The series of small works on paper now on view at Kerry Schuss Gallery dates from 1973. The twenty-two collages created by a 70-year old female artist depict vases filled with flowers and are accompanied by an introductory and a closing poem; the works originally comprised a single album. At the time when Birdie Lusch was making these pieces, the Feminist art movement was gaining momentum: Linda Nochlin published her influential essay Why Are There No Great Female Artists?, Women’s Caucus for Art was founded at the San Francisco CAA conference, Judy Chicago organized the Feminist Art Program at Cal State Fresno, and the first all female co-op gallery opened in New York City. The heightened awareness of the marginalized position of women within the traditional art-historical narrative and in the contemporary gallery scene was widespread among female artists even if they did not associate themselves with the Feminist movement. Many of them were engaged in reinventing artistic techniques and pictorial language to create an alternative to the male-dominated mainstream of contemporary art: they looked back at traditional women’s crafts such as weaving and ceramics and explored themes and subjects that were previously stigmatized as feminine. The floral imagery in Birdie Lusch’s works and her use of a scrapbook format (complete with poems) appear to reflect this particular trend in 1970’s art.
The above interpretation proves to be entirely incorrect: in fact, Birdie Lusch was making her work with little or no awareness of what was happening in the art world. She was a self-taught artist and, most of her life, worked on an assembly line at a ball bearing factory in Columbus, Ohio. Like most outsider artists, Lusch created images and objects in order to escape from the bleak drudgery of her everyday life: art-making gave her a sense of purpose and meaning that she could not find elsewhere. It is therefore surprising that her works do not display many of the qualities that we often associate with outsider art. Unlike Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, or Bill Traylor, she did not develop her own idiosyncratic imagery, did not use narrative to organize her artistic output, and did not rely on religion or a personal mythology to provide a subject matter. Instead, her works concentrated on formal manipulations with shapes and materials. The collages displayed at Kerry Schuss Gallery are variations of the same basic composition: a vase filled with flowers sitting on a tabletop. The shapes are constructed out of magazine cuttings and fragments of the original imagery – a picture of an oriental rug or a landscape, a schematic map of the country – are cleverly used to imitate forms, patterns and colors of pots and flowers. The lightness and ingenuity of these works suggest an artistic personality that is far different from the compulsive and brooding image of an outsider artist like Darger; they indicate a sunny and playful temperament, a pleasant if superficial sense of humor – and a highly ordered, methodical mind. There seems to be no particular reason behind Lusch’s choice of the floral motive – except that she might have liked flowers. But her obvious delight in exploring minute variations of this simple compositional scheme and her ability to find pleasure in working against self-imposed limitations mark her off as a Modernist among outsider artists.
But is it fair to talk about Modernism in relation to a few cut-outs made by an old woman who probably did not even know the meaning of the term? In traditional art criticism, an artist’s practice is viewed against a network of influences: we understand the work by placing it in an art historical context and tracing connections to the works of other artists who tackle similar problems. But is the notion of “influence” relevant to the discussion of self-taught art? Admittedly, even an outsider artist does not work in a vacuum: popular magazines, television and local museum exhibitions may be sources of information and inspiration. But even then, it seems problematic to talk about influence when there is little evidence of a self-conscious art-historical impulse on the part of the artist. As almost any American of her generation, Lusch must have know about Picasso and Jackson Pollock – but is it likely that she saw herself participating in the same artistic discourse as they did, working out similar problems?
In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent published in 1919, T. S. Eliot challenged the notion that artistic influence is unidirectional; he suggested that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” More recently, Mieke Bal has proposed a similar idea in her book Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. By analyzing contemporary works in relation to Baroque art, she showed that new images obliterate traditional images of old works and create their new versions, modifying our understanding of art history. Perhaps the notion of “reverse influence” may give us a better perspective on the practice of a self-taught artist like Lusch. Even though she worked in blissful ignorance of Modernist and Feminist art, and her collages were made based on different premises and in response to different pressures than those faced by “insider” artists, Lusch’s work may help us expand our narrow, art-world-centric frame of reference and discover new versions of both Modernism and Feminism.
Birdie Lusch: Collages at Kerry Schuss Gallery
On view from until June 29th, 2014
34 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
Open: 12 – 6pm Wednesday – Sunday
Article by Tatiana Istomina
Photography provided by the Gallery