors of aesthetic function.” The exhibition takes its title from Lippard’s Six Years, a slim volume published in 1973 detailing the advent of Conceptualism. As such, Materializing “Six Years” ushers viewers back to the late 1960s, wherein sticking-it-to-the-man was the prevailing mantra. Within New York City’s headier art precincts, “the man” was the art critic Clement Greenberg and his “arrogant formalism.”

Art and Culture is the first thing viewers encounter upon entering the exhibition, but not, that is, Greenberg’s seminal book. Rather it’s a Cornellian objet trouvé, created by the British artist John Latham, which holds the book’s remains. Latham held a party wherein guests were invited to chew pages torn from Art and Culture; the resulting pulp was subsequently mixed with yeast in order to (wait for the mot) form an “Alien Culture”. Latham later attempted to return the library book in its masticated form—buying his own copy didn’t square with the aesthetic program, I guess—and was consequently dismissed from his position as teacher at the St. Martins School of Art.

Installation of Materializing “Six Years”; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum

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Nowadays, Latham would likely be granted tenure for his strike against the status quo. But this stunt occurred in the days before transgression, nihilism, and narcissism—the defining attributes of the dematerialized art for which Lippard was promoter, cheerleader, and scribe—became the status quo. As such, the myriad objects on display at The Brooklyn Museum have a certain obstreperous integrity—they include photocopied exhibition announcements, type-written instructions for constructing works of art, grainy documentary films, diagrams, a pile of sand, plant detritus, receipts for sheet metal, and scribbled nostrums like “there’s a spot of yin in every yang & a spot of yang in every yin.” That’s not to say, however, that any of it should be mistaken for art.

But, then, what might art be when anybody can be a “cultural producer?” (Not an “artist,” please, we’re non-elitists.) The organizers of Materializing “Six Years” consider the hybridization of identity—or, rather, the denigration of hard-won expertise—Lippard’s signal contribution to contemporary culture. Artists weren’t “special” or “different,” the argument went: “like anyone else, [they] just arrange the material of the earth.” Which isn’t to say that Lippard was averse to the prestige art affords. Conceptual Art might lead to the demise of the art object and art criticism, but that doesn’t mean one couldn’t dabble in the stuff. “Sometime in the near future it may be necessary for the writer to be an artist.” Hmm, you wonder: what writer could Lippard have been thinking of ?

Lucy R. Lippard; courtesy of The Brooklyn Rail

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Lippard’s efforts as curator did garner criticism. A few observers noted how the exhibitions she organized—among them, Eccentric Abstraction at the Fischbach Gallery in 1966 and 557,087 at the Seattle Art Museum three years later—bolstered Lippard’s own “creative originality” at the expense of the “explanatory historicism” exemplified by the artists she championed. Still, Lippard knows what’s what. Six Years, the book, “was probably the best show I’ve ever created.” Lippard’s finest exhibition, then, was no exhibition at all, but hard-copy evidence of how one influential art historian had a finger on the pulse of the times and consequently turned the resulting ephemera into neo-Dadaist gold. Without abundant verbiage and abstruse theorizing—that is to say, without the Conceptualist Diva’s blessing—the desultory ephemera featured in Materializing “Six Years” would have no significance—aesthetic or otherwise. Clement Greenberg was arrogant? He had nothing on Lucy R. Lippard.

© 2012 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 2012 edition of The New Criterion.

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