From overseas in Spain, Joyce Kozloff chats with MoMA Curatorial Assistant Esther Adler.
Esther Adler: Your work from the 1970s addresses the idea of the decorative, and the art-world distinction between high “serious” art and low “craft” art. How did this issue link into your feelings about feminism and the role of the woman artist at the time?
Joyce Kozloff: “Decorative” was one of the most pejorative words that could be said about a painting when I was a young artist. I harbored a secret fear that my work would be put in that category. But in 1970 when I first consciously became a feminist, I began to examine the language used to describe art. Words like “strong,” “powerful” and “tough” were juxtaposed against “pretty,” “soft,” and “decorative,” and these words were loaded with value judgments. I call it the dumb blonde theory of art: if it’s beautiful, it can’t be smart. Once I understood the association of “decorative” with the decorative arts, arts most often created by anonymous women and non–western cultures, I decided to examine the prejudice and deconstruct the high-low hierarchies which elevated western male art above everything else. And then, like Miriam Schapiro, Valerie Jaudon and many other feminist colleagues, alongside male colleagues like Robert Kushner and Robert Zakanitch, I embraced decoration, and set out to make my work as decorative as I possibly could. I began to study the “minor” arts, which had been completely neglected in my art history education.
EA: Your works included in WACK!, and others from that time, are really beautiful. Did you worry about the work’s ability to communicate about feminist/social aims, especially when compared to the more representational, “in-your-face” work being done by other artists engaged with feminism?
JK: When we first showed brazenly decorative work, many people were horrified. We emerged after a long period of Minimalism, Formalism, Conceptualism, not a lot of color and not much juiciness. Our art created waves in the art world, and there was extremely negative press. We also had supporters, so a lively dialogue ensued. It is hard to look at this art now and remember its initial shock. Perhaps our ideas were absorbed into the culture more than we realized. But then, I still hear the word “decorative” used in that dismissive way, and there are even feminists who are uncomfortable with its endorsement of beauty. So to answer your question, I cannot separate visual pleasure from social engagement: it would be like separating life from politics, and for me, they are totally interconnected.
EA: Do you think art world attitudes towards decorative arts and traditions have changed during the course of your career? Do you think young artists emerging today are more open to the idea of the “decorative”?
JK: I see decorative work by young artists all the time! In fact, there have been several generations of decorative artists, although they do not necessarily describe themselves as such, and may or may not have been influenced by us, or aware of us. Perhaps they are excited by some of the same sources that first moved the artists in our group. I “teach around,” and in recent years, I am finding a renewed curiosity about decoration and craft, which has taken me by surprise. I asked a young woman why she was making sculpture out of doilies, and she started to tell me about her grandmother´s couches. Impatiently I asked her, “What does that have to do with YOU?” I am not interested in a decorative art that is nostalgic. They will have to redefine it for the current moment.
EA: Travel, and exposure to the visual traditions of other cultures, have continuously influenced your work. You are actually traveling in Spain right now—what are you looking at on your current trip?
JK: When I travel, I look at the world more acutely, with a fresh eye. Everything surprises me. I am revisiting Sevilla, Córdoba and Granada, the sites of extraordinary Mudéjar art which I first saw forty years ago, and which influenced my early work profoundly. In the past year, when we have all been reexamining the 1970s, I´ve asked myself why I made certain aesthetic choices back then, so maybe this is a journey to find out. I was an abstract, geometrical painter seeking a way to infuse my art with content. Once I looked beyond my own traditions, I stopped thinking about abstraction versus figuration, and could acknowledge my appetite for intricacy, complexity, tactility and sensuousness.