You Have to Read a Lot

A small tour passed through the Lucy Lippard show at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  “This art is conceptual,” explained the guide, “you have to read a lot to understand it.”  I am of at least two minds about this.

Sure, there is a lot of text in the show.  Perhaps this ought to be expected of an exhibition titled “‘Materializing Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art,” which takes as its inspiration Lippard’s book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 […].  (What I take to be the book’s full and proper title, including all subtitles, goes on for some 15 wordy lines, taking up the entirety of the cover.)  How else to ‘materialize’ the ‘de-materialized art object’ than, say, various forms of ancillary documentation?  So, for starters, much of what is on display is ephemera: catalogs, exhibition cards, posters.  There is also plenty of text-as-art: including Joseph Kosuth’s Titled (Art as Idea as Idea), [Word], a mounted white-on-black photo of a dictionary-definition of the word ‘word’; a selection of On Kawara’s time-stamped postcards.  There are works to which text is integral, such as the puddle of paint with Lawrence Weiner’s concomitant title-instructions: “one pint gloss white lacquer poured directly upon the floor and allowed to dry.”  And there are also a lot of wall texts which describe works or establish particular contexts.  Graciela Carevale’s Buñuelian Entrapment and Escape (Encierro y Escape): Action for Experimental Art Cycle, for example, in which unsuspecting gallery goers, expecting an opening, were instead locked inside the gallery.   Ultimately, they broke the gallery window in order to escape.  A slide show of still photographs documented the event: the milling around,  the broken pane, a woman crawling through the jagged hole. But the wall text offered details—it took an hour-and-a-half for the window to be broken—and provided a broader account of the activities of the Rosario Group, to which Carnevale belonged.  I was also interested to learn that the two-part Jo Baer painting, Untitled, 1967, which consists of two vertical canvases, each with white grounds and two thin, concentric, rectangular borders, one of black, the other of purple, was donated to a benefit held at Paula Cooper and that, as the wall text explained, “sales of artworks […] supported the growing anti-war movement regardless of individual pieces’ lack of overt political content.”

But then there are works like Bruce Nauman’s Thighing.  This black-and-white film consists of a single close-up shot of a leg (presumably Nauman’s own), from just below the knee to the upper thigh.  During the four-and-a-half minute duration of the film, the artist flexes his quads and, with his hands, pushes, presses, squeezes, twists, wrings, and stretches the flesh just above the knee.  His leg is darkly hairy, and his knee, like all knees, knobby and a bit awkward.  At one point, he takes two fingers and pushes up a small ridge of flesh and, then, with four, molds a bulging diamond shape.  It is grotesque and very funny.  I was transfixed.  The wall text for this piece offers only basic identification: name, title, year, medium, &c— and this is, I think, totally sufficient.

[The museum does not allow photographs in this exhibition, so I apologize for the lack of visuals—but, then again, you do have to read a lot.]

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