Strike, an exhibition of work made by American artist Lee Lozano between 1959 and her death in 1999 appears to begin at the end. In the gallery’s entrance, General Strike Piece (1969) states the artist’s intention to, from that point onwards, “gradually but determinedly avoid being present at official or public ‘uptown’ functions or gatherings related to the ‘art world’”. It was a withdrawal that took full effect in the early 1970s, and didn’t let up for the rest of her life. It is in the long shadow of this piece of what Lozano called “Life-Art” that the rest of the show, spanning drawing, painting and writing, unfolds.
General Strike Piece might seem like the end of Lozano’s artistic practice, or a negation of the previous ten years she spent as an artist, but that isn’t the case. In fact, it is the culmination of a lifelong body of work marked by a commitment to taking her ideas and intuitions seriously, following them wherever they led— on paper, on canvas and in her real life. She wanted to pay attention to the buzz of thoughts that we all experience but most of us have learned to tune out.
Lozano worked across mediums and styles, not as interested in the form that her various investigations took as she was in their content. She lacked the kind of visual and conceptual trademarks that most artists rely on to be identified; this exhibition contains figurative sketches, meticulous abstract paintings and 30-year performances. In one of her notebooks, she writes “I will be human first, artist second.” It is under this constitution - one that places Lozano the person, with her tangled mess of thoughts, above the idea of having a cohesive artistic practice - that Strike should be understood.
The first rooms of the exhibition show the shape of some of these thoughts during the artist’s early career. A swarm of crude and often vague drawings from between 1960-64 cover two walls. They give the impression that they were made quickly, in order to capture their subjects before they left the artist’s mind. Grinning mouths, noses, fingers, penises, hand-tools and planes appear and reappear in various relationships with one another. A phallic spanner fills out the leg of a pair of jeans; a plane emerges from a person’s mouth as another flies into their ear; the end of a finger transforms into the end of a penis. A wince-inducing pencil sharpener presides over the whole thing. In the next room a series of oil paintings depicts - in a more academic, less frenzied style - a host of similar motifs. A more caustic example features a gloved hand poised ready to insert a coin into a slot located between a pair of open legs, framed by pubic hair.
Some of the drawings include phrases like “eat cunt for mental health” or “let them eat cock,” but these images don’t amount to a neatly formulated claim or question. Whose thoughts do? Lozano is, remember, a human first and an artist second, and these works reflect the kind of loosely coherent but altogether disordered storm of mental impressions that we all experience. Sex, pain, humor, metamorphosis, machinery and the body’s boundaries all feature as themes in the artist’s world but they fail to settle into a logical order.
After a series of laser-precise abstract paintings whose names - Clamp, Hack, Stroke, Shoot (1965-9) - suggest that they belong to the same loose world as the earlier work, the exhibition ends as it began. The final room contains a variety of handwritten A4 sheets documenting personal experiments that Lozano invented and subjected herself to. There’s Masturbation Investigation (1969), a three-day period spent masturbating using various objects including a feather and a lightbulb, Grass Piece (1969), which saw the artist “stay high all day, every day” for 33 days and No-Grass Piece (1969), where she did the opposite. The culmination of all this is General Strike Piece.
Though very different in medium, these works have something important in common with Lozano’s earlier paintings and drawings. Artists have been increasingly expected to be brands. This means fostering identities that require them to be conceptually and visually blinkered, exploring a discrete and well-defined set of themes using a signature visual style. Lozano refused to do this, instead choosing to take a more human approach: she simply followed her nose. This is why her practice comprised such a broad constellation of images, ideas and actions, each one the product of a distinctly unblinkered, uninhibited artistic mind.
On the same page as the “human first, artist second” statement, Lozano makes a number of other claims including “I have no identity” and “I will renounce the artist’s ego”. It is precisely her lack of identity and ego, this visual and conceptual unpredictability, that makes the work interesting. It is also what makes General Strike Piece a natural continuation of it, rather than an end.
Lee Lozano, Strike, continues at The Bourse de Commerce, Paris until January 22, 2024