Where Are We and What Time Is It?
On Beginning to Curate Suzanne Lacy

By Dominic Willsdon

With Rudolf Frieling and Lucía Sanromán, I am co-curating a retrospective of the art of Suzanne Lacy. We are, as I write (in October 2017), nearer the beginning of our process than the end. The exhibition, a collaboration between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), is due to open in San Francisco in Spring 2019, and it has been a bit more than a year since our work began in earnest. The project poses some rare challenges to museum protocols. We need to present Lacy’s collaborative, ephemeral, and context-specific practice (nearly five decades of it) responsibly and in full, in an environment for which it was not intended and which was not designed to support it. Although the exhibition has the standard goals of a solo retrospective―to collate and historicize the artist’s works, provide an optimal experience of them, assess their abiding value, and make them public in new ways―achieving them will require that we apply some non-standard methods. While this type of retrospective is a familiar format, Lacy’s art requires that some of its basic assumptions be rethought. There is, for one thing, a question of materials: What set of acts, objects, and agents constitutes a work? There is also a question of authorship: What does it mean to apply the single name “Suzanne Lacy” to an exhibition of projects created by so many participants and collaborators, including many other artists, and how should those others be involved and recognized now? And there is a question of history: How can we look back at these projects, which were impelled by the politics of particular times and places, and find ways to experience today what they have meant and still can mean in our present? There are questions of aesthetics as well: What does it mean to reconcile such a practice with the museum’s predominant art history (of painting, sculpture, and photography)? And how should this work be produced and presented as art? It is still rare, in art museums, to face such questions, but it is becoming less so. In recent years there have been a number of artists working in socially engaged, process-driven ways who have received solo museum shows: for instance, Allan Kaprow, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Mel Chin, and Paul Ramirez Jonas. There was also a partial survey show focused on Lacy herself in Milan in 2014. Certainly, solutions developed for these examples and other projects may be applied to ours, just as the solutions developed for our project may, we hope, be applied to others in the future. As curators of Suzanne Lacy we have an opportunity to contribute to a nascent, broad, collective effort to make time and space for art such as hers in museums, which is to say in the public history of art.

A Blade of Grass invited me to write something about the first year of our curatorial process, about how we see the questions that face us and the solutions, or at least directions, that are emerging. I had to accept. From the beginning, it has been part of our method to open our process, acknowledge our concerns, ask for the input of others, and share what unfolds. It has seemed right that curating an exhibition of Suzanne Lacy should be a process of learning in public. Let me summarize what we have done in this first year, and then lay out what has come up. Our work has followed three intertwined paths: working through the artist’s informally organized archive toward an inventory of material works; designing and initiating a way of including project participants in the exhibition process, specifically in relation to The Oakland Projects (1991–2001); and, thirdly, working through issues of presentation with curators and artists who have staged museum exhibitions of comparable artists.[i] The work on the archive has proceeded in collaboration with the artist and with curator Megan Steinman, who is familiar with the materials as well as the history they represent. The work on The Oakland Projects involved research by Unique Holland and Moriah Ulinskas, who were two of Lacy’s collaborators in Oakland, as well as a public workshop on September 30, 2017, in the context of Does Art Have Users?, a symposium organized by Deena Chalabi and Alessandra Saviotti, another joint project of SFMOMA and YBCA. In addition, questions of museum presentation were the focus of a two-day convening of curators, critics, and artists in New York co-organized with and hosted by Independent Curators International (ICI) under the leadership of María del Carmen Carríon and Renaud Proch).[ii] The convening was structured in one-hour sessions, each led by a pair of participants, on various topics: lessons from past gallery exhibitions of solo retrospectives by other artists (specifically Kaprow and Ukeles), the role of archives, performance, pedagogy, and institutional critique. These were followed by a public forum during which we sought input from a larger group. Three of that larger group—Elizabeth Grady, Arden Sherman, and Herb Tam—were invited to write critical responses that were posted on ICI’s website. My remarks here are informed by conversations with these interlocutors, and my co-curators, and touch upon the types of questions that came up, which can be grouped around four primary concerns: materiality, authorship, history, and aesthetics.

What is left behind?

