The following conversation between ARID Coeditor Andrea Polli and Libby Lumpkin, Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico and Curatorial Consultant of High Desert Test Sites, was conducted in 2013. Transcribed by Kevin Bott.
Andrea Polli: What got you initially involved in the High Desert Test Sites (HDTS)?
Libby Lumpkin: Andrea [Zittel] called and asked me if I would be involved. This was some two or three years ahead of the time it took place, which is, of course, how that goes—and I would say anything [she asks] I would want to be a part of, so I was very happy to make whatever small contribution I made to the overall massive effort that went into this project.
[It was] the first time that the locations were spread out beyond Joshua Tree—and I thought that was a really great idea. It ended in Albuquerque because this is where I am, so… Here’s what I like about Andrea: first of all, she seems to get the special character of the West—the vast spaces, the different kind of culture—and I consider Andrea a great artist, but also a visionary. A lot of the projects she supports really have nothing to do with her aesthetic particularly, but what she does seem to get—and I think the reason she got herself to Joshua Tree—is that this special character of the landscape in the West is different from other landscapes, and that means culturally as well as visually.
Now, the land artists certainly recognized the value of going into the Western states to create these broad works, works like nothing that had ever been seen before. History that utilized the vast landscapes as part of the art works. I’m talking, of course, about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and City, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater, and I would even stretch it over to Marfa, Texas. I think that Don Judd was one of the first to really recognize the special character of the landscape and how that interacted with his minimalist art. Oh, and also Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field of course!
The other part about the fact that I like her recognition—I mean, I see her whole project in Joshua Tree as recognition that the different culture and different landscape should and can generate different kinds of art. Certainly that’s true of the land arts. But it’s more than that—it’s more how you live as an artist and I think that’s keenly reflected in Andrea’s own art, in the kind of off-the-grid, compact-living, mobile aspects of her own works. They come right out of that isolation, but at the same time, there’s no desert, there’s no cacti [chuckles] depicted in her work. It’s the character of the weird, desert-rat feel, in this great crazy, Western world, that you can see in her work without actually seeing it. I’ve always appreciated that about her work, and the fact that she wants to generate that as a kind of community.
At the same time, this project is also to collect all these people along the way, and create a community as best as any community is going to be, out in the West. When I lived for a little bit of my childhood in Santa Angelo, Texas, it was like, well, you want to go see Sally on her ranch, you drove an hour across absolutely nothing, and thought nothing of it! It’s the question of being isolated and then trying to create a community of isolated people. Very different. Will something important come out of it? Well, maybe Andrea’s work is part of something important that’s come out of it. I’d say that it’s already happening. There has to be something more than land art.
When you think of the New York art scene, it is a very social scene. And by that I mean all the good and the bad, the collectors and the museums, and all of those things tightly wound into a very small square-foot area, and that kind of culture has produced amazing, amazing things. So whatever gets produced out West—let’s say you do have a community—and I say that community exists largely in the imagination. It’s not like we’re down at Max’s arguing about art theory all day, because it just can’t happen in the West—and indeed, even in Albuquerque.
I live, for example, in Santa Fe; sometimes that kind of communication is just a matter of understanding and knowing you live there, and what kind of person you are. I felt like it was not like the kind of group show that emerges out of a group of young artists, or the something that would happen out in New York, but a collection of individuals down the road. That’s really different! It’s a different way of thinking about art, and I think that whatever ultimately develops out West, it will be different from what develops in busy, urban populations. Something good is coming out of it—something great comes out of it—and Andrea’s goal is, as I understand it, to respect all of the crazy things that people do out in the desert [laughter].
I don’t think you could find an aesthetic connection between the works—maybe a few of them, but not all of them. The locations, like the telescope near Madrid, or the radio telescope outside of Socorro, I think they’re so great. I went up to do part of the project at the Titan Missile Site and Museum, which is south of Tucson—it was too far off the track to make it happen. It’s just what the desert does to you: The desert itself is an honest thing. I’ve always loved the desert Southwest because I feel like I’m connected to outer space [chuckle]. You’re so close to the stars, the moon, and the air is so thin, you feel like it’s a very special place. I can’t imagine that, over time, the desert won’t invoke visions that no one has imagined, or could have ever imagined, in Cologne, or Berlin, or New York.
AP: So what kinds of things did you hope would come out of this project, and what surprised you about it? How important to you is that drive, where there’s just nothing for miles? And how does that affect, as an art audience member, the reception of the work?
