“The Hardest Work I Have Ever Done”: “Dropout Piece” by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

July 23, 2014   •   By Catherine Wagley

IN 1959, AT the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 80th Annual, the queen of England stopped to admire a painting by Lee Lozano. Lozano, older than most of the other art students at 29, had a tomboyish bowl cut and a loose, expressionistic approach to painting bodies and objects. Elizabeth II happened to whisk through the show during 14 quick hours in Chicago and, according to the local papers, she liked Lozano’s painting of a seated figure best. It’s just one of many times the artist would brush up against kinds of greatness far more defined and straightforward than her own.

Another, more prolonged brush up began four or so years later, when, after divorcing her husband — an architect named Adrian Lozano — Lozano moved from Chicago to New York and became friends with the sculptor Carl Andre. Andre, though working as a freight brakeman at that point, was already on his way to canonization. A 1970 Guggenheim solo show would establish his reputation, which has stayed more or less strong ever since, even after his 1985 trial for the murder of his wife, artist Ana Mendieta (a retrospective of his work is up now at the Dia Art Foundation’s Beacon, New York location). He and Lozano used to scavenge city streets together, looking for objects they could use in their art. Often, according to Andre, they would argue. He thought that matter had to “stand on its own,” meaning material should be what it was and nothing more; he is, after all, known for laying out zinc plates on the floor and leaving it at that. But Lozano would “make pigment matter,” in his words, doing paintings with identifiable subjects, and he “thought that unholy.” He said so in 1983, 12 years after his former friend had seemingly extracted herself from the New York art world, in the catalogue for the Abstract Painting: 1960­­–69 show at PS.1 Contemporary. By then, Andre realized he’d been wrong; that for Lozano “matter” had to be depicted in myriad ways, that she would eventually find it “necessary to dye the canvas of the brain” through work she called “Life-Art,” and that, despite his many initial reservations, her paintings “were and are right.” If it sounds like Andre is writing about Lozano posthumously, it’s probably because he, like most others who had known her well in the 1960s, didn’t quite know what had happened to her.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s recently published book, Dropout Piece (Afterall), does more to unravel what did, and didn't, happen to the artist than any other text to date. The book, a close reading of the incremental withdrawal from the art world that has become known as Lozano’s final artwork, arrives after the artist has been pulled out of her relative, self-imposed obscurity. In 1998, the year before her death from cervical cancer at age 68, three concurrent New York gallery shows each featured a phase of her paintings: her raunchy "early 60s" renderings, where fingers might look like penises and breasts like bouncy balls; her “tool paintings” of gray and rust-colored screws, bits and bolts; and her obsessively systematic “minimal” work. After this, Lozano’s reputation grew, as did her work’s prices, from around $10,000 on average to over $600,000 and now close to $1 million. PS. 1 Contemporary staged a solo show of her work in 2004. In 2011, critic Nancy Princenthal wrote in Art in America that Lozano’s rising star has now started to blaze. Hauser & Wirth, the gallery currently representing Lozano’s estate, exhibited more tool paintings in 2008. When they did, they quoted that same 1983 observation from Andre at the top of their press release, only edited it down so it sounded like an un-conflicted complement, not the wavering recollection it actually was: “To me, matter must stand on its own, not be an image, not disappear when the lights go out. Lee could and did make pigment matter.” This instinct to un-complicate in order to legitimate is entirely understandable, especially for a gallery working to sell what an artist made before ceasing to make anything at all. But Lozano defied legitimacy so actively and effectively during her lifetime that to impose it on her now seems almost cruel.

An art writer and curator who started editing her ongoing series of “Pep Talk” books because she wanted to find motivation in other writers and artists’ work, Lehrer-Graiwer commits to letting Lozano be complicated. She’s not the first. Others, like the always-incisive curator Helen Molesworth, who called Lozano’s refusal to play by the rules “utterly pathological and consummately idealistic,” have grappled with the knottiness of the artist’s life. But Lehrer-Graiwer’s compact, 112-page book, part of Afterall’s “One Work” series on single artworks, does so at greater length, with more curiosity and cautiousness. The cautiousness, which involves avoiding hard-and-fast claims, takes some getting used to — on when Dropout Piece actually began, Lehrer-Graiwer writes that “it can be attributed to either 1970 or 1972, or both,” depending “on whether a work’s life begins upon conception or upon realization.” However, once Lehrer-Graiwer’s embrace of uncertainty and occasional academic density become more familiar, reading the book becomes an adventure. The outcome seems to be unclear even to the writer, and while the book is definitely about Lozano’s notorious last artwork, it’s also, in Lehrer-Graiwer’s words, “about what art can do to a life and the extremes it can lead to that are not necessarily agreeable or benevolent.” More specifically and probably more crucially, the book grapples with how to tell the story of an artist who gave into extremes and didn’t angle for a definable kind of success.

