Things were coming to a head.
The Sixties were ending. Feminism’s second wave was beginning to roil. Hippies were moving out, making way for punks. In a city jail, twenty-one Black Panthers languished. Abstraction was waning. Conceptual art was rising. In downtown Manhattan, the painter Lee Lozano was increasingly consumed by art-life projects that disrupted not just her body and mind, but the physical boundaries of art itself. Lozano’s off-canvas behavior—masturbating, conversing—became her “pieces.”
Fifty years ago, Lozano embarked on her 33-day Grass Piece, during which time she smoked weed every day. She succinctly documented the experience for posterity on a leaf of simple, lined notebook paper, which was exhibited the next month at Paula Cooper Gallery in SoHo.
Thus begins Grass Piece:
“MAKE A GOOD SCORE, ABOUT A LID OF EXCELLENT GRASS. SMOKE IT ‘UP’ AS FAST AS YOU CAN. STAY HIGH ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. SEE WHAT HAPPENS.”
Lozano (born Lenore Knaster) had moved to New York nine years earlier at the age of 30, shortly after her graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago and her divorce from Mexican architect Adrian Lozano. She soon gained notoriety and respect for her garish, pornographic, darkly comic, sometimes Greekly-heroic paintings of bent screws perverted into uselessness, tools presented unmistakably as phallic objects, hardware intermingled with tits, cunts, dicks, and tongues.
By the late sixties, Lozano had moved toward abstraction and was working on a series of mathematically brilliant, mesmerizing Wave paintings which would be exhibited in a solo show at the Whitney. She was at work on these paintings as she embarked on Grass Piece. The Wave series contains the last known paintings of her life. The oil may have been damp on the last of these canvases when the show opened in 1970.
One aspect of the project that troubled the troubled artist was that the brand of paint she had used on earlier Wave paintings was discontinued while she was still at work on the series. Lozano, weary from a month of non-stop pot smoking, fretted about this development in her private notebook: “HOW WILL THIS AFFECT MY PAINTING? . . . WILL I DIE?”
Grass Piece was not Lozano’s only foray into what she called “art-life” pieces. In the midst of Grass Piece, she embarked on Dialogue Piece, during which she invited people to her Grand Street loft to participate in conversations. She kept no transcripts but documented dates and names, sometimes with an amusing note on the behavior of friends and artists:
“[RICHARD] SERRA COMES OVER A LITTLE HIGH ON BEER & NO FOOD. JUST INTO A DIALOGUE WITH HIM (WE’VE BEEN SMOKING SARET’S HASH) WHEN HE GETS AN ATTACK (TOO STONED), FALLS OFF CHAIR TO FLOOR WITH A CRASH, HAS ‘CONVULSIONS’ & PASSES OUT.”
Dialogue Piece was, in part, an attempt to improve communications with other people, to bathe herself in their “info” and participate in “JOYOUS SOCIAL OCCASIONS” rather than “MAKE A PIECE” (even though she labeled the project “PIECE”). Through the summer of 1969, her art-life project General Strike served as an act of disciplined art-life work and a statement against the art industry as Lozano, a rising star in the art world, stopped participating in gallery events of any kind. In the midst of Grass Piece and General Strike, Lozano made the following declaration at a meeting of the Art Workers Coalition: “I WILL NOT CALL MYSELF AN ART WORKER BUT RATHER AN ART DREAMER AND WILL PARTICIPATE ONLY IN A TOTAL REVOLUTION SIMULTANEOUSLY PERSONAL AND PUBLIC.”
Anything in Lozano’s life could become a “piece”: Grass Piece, yes, and Investment Piece (“BE THE RECIPIENT OF A GRANT”), Real Money Piece (“OPEN JAR OF REAL MONEY AND OFFER IT TO GUESTS LIKE CANDY”), Masturbation Investigation (self-explanatory), The Lie-In-Bed-And-Read-Cosmic-Books Piece (self-explanatory)and so on. If, at a holiday party, she smashed a dish, possibly sliced her hand open with a shard, and declared her boredom? Well, that was art, too.
“FINALLY SOLVED METHOD OF PRESENTATION OF SEX PIECE!!” she wrote in one notebook entry. “I SURE AM LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS ONE.”
Unlike Grass Piece, but like many of her art-life pieces, no record of Sex Piece was created for gallery display.
Near the end of Grass Piece, Lozano began to draw up plans for her next endeavor, which would also be documented on lined notebook paper in her clear, capitalized handwriting.
“DECIDED ON THE NEXT PIECE: GO WITHOUT GRASS FOR THE SAME AMOUNT OF TIME,” she wrote in Grass Piece, adding “‘SEEK THE EXTREMES, THAT’S WHERE ALL THE ACTION IS.’”
