PARIS and MONTREAL — How much power is there in silence?
I’ve wondered about this lately as I succumb — like many — to a desire to keep schtum. To shut up. To offer no opinion. When certain political subjects come up, it’s not that I have nothing to say. It’s that I don’t want to say anything. When people take to the streets to protest or demand public apologies, I may have strong feelings. But I no longer want to express them.
From a civic perspective, I realize, my attitude is lousy. But then I think of Lee Lozano and Marisol, two late artists lately in the limelight, and realize that my vague yearning for silence looks insincere and shilly-shallying alongside their resolute commitment to it.
Lozano (1930-1999) was part of the beginnings of pop and then conceptual art. A bold and original artist, she was also a feminist and experimental drug-taker who, when it came to society, had X-ray vision. She was, as a show at the Bourse de Commerce/Pinault Collection in Paris reveals, almost frighteningly in tune with the chaos and contradictions of the 1960s.
Her drawings, combining words, sex organs and tools, are rambunctious, caustic, brilliant. The huge, cosmically themed paintings she painted later in the ’60s are also remarkable. But then all this ceased and Lozano turned to conceptual art — sets of instructions for actions or performances. She was trying to break down the wall separating art and life.
The ’60s had seen a wave of idealistic social and personal revolutions culminate in war, assassinations, repression. All the noise around these events seems to have dislodged something in Lozano. She started filling notebooks with philosophical musings, puns, lists of her sexual partners, drugs she had taken, math problems and questions for the I Ching.
Increasingly, the art world disgusted her. So she decided to stage a strike. At first, she thought of the strike as another conceptual gambit — a sort of artwork as critique. Then, bizarrely, she decided to stop talking to people of her own gender. Before long, “Decide to Boycott Women,” as she called the piece, turned into an even more drastic action: “Dropout Piece.”
More than a strike or boycott, “Dropout Piece” was what it said it was: a total withdrawal. A vanishing. Something about its success remains haunting, even accusatory. If Lozano was prepared to do something so radical with herself, what on Earth was she saying about us?
Lozano had always felt that identity was arbitrary and mutable. As a 14-year-old, she had changed her name from Lenore Knaster to Lee Lozano. She now changed it to Leefer and then to Lee Free and then simply E (as in “energy”). At one point she said that her date and time of birth were her “only true name.”
Very little is known about her life from 1970 to 1999, when she died of cervical cancer in Dallas. She was buried by her own choice at an unmarked gravestone at a cemetery in Grand Prairie, Tex.
Marisol (1930-2016) was born the same year as Lozano. She, too, was an artist who, during a period of tremendous political turmoil, questioned the stability of identity. Born María Sol Escobar in Paris, she was the second child of globe-trotting Venezuelan parents. She had an astonishingly — and deservedly — successful art career in the 1960s. But at the end of that decade, around the same time as Lozano, she experienced a crisis and simply withdrew.
Appalled by the violence with which government forces had met student protesters and by the ongoing catastrophe of the Vietnam War, she left the country, traveled to Tahiti and — as if willing to do anything to get away from the noise — took up scuba diving.
This wasn’t Marisol’s first withdrawal. When she was 11, after her mother had died by suicide, her response was to stop speaking. “I decided never to talk again,” she told an interviewer in 1975. “I really didn’t talk for years except for what was absolutely necessary in school and on the street.” She started talking again in her late 20s, but by then, she said, “silence had become such a habit that I really had nothing to say to anybody.”
Marisol became very famous, very quickly. She was one of the most important, transformative figures of early pop art. She showed at Leo Castelli’s gallery ahead of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. She befriended Andy Warhol, who in 1964 put her in two of his films, “Kiss” and “13 Most Beautiful Women.” She had an affair with Willem de Kooning. People lined up around the block to see her shows.
I adore Marisol’s sculptures, which combine boxy wooden forms with miscellaneous objects, brightly colored paint, patterns, figurative drawing, and casts of her own face and body parts. Their humor and vivacity are undermined by intimations of death. Her portrayals of others are overlaid with subtle self-portraiture. She is a sort of steppingstone in the path that leads from Claude Cahun to Cindy Sherman.