Dropout Piece begins by explaining, to the extent possible, Lozano’s last work, which “may or may not be precisely equivalent to her dropping out of the New York art world” and is really more not there than there: “we are talking around an absence — the artist’s absence and the void it created.” The work exists “first and foremost as a title,” Lehrer-Graiwer writes, pointing out that by adding the word “piece” to the compound “dropout,” Lozano places “art’s frame around a certain zone of defiant, difficult and joyously (ce)rebellious thinking.” (During her “Life-Art” period, Lozano also considered using “dream” or “fantasy” in place of “piece”). Lozano only mentioned Dropout Piece a few times in her writings, in the April 1970 entries in a series of notebooks she kept between 1968 and 1972, which Lehrer-Graiwer quotes. “IT IS INEVITABLE, SINCE I WORK IN SETS OF COURSE THAT I DO THE DROPOUT (NOTE PUN) PIECE,” the artist wrote; “DROPOUT PIECE IS THE HARDEST WORK I HAVE EVER DONE” because “IT INVOLVED DESTRUCTION OF (OR AT LEAST COMPLETE UNDERSTANDING OF) POWERFUL EMOTIONAL HABITS.”

While she exhibited certain other text-based pieces she made between 1968 and 1970 (Investment Piece, Grass Piece), most of which consisted of instructions she laid out for herself sometimes followed by records of her carrying out those instructions, Lozano had no apparent plans to present Dropout Piece in any tangible way. So had it not seemed like a potential explanation for her behavior leading up to 1972, when she did appear to drop out of the artworld, it may not have come to be known as an artwork at all. Lehrer-Graiwer makes it clear that while the piece represents a rupture for Lozano, it also continues a trajectory she had already been on, making work that was less and less recognizably art. As writer Lucy Lippard, who once fronted Lozano a month’s rent and had high hopes for conceptual art’s democratizing potential, told ArtForum in 2001, other artists were trying to get away from the art market and from objects that felt like commodities circa 1970, too. “But Lee was extraordinarily intense, one of the first, if not the first […] who did the life-as-art thing. The kind of things other people did as art, she really did as life — and it took us a while to figure that out.”

Lehrer-Graiwer has been thinking about “Life-Art” and Lozano for a while. She started researching in 2007, if not before. In 2010, she curated an exhibition of “Life-Art” pieces at Overduin & Kite (now Overduin & Co.) in Hollywood that, in retrospect, feels like the groundwork for her book. Called Joint Dialogue, the show included Lozano’s work as well as that by conceptualists Dan Graham, who said Lozano was his first girlfriend, and Stephen Kaltenbach, whom Lozano singled out in her notebooks as a “REALLY GOOD ARTIST.” Text pieces by Lozano that wryly documented experiences — like Grass Piece from 1969, where she tried to stay high “EVERY DAY, ALL DAY” and “SEE WHAT HAPPENS,” and No Grass Piece, where she kept track of what happened when she went without grass for the same amount of time — were the exhibition’s life force. Joint Dialogue approximated an intoxicating permissiveness and entertained no fantasy of historical importance. Lehrer-Graiwer seemed more concerned with how to transport the energy she’d perceived in the work of these artists into the present than in cementing any legacy. An endearingly unpolished catalogue (it felt like a notebook itself, with typos and all) came out after the show closed, and, in the text she wrote for it, Lehrer-Graiwer appropriates Lozano’s language and habits. She writes at the catalogue’s start, “I tend to align with Lozano’s position, drawn in fits and starts to inhabit her vantage point. She is entry, exit, touchstone.” Later, in an all-caps note (Lozano only used caps) handwritten in the margins, Lehrer-Graiwer asks, “WHAT DO I WANT IN WANTING TO KNOW HER?” In the much-tighter Dropout Piece, she’s still asking.


Lee Lozano was born in Newark in 1930, to middle-class Jewish parents, a mother about whom not much is known and a father who was a “real middle-management Willy Loman,” according to Lozano’s cousin Mark Kramer. That quote from Kramer appears in the efficient, nine-page “Life Before ‘Life-Art’” section of Dropout Piece, a section that begins as an annotated version of the autobiography Lozano composed in a notebook. Lehrer-Graiwer quotes Lozano on key dates and facts (birth, receiving her given name Lenore Knaster, and her choice to go by “Lee” at age 14, enrollment at University of Chicago in 1948, an abortion in 1955, marriage in 1956) then elaborates, sometimes editorializing by adding things like “she was beginning to come into her own” but usually resisting the urge. After marrying Adrian Lozano, who came to the states from Mexico at age four and once painted a mural of modern Mexico for Chicago’s Hull House, she moved into a Mies van der Rohe apartment on Lake Shore Drive and promptly enrolled in the B.F.A. program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, though she already had a bachelors in philosophy and science. She also started psychoanalysis. And, not long after meeting the Queen of England, she apparently walked across the stage at graduation with her gown caught up on a brassiere she had hanging out of her jeans’ back pocket. “[A] deliberate pre-feminist gesture to scandalize,” wrote former classmate Kes Zapkus in a 2007 letter to Lehrer-Graiwer.

