Strategies of Withdrawal: The Art of Lee Lozano and Charlotte Posenenske

By Lauren Hanson
September 11, 2020
Index Magazine

Strategies of Withdrawal: The Art of Lee Lozano and Charlotte Posenenske

Two identical, bright red-painted aluminum sheets are mounted on a white wall. Each of the rectangular sheets is folded convexly along its center and oriented vertically.
2009.7 Charlotte Posenenske, German, Relief, Series B, 1967. Red spray paint on sheet aluminum. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Purchase in memory of Eda K. Loeb, 2009.6, 2009.7. Courtesy the Estate of Charlotte Posenenske, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and Peter Freeman, Inc., New York/Paris. © Estate of Charlotte Posenenske/Burkhard Brunn, Frankfurt.

Can the historical examples of Lee Lozano and Charlotte Posenenske teach us how to reimagine making and exhibiting art today? In the 1960s, both artists found critical and commercial success in the art world only to reject it. Decades after their withdrawal, new audiences discovered these women’s powerful experimental approaches to traditional media.

Lozano (1930–1999) and Posenenske (1930–1985) have recently received increasing attention in the form of major exhibitions. In 2007, their work from the 1960s was included in the high-profile international art exhibition documenta 12, in Kassel, Germany.[1] The freshness and appeal of their art may have led many visitors to wonder why they’d never encountered these remarkable artists before. Although Lozano and Posenenske had participated in significant gallery shows and museum exhibitions during the 1960s, their names effectively disappeared from historical records by the end of the 1970s. One of the main reasons for the loss of knowledge was the radical choice each artist made: to reject the capitalist, male-dominated art world—Posenenske left in 1968 and Lozano around 1971. 

One of my aims as a curator and historian is to uncover moments in the history of art that have been untold, overlooked, or excluded from the canon. During these past few months, which have been marked by a period of self-examination and a scrutiny of the past in order to understand our present, I found myself returning to these artists’ work and legacies, trying to come to terms with their artistic and political choices. What led them to abandon the art world, to willingly and deliberately isolate from it, to withdraw and retreat? What do their choices reveal about their historical contexts, and in what ways might their work still speak to us today?

Lee Lozano

Born Lenore Knaster in 1930, Lozano adopted the first name “Lee” at age 14. She chose it for its brevity and gender ambiguity and to, as she put it, reject the “traditional American middleclass female trip.”[2] When she moved to New York in 1961, she embarked on a prolific decade of production that covered a startling range of styles and interests. Over the course of the 1960s, she moved from sexually charged works fusing elements of Surrealism and Pop Art to monochromatic abstractions based on tools (hammers, screws, pliers, etc.) to text-based investigations of language and intimately scaled performance pieces. As Lozano wrote in her private notebooks, it was important for her, above all, to “seek the extremes, that’s where all the action is at.”[3] Her propensity for radical experimentation is evident in her rapid evolution from one stylistic exploration to the next, and her three drawings in the Fogg collection at the Harvard Art Museums are exemplary of that scope: a psychosexual interaction of biomorphic limbs and orifices; an abstract minimalist study for a painting; and a conceptual language piece. 

During the late 1960s, Lozano developed an idiosyncratic type of performance art in the form of “language pieces” or “Life-Art” pieces. As she recorded in her notebooks, she was seeking “some kind of fusion between ‘art’ & ‘life’” and aimed to apply the same rigor to her daily life as she did to her artistic practice.[4] The conceptual drawing above featuring text (No title; 1969) demonstrates how she merged the artistic and the quotidian by documenting, performing, and deliberately recording as much of her life as possible. As articulated in the section “Withdrawal Piece,” Lozano’s decision to retract work from a gallery show is not just a practical decision (to avoid association with art that “brings [her] down”) but also an artistic performance.

Lozano also conceived of her pieces like this one as drawings, while striving to expand the boundaries and definitions of that medium. No title (1969) consists of lines placed together to form a legible system of writing, the artistic hand evident only in the singularity of her handwriting and the visible marks of editing. The work maintains an unfinished quality to lay bare her processes of thinking. The strikethroughs and carets here act as pentimenti, which are, traditionally, the visible traces of early applications of pigment beneath later applications. These marks permit the work, even 50 years later, to exist as a work in process, as both a performance and a record of that performative link between art and life. Her language pieces radically declare that anything and everything—stretching a canvas, receiving a grant, interacting with an inebriated friend—can be the subject of a work of art. 

