NOTE: This story has been modified from its original published version to account for factual errors. An account of these errors will appear on the contents page in the print edition of the next week's Pasatiempo.
It’s a bright, chilly day in early November, and Lucy Lippard sits outside her Galisteo home. Her rescue dog stumbles around her feet.
“They said he was old but they didn’t tell me how old,” says Lippard of the dog she jokingly called Bumble Foot. “He’s deaf and blind and probably about 14. He can barely walk. He just staggers. I’ve only had him for about a month, and he’s still acclimating.”
Lippard smiles. “People say, ‘Oh, how wonderful for you take such an old dog,’ and I say, ‘It wasn’t intentional. I thought he was younger.’ ”
Another smile. At 83, her hair is grey and curly, and her face lined with wrinkles, not so much from age, it seems, as from grinning.
If Galisteo, a village of less than 300 people that’s a good 40-minute drive south of Santa Fe, could lay claim to a local historian, that person would be Lippard. But long before she moved to New Mexico from the East Coast, Lippard lived among the crème de la crème as an art critic with an international reputation. She was a co-founding member of The Heresies Collective, an influential coalition of feminist political artists and writers, and she holds nine honorary doctorates. She’s the author of more than 20 books, including her history on Galisteo, called Pueblo Chico: Land and Lives in Galisteo since 1814 (Museum of New Mexico Press, 336 pages, $39.95), which was published in May.
“I liked the rural aspect,” she says of the town, which had a population of 234 in 2019, “and I had friends here. They don’t call New Mexico the ‘Land of Entrapment’ for nothing.”
She was already familiar with Galisteo because of her good friend, artist Harmony Hammond, who was already living there. When the property near Hammond was available for sale, she jumped at the chance. “I never looked at any other place.”
A home and a haven
Below the loft where her bedroom lives, books and papers are piled on every available horizontal surface, some stacks ready to topple. As she walks through the modest house, she points out family photographs, as well as paintings, photographs, and sculptures given to her by artist friends over the years — including Melanie Yazzie, Janet Russek, Sabra Moore, and Michael Berman. Her petite frame darts from wall to wall as she point out at one work or another.
Then she zips into a narrow hall, which is plastered with bookcases overflowing with books, toward a cramped office, where more mountains of paper leans perilously on a modest wooden writing desk. It’s not hard to see that Lippard surrounds herself with the knowledge that feeds her own intellect and curiosity.
“It’s not an ordinary history book,” Lippard says of Pueblo Chico, her second book on the village. Rather than a seamless narrative, she presents Galisteo’s history as a collage of viewpoints drawn from contradictory historical accounts. “So far, it’s been very well received by the old families here. So they have some sense of the history, and now I’ve got nice old ladies like me turning up at my doorstep, offering me envelopes for my newsletter, and wanting to buy another copy of the book for their cousin.”
Lippard joins the former New Mexico state historian, Estevan Rael-Galvez, for a free Zoom talk on Pueblo Chico at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 28. The event is sponsored by Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226, collectedworksbookstore.com). Information and a link to register for the event are available on Collected Works’ events page.
A fixture in the village since the early 1990s, Lippard serves on its planning commission and water board and as a volunteer on the local fire department’s auxiliary. For the past 24 years, she’s served as editor of El Puente de Galisteo, a monthly local newsletter. And she’s been working on Pueblo Chico for nearly two decades.
The last chapter of the book is focused on her own experiences living in Galisteo. “My partner kept saying, ‘You better publish that posthumously,’ ” she says, followed by a quiet, staccato chuckle. She leans back, taking in the crisp autumn air out on the patio of her home. The house is set back a few hundred yards from a dirt road off of Highway 41. Galisteo is rural, windswept and, at times (one imagines) lonely. Lippard’s house is unexceptional, not what you expect of a writer whose reputation is well known in the art world. The main building is no larger than a studio apartment, which includes a kitchenette. A guest room and office were added later.
A metropolitan childhood
“I was raised in all kinds of places, but I was born in New York and went back to New York,” says the writer, who spent her first nine years living in the city, raised by parents who were both Sunday painters. Her father hailed from a family who worked in a shoe factory in Massachusetts. He was a graduate of Yale School of Medicine. Early in his career, he worked in mental health and then transitioned to pediatrics before assuming administrative roles in various university medical schools. “Being a poor kid at Yale in the 1920s was not easy,” Lippard says. “But he was smart. Then he met my mother, and they went to New York.”
