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Originally published in San Francisco Art Institute Magazine, March 2001

Art Writing Conference with Keynote Speaker Libby Lumpkin

Keynote Lecture: August 11, 2001

Conference Dates: August 11-17

Keynote speaker for the 16th Annual SFAI Summer Art Writing Conference is noted essayist, critic, curator and educator Libby Lumpkin. Lumpkin addresses some of the most pertinent questions about contemporary art, artists and art making in her witty, informed and insightful -- and sometimes inflammatory -- writings. Her current designations include Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Assistant Curator of Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, Contributing Editor to Art Issues, and Founding Curator of the Bellagio Art Gallery. Previous keynote speakers have included art-world luminaries Roberta Smith, Peter Schjeldahl, Arthur C. Danto, Arlene Raven, and Herbert Muschamp.

Lumpkin says her writing is informed entirely by her responses to works of art. When she finds it difficult to understand why a work of art intrigues her, she's compelled to investigate the reasons behind it's efficacy. "Sometimes I wish the work could be explained by a preexisting theory, but I don't go into it theory-first ," Lumpkin jokes. She believes theories get in the way of noticing important developments. Teaching also inspires her writing, maintaining that the primary role of teaching institutions, and the hardest thing to accomplish, "is to teach the rules by which objects are going to work or not work, with the understanding that there are no rules about what works of art should look like."

A committed feminist, although she has been accused of being otherwise, Lumpkin believes feminism has proven restrictive and unyielding to change - one of the essential aspects of contemporary art. Feminist art has died, she says, "because institutional feminism thrives on weakness, not power. There is a new generation of interesting feminist artists, including Kara Walker, Sarah Morris, Lisa Yuskavage, Ingrid Calame and Rachel Neubauer, but institutional feminism has abandoned them because they rattle feminists' tea cups." (Lumpkin's keynote may feature SF -based Neubauer, whose work she believes implicitly reassesses Freudian psychology very differently than seen in the 70's and 80's.)

Lumpkin's writings on Conceptual Art have often been misunderstood. She insists that she doesn’t condemn the movement but only the fact that, after 30 years, the conceptual style is still assumed to take the virtuous high road. "The Marxist prejudice against material objects continues to prevail, along with the exhausted idea that conceptualism is an art of conscience," Lumpkin says. "I don’t think objects are a social evil. I buy art objects myself, I hang them on my wall, I take joy and enrichment from them every day. And I don't apologize for it."

Institutions seek to privilege the intellectual aspects of art, neglecting practical intelligence, says Lumpkin who would love to see the emphasis shift to theories of practice. However, "the written word is granted an authority that art objects are not." In a survey of artists throughout history, Lumpkin believes, "roughly 50 percent are theoretically inclined, one example being Gauguin, and the other 50 percent simply have their finger in the wind, someone like Cindy Sherman who just gets it right." For Lumpkin, however, it doesn't matter what the artist thinks, only the object is of consequence.

By Amy Berk