While working on her language pieces, Lozano continued to paint, creating her Wave Series (1967–70): 11 large-format abstract paintings that sequentially depict increasing wavelengths of light, ranging from 2 to 96 waves, each created in a single, continuous sitting. The final painting was a feat of endurance in the face of exhaustion and isolation, requiring three days to complete. These works were exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1970, and yet, this kind of institutional success seems to have prompted Lozano to move further away from the art world rather than immerse herself in it. Around this time, Lozano began her most extreme artistic gesture: her elusive Dropout Piece, initiated perhaps as early as 1969 and fully realized by 1972. In this ephemeral performance, a culmination of her Life-Art pieces, she left New York City and severed contact with her circle of artist friends and the art world.[5] With this radical act, she pursued the dematerialization of the art object to its logical end.[6] This final withdrawal stemmed perhaps from her discomfort with the compromises demanded of her to create and exhibit art. The less radical “Withdrawal Piece” in Untitled above hints at Dropout Piece’s ultimate act of refusal, which would provide Lozano liberation from the pressure to produce objects for capitalist consumption. Writing about this act in 1970, she proclaimed that “a feeling of peace comes over me, of joyous freedom, of I’m doing what I want, of I don’t have to do anything until I feel like it […] drop out from world, no calls no work no obligations no guilt no desires, just my mind wandering lazily off its leash.”[7] 

Charlotte Posenenske 

The exhibition Charlotte Posenenske: Work in Progress, organized by Dia Beacon and now traveling in Europe, is the largest examination of Posenenske’s oeuvre to date. It positions the German artist as a major contributor to the development of a European conception of Minimalism, one more closely aligned with the progressive politics of early 20th-century Constructivist and Bauhaus movements than its U.S. counterpart. Like Lozano, who deliberately pushed the boundaries of drawing and performance, Posenenske challenged the defining criteria for sculpture. For Posenenske, this meant reconsidering the relationship between the viewer, the creator, and the art object, as well as the role of market forces in the production and consumption of art.

Posenenske is perhaps best known for works like Relief (Series B). Its prototypes, in the Busch-Reisinger Museum collection, are currently on tour for Work in Progress. Such modular, three-dimensional objects could be industrially produced and made available at cost to “consumers,” the term Posenenske preferred for public or private collectors. For her six series of reliefs (1966–68), the artist designed a range of geometric forms constructed according to specific configurations either in sheet metal or corrugated cardboard (an economical material). As the diagram in the above slideshow illustrates, she designed works for her series in four colors—red, yellow, blue, and black—and in five shapes, each in the same dimensions. Reconstructions of these designs can still be ordered today, and in 2014 the Busch-Reisinger ordered three authorized reconstructions of Relief (Series B) to be shown with the 1967 prototypes to present the political and social implications of Posenenske’s work.[8]

These abstract, geometric sculptures departed from traditional notions of representational sculpture in the round. As the artist declared in her 1968 “Statement” (often referred to as her “Manifesto”), the minimalist forms she created are neither symbolic nor abstract representations of the natural world and “are not intended to represent anything other than what they are.”[9] They point to themselves, as well as to the processes of creation, from inception to display. Moreover, Posenenske strove for these works to embody the democratization of art making and collecting by emphasizing the collaborative nature of these processes. She argued, “The things I make are variable, as simple as possible, reproducible. They are components of a space, since they are like building elements, they can always be rearranged into new combinations or positions, thus, they alter the space.”[10]

By the time Posenenske reached critical and commercial attention in the 1960s, she had rejected that notoriety and retreated from the art world, instead pursuing a career as a sociologist of industrial labor. Her work faded from public memory and the art historical record, and the first presentation of Posenenske’s work in a U.S. museum or gallery did not occur until 2004, when it was included in the Busch-Reisinger Museum exhibition Dependent Objects: Possibilities of Sculpture. The show investigated how work like Posenenske’s pushed the boundaries of sculpture, asking, when does an object become a sculpture and according to what artistic criteria? By deliberately leaving the configuration of her objects up to the consumer, as with the geometric, corrugated cardboard forms seen in the installation shot above, she proposed a system of fabricating and displaying art that challenged a market that values the “original” and rewards singularity. She relinquished creative control of the work once it entered into the consumer’s possession, inviting the consumer to “again and anew participat[e] in the creation” and completion of the work, which was always open to future reorientation.

