Dressed all in black, Johnny Cash-style — black jacket, black pants, black shoes — Lynn Hershman Leeson stands in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ main gallery on a Friday morning, surrounded by a lifetime of her artwork.
“Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar” is the first major American retrospective for the 75-year-old, and many of the YBCA works have never been seen before. This seems odd, given Leeson’s stature as a pioneering San Francisco artist who’s delved provocatively into subjects of feminism, identity, and technology. What took so long?
It’s complicated, Leeson tells SF Weekly. Her outspokenness — and the fact she’s a woman — slowed down her career, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, when the San Francisco Chronicle virtually ignored her exhibits, and the paper’s art critic, Kenneth Baker, dismissed her art, she says. (Baker retired in 2015.)
Without buzz in her hometown, Leeson’s work didn’t get as much notice in the U.S. art market — even as Leeson was making a big name for herself in Europe, where plaudits were bountiful. In fact, “Civic Radar” emanated not at YBCA but at a German institution, the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, where, at three times the size of the YBCA show, it drew record numbers of visitors in 2014. Other European museums also hosted versions of “Civic Radar” before its arrival in San Francisco.
“I really feel that there was a certain group in the Bay Area where I was blacklisted,” Leeson says. Her list of prestigious honors includes a 2016 United States Artists fellowship and a 2009 Guggenheim fellowship, whose judges called Leeson “perhaps the most influential woman working in new media today.”
“The San Francisco Chronicle critic didn’t write about me since 1993,” she adds. “He refused to write about me. He would go to a show and write about everyone else. It was almost like a vendetta. So it was almost 25 years of no reviews. So when I had shows that were written about in Spain and Germany and not in the Bay Area, you get overlooked — and people don’t see your work, they don’t buy your work, I didn’t sell work in all those years.”
By email, Baker replies that, “I never had much to say … about Hershman’s work” that hadn’t been said adequately already by others.” He adds: “The art world is full of over-estimated artists and every critic has his/her own list of them. She just happens to be on mine. To say I ‘refused’ to write about her work is an angry way of noting that I declined to do so more often than not.”
Despite her criticism, Leeson quickly adds that, “I’m not bitter — I’m really happy,” because after the German opening of “Civic Radar,” “So much of the work has been sold now. It had never been seen before. Many famous museums are buying them all. … In May, I was so far in debt that I didn’t know what I was going to do. And for some great reason, works started to sell, and I’m out of debt with money in the bank for the first time, because of the repercussions of the reviews, and collectors and museums seeing the work, and buying it. I don’t know any other field where you can be as far in debt as I was and get out of it in two months.”
Leeson has sold so much of her work, including to the Museum of Modern Art, that she was able to get an apartment in New York, where she now spends about a week every month. She also has a studio for the first time in her life — a place at the newly opened Minnesota Street Project. Life, in other words, is good for Leeson. And on that recent Friday morning at the YBCA, when Leeson was standing with the YBCA’s Visual Arts director, Lucia Sanromán, it was really good, because Leeson was in the company of an admiring curator who calls Leeson “a woman artist who has been historically under-recognized, who has been a kind of seer of things to come in terms of the relationship society has to technology.” Sanromán took the original German show and refined it just for YBCA, but it still gives a seismic overview that shows how Leeson was way ahead of the artistic zeitgeist.
One example: In 1984, as part of an interactive videodisc work called Deep Contact, Leeson created the art-world touchscreen. Art-goers would press on images centered around “Marion,” a sexy woman who guides the work’s outcome. Want to be a voyeur? Deep Contact gives users that option, along with a lesson and warning about surveillance.
Also in 1984, Leeson unveiled the art world’s first interactive laser disc, called Lorna, where users could decide whether to have the woman commit suicide, move to Los Angeles, or shoot her television set. In 2004, Leeson brought out a new iteration of DiNA, an artificial intelligence bot that uses speech recognition and facial gestures (on the visage of actress Tilda Swinton, a frequent Leeson collaborator) to interact with users, ask them questions, and offer answers about abortion, religion, family life, and other subjects. All these pieces are at YBCA, along with Room of One’s Own, a 1993 work that uses surveillance cameras and a peephole to interact with users; Home Front: Cycles of Contention, from 2011, where Leeson situates video of a couple’s ongoing quarrel about intimacy and relationship roles into the small window of custom-made dollhouse; and other artwork that use technology in a simulating and stimulating way to raise questions about the way society treats women.
“I live in the Bay Area,” says Leeson, “and I wouldn’t have done this work in New York. In Hollywood, you breathe scripts. Here, you breathe these ideas for software. It’s a part of our time.”
Leeson’s artistic breakthrough may have been her monumental Roberta Breitmore series from 1973-78, where she donned a blonde wig, extra make-up, and other extravagancies to play another woman — going so far as to get a driver’s license for her made-up character, plus credit cards and an apartment. Through advertisements, Leeson met people who wanted to meet Breitmore, and YBCA has photos and video of Leeson’s transformation, along with collaged surveillance images of Breitmore’s rendezvous with a man in public.
Beyond Leeson’s museum and gallery work, she’s also a prolific director whose documentaries and feature films — including her 2011 work, !Women Art Revolution, and her newest work, Tania Libre, about Cuban activist-artist Tania Bruguera — have screened at international film festivals to solid reviews. !Women Art Revolution narrates the history of the feminist art movement — “Leeson’s fighting spirit is contagious,” The New York Times said in its review — through interviews she did over 40 years, when Leeson was living through her own highs and lows as she pushed for greater recognition of female artists.
Leeson has lost none of her zest, and she continues to question curators’ and critics’ choices, sending off letters and emails that offer opinions and fact-checks. In December 2015, the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s chief curator, Renny Pritikin, wrote — in a private email he accidentally sent to her — that Leeson was full of “egomania.” He was responding to Leeson’s complaint that a CJM exhibit about art and technology had left out important female artists from Leeson’s own generation. In the email, Pritikin said he was “afraid that being an adult with her won’t help.”
“This is the tip of the iceberg. I am not paranoid,” Leeson tells SF Weekly. “These things really happened not only to me but to many women — like Elizabeth Warren. They want you to sit down and not to talk.”
(SF Weekly contacted the Contemporary Jewish Museum for a response, but a CJM representative did not provide one by deadline.)
Besides the exhibit at YBCA exhibit, which is also screening Leeson’s films in March and featuring her in a March 15 talk with Eleanor Coppola, Leeson’s work is currently on view at her longtime San Francisco gallery, Anglim Gilbert, and in New York at Bridget Donahue Gallery. She’ll be at New York’s MoMA with Tania Bruguera on Feb. 27 for a screening of Tania Libre. Leeson’s schedule is as packed as it ever was. Being recognized at YBCA, she says, is special.
“It’s a glorious ending to those three decades of real pain and invisibility, and there was nothing I could even do about it,” she says. “Coming out of the free-speech movement, and the silencing, I just feel so grateful to Lucia, who took the chance to do this show, to all the people who supported me all those years. It’s great. People say, ‘Why didn’t it happen earlier?’
I don’t know. But it happened. And maybe it will happen for the next generation — that’s also important — who don’t have to be silenced in a way that my generation was.”
“Civic Radar” features early works from the 1960s that incorporate Leeson’s own voice. As she was previewing the YBCA exhibit for arts journalists, she had to speak over her own recorded timbre. It was Leeson echoed and magnified, again and again and again — as if “Civic Radar” were making sure that Leeson’s voice would never be muffled.
Lynn Hershman Leeson: Civic Radar, through May 21, at YBCA, 701 Mission St., $8-$10.
415-978-2787 or ybca.org.