Growing up, Lippard and her family lived on Manhattan’s East Side, about 20 blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where her mother used to take her on frequent outings. “She claimed that when I was 7 or 8, I could tell the difference between Flemish and Italian Renaissance art. I don’t remember that, but we spent a lot of time looking at paintings.”
Her parents took art classes at New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. But then came World War II and her father, who volunteered, served as a medic in the South Pacific where, she says, “half of the time he was bored to tears and the other half of the time he was scared to death.” During the periods of inactivity, he painted watercolors of the jungle. “They weren’t bad at all.”
Lippard never wanted to be an artist. She wanted to be a writer. But, as an undergraduate student at Smith College, she toyed with the idea after enrolling in an art class. “I came home from college at one point — the art teacher had said something nice about what I did in studio art — and I spread my work out for my parents, and said, ‘Maybe I should be an artist instead of a writer.’ And they took one look at them and said, ‘writer.’ ” She laughs.
A conflagration at MoMA and a fire in the mind
After graduating from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Lippard went to work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was 1958, and the museum had just experienced a devastating three-alarm fire. The spark from a workman’s cigarette ignited the sawdust in a building that housed the permanent collection. One worker was killed, and the fire destroyed a large-scale painting of water lilies by French impressionist Claude Monet. Lippard was hired as a page in MoMA's library, and part of her job was to restack all of the books after the fire. At 21, MoMA was a job but not a career choice.
“It was an education in itself. I learned a huge amount, but I didn’t want to be a librarian.” She was available, though, and the curatorial staff asked her freelance for them.
It was an exciting time to be at MoMA. New York’s art scene was abuzz with artists destined to make a name for themselves, like conceptual artist Sol LeWitt and mixed media artist Howardina Pindell, who both worked for the museum. Lippard curated two traveling shows for the museum, including an exhibition on the work of Dada and surrealist artist Max Ernst, who was also the subject of her master’s thesis at New York University. “He was a seductive old man,” she says, adding that she was mainly taking on jobs as a freelancer that museum staff either didn’t have the interest or time for.
Lippard’s first two published books were done for MoMA. One was a collaborative project on MoMA’s collection that she wrote with curator James Thrall Soby and former museum director Alfred Barr. “They each wrote a little thing, and then I wrote all the rest of the book, which was the captions for the pieces they chose,” she says. “They sweetly put me as a co-
author, which was so nice. I was only 22 or something.” Her second book was on the prints and drawings of Philip Evergood, which was passed to her by another curator who wasn’t interested in writing it.
By 1960, she was working toward a master’s in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. In addition to LeWitt and Pindell, she had befriended minimalists Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman. Writing about art came easy, because, by chance more than design, she was now immersed in the art world. In 1960, Lippard married Ryman, who was a guard at MoMA when they met (they divorced in 1968 after having one son, Ethan). “All of our friends were artists. I like art and I love to write. It seemed like a natural fit.”
“I’ve always said that I learned everything I know about art from artists. Dore Ashton was the critic for The New York Times at that point, and somebody criticized her — I think it was John Canaday — and said she knew artists too well (i.e., she was married to one and sleeping with one, whatever). You were supposed to be objective, and I’ve never believed in objectivity at any level.”
After the books she wrote for MoMA came works on Dada and surrealism, and her groundbreaking annotated chronology Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973). She was among the first art critics to write an article on iconic feminist artist Judy Chicago, which was published in Artforum in 1974, five years before Chicago first exhibited her seminal work, The Dinner Party. It’s a clear-eyed view of the artist and her work, critical but balanced. And at one point in the lengthy article, Lippard admits to loving the artist as a person, noting how such a personal admission could be damaging to a critic. But one of Lippard’s strengths as a writer — whether the topic is art, art history, or local history — is her ability to humanize her subjects without sacrificing her whip-smart insights as a critic and intellectual.
“I’ve known Lucy Lippard since 1965, and she’s always been a maverick, one who has stubbornly insisted on her own perspective and her own path,” Chicago says. “Over the years, her voice has been raised on behalf of a wide variety of art and artists, carving out new territory wherever her interests alighted. There have been times when she has been a good friend to me and my art and other times when we have strongly disagreed. Nevertheless, like most of the art world, I have always recognized her importance and her many contributions.”
From art critic to art activist
Throughout the 1960s, Lippard wasn’t particularly interested or even aware of feminism. “I’d never even heard of it,” she says, adding that “feminism hit the art world very late.” She considered herself “one of the boys.”