Always refusing to be docile (“I am not a nice girl,” she once told a patronizing dealer) but also not one to align herself with group efforts like “feminism” or “the women’s movement,” Lozano had a contentious relationship to her own gender. Halfway through “Life Before ‘Life-Art’,” Lehrer-Graiwer quotes a memory Lozano jotted down in 1970. The artist had been at dinner in 1964 with her friend, gallerist Richard Bellamy. He had put her in group shows at his Green Gallery and planned to give her a solo show before money problems abruptly forced him to shutter. In front of other artists from the Green Gallery roster who were there too, Bellamy handed Lozano his bread:




As a character in this story, Lozano is passive. As the narrator, she’s highly aware of the injustice of the situation and, at least in retrospect, angry. In a move that emphasizes that, in art, Lozano never let herself be passive, Lehrer-Graiwer jumps from the above memory into a quick synopsis of Lozano’s early-to-mid-1960s work. She writes about the early gestural, sexual paintings and visual puns (“Man with a Cocked Head” was a painting of a penis in a suit), asserting that “the loudmouthed, comic sauciness of Midwestern Pop and the Hairy Who was built into [Lozano’s] artistic genome, radiating raunch.” The mid-1960s tool paintings could be loose and irreverent like the earlier work but could also be austere, with muscular gray shapes filling the space of the canvas.

That austerity recurs in the “Waves”paintings, a group of monochromatic, rectangular canvases that could have made Lozano famous. The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited them in 1971, and their cool intentionality aligned with the minimalism rapidly becoming the “in” thing, as careers of spare craftsmen like Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Robert Ryman, and others gained momentum. The color — a burnt orange, or purple — of each of the “Waves” oscillates at perfectly calibrated intervals, because Lozano painted them in marathon single sessions, sometimes working for multiple days, often while high, entering hallucinatory states. If she had kept on doing this kind of work, she likely could have established herself as a hip female minimalist. But she opted to pursue the all-involving, life-altering aspect of this project rather than make more systematic, obsessive rectangles. “ ‘Droupout’dawned in the distance over the ‘Waves,’” writes Lehrer-Graiwer, and it was right after finishing “Waves” thatLozano began spending much of her time with Graham and Kaltenbach.


Few people write about Lozano’s “Life-Art” well. Lucy Lippard, who mentioned the rent money again with some frustration when she spoke at USC in the spring of 2013, would probably be better at it if Lozano hadn’t personally snubbed her, purportedly beginning her boycott of women (not recorded anywhere in the artist’s writing as an art “piece,” but clearly remembered by women who experienced it) by throwing an unopened letter from Lippard into what Lozano called a “DEFUNCT PILE” in a 1971 notebook entry. Helen Molesworth, brilliant in short form about certain projects, writes of this one: “Not to speak to women is to render daily life a constant struggle, and I would proffer that in that space of difficulty Lee Lozano was more attuned to the problematics, limitations, and systematized nature of gender and patriarchy than most people on most days.” Mostly, though, writers position “Life-Art” as either an approaching demise masquerading as trendy conceptualism or as too neatly illustrating their conceptions of Lozano’s legacy. “Lozano’s use and abuse of her body in conceptual pieces was not unique in that era,” wrote Dorothy Spears in The New York Times. “But many began to feel that she had passed the point of no return.” Art historian Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer described Lozano’s “Life-Art” as proof of “her idea that the artistic act can indeed also only be carried out through language.” Lehrer-Graiwer, in contrast, acknowledges that her subject was both pushing past a point of no return and doing strategic work.