In the preface to her selected essays, Lacy explains the multiple meanings of that volume’s title:

Leaving Art is a triple entendre for (1) what is left behind with transient and public practices, whether this be “plunk art,” artifact, experience, documentation, or claimed “results”; (2) how sources outside of art history and theory explain, nuance, critique, and evolve public practices; and (3) a declaration of intention to explore certain issues and themes within the art/life continuum.

First question: what is there to show? We begin with an audit of the artifacts and documents as well as the things that resemble or are art objects that have been left behind (we will touch on “plunk art” later). Much of this is part of the artist’s archive and is stored at various sites in Los Angeles. Some of it is already in museums. Three Weeks in May (1977) was acquired by the Hammer Museum. Learn Where the Meat Comes From (1976) was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Tate Modern acquired The Crystal Quilt (1985–87). It is relatively easy to describe, in material terms, what is left behind: constructed objects, photographs, drawings, perhaps a few paintings, video and audio recordings, graphic design, letters, paperwork, and newspaper clippings. It is also possible to characterize these items in terms of how they were created: by or for project participants, including Lacy and other artists (e.g., Miriam Shapiro’s quilt for The Crystal Quilt), by various collaborators for use in the activities that compose Lacy’s projects or as documents of those activities; by the artist for exhibition during or subsequent to project activities as representations of projects, in formats including limited-edition photographs and videos and, in recent years, installations of video and objects, or for broadcast or wider circulation (PBS-style documentaries for TV, print publications). There are also documents of the organizing process (including plans, scripts, performance directions, artist’s statements, communications between project partners) and media reports, reviews, and other evidence of the public reception of Lacy’s projects.

Three Weeks in May

Three Weeks in May (1977), revisted for Museo Pecci Milano, 2014 
A recreation of Lacy’s seminal three-week series of private conversations and public performances on the topic of rape in Los Angeles, California, including a new iteration of the Los Angeles map upon which Lacy marked the location of daily police reports of rape. Photo: OKONO Studio

It is harder to say, because typically it has not been determined, how these materials should be combined in each case to compose a work of art for exhibition. Curating the retrospective begins with deciding what to use to tell the story of each project. It may be our task as curators to work with the artist to decide which of the materials left behind are necessary and sufficient to tell these stories vividly. Or is it vividly and definitively? Many works have been shown before, of course, and decisions about their representation were made for those occasions. Faced with the task of producing a retrospective (given the sense of resolution that term carries), we need to decide when to rely on some of those earlier solutions (and in so doing acknowledge an exhibition history) and when to approach more “definitive” material manifestations of each work. As an extension of this, we ask ourselves if it is at all our task to create stable, re-exhibitable versions of the projects that can be accommodated by the museum now and in the future—a final approved form of the works? If it is a question of storytelling, or narrating, the projects, those stories may need to be told differently according to the time and place of presentation. The composition of these works may vary. It does not even seem possible to differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic materials, between textual and contextual materials, that is to say, to demarcate the proper boundaries of a work. Given that this is a practice in which the actions and responses of others and related media interventions may be part of the work, is there even a meaningful distinction to be made between a work and its outcomes? Perhaps what is left behind by Lacy’s projects is not a closed set of objects but an open field of evidence.

And what if all of the materials we assemble are no more than traces of the work proper? Are we showing the work or just evidence of the work? In her report on our convening at ICI, Elizabeth Grady proposes:

“The form that socially engaged art takes is therefore identified and identical with its process. Any resulting objects, texts, images, or related products are secondary, even in the cases where they are not unimportant. For example, objects, texts, or images produced through dialogue and collaboration (things that look like artworks) are sometimes made as a frame for a project that is completed through use or activation; in other words, through a social interaction.”