She was not as good at No-Grass Piece as she was at Grass Piece. Within hours: “PARANOIA STARTS.” Days passed. “SLEEPLESSNESS” and “EXCESSIVE DREAMING” lead to “UNCONTROLLABLE SADNESS” and “DEATHNESS.” Lozano tried to soothe herself with mescaline, but it didn’t work, “. . . SO FRIENDS TURN ME ON WITH HASH & GRASS TO GET ME OFF MY BAD NO-TRIP.”
Later: “A FRIEND WHO VISITS BRINGS ME A JOINT. HOW CAN I REFUSE? SLEEP WELL FOR FIRST TIME SINCE MAY 5.”
And later: “AT LA MONTE [YOUNG’S] & MARIAN [ZAZEELA]’S LISTENING TO THEM SING I SMOKE AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF POWERFUL HASH (NOT TO SMOKE THERE IS OUT OF THE QUESTION) IN FACT SO MUCH HASH THAT I LEAVE ABRUPTLY THINKING I’M ABOUT TO BE ILL. I MADE IT OKAY HOME - KIDNEY OVERLOAD!”
At the end of No-Grass Piece, Lozano allows herself to return to her pleasure (not that she had faithfully abandoned it).
“BY ONCE MORE MAKING GRASS A PART OF MY LIFE. I INTEND TO HAVE GRASS AROUND ALL THE TIME IF POSS. IN THE FUTURE,” she writes in the piece. But as she entered a new decade—the 1970s, her 40s—Lozano took the practice of refusals to unfathomable extremes.
Throughout the Sixties, Lozano participated in feminist and racial-justice action in relation to both the art world and in support of the Black Panthers. Early paintings flaunt unmistakably feminist imagery, such as an ill-fated penis strung through a typewriter (that technological symbol of the working American girl!) in lieu of paper. But like some other female artists of her time—Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse—Lozano recoiled at being known as a “woman” artist, gravitating toward a sort of androgyny as protection from the consequences, in this world, of being born a girl.
In 1971, Lozano decided to stop speaking to women for 30 days.
This boycott was, in practice, the opposite of her Dialogue Piece. When I mentioned Lozano’s boycott of women to my co-workers recently, a colleague rolled her eyes. “Women being ignored was nothing new,” she growled. My colleague, of course, is right. Lozano’s belief about her boycott was not unlike her belief about Dialogue Piece. She wrote that she had “some old problem concerning women. I intend to investigate,” and believed that at the end of her boycott, “COMMUNICATION WITH WOMEN WILL BE BETTER THAN EVER.”
Maybe that could have been the outcome, if Lozano had ended the boycott after 30 days as she originally intended—or if, like Grass Piece, she had followed the boycott up with, say, 30 days of speaking only to women. But Lozano continued her boycott of women for the rest of her life. Legend has it she would not even acknowledge waitresses who served her in restaurants (other accounts suggest she was not so consistent). Perhaps Lozano felt no communication with women was “better” than the communications she had with them before the boycott. Perhaps she felt her investigation into her “old problem” was not yet complete. Attempting to discern her reasons for the boycott does not make it less problematic through the lens of feminism or race.
It wasn’t only women Lozano abandoned. For years, she envisioned an ultimate work of refusal: dropping out of the art world entirely. In the 1970s, she did it. She dropped out of the industry and, conceivably, out of reality itself (at some point in the late 60s or early 70s, she may have dropped 30 tabs of acid in 30 days). She moved to Dallas and lived with, then near, her parents, who she terrorized. Then they died. Lozano herself succumbed in 1999, at age 68, to cervical cancer, a disease which boasts one of the highest survival rates of all cancers if detected early. It is easily detected, a cruel irony given how obsessively Lozano observed herself in her notebooks and art. She had hoped to see in the next millennium.
Despite how precarious they can be—formally, socially—the art-life pieces in which Lozano does not do a particular thing (smoke pot, show her art) are as intensely fascinating as the art-life pieces in which she does do a particular thing—not that being fascinating is the most valuable thing. As Lozano herself once put it, “People (in some ways) are more important than art.” Grass/No-Grass is the art-life experiment I gravitate toward, even though I don’t smoke pot. It is disciplined yet delightfully unnecessary in its parameters, a self-experiment in extreme, destructive pleasure and attempted self-denial. Watching Lozano struggle through No-Grass Piece is charming and relatable. There is something childishly helpless about her earnest self-obsession that makes me feel tender toward her. The Wave paintings vibrate enigmatically within rigid frameworks. So do the art-life pieces, which make their effects known via Lozano’s contributions and refusals. We tend to project our own imaginings to replace what is left out. That’s what I do, anyway.