Inevitably, Marisol’s notoriety fueled her sense of the instability of identity, chiming with John Updike’s description of celebrity as “a mask that eats into the face.” In the early 1960s, she was invited to join a panel discussion in New York. She entered wearing a white mask tied on with strings. When she declined to speak, people in the audience began stamping their feet, shouting at her to remove the mask so they could see her face. Finally, when the uproar peaked, she pulled the strings and the mask slipped off — only to reveal her face made up exactly like the mask.
“It brought the house down,” said one witness. But Marisol’s mask reveal was more than just a stunt. It was an artistic response to reality and — not least — a power trip.
The weight of silence
In 1966, Ingmar Bergman released his greatest film. “Persona” is about silence as a response to trauma — but also as a bid for control, a flexing of power. It is also about the interchangeability of identity. Liv Ullman plays an acclaimed actress who, in the middle of a performance, has briefly stopped acting and, by the next day, stopped speaking to anyone.
She has been committed to a hospital, where a doctor and nurse (Bibi Andersson) try to intervene.
“You think I don’t understand?” says the doctor. The actress, she suggests, is painfully conscious of the “chasm” between what she is to others and what she is to herself. Her decision to stop speaking flows from her frustrated yearning to live authentically. She has a “constant hunger to be unmasked, once and for all. To be seen through, cut down — perhaps even annihilated.”
“Commit suicide?” continues the doctor. “No, too nasty. One doesn’t do things like that. But you can refuse to move or talk. Then, at least you’re not lying. … Then you don’t need any roles, wear any masks, make any false gestures.”
Four years after “Persona” came out, Lozano stopped talking to women. Marisol, meanwhile, left the art world to spend as much time as possible underwater.
Was there something performative, even inauthentic about both artists’ renunciations? Or were their actions necessary responses to intensifying pressure, even trauma?
Radical acts, whether they are forms of dissidence or self-preservation, always risk becoming just another kind of inauthenticity — another part played. In “Persona,” the doctor acerbically encourages the actress to remain silent until her role is “played out” and “no longer interesting” to her. Eventually, she will drop it, “just as you eventually drop all your other roles.”
Interestingly, Lozano didn’t drop her role. She continued to find her renunciation interesting. (Her consistency, more than anything, is what makes us wonder about her sanity.)
But Marisol was different. She returned to the art world after her time overseas, although she was not the same artist. She made sculptures inspired by ecological themes, colored pencil drawings and, in the mid-1970s, a powerful series of self-portraits in the form of mutilated masks made from casts of her face, indented with feet and Coca-Cola bottles. She became increasingly concerned by the plight of the dispossessed and the impoverished.
But by the 1990s, the art world had all but forgotten about Marisol. Only now, with a traveling retrospective organized by the Buffalo AKG Gallery, now dazzling audiences in Montreal, is her extraordinary achievement being recognized in its totality.
Art, we’re often told, promotes empathy, dialogue, compassion. All of that is true. But it’s also true that sometimes, the most powerful art is more of a monologue, or even a withdrawal into silence. The best artists — the ones who glimpse some larger truth — may be electrified by a sense that art is inadequate to the tasks we idealistically assign it. Violence, social pressures and political crises no doubt sharpen such intuitions. But they can arise any time. It seems a cruel paradox, but some artists may be at the peak of their creative powers when they perceive art’s ultimate futility.
Yoko Ono, one of the pioneers of conceptual and performance art, created many sets of instructions, which were later published in a celebrated book, “Grapefruit.” Some of these instructions she carried out, others were merely notional, poetic. What’s surprising (especially given Ono’s penchant for therapeutic screaming during her time with John Lennon) is how many of them are predicated on silence, or the impossibility of communication. (For example: “Sleep two walls away from each other. Whisper to each other.”)
My favorite, titled “Snow Piece,” goes as follows: “Think that snow is falling. Think that snow is falling everywhere all the time. When you talk to the person, think that snow is falling between you and on the person. Stop conversing when you think the person is covered by snow.”
Who could blame anyone, then or now, for wishing the whole world covered in snow and everyone (even if only temporarily) submerged in silence?
Lee Lozano, “Strike,” at the Bourse de Commerce/Pinault Collection in Paris, until Jan. 22. pinaultcollection.com.
“Marisol: A Retrospective,” at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts until Jan. 21, will travel to the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo (March 2 to June 2), the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in Buffalo (July 12, 2024, to Jan. 6, 2025) and the Dallas Museum of Art, Feb. 23, 2025, to July 6, 2025.