This is to see socially engaged art (the term she chooses for work such as Lacy’s) as essentially a live form, a variety of performance in that it is composed primarily of cumulative actions and interactions: a process. There is a lot else in her third sentence, however. Grady describes well the relation between live process and objects produced. But to speak of an object (text, image) that is made as a frame (let us say a perceptual frame, an interpretative frame) for lived and shared experience—this brings us to the threshold of what we might also call art. It is a question of whether the work is “completed” through use and activation, or whether we can think of both process and certain formed objects as essential to the work. The latter is true for Lacy’s early performance works, which entailed a process of making objects (and images, texts), often collectively (e.g., Net Construction [1975]). Perhaps we can see her later work (which is doubtless what we have in mind when we hear “socially engaged”) beginning, let us say, with Three Weeks in May (1977) and carrying through to The Square and the Circle (2017), as engaging processes that intend to make objects, images, and texts. It could be that we see process and form as two stages of the work. In terms of Lacy’s role, there can be a pivot from one to the other, from what we might call a process of public pedagogy (of which the artist is facilitator) to a production process (of which the artist is director). In determining that we should not overvalue the performance element of the work (that is, the social interaction, the relationships of participants to each other) at the expense of objects intended by that process, we affirm that we should not undervalue the mediations, messages, images, etc., through which the work circulates. Indeed, these other seemingly collateral materials are hard to subordinate.

I am inclined to say that the “things that look like artworks” (e.g., the collaboratively produced maps in Three Weeks in May, or the editioned photographs of the La Jolla beach in Whisper, the Wind, the Waves) are also, and even equally, elements of the work. I am also inclined to say that certain objects that do not look like artworks (e.g., the book and the TV program of Whisper, the Wind, the Waves, or the media coverage of In Mourning and in Rage) are elements of the work too. Publicity, TV programs, press releases, print publications—these are made as interventions into a media landscape, which is another dimension of Lacy’s practice. This may be a case where aspects of the reception of the artist’s actions (solicited by her practice) may be seen as part of the work. Lacy’s art is not solely live process or performance. Her projects are a multi-strategy, mixed-media practice of making things public.

Rather than distinguishing the various processes or objects in any of Lacy’s projects in terms of primary and secondary, it might valuable to distinguish between what is first and second chronologically and what is first and second in terms of proximity to an imagined full realization of the project. This would be to say that the performance of De tu Puño y Letra on November 25, 2015 and the workshops that preceded it are not the primary or original work but rather earlier or anterior manifestations of the work. We might then make a distinction between what is anterior and what is core. The video of De tu Puño y Letra that is being produced in 2017 may prove to be more core than the extant video from November 2015, and perhaps no less core than the performance. Activities, images, and objects may continue to be added to the core of the work—as long as we take into account how things are located historically. One thing this requires us to consider, then, is why, how, and when we would work with the artist to create a material manifestation of a project for museum exhibition many years after other activities, objects, and images have been produced. This question comes up especially with projects for which no fully resolved making public has yet been produced—examples might include Between Land and Water and University of Local Knowledge. I began this by writing that Lacy’s projects were not designed for museums and vice versa. One way to make it possible to show such projects in an optimal way in museums would be to design and create new manifestations of those projects for the museum. Down this path we meet a fundamental question: what would it mean to produce a retrospective that is guided not by the task of remembrance but by the task of creating an exhibition that is an event in the here and now (of 2019), supported by anterior materials? This would lead us to take, as a starting point, the specificity of our “now”—politically, culturally—and the specificity of our institutional settings.

De tu Puño y Letra intersected public, legal and educational institutions’ efforts to fight violence against women with a populous organizing project in Quito, Ecuador. Working with the City government, colleges, non-profits, leaders, volunteers and youth to address the dimensions of violence against women, it manifested as a public performance on November 25, 2015, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Photo: Raúl Peñafiel

De tu Puño y Letra intersected public, legal and educational institutions’ efforts to fight violence against women with an organizing project in Quito, Ecuador. Working with the City government, colleges, non-profits, leaders, volunteers and youth to address the dimensions of violence against women, it manifested as a public performance on November 25, 2015, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Photo: Raúl Peñafiel

