What was it like when you were entering the art world in the ‘60s?
The New York art world in the ‘60s was very small and intense, and you could approach artists that you knew were going to be significant. I could go talk to John Cage, be the secretary for Edgard Varèse, go to Philip Guston’s studio and hang around. We could go to the openings of older artists, and it was easy, convivial, a tremendous source of information.
Who were your influences from that period? How did women fit into the art world of the time?
It’s an interesting question because women didn’t really get to coalesce and discuss what they were doing until the early ‘70s. I found that the women artists were all constellated around the men, they rarely had exhibits despite how significant I found their work. For instance Joan Mitchell, who was a great influence on me rarely exhibited. Since I started out as a painter who concentrated on landscape, I was impressed by the spaciousness of her work in which each paint stroke was an event, energizing perceptual time.
Once I arrived in New York City, I met poets who appreciated my work, like Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin. The discussions and energy between us was vital, though even here the younger women poets had a peripheral participation. Pollock’s overall canvases were a direct influence, as was the force field of De Kooning, and of course Cézanne was my major inspiration for the construction of form in space. My influences tend to be complex: Antonin Artaud, De Beauvoir, all the way back to classical inspirations of Focillon.
Of my contemporaries, Brakhage the filmmaker, but most of all my partner James Tenney, who appears in so many of my film and performance works. Tenney was studying Ives and Webern who became huge influences on my thinking about visual events in time. By 1962 I began to choreograph for the Judson Dance Theater. Our aesthetic affiliations were all very delicious and interconnected – just about any figure that might come to your mind would be someone whom we all knew, that we went dancing with or smoked dope with.
How did female artists start to coalesce? Was there a sense of common purpose?
There was an interesting period of separatism that we tend to forget. In the early ‘70s consciousness-raising was a developing discipline for women; we were analyzing our exclusions and marginalizations from cultural traditions. There was a period when the men wanted to discuss these issues with us, and we realized that they were just going to try to solve our problems and analyze them, and it would not be successful. And so separatism was necessary for consciousness-raising; women started art galleries, started publishing feminists texts, revised standard art history, began communities together.
While there was a sense of common purpose, there was often competition and conflict concerning the significance of issues—there were hierarchies within feminist analysis and formulation.
How has the community changed since that time in the ‘70s?
It’s huge, it’s expansive. Our community is richly various. Women have major positions in art galleries and museums, in publishing and all areas of cultural investigation. Many artists disappeared, which is interesting to research, to go through the early reviews and articles to see how many have sustained themselves and how many have left the art world. That’s true for the male artists as well, it was not an easy emergence for any of us.
Do you have any sense of continuity between that period and the present?
I don’t know the answer to that because there’s so much remarkable work coming from painters who established their concentration in the ‘70s and ‘80s and more recently. There’s also a great deal of indulgent, simplistic work, done by some younger women, as if just being female addresses bigger principles. And it doesn’t.
It also has to do with the proliferation of women artists. There’s so much to look at and think about that it’s hard to grasp a continuing moment, a continuing attention. I can’t say what other artists should be thinking about, except that their commitment and concentration still needs to be rigorous, deep, troubled, unpredictable and pleasured.
How has your own work developed?
I don’t want to be locked in the work I made in the ‘60s and ‘70s—those earlier concepts, which provide academics with a way of organizing a syllabus. I’m very excited and filled with joy when viewers and writers look at recent work and can analyze it and understand it in terms of what went before. I’m always desperate to show my more recent work; installations and video projections that are rarely seen, but are often greatly appreciated when they do enter the cultural discussion.
I’m looking ahead and carrying forward the principles and elements of the earlier work. I don’t consider my work a “career.” I definitely don’t have a “practice”: a practice belongs to a dentist or a violinist. A practice implies a kind of perfectibility, which I don’t seek.