Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel

Reviewed by Samantha Roth

 

Three times solitaire.

The book begins with an essay by the show’s curator Helen Molesworth, on what binds together these three seemingly disparate artists all working in New York around the same time in the 1960s and ‘70s.

 

It is then divided into three separate parts with each artist given an autonomous essay, accompanied by pictures.

 

Described as “an exhibition about the feminism of the women who were sometimes ambivalent about the term,” Solitaire offers a context to the differing practices of these artists, while maintaining the individual integrity and attention that each deserves and has not fully received. The three women continued to explore painting and representational ideas in the face of the looming male-dominated Minimalist and Conceptual movements then emerging. Each worked in their studios alone, with that influence greatly visible in signs within their work, hence the title, Solitaire.

 

If you are familiar with the artists, then you have some image in your mind. What Solitaire successfully does is address that general understanding one may have in regard to Lozano, Plimack Mangold and Semmel, and then digs deeper. With essays by Johanna Burton, Helen Molesworth and Richard Meyer, this book attempts to illuminate those parts of their work that allowed each to sit on the periphery, and boldly so. For Lozano, that means unearthing the ongoing connections between her earlier, less “refined” work with the radical and somewhat controversial stance she has become known for. Plimack Mangold’s representational paintings are discussed not in relationship to their trompe l’oeil like technical virtuosity, but in regard to their exploration of space, prompting her to be referred to by Linda Nochlin as a “pictorial phenomenologist.” And for Semmel, the naked portrait becomes not a mirror into the artist’s being, but a larger discussion about subverting the erotic genre, while embracing the pleasure of painting.

 

A brief word about judging a book by its cover: here it is a wise move.

Pale pink, with a smart sans serif type; bold and feminine, clean and dense, personal and pragmatic, it exhibits feminist tactics of dualities somewhat in parallel to the strategies of the artists as illuminated by their essayists, as well as the larger arc to the exhibition. Solitaire the book captures Solitaire the ethos. Each artist’s essay is on lightweight pink paper that is cut so that the footnotes surrounding may be visible on either side of the text. This insists that readers flip between pages in a proactive way, becoming viewers, fingers stuck into different places, ideas cross-referenced and processed next to images. The essays are followed by documentation of the work from the show, while each essay is also accompanied with small figures that act as a sort of slide show to illustrate points. Sketchbooks, letters and photo negatives allow a glimpse into the solitary studio of the artists.

 

This is a good book to have and to hold.

 

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Helen Molesworth (Ed.), Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel, (Wexner Center for the Arts, 2008)
Images: Interior of Solitaire: Lee Lozano, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Joan Semmel

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