Experience, Claimed Results, and Sources Outside

Lacy writes that not only artifacts and documents but also “experience” and “claimed results” are left behind by her work. Here and now we have to ask what traces of each process live with each group of participants (individually, collectively) and mark the social structures and institutions through which they and we move. The participants give us the first meaning of “sources outside”—in each case they came into the work bringing experience, knowledge, and interests that were, by design, from outside (outside the work, outside the artist’s sphere, and outside art). With what did they leave? Maybe something, maybe nothing. If it was something, what order of thing was it? What did they do with that thing? Would that be a result? Art such as Lacy’s is constantly troubled by the question of outcomes, and it is in the participants’ experience and changes to their social structures that results tend to be sought. With the phrase “claimed results” we can hear Lacy distancing herself from this idea. Is it that results of this type can only be claimed? That they are intrinsically unverifiable and perhaps represent some kind of trespass on the territory of others? There is something that lies between the participants’ experience and claimed results that we need to take into account as curators of this exhibition. What has been, or will have been, the impact of the work in the social sphere? If exhibiting social practice faces the challenges of exhibiting performance and more, one of these extra dimensions concerns the question of social impact. Call it the question of efficacy. It is with respect to the categories of “experience” and “claimed results”—and therefore the role and representation of project participants—that curating Suzanne Lacy requires us to ask some questions for which existing models of curating performance (or video, drawing, archives, etc.) do not provide answers. How should those participants be involved and represented in both the exhibition-making process and its presentation? And beyond this, which aspects of any given project still live? And which can be or should be brought to life?

So far, we are asking these questions primarily with respect to The Oakland Projects (1991–2001), a series of projects over ten years that embody a continuous, evolving set of concerns—especially in relation to youth, race, and public policy. We chose to focus on The Oakland Projects, of course, because they are the major body of work that Lacy created in the San Francisco Bay Area, so their history is local to us. Inasmuch as reassembling any of Lacy’s works of collective action might mean drawing again on the experience and understanding of those who participated originally, we wanted to treat The Oakland Projects in a deeper, more expansive way. What is the right methodology? Initially, we imagined another convening—not of curators and artists, as at ICI, but of participants. I suppose we imagined a reunion of some kind that would perhaps have been designed by Lacy. This soon seemed quite the wrong approach. Beginning with such a reunion would oblige everyone to encounter each other once more as participants in Lacy’s work—backgrounding their main identities, then and now. It would also collapse into one plane the differences between how each participant might relate to a recollection of the projects. That is not the way to begin. Instead we want to de-center the artist and The Oakland Projects, denying Lacy the role of protagonist. We want to distance ourselves as curators and art as such. For the research to be conducted by us curators would assume the exhibition as the goal of the research, and steer the research toward what can be presented as art or at least in an art context. This is a practice that cannot be adequately assessed or even described from within itself or from within art. For many, it has not appeared as art in its anterior moments, and it cannot adequately be rendered as such in retrospection. Sources outside art need to come into view. We need (to begin with) a method that is quieter, more intimate, and less public in its unfolding—one that does not make an image of itself.


There is no direct access to any current meaning of The Oakland Projects for the artist or for us curators. The gap is unbridgeable. Instead, our approach in this first phase has been this: we have distanced ourselves as curators and Lacy as artist from the process, and instead engaged two researchers, both still Oakland residents who were collaborators on The Oakland Projects and who have had since the 1990s roles that allow them to bring relevant perspectives and expertise (from outside art) to bear on the research process and goals. Unique Holland first participated in The Oakland Projects as a fifteen-year-old and became, in time, a named artist-collaborator, and until recently worked as director of communications and public affairs for the Alameda County Office of Education. Moriah Ulinskas was a youth media producer on Code 33 and is now an archivist and researcher in Public History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Each is pursuing a different, complementary research path. Holland is describing a set of relationships between individuals, representing the participant groups that stand behind The Oakland Projects. Ulinskas is describing a set of institutional relationships with youth policy at the center—in some ways, this can be a portrait of the institutional infrastructure of Oakland in the 1990s; the organizations (city, schools, funders, etc.) that were comprised by the landscape into which Lacy’s The Oakland Projects intervened. In this way, we are inviting perspectives that are at the same time inside and outside the frame of The Oakland Projects. We want to surface perspectives that are not aligned with ours nor Lacy’s; perspectives that are not even framed by the projects themselves.

