A typical rite of passage for the student of American literature is the life and work of JD Salinger, whose withdrawal from society and refusal to continue publishing often exercises an irresistible fascination. Such a fledgling might imagine that in his self-imposed exile the curmudgeonly Salinger has somehow discovered the secret of life. This fancy is often succeeded by visions of tracking him down and, by dint of some miracle of charm, wresting the secret from him. It would seem that this process, or rather the fascination that engenders it, is a kind of formula: artistic success + withdrawal = one and/or all of the following—superhuman wisdom, artistic nirvana and unassailable authenticity.
Judging by a recent spate of rediscoveries and attempts to de-marginalise self-marginalised artists, the world of contemporary art is currently in the thrall of a kindred complex, seen in the growing interest in a constellation of retirees including Lee Lozano, Charlotte Posenenske, Tehching Hsieh, Laurie Parsons, and marginal figures like Ray Johnson, Emilio Prini and Isidoro Valcárcel Medina.
It is possible to mark a starting point for this current trend in 2004 with the exhumation of the life and work of Lee Lozano. While an awareness of the notorious dropout was rekindled by her death in 1999, it was not until 2004 that two retrospectives—one at PS1 in New York curated by Alana Heiss and Bob Nickas, the other at Kunsthalle Basel curated by Adam Szymczyk—that Lozano was officially rescued from obscurity. Lozano is probably best remembered for her refusal to speak to women and her ‘Dropout Piece’, 1970, in which she stopped frequenting art world events altogether and finally moved to Texas with her husband, effectively ending her brief, but successful, ten-year career. Yet she continued to make rigorously abstract and eccentric figurative paintings and drawings, and the inclusion of her erotically charged paintings of tools in Documenta 12, alongside another significant rediscovered retiree Charlotte Posenenske, consolidated her restoration to mainstream awareness.
The German sculptor Posenenske, on the other hand, was an art world retiree of a completely different and more idealistic order. A successful artist active in the 1960s, Posenenske’s most renowned works are her ‘Vierkantrohre’, 1967, (square tubes), industrially-made tin and cardboard modular sculptures resembling ventilation shafts. The sculptures were unsigned and reproducible, their configurations being left to the discretion of the buyer, the gallery or the public. Thus, they sought to initiate a democratic and engaged viewing experience.
However, in 1968, ultimately disappointed by art’s inability to effect any real political change, the artist abandoned art and became a sociologist, specialising in employment and industrial working processes. Refusing to show right to her death in 1985, her work was rediscovered after retrospectives in 2005 at Galerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck and Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Siegen. A small survey exhibition took place in 2007 in London at Wolfgang Tillman’s studio-cum-gallery Between Bridges, after which Posenenske’s name was given even broader recognition when featured in Documenta 12, 2007.
Curiously, her withdrawal from art, and the social and political motives that fuelled it, recalls Lygia Clark’s gradual refusal to exhibit giving way to an exclusive dedication to psychoanalysis. Their abandonment of art in favour of direct social engagement has the effect of retroactively investing their work with an an indestructable integrity while testifying to a faith, albeit ultimately disillusioned, in the transformative power of art.
The story of American artist Laurie Parsons is similar. After a short, and relatively successful career in New York in the late 1980s and early 90s, she abandoned art altogether in 1994 to become a social worker. Parsons’ recent rediscovery owes much to Bob Nickas and his Artforum article, April 2003, as well as his reflections on the artist in the symposium Forms of Refusal, held at the Van Abbemuseum in 2006. A work by Parsons, made of the detritus of wood and trash collected around New York, was recently shown in The Third Mind (an exhibition that incidentally teemed with splendid marginalia, from the likes of Joe Brainard, Jay DeFeo and Nancy Grossman, to Cady Noland, who would be a candidate for this article were she ever truly eclipsed by her mysterious absence), curated by Ugo Rondinone at the Palais de Tokyo in 2007. Her empty exhibition at the Lorence-Monk gallery in 1990, was ‘featured’ in Voids at the Pompidou in Paris and travels to Pompidou- Metz and Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland. As early in her career as 1989, Parsons requested dealers not to offer any of her works for sale. Indeed, if there is one thing all the artists in this article have in common, beyond their retiring proclivities, it is a categorically non-commercial relationship to making art.
What, after all, could be sold from Taiwanese, New York-based artist Tehching Hsieh’s ‘One Year Performances’, 1978-86? Arriving in New York in the early 1970s, the artist embarked on this series in 1978; he lived in a cage for a year, lived on the streets of Manhattan without ever setting foot inside a building for a year, punched a time clock hourly on the hour every day for a year. After a final ‘One Year Performance’ that consisted in not making or having anything to do with art, Hsieh began his final piece ‘Thirteen Year Plan’, 1986-99, at the end of which he issued a gnomic, On Kawara-esque statement, ‘I kept myself alive—I passed December 31, 1999’. Since then, having by his own Duchampian admission run out of ideas—he no longer considers himself an artist. Two things that have certainly helped renew interest in his former identity as an artist are a lecture by Andreas Gedin in the Forms of Refusal symposium in 2006, and an article in Mousse, November 2007, by Simone Menegoi. Now, with a solo project at MoMA based on the cage piece as part of the performance series, the inclusion of his time-clock work in The Third Mind : American Artists Contemplate Asia : 1860-1989 at the New York Guggenheim, and an MIT Press monograph in the offing, his days as a cult figure among the annals of performance art are over.
Meanwhile, marginal figures like Ray Johnson (1927-1995), Emilio Prini and Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, who never actually gave up making art, are beginning to create a stir. Known for being the progenitor of mail art and for his ‘Nothings’ (antihappenings), the eccentric Johnson was a significant figure in the New York art scene of the 1960s, which he left in 1968 for life in a farmhouse, where he continued to make collages and maintain a rich mail art correspondence with people all over the world. He was as notoriously reluctant to sell his work as he was to exhibit it. A cult figure of no mean importance in the US, Johnson is now coming to European attention.
Along with a host of marginal and underestimated figures, Prini and Valcárcel Medina both feature in The Death of the Audience, curated by Pièrre Bal-Blanc, opening on 3 July at Secession, Vienna. One of the original arte povera artists, the reclusive, Rome-based Prini, whose early production was preoccupied with attrition and erasure (one oft-cited early work consists of having an audio-cassette player record its own mechanism until it breaks down), has gradually withdrawn over the years, declining invitations to exhibit and even going so far as to destroy old work. He miraculously consented to feature in Bal-Blanc’s exhibition on the condition of unveiling an undated and unnamed contribution at the time of the show.
The Spanish, Madrid-based conceptualist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, on the other hand, who does not work with a gallery, has been active on the Spanish scene since the late 1960s. He is very selective about where and how he elects to show his anti-commercial, non-object based output (one recent project includes taking eight days to paint a white wall white with a watercolour brush at Barcelona’s Macba). He has said that: ‘It is more difficult to escape from money than the police.’ Perhaps the artist’s lack of commercial ambition is a contributing factor to his international obscurity, for while a hugely influential living legend in Spain, he is virtually unknown outside his home country.
It would be pretty easy to Salingerise all of these figures by endowing their absence or reticence with varying degrees of superhuman sagacity or valorous resolve. Given the market addled state of the art world of the recent past, it’s easy to understand the powerful allure of these artists and the integrity that attends both their work and their withdrawal. But could the effects of romanticising these artists be deleterious? It seems doubtful—even the crudest aping of such sublime integrity would only serve to raise the bar.
Chris Sharp is a writer and curator based in Paris