Left: Cover of Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era (2009). Right: Joseph Del Pesco, et al., State of the Arts, 2008, one of four letterpress posters, 14 x 22” each. From issue eight of The Present Group, Fall
In her new book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, Julia Bryan-Wilson, the director of the Ph.D. program in visual studies at the University of California, Irvine, examines artistic labor in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The book was published this month by the University of California Press and will have a release party at Printed Matter on November 7.
THE MORE INTERESTED I became in the legacies of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) and the New York Art Strike, the more I became concerned with how artistic labor registers––or doesn’t––within a wider field. It was both inspiring and somewhat vexing to consider how artists and critics attempted to organize as workers and label themselves as such, particularly during the Vietnam War, when debates about the value of artistic production were raging within culture and within protest politics. How does art work? This question challenged me and pushed the project forward.
In my preliminary writings on this subject, I investigated how the eruption of antiwar protests within New York museums was central to institutional critique in the United States. That assertion is still very much alive in Art Workers and informs much of the book. But I also ask larger questions about the flexibility of ideas of artistic labor at this time and how such labor was mobilized or altered by specific artists and groups.
A single book can’t say everything about this moment, and mine certainly does not aim to be comprehensive. People around the globe were thinking about artistic labor, including Fred Lonidier in California and the Rosario Group in Argentina, to name just two. Yet I began to concentrate on influential figures (artists Carl Andre, Hans Haacke, and Robert Morris, and writer Lucy Lippard) to think through how their work and their participation in movements like the AWC might tell a new story about the political and artistic milieu of the era around the Vietnam War—which also, crucially, saw the flowering of minimalism and conceptualism.
Early on, I received some useful feedback from a reader who asked if it might be a contradiction to organize the book as a series of case studies of canonical figures, since one somewhat contested aspect of this collective organizing sought to break down such hierarchies. While the book does include more marginal players, I intentionally focus on under-explored aspects of well-known art workers to expand our traditional understanding of this period, and to consider the ways in which histories themselves are written.
In addition, I wanted to retain and amplify the contradictions, because in fact the attempt to redefine artists as workers circa 1969 was shot through with ambivalence, uncertainty, and paradox. For instance, a few of the figures I research viewed their activism and their art as comprising completely separate practices. Then there are others, like Lippard, who merged their political work with their art world involvements. Lippard moved into an advocacy role as a feminist critic through her sense of herself as an art worker because she was interested in reevaluating women’s labor. And from the start, feminist imperatives motivated my project; feminism helped me theorize the uneven valuation of different kinds of work and how different kinds of workers—across lines of gender, race, and class—are compensated.
The word “practice” in my title is vital; the phrase “radical practice” is a direct citation of Herbert Marcuse. He, of course, was a major intellectual player in that time, and his theories informed many of these art workers. I know “practice” has become slightly overused, but it is a very period-specific term. It also indicates that artists and writers were rehearsing or refining various modes of aesthetics and politics.
It’s a brief time-span that I’m looking at––just a handful of years. But the incredible amount of organizational energy that was generated––especially how artists came together to effect change within the museum system––is still relevant. And it has been interesting to witness the activities of recently formed groups like Working Artists and the Greater Economy (WAGE) and the State of the Arts poster project about contemporary artists’ political and occupational power—or lack thereof. Much has shifted in the intervening decades, but some of the issues that obsessed the art workers of the late 1960s (then, as now, a time of war and economic upheaval) remain pertinent today.
Views of “Karla Black,” 2009, Modern Art Oxford.
The Glasgow-based artist Karla Black is known for her sprawling floor-based and hanging sculptures that comprise diverse materials such as plaster, Vaseline, acrylic paint, lipstick, nail polish, and body lotion. Her largest UK solo show to date is on view at Modern Art Oxford through November 29.
WHEN I’M NEARLY FINISHED making a work, I ask myself, “If this was a painting, would it be a good painting?” If I decide that the answer is yes, then I’m done. I use impermanent and raw materials like paper, polythene, plaster powder, and cosmetic products in my sculptures not because they easily change and decay but because I want the energy, life, and movement that they give. I would much rather have the sculptures stay exactly as they are the moment I finish making them. But I also know that if my first priority were to preserve the work forever, or for as long as possible, then I’d use stone, metal, or wood. But those materials don’t have the qualities I want. It’s a double bind.
My work needs to occupy the kind of large rooms that Modern Art Oxford has to offer, and it needs to enter into the institutional realm in order to become what it really is. The work is both a protest and a compromise at the same time. While it tries to dismantle the demands of being permanent, transferable, and stable, as required by most art institutions, it also physically and sculpturally negotiates within those conditions and reaches compromises that allow it to exist in those places.
I prioritize material experience over language as a way of learning and understanding. The physical human experience that comes from the inside out precedes language and is most absorbent for us, most unself-conscious, when we are fully in it and therefore completely unaware of any image of ourselves, of how we think we might look to others. The moment we become aware of ourselves from the outside in, as an image that others can see, or as a subject that holds a particular meaning, symbolic or otherwise, then we split from that primary experience of the physical world and must think. Traditionally, painting offered an optical escape from this world, by providing a window onto another. Sculpture can offer some sort of escape, too, through an actual engulfment in the physical.
In art school critiques, my classmates sometimes said my work looked “feminine” and “domestic.” I could see what they meant, but that was never my intention and still isn’t. I like pink, and if someone wants to say that’s because I’m a woman, then perhaps it is. I’m interested in those kinds of cultural judgments that come from the outside. In the end, I decided to just do what I want to do, to use the materials and colors I want to use, because I want to enjoy making the work as much as I can. It’s hard enough to make something that’s any good, so you may as well start with some sort of self-indulgence.
I felt that judgments of femininity or domesticity were derogatory and that they meant, perhaps, that the work was not very good or not serious. (I still wonder why I thought and, to a certain extent, still think that. Is it because of some residual misogyny in myself?) There are a lot of men who use pink—Franz West, for instance. But who says that his work looks feminine or domestic?
Why is it only women’s art that is gendered? I was recently asked, “How do you think your work would differ if you were a man?” Would anyone ever ask a man, “What would your work look like if you were a woman?”