Dropping Out

Although there is no evidence that Lozano and Posenenske ever met or were even aware of each other, it is conceivable that Posenenske could have encountered Lozano’s work during her visit to New York City in the spring of 1965. Posenenske would have been interested in the newest explorations of Minimalism and what would later be called “Conceptual Art” in the United States, thus she may have encountered work by Lozano, who was part of an artistic circle that included her (now more famous) male peers Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Smith, and Mark di Suvero. Though they may have never crossed paths or influenced each other’s thinking, they both were interested in “seeking the extremes” and challenging the relationship of the collector (be it private, public, or institutional) to the work of art.

Ultimately, Posenenske came to the conclusion that “art can contribute nothing to solving urgent social problems.”[11] Art historian Jo Applin has argued that Lozano’s “dropping out” seems inextricable from a particular capitalist, goal-driven professionalism, in which an “artist” becomes a professionalized capital-A “Artist.”[12] This logic might be applied to Posenenske as well, who shared in Lozano’s frustration with the professionalization of the “Artist” and the tethering of art’s worth to its monetary value. But whereas Lozano’s withdrawal seems to have been one final, radical leap toward wholly merging life and art, Posenenske’s withdrawal indicates a rejection of utopian notions around art and its relationship to daily life.

The work of Lozano and Posenenske, which, over five decades later, still feels relevant and urgent, reminds us that art does not exist in a vacuum but is imbricated in social, economic, and political systems. In reaching beyond the conventional, these two artists ask us to examine and question the world around us, to test the edges and the margins, to embrace the uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Posenenske and Lozano encourage me, as a curator and historian, not to be part of institutional barriers that would exclude or discourage artists like them, but to instead find ways to highlight work that challenges those barriers, to meet the artist on her terms, and to always explore new possibilities with curiosity and openness.


Lauren Hanson is the Stefan Engelhorn Curatorial Fellow in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at the Harvard Art Museums. 

[1] The driving concept for documenta 12 was “The Migration of Form,” for which art director Nigel M. Buergel and curator Ruth Noack posited, “contemporary does not mean that the works originated yesterday. They must be meaningful for people today. Documenta 12 is concerned with both historical lines of development in art and unexpected concurrences.”

[2] Lee Lozano, Untitled, 1970, published in Lee Lozano: Win First Don’t Last, Win Last Don’t Care, ed. Adam Szymczyk (Basel: Schwabe Verlag, 2006), 193.

[3] Lee Lozano, Grass Piece, April 24, 1969, published in Lee Lozano: Notebooks 1967–1970 (New York: Primary Information, 2009), unpaginated.

[4] Lee Lozano, private notebook no. 5, December 1969, p. 8, published in Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (London: Afterall Books, 2014), 32.

[5] Although it is not entirely clear when Lozano fully withdrew from her former life, she did cease any active interest in publicly exhibiting her work after 1971. For a thorough and excellent investigation of Lozano’s retreat from the art world, see Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (London: Afterall Books, 2014).

[6] For more on this concept, see the landmark essay by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International 12 (2) (February 1968): 31–36.

[7] Lee Lozano, private notebook no. 8, April 1, 1970, pp. 94–95, published in Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece, 74.

[8] Reconstructions of Posenenske’s Relief series are still licensed and produced today by the Charlotte Posenenske Estate, managed by Peter Freeman, Inc.

[9] Charlotte Posenenske, “Statement,” Art International 12 (5) (May 1968): 50. Published in German.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Jo Applin, “Cut Out, Drop Out,” American Art 31 (1) (Spring 2017): 6–12, and Applin’s Lee Lozano: Not Working (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2018).