We have come to see Oakland as the protagonist of The Oakland Projects. If the central issues were youth, race, and policing, we are now asking how these issues have and have not changed since the 1990s. Oakland has changed—not least in terms of its demographics and the active organizations and agencies that function in support of public life. The public conversation about race and society has changed as well. The Oakland Projects were devised and produced in response to representations, in the media and politics, of teenagers as a threat. Having identified the context in which The Oakland Projects originated, we now ask what is the environment in which we can re-present them now, in 2019? What can it mean and what will it take to update them, and who should be the agents of this updating? Lacy previously has revisited past projects in the form of new works: Three Weeks in May (1977) and Three Weeks in January (2012), The Crystal Quilt (1985-87) and Silver Action (2013), Skin of Memory (1999), and Skin of Memory Revisited (2011). The motivation for “rethinking” a past work (Lacy prefers to speak of it in this way, rather than using terms such as re-creating, revisiting, reworking, etc.) may be either or both of two things: political timeliness or artistic potential. In the course of the conversations at ICI she touched on the fact that she sees new or unrealized artistic possibilities in the idea or premise of such rethinkings; that it seems valuable/appropriate to return to earlier projects taking into account a different political context—new reasons, new needs. We do not yet know whether any works in the retrospective will be subject to such revision, but we do know that Lacy is currently, and probably permanently, disinclined to rethink The Oakland Projects in this way, at least through her own agency. This may be partly because the youth experience has changed so much, and partly because of current political conditions. Today it is impossible that a white artist could directly choreograph such interactions and representations the way she did in the 1990s.

Moving forward from this initial research phase, our plan is to gradually broaden the conversation as we learn more, in consultation with close colleagues such as Marc Bamuthi Joseph who is chief of program and pedagogy at YBCA and has been central to Oakland initiatives such as Life is Living. This process is now moving into a more public phase in late 2017. A workshop moderated by Unique Holland at Does Art Have Users? in September reflected on the social and political contexts, then and now, in Oakland and Medellin, where The Oakland Projects and Skin of Memory were staged (the latter was commissioned because of the work that Lacy was doing in Oakland at the time). Participants included sociologist Mike Males, anthropologist Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, Roberto Bedoya (now Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Manager), curator Bill Kelley Jr., and artist and educator Chris Johnson. The session, led by Holland, covered the politicized representations of youth as violent, both in Colombia and in the United States in the 1990s, and considered drug economies and role of government in both locales. Males and Riaño-Alcalá described the dramatic decline in youth violence in recent decades, as well as the rise in educational attainment in both contexts. Males argued that the advent of technological forms of communication and expression has been a leading factor in these changes. Related to Oakland, Bedoya (and others) pointed to displacement as the most urgent social and political issue now, characterizing it as a current form of violence and as an erasure of black social life in the city (over the last ten years there has been a 20 percent decline in Oakland’s African American population and a rise in its Hispanic population). The complexities of accounting for the shifts in national and transnational youth culture in gentrifying cities such as Oakland—including anti-youth government policies, media politics, youths and violence (as recipients and perpetrators), creative expressions and protests, the rise of technology, and new forms of onslaught and resistance to black culture—offer a monumental example of the challenges of rethinking Lacy’s socially engaged work. The strands of such conversations lead toward a single question or proposition: What if a retrospective of Suzanne Lacy were to take place as fully as possible in the present? Are there ways in which this could be a “living exhibition” that aims to address contemporary issues, or abiding issues in their contemporary manifestations? This is a matter of making it new, for our time and place. How can we avoid the sense of “we weren’t there” that can be induced by an exhibition of past actions (the risk of exhibitions of performance)? The answer lies in presenting two contexts at the same time, in being able to hold in our minds the reality that the work is dated and yet persists. These are art projects that are not over; you can visit them and their legacies at different points along the way, and the issues that prompted them—violence against women; race, youth, and the state; immigration; the culture of the white working class, and other matters—are as present today as ever. We need to historicize and dehistoricize the work simultaneously. We can’t be there, but we are here.