When Lozano started Dialogue Piece, calling up different art-involved people and inviting them to “have a dialogue” with her, she wrote, “THIS PIECE APPROACHES HAVING EVERYTHING I ENJOY OR SEEK ABT ART.” It would keep refreshing itself with new information, erasing boundaries between artist and observer. It was economical and would always be unpredictable. For eight months in 1969, she pursued or had dialogues almost daily. She recorded these interactions — or their failure, as with Walter De Maria of Lightening Field fame, who kept not calling back — with unpretentious precision:




The attitude of these notes, Lehrer-Graiwer points out, sets Lozano apart from her mostly male conceptual art peers. They were often ironic and overly-rational, like Dan Graham, who mimicked legalese in his 1969 Income (Outflow) Piece. Lozano was strategic but unguarded. She “gave herself permission to act out.” This permission, unsurprisingly, poses problems to reading her work that a more rational conceptualist sidesteps. “How far can aesthetic intention be read into behavior?” asks Lehrer-Graiwer. “Her notebooks make me take everything about her seriously, from what she smoked to what she wore [. . .]. At her most far out, I picture her in control — even in choosing not to be.”

After “Dialogue Piece,” Lozano was moving fast, from one idea to the next, and so, in the last third of her book, Lehrer-Graiwer moves fast, too, from one short section to another. The book’s “Dictator to Oneself” section, in which Lozano tries harder to break habits, quickly transitions into the “Total Revolution” section, in which Lozano boycotts dealers and galleries and grapples with wanting to be financially compensated for her mental energy. In the “Private, Man” section, Lozano names Dropout Piece for the first time, becomes more self-involved and gets evicted from her studio, which makes painting far less practical. Then there’s the “Final Send-off” section that signals the arrival of Dropout Piece. It consists only of all-caps quotes from Lozano: “I WILL GIVE UP MY SEARCH FOR IDENTITY AS A DEADEND INVESTIGATION. [. . .] I WILL NOT SEEK FAME, PUBLICITY OR SUKCESS.” 

The “Post-Dropout” section follows “Final Send-Off” and, with the exception of a brief postscript, it takes up the rest of the book. In it, Lehrer-Graiwer enumerates a hazy succession of facts. After Dialogue Piece, Lozano took acid as often as possible for a period that Kaltenbach says decidedly changed her (around the same time, she also learned to throw a switch blade), and, following her eviction, friends came and took as many of her paintings and notebooks as they could to keep Lozano from hoisting them out a window, or doing something else equally destructive. The artist left New York briefly, then returned, lived with younger artist Gerry Morehead, met Joey Ramone, made work too immaterial to show, became increasingly unstable and moved to Dallas in the early 1980s to live with her aging parents in the Shenandoah Apartments complex. She had fits — her father had to file a restraining order — and she moved to another apartment in the same complex. At the time of her death, she requested that her grave be unmarked; when Lehrer-Graiwer went to Dallas, she found it by searching out the lot and section numbers. Lehrer-Graiwer admits to making the pilgrimage in part because she sees Lozano as a punk hero, and visiting a hero’s grave is something fans do, but her description of the experience is un-romantic. She goes on an overcast day, sees fake flowers and plastic pinwheels and takes away a cup of dirt from the cemetery “for growing grass in.”

When Lozano had her biggest exhibition to date, a 2010 retrospective at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the gorgeous catalogue touted her as rediscovered genius and curator Iris Muller-Westermann wrote about Dropout Piece with cringe-inducing clarity: “Her complete withdrawal can be seen as a fundamental act of liberation.” Eliding the artist’s years of obscurity, Muller-Westermann claims Lozano’s “subversive power and radicalism in her attitude toward art, society, and life have retained their explosive force to this day.” Would Lozano, so attuned to “art world fickleness,” have anticipated her own posthumous rise after her years out of sight, Lehrer-Graiwer wonders in her book’s two-page postscript. How much control, if any, does the artist exert over her “rediscovery” through the choices she made in life? “I still want to get closer to the artist,” Lehrer-Graiwer writes, not pretending to have figured her subject out. 

Lehrer-Graiwer’s book was published a month after a whole flurry of Wikipedia edit-a-thons — organized by artists who wanted to get more creative women represented in what’s become the world’s largest encyclopedia — were held across the US and in a few European cities. At the Los Angeles event, hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art, there were crates filled with folders: one for Eugenia Butler, a gallerist whose eccentricities and family difficulties pushed her to the fringes; for Riko Mizuno and Claire Copley, gallerists who have chosen not to write and talk much about the risks they took (Chris Burden playing dead on the street outside Mizuno’s space and getting arrested for it in 1970, for instance). These women have stayed outside the stories that get told about art’s recent past because of how they led their lives, but leaving stories like theirs and Lozano’s untold is unhelpful for the people who come after, who feel frustrated and limited by the version of history they’re fed. That’s the main contribution Lehrer-Graiwer’s book makes: it’s a model for how to historicize differently, for how to narrate a complicated woman’s legacy without compromising her defiance.


Catherine Wagley writes about art and visual culture. She is currently art critic at L.A. Weekly.