Marcel Duchamp once said that art scenes happen in retrospect; you don’t necessarily think of them as scenes when you’re there, experiencing them in real-time. A comforting thought, if slightly disingenuous: Duchamp knew as well as anyone that visual art evolves—even more than, say, literature—out of social networks.
Lutz Bacher’s survey exhibition at P.S.1 offers an interesting perspective on the subject. Bacher started making art in the ’70s, and showed for many years with Pat Hearn and Colin de Land, married dealers (with their own galleries) who came up in the East Village in the ’80s and whose reputations often eclipsed their artists. Both died in their forties of cancer: Hearn in 2000, de Land in 2003.
Two works here serve as memorials. Closed Circuit (1997–2000) takes several months of footage from a surveillance camera mounted above Hearn’s desk—an inner-sanctum of “avant-garde” contemporary art—and edits it down to a jerky 40-minute document. Crimson & Clover (2003) was shot at a memorial for de Land, held at the now-closed CBGB with a band made up primarily of artists playing a loose rendition of “Colin’s favorite song.”
It’s a touching tribute—and, at the same time, kind of irritating. True, Hearn and de Land sprang from an art world that celebrated the “transgressive” (de Land reportedly made his first art sale—a Warhol painting—as a favor to a friend who needed the money for drugs). But the punk-provocateur model—the memorial held in an iconic rock club, the requiem played on electric guitars—feels dated, contrived. (Or maybe I’m not the best audience: Like many kids who lived in the East Village in the ’80s and ’90s, I played in a band that performed at CBGB, so it doesn’t exist for me as a sacred mythic site.)
Yet Bacher is about the opposite of a New York scenester. She lives in Berkeley, California; she doesn’t do interviews; and “Lutz Bacher” is a pseudonym (or, if you prefer, a made-up name; she doesn’t reveal her former one). Her work occasionally touches on art-world issues, but she’s also spent nearly 40 years highlighting our fraught relationship with images, moving and still.
A less loaded example—for me, at least (probably not for Sean Penn or Keanu Reeves)—is a work from 1989, seven photos and text appropriated from Ron Galella, a paparazzo who stalked Jackie O back in the ’70s. The last image in the sequence shows Jackie literally fleeing from Galella with the photographer’s extraordinary assessment underneath: “Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the most desirable woman in the world wanted to be chased by me, Ron Galella, the paparazzo. I knew even then that there could be no stopping, no turning back.”
Photography and history also drive The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview (1976). Here, Photostat-collages, which include a fragmentary interview between unidentified speakers, question not only the single-gunman theory of the JFK assassination, but also Oswald’s identity and, ultimately, the reliability of photography and “official” information.
The most recent series-cum-work, Bien Hoa (2006-07), hinges around an extraordinary, and yet rather banal, collection of black-and-white photographs taken by an American soldier in Vietnam, which Bacher found in a thrift store. Underneath reproduced versions of the photos are the originals, turned toward the wall, so we can read the handwritten captions. The author-photographer, identified only by his signature, “Love, Walter,” is, by all appearances, a simple fellow. Yet he’s not immune to making aesthetic judgments. “This is a helicopter that got shot down over rice paddies,” he writes. “Amazing as it may seem the guys inside weren’t killed. I think this is also a good picture.”
Curator Lia Gangitano and Bacher have, in the opening gallery, mounted photographs and paintings from several series salon-style—a smart strategy that strengthens appropriation-derived work that isn’t intrinsically as powerful. Black-and-white photographs of celebrities and politicians include funny word balloons (Bella Abzug: “Cocksuckers!”; Jimmy Carter smiling at Ted Kennedy: “I don’t have to kiss his ass”). There are soft-porn images of ’60s Vargas girls that Bacher hired another artist to paint, and Gap ads featuring the ruggedly handsome art god Ed Ruscha and his son.
Throughout, a punk aesthetic reigns: Photos are “distressed” or damaged. In her videos, Bacher actively eschews the refined, virtuosic, and technologically slick. Olympiad (1997) is a damaged black-and-white video shot at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin that offers a disjointed tourist update to Leni Riefenstahl’s gorgeous-but-Nazi-glorifying Olympia (1938). Manhatta (1999) takes an aerial shot of Manhattan and runs it backward, screwing up the view.
This is Bacher’s second big museum show—an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis closed in early January. It also coincides with the release of a thick, zine-like book put out by Regency Arts Press. The book feels authentically Bacheresque—rough, open-ended—but at P.S.1, you can feel the pains of trying to insert her work into an “institutional” setting (albeit a scruffy and formerly alternative one). The result is a show that feels, initially, very uneven.
Yet, when you swing back around—art, like everything, takes time—you begin to appreciate both the logic in Gangitano/Bacher’s installation and the insistent threads running through the work. For instance, three-quarters of the way through Crimson & Clover, the video homes in on something—a light reflecting on a guitar string? The vinyl edge of a guitar amp?—and the video turns frustratingly abstract. It’s as if Bacher lost the plot of what she’s supposed to be recording. But it’s also revealing. Using punk/Dada/anti-art techniques, she parses perception, showing how, in an image-saturated culture, it’s easier to be told how to see (and, hence, think) by professional image-makers rather than working it out for yourself. And this extends to the art world.
Bacher’s zoned-out meditation becomes, in many ways, an act of defiance. Unlike Jonas Mekas, whose films celebrated his blue-chip art-world alliances, Bacher shows how complicated these identifications can be. She’s not going to accurately record de Land’s memorial, just as she’s not going to provide a clean picture of Olympic Stadium, New York, Vietnam, or a month in the life of art icon Pat Hearn. If you can handle that ethic, you might just love this show.