Three Weeks in May (1977), revisted for Museo Pecci Milano, 2014. Photo: OKONO Studio

Three Weeks in May (1977), revisted for Museo Pecci Milano, 2014. Photo: OKONO Studio

The art/life continuum

If Lacy’s work is perpetually leaving art, to curate a museum retrospective of it is an act of returning. We need to express both impulses, which equally test and twist the protocols of museum practice. In the exhibition’s initial San Francisco presentation it must be reconciled within two very different institutions: YBCA and SFMOMA. This partnership did not come about via an institutional directive, but rather through conversations between curators. Staging the presentation at two museums, even though they are across the street from one another, will be a complicated administrative procedure (for example, when it comes to reconciling admissions, division of responsibilities, brand identity, etc.). Yet each venue, based on its habits and histories, can offer a different interpretive frame.

YBCA is animated by an aspiration to social remedy. This is rooted in its origins, having emerged from the ruptures caused by the redevelopment struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Today YBCA tells its story in the language of civic and community action. It is also a non-collecting institution (therefore not anchored by material art objects) and a multidisciplinary and solely contemporary venue at which live programming is at least as present as visual art. Suzanne Lacy will be relatively at home within its program, which tends to explore political, civic, and pedagogical practices: practices that in various ways are leaving art. This year, for example, they have presented the work of Lynn Hershmann Leeson, Tania Bruguera, Erick Meyenberg, Estudio Teddy Cruz + Fonna Forman, and Damon Rich and Jae Shin (Hector). Given this context YBCA is a more hospitable environment for Lacy’s practice than SFMOMA. It is more accommodating of live experience, claimed results, and sources outside art—indeed, YBCA is most comfortable with these dimensions of art practice. We have both venues to contend with, and we face the question of how to organize a single exhibition across them. Our plan is to reassemble The Oakland Projects at YBCA—perhaps alongside The Skin of Memory (1999) and the projects about youth issues that Lacy organized in Vancouver, Turning Point (1995) and Under Construction (1997). These projects originated in the same period and among Lacy’s works most programmatically connect art to public policy. Returning Lacy to art at YBCA is a movement toward the live, the present, and the political. This context asks most of us, as curators, in terms of reassembly and translation of Lacy’s work for the present. It asks that we make good on YBCA’s claims to civic engagement and art for and in our time. And of course presenting The Oakland Projects not in Oakland but in the neighboring city of San Francisco presents its own questions. For instance, what is the responsibility of the neighbor?

At SFMOMA the returning to art of Suzanne Lacy is a more emphatic, more contrary act. Lacy does have a history with this museum. Her Mona by Numbers (1978) and International Dinner Party (1979) were presented here, and SFMOMA hosted the symposium on “new genre public art” Mapping the Terrain (1991), which generated the book of the same name. Yet today SFMOMA seems like a less hospitable context in which to consider Lacy’s practice as art. To introduce Lacy’s art here is to ask of it some questions which are not so often asked, questions about aesthetics and art history. And what aesthetics and art history in particular? SFMOMA’s predominant aesthetic regime comprises late modernist abstraction, expressionist figuration, post-Pop and post-conceptual painting, plus various traditions of photography (including social documentary and vernacular, but excluding, at least until very recently, uses of photography in conceptual art). SFMOMA is primarily designed with the interests of these forms in mind. The museum’s program does include media art (Rudolf Frieling’s sphere) and performance and public dialogue (parts of my sphere), but these are less visible and, let us admit, relatively minor areas of activity. Is the project of a solo retrospective of an artist working in these minor forms an elevation of those forms? A departure for SFMOMA? An experiment in performing a different institutionality? Or even an attempt to confront this genre of art practice with the histories of art since the 1960s that museums of modern and contemporary art primarily present and acquire? Yes, it is. But it is also an elaboration in quite different directions of the impulse behind the major, resident forms.