Fifty years later, part of Grass Piece’s appeal is that is functions as a historical artifact documenting the “drop out” ethos adopted by Lozano and by many of her creative, rebellious contemporaries in the late ’60s. Self-discovery and realization were popular pursuits. Women artists were vastly under-recognized compared to their male counterparts, who often capitalized on their work and ideas. Status quo rules about what it meant to be a woman or a man were being challenged. Civil rights activists fought at great personal risk for the enactment of the Civil Rights Act. The black power movement documented and rose up against police brutality—also at great personal risk. As Lozano inhaled Grass Piece’s first puff, a duplicitous, self-serving, power-hungry autocrat was settling in at the White House. The parallels between 1969 and 2019 are clear. I am the same age Lozano was when she created Grass Piece, and the idea of moving toward the extremes, of dropping deeper in or out of my own life, appeals to some private part of me that, for various reasons, I refuse to obey.
Weed is not portrayed in the media today the way it was portrayed in 1969. In many states, marijuana is legal. Entrepreneurs have rebranded cannabis as a lifestyle product that sits alongside BluePrint cleanses at Whole Foods. But I don’t think that has any bearing on how Grass/No-Grass might be received today. At the time Grass/No-Grass was shown, Paula Cooper Gallery was a small, new, radical gallery; nowadays, Lozano’s work sells for half a million dollars. Grass/No-Grass stands the test of time in part because weed is the vehicle for Lozano’s piece, not the piece’s end in itself. Like much of her art-life production, Grass/No-Grass was an attempt to create art that gathered and generated information and self-knowledge. Before she embarked on Dropout Piece, Lozano wrote that Dialogue Piece was the closest she had come to her ideal work of art. Who knows how she felt at the end of her life (she did, after all, allow a few showings of her work right before she died), but it seems to me that it is Dropout Piece that achieved Lozano’s idealized state of art:
“A KIND OF ART THAT WOULD NEVER CEASE RETURNING FEEDBACK TO ME OR TO OTHERS, WHICH CONTINUALLY REFRESHES ITSELF WITH NEW INFORMATION, WHICH APPROACHES AN IDEAL OF FORM AND CONTENT, WHICH CAN NEVER RUN OUT OF MATERIAL, WHICH DOESN’T INVOLVE ‘THE ARTIST & THE OBSERVER’ BUT MAKES BOTH PARTICIPANTS ARTIST & OBSERVER SIMULTANEOUSLY, WHICH IS NOT FOR SALE, WHICH IS DEMOCRATIC, WHICH IS NOT DIFFICULT TO MAKE, WHICH IS INEXPENSIVE TO MAKE, WHICH CAN NEVER BE COMPLETELY UNDERSTOOD, PARTS OF WHICH WILL ALWAYS REMAIN MYSTERIOUS & UNKNOWN, WHICH IS UNPREDICTABLE & PREDICTABLE AT THE SAME TIME, IN FACT.”
A more cynical viewpoint is that what Lozano considered “art” was simply “life” for everyone else. Still, Dropout Piece was the antidote to the Waves. It didn’t matter if her paint was discontinued. It didn’t matter if the art was displayed at the Whitney. It didn’t matter if anyone witnessed the artwork at all. Whether or not her methods successfully led her to “total revolution” is debatable. Dropout Piece is—like Lozano—dedicated and insane, beatific and self-absorbed. Out of an era that produced many groundbreaking conceptualists—Adrian Piper, On Kawara, the list goes on—it’s difficult for me to identify an artist who disrupted the formal constraints of art more than Lozano, despite the problems her work creates. Those problems are tied up with everything that made Lozano original, creative, frustrating, and even brave. “DROPOUT PIECE IS THE HARDEST WORK I HAVE EVER DONE,” she wrote in one of her private books.
Dropout Piece is, arguably, complete: Lozano was buried in an unmarked grave. I prefer not to think of her disappeared beneath that grass outside Dallas. I prefer to imagine her in her leather jacket, lighting up a lush joint on Grand Street in 1969, listening to records, surrounded by her weird ephemera (old gallery invites, metal coils, reclaimed garbage), scrawling in her notebook as SoHo clattered outside her loft window, not yet committed to self-erasure, documenting her art-life:
“. . . ASIDE FROM WHEN I WOKE UP (DOWN) IN THE MORNING, THERE WERE TWO OCCASIONS WHEN I WASN’T HIGH DURING THIS PIECE ABOUT A COUPLE HOURS EACH. THERE’S A SPOT OF YIN IN EVERY YANG & A SPOT OF YANG IN EVERY YIN, AS ‘THEY’ SAY.”
Lee Lozano Grass Piece 1969 Ink on paper with collage 28 x 21.5 cm / 11 x 8 1/2 inches © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Lee Lozano No-Grass Piece 1969 Ink on paper Two parts, each: 28 x 21.5 cm / 11 x 8 1/2 inches © The Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Barbora Gerny