Editor’s Note: The following text has been excerpted with permission and adapted from Stuff: Instead of a Memoir by Lucy Lippard, published by New Village Press on September 12 and available online and in bookstores. The book launch will be held at 6pm on September 12 at Collected Works in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as live-streamed.
In the fall of 1958, a few months after college graduation, I had the good fortune to land a job in the library at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) right after a major fire — not the glamorous art gallery spot I’d had in mind (I couldn’t type fast and wasn’t pretty or polite enough to be a gallery gal) but a far better opportunity. For a whopping $45 per week full-time, I got to reshelve all the library’s books, an education in itself, as was my regular job filing ephemera and indexing periodicals. Bernard Karpel, the learned and avuncular MoMA librarian, a Dada aficionado like me, encouraged me to get a library degree. (Marcel Duchamp once told Karpel that he should have been the Dada and Duchamp the librarian.) But I was determined to be a writer.
I’d been awarded the Mary Augusta Jordan medal for creative writing at college graduation and I wanted to write fiction and novels. Never happened. I couldn’t write the kind of fiction I like to read: real narratives, with real characters. But my first year in the city, I religiously rose early before work and wrote what I considered commercial fiction, which was supposed to support me while I wrote serious stuff. I acquired standard rejection notices from Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and the New Yorker, among others.
Books are my favorite form, though they are incredibly unlucrative. My other mentor at MoMA was Bill Lieberman, curator of Prints and Drawings (later at The Met), along with his elegant assistant Elaine Johnson, who became an unlikely close friend. Bill passed on to me projects he didn’t want, so my first real book was The Prints and Drawings of Philip Evergood (1966). Prophetically, for me personally, Evergood was a determined Communist well after the 1930s. I also did research and some French translations and interpreting. My next book, Pop Art (1966), was commissioned by the owner of Arts magazine. I recruited Lawrence Alloway, Nicolas Calas, and Nancy Marmer to cover different aspects and regions. Jim Rosenquist, a pal, made a neon piece especially for the cover. I never profited from this book, but someone must have, as it was translated into several languages. In 1970 I published Surrealists on Art, and the next year, Dadas on Art, both with my mother’s help translating from the French. I paid homage to my art historical favorites and then left them behind. By that time, I’d thrown in my lot with living artists, from whom I have learned most of what I know about art. But MoMA was under the illusion I would hang in for a museum career and they paid for classes at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts in the Doris Duke Mansion on East 78th Street, quite a contrast to my Lower East Side digs on Avenue D.
At some point in those late 1950s, Lower East Side Beat Generation, or proto-countercultural days, I met an artist named Judy Gerowitz, whose then-husband was a writer. I often welcomed him into the library so he could enter the museum without paying. Over a decade later, as Judy Chicago, she was a founder of the US feminist movement, and we became co-conspirators. In the summer of 1960, I quit the MoMA job (the only real job I’ve ever had, thanks to my early acknowledgment of an authority problem) and went to Florence for an art historical intensive led by H.W. Janson — via Paris, where I hung out with artist Steve Rosenthal. I came home to freelance for various departments at MoMA.
I had some mind-blowing experiences while I was working at MoMA. Once I was looking at a drawing of Marcel Duchamp hanging in the basement gallery, looked up, and beside me was the real Marcel. Then at some point I was sent to deliver something to him over on the far east side. The label on the bell read Duchamp, Ernst, Matisse, enough to send an art freak into ecstasy. I went tearing up the stairs when admitted. “How did you get here so fast?” asked Duchamp when he opened the door. I was invited in. There were masterpieces on the floor, leaning against the wall.
I got to interpret from French (badly) for Joan Miró and Jean Tinguely. When Miró came into a room of his show at MoMA as it was being installed, he pointed to The Farm, which he hadn’t seen in decades: “J’ai fait ca, moi!” he said with childlike glee. I worked with Max Ernst, whose English was much better than my French. He was old but still seductive, with bright twinkling blue eyes. He took me out for a drink and told the waitress, “The lady will have a Blooody Maaary,” making it a whole new and sexy beverage.
My graduate school advisor was the deadpan so-called “primitive art” historian Robert Goldwater, whose wife, the artist Louise Bourgeois, was later to become a friend and inspiration. Institute students were not allowed to work for a living, as it distracted from studies (assuming class superiority and financial support). Goldwater busted me working in the MoMA Library. I told him if I didn’t work I didn’t eat, that I was living with an artist and so was he, so he should know the economics. He concurred with a wry smile. (I told the story years later at his funeral, where Louise had signed me up to speak … without warning me.) In February 1962 I received my MA in Art History with a thesis on Max Ernst, ignoring suggestions that I should go on to a PhD. I wasn’t headed for academia, and art writing was taking over as fiction ambitions faded.
It was a later adversary, Hilton Kramer, then editor of Arts Magazine, who gave me very good advice in 1958 when I prematurely submitted some sappy reviews. He said I wrote well but should wait till I’d spent a season in the art world, discouraging me from writing about art until I knew what I was doing. A decade or so later Kramer, a conservative, wrote that I could have been a really good art historian but I “fell prey to the radical whirlwind.” And I did indeed.