De tu Puño y Letra

De tu Puño y Letra, 2015. Photo: Patricio Estevez

If, as I suggested, the production of forms is as much a part of Lacy’s work as is the facilitation of process, we have to ask about the aesthetic character of those forms. The museum should be the place where this can become visible in a new way, a way that extends its history of art. Introducing Lacy to the predominant aesthetic regime of SFMOMA, we might find both difference and complementarity—with California Conceptualism, no doubt, and with the picturing of the topography of the West and vernacular traditions (which is to say, practices that are local, popular, and utilitarian), with the exploration of the post-Pop body, and latterly, at least, the ‘face of our time’ typologies of photographers such as August Sander and Zanele Muholi that we see in the Brierfield (The Square and the Circle) and Quito (De tu Puño y Letra) projects this year. Let’s

even suggest that Lacy’s art shares a chromosome with SFMOMA’s most prevalent aesthetic regime: the post-minimal aesthetics of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Serra. Think of the use of primary colors—for Lacy, especially red and yellow, plus black and white—from In Mourning and Rage, through Whisper, the Waves, the Wind, The Crystal Quilt, and so many other projects to the present. Think of the use of geometry and repetition. There is perhaps (we will see) an aesthetic complementarity combined with an essential difference, which is to do with the contingency, mobility, and agency of the forms in Lacy’s art—since, of course, her forms are composed of people, not inanimate materials. There is a tension between the regimented and the unregimented. Lacy’s monochromes and geometries contain an ungovernable element, an element of disobedience. The museum should offer the opportunity to foreground this. Lacy is the author of the aesthetic (though it can be developed collaboratively with other artists, e.g., Leslie Labowitz or Susan Steinman), but it admits the lives of others. She may direct them to wear a certain color and walk in a straight line, and if they do not quite do this, so be it. This is post-minimal art that vibrates with the contingency of the social. Imagine Between the Door and the Street as a vast yellow monochrome, torn into strips and distributed among women in a Brooklyn street. Beyond matters of shape and color, think about how the social functions differently, how labor is structured in Lacy’s process compared to LeWitt’s, how public space, and time, is produced differently in her work compared to that of Serra—and, of course, think of Lacy’s advocacy for “new genre public art” in Mapping the Terrain. There she struck beyond a debate on public art in the United States, on plunk art, within which Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) was the lead example. Lacy does not leave art, her practice is a non-art activity of a different order to art such as that on view at SFMOMA. It is that same art, but agitated by life. Our task, with the artist and others, is to reconcile this art to the museum and, more importantly, reconcile the museum to it.

Between the Door and the Street

Between the Door and the Street took place on October 19, 2013, across sixty stoops on a closed-off residential block in Brooklyn. Each stoop hosted individual groups of participants who had open conversations on gender, race, ethnicity, and class, while thousands of members of the public came out to listen and learn from the dialogues. Photo: Nicola Goode

In any encounter with art such as Lacy’s, there can be a feeling that something is missing. Some integral act, object, or agent is either no longer present, now out of sight, or still to be produced. It is an experience that may seem, unsatisfyingly, more like encountering life than art. We know that, with all variants of post-conceptual art practice, it is part of the work that some element is evidently absent. Yet the feeling of absence in an encounter, at any moment, with Lacy’s practice is different, and may seem lacking in a more matter-of-fact way. The audience for this art may feel not that a full and satisfying art presence is impossible but that it has been possible, and we merely missed it. That is a trap. Encountering these projects, in any of their forms, we are no more present to ourselves and to each other than in life, but also no less so. No particular way of representing this work can capture it, because they all do. Nothing is fully present, and nothing can be fully absent. The work is not over. Our task is neither to deny nor collapse the gaps, in time and space, spanned by this practice, but to represent what is in-between and leave it open for what is to come—not least for artists coming up who may find here a curriculum for their own work. What must be there is the agitation—that cannot be missing. It is going to be hard to evoke the discord and friction proper to process and the agitation proper to form. Without not only the presence but also the evidence of this agitation, the project will have failed.


[i] This research has been supported by a curatorial fellowship grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

[ii] The participants included Nancy Adajania, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Tania Bruguera, Anne Ellegood, Larissa Harris, Jeanne van Heeswijk, Pablo Helguera, Trude Schjelderup Iversen, Suzanne Lacy, Fionn Meade, Glenn Phillips, Stephanie Rosenthal, Amanda Skora, Catherine Wood. Those who identified themselves in the public session included Johanna Burton, Elizabeth Grady, Sheetal Prajapati, Herb Tam, Arden Sherman, Nancy Spector, and Nato Thompson.

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  • Art and Social Death
  • Artwashing, or, Between Social Practice and Social Reproduction
  • Leave It in the Ground