“In 1970, I realized that I wasn’t one of the boys. As a freelancer, you never know what jobs you don’t get, and I wasn’t making much money. I didn’t think very much about the money. I found out that the men were getting paid more.”
Lippard’s interest in political activism came after an experience she had while jurying an art exhibition in Argentina in 1968. It opened her eyes to the importance of tackling issues relevant to the day. “I met these artists, the Rosario Group, who were working in Tucumán.” The Rosario Group was a collective formed in response to the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía, whose policies put a lot of people out of work. “I said, ‘What kind of art are you making?’ and they said, ‘We’re not making art. We’re not going to make art until the world is better.’ I was so taken with that.”
Inspired, in part, by her experience in Argentina, Lippard became a member of New York’s Art Workers’ Coalition, which aimed to pressure the New York art museums into initiating political and economic reforms. It marked a change of focus for the writer from formalist critic of art to activist.
“I still write about art,” she says. “But not unless I like the work.”
Like Chicago, Lippard became a prominent proponent of feminist perspectives on art and history. She’s curated and juried exhibitions on feminist art off and on throughout her carer. Most recently, she juried Feminist Art in the Trump Era, which opened at Santa Fe’s mobile gallery Axle Contemporary (505-670-5854 or 505-670-7612, axleart.com) in September. She joined The Heresies Collective in 1976 to encourage and support feminist political art and ideologies. Through their long-running published journal, HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, the collective sought to increase the discourse surrounding feminist issues, feminist theory, art, and politics. Other founding members included artists May Stevens, Miriam Schapiro, and Hammond. Lippard is co-curating an exhibition on the work of Stevens (1924-2019), May Stevens: Mysteries and Politics, which is slated to open at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1199, sitesantafe.org) on March 26.
Retreat from the art world but not from writing
Lippard first came to New Mexico in 1972 with artist Charles Simonds to see the Shalako dances at Zuni Pueblo. She didn’t work toward establishing residency here until 1992 because, she says, “I knew I couldn’t make a permanent living being an art writer here.” The move came after repeated trips to visit friends in New Mexico while she was a visiting professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. During the semesters when she was teaching seminars, she would stay, at first, with Chicago in Santa Fe and then with Hammond, who moved to New Mexico in 1984, in Galisteo. “I thought, Ooh, that’s where I want to be,” she says, having built enough of a reputation that she could finally make a comfortable living as a writer, far from the nation’s prominent art centers. “I moved out here to get away from the art world. When I first came to New York and got to know artists, I was all starry-eyed. But the more I hung out in the art world, the more I realized that you couldn’t get away from capitalism. That was the framework for everything.”
Lippard's was the first house on the strip that runs alongside the creek. “People would say to me, ‘I hope you have a gun and a dog.’ And I would say, ‘Nope. But I have a little black cat.”
Galisteo is a quiet community. There isn’t much crime for even the cat to bother with. “We used to have the rodeo at the end of July every year, which is now a few years gone, and that would bring in people breaking into houses. A few weeks or so ago, we had a white pickup that kept driving around and stopping at the gate of everybody who had a Biden/Harris sign, which I did. As soon as the election was over, one of my neighbors said ‘Let’s take the signs down.’ ”
Lippard’s first book on Galisteo, Down Country: The Tano of the Galisteo Basin, 1250-1782 (2010), won a New Mexico Historical Society book award. In 2018, she was a recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts as a major contributor to the arts. One such contribution was the donation of numerous works from her private collection to the New Mexico Museum of Art in 1999, including a lithograph by Luis Jiménez, a drawing by Alex Katz, and a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. But she insists that she’s not a collector. Most of the artworks she owns were given to her. And some of them will be among the subjects covered in her forthcoming book, which may be the closest thing to autobiography readers can expect from Lippard. She’s averse to writing a bonafide memoir. “Who wants to hear about who I slept with?” she says, laughing. The new book may offer readers a glimpse into aspects of her, but only obliquely.
“I have for years been interested in doing something on the objects around the house,” she says, as she continues roving from wall to wall, photograph to photograph, painting to painting. “So I’m doing a book called Stuff: Not a Memoir. I take a picture of something and then talk about where I got it. So that’s what I’m doing now. And El Puente and the Galisteo stuff, I’ll keep on doing that until I drop. It’s something I can do well for the community.” ◀