LL: What surprised me is that a lot of the work seemed more urban than different. A lot of the places we gravitated to were urban places, where art could develop. Of course, there were works that were thematically related to the desert, like Debbie Vaughan’s Trailer. But here, in Albuquerque, we had a big performance piece. I never associated performance art with the desert personality, but people loved it, and I loved it. I thought it was great.
AP: Sure, well Burning Man, I always associate performance art with the desert [laughter].
LL: Well, that’s my bad, because I haven’t been to Burning Man. It just sounds like such physical misery! Like, the dirt in your teeth and “Where’s the bathroom?” I’ll let the kids do that! Somehow, that’s not really my crowd. I appreciate that—that is a huge performance piece of itself, like a ritual. That’s also something I don’t really associate with the desert personality—and let me subtract Native American art from that—is the idea of ritual. It seems like ritual is a communal action, as the performance was here in Albuquerque very much so, I think. The performance piece here did seem ritualistic. I’m not sure it was about ritual per se, but in the way Jackson Pollock appropriated ritual, Native American sand painting into his drip paintings. He didn’t think of that until he was in New York [chuckles]. Somehow, I just see loners as not directed towards communal events, and I do think of loners out in the West.
AP: Were there a lot of pieces that expressed that loner identity?
LL: Actually, not so many. I anticipated more eccentricity. I think most of the pieces did have a sense of the urban aesthetic—really current trends. I think that’s fine, bringing those people together is a great idea, and honestly, outsider or true loner art tends to be burdened with conventions of its own kind. This was a beginning, and a very interesting one—you sort of collected people who knew about art and drove them out there, off the grid, to adobe huts or wherever to show their conceptual pieces. So that’s good in itself; it brings those people together. Will an aesthetic grow out of the Western states?
AP: Certainly we’re becoming more urbanized.
LL: You do have that element, but I still feel that there is an aesthetic that will grow out of the West. More like a cactus. I don’t know what it will look like, but I do like the fact that Andrea really is open to all kinds of different things.
AP: Is bringing that community together, as spread out as we are, a way to help make an aesthetic grow, just the way that it does elsewhere?
LL: I think any kind of communication does that, and also it’s really helpful for students, for them to see things that work out in very peculiar ways that they work out in the West. The resources are different. There’s no money, but there’s a lot of land. What can come out of that? Different things. Performance comes out of that, pretty easily, because you can have this attitude of “Knock yourself out, kids!” Money is problematic out West, [as is] making art in a collectors’ vacuum. Cultivating collectors out West is really hard. Galleries are few and far between. The desert develops a kind of toughness in you, certainly reflected in Andrea and her willful imposition of her vision in Joshua Tree, which is sort of a small miracle, frankly.
AP: Like Donald Judd in Marfa.
LL: Don Judd, yes. He had the benefit of the foundation [laughter]. Miss Moneybags. We need one of those in every little town. What a difference that would make! In the interim, who knows what grows out in the desert. I just feel like we’re a different culture out here. We shouldn’t try to be like the big, dense, urban communities. It’s really easy for artists—and in particular, with students—to fall into Southwestern clichés. That’s the tough one! That’s why you have to have these visionaries out there, to lead the way.
AP: Did you find that High Desert Test Site attracted collectors and museums?
LL: I think it certainly did, and I know there were quite a few applicants who are very deserving young artists who didn’t make the cut because they didn’t quite fit the vision for the project that Andrea had. I was really surprised at the eagerness of many, very reputable artists in L.A. and other places to be included. I’m sure they understand that what they’re doing just didn’t fit—in other words, they were “take it, plop it” kind of things. Andrea wanted more things that grew out of the desert culture. I think she achieved that, to a great deal. I don’t think I saw a unified aesthetic, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. If the Western states as a collective produces something we could all participate in, then I think that her method of “living it” and “cultivating it” and “supporting it” is a great start.
AP: Did you see certain trends emerge? You mentioned mobility and a couple of mobile projects. We talked a little bit about performance projects. What other types of trends did you notice?
LL: I hesitate to speculate on trends, but there were things that were impermanent—and that’s not unexpected. Lots of things focused on mobility, things that responded to the landscape, using materials, typically ephemeral ones. But that’s not unusual in an urban setting either. Some of them did use a dilapidated building, and we have lots of those to use in the West. It was more like artists were using very sophisticated, urban-derived forms, but responding to the Western landscape, in ways.
Andrea’s more willing to test various unusual proposals and other support systems in the West—primarily museums and things like that—absolutely. I’m just in awe of her and HDTS. She’s done most of this without a 503(c)(3)! She has this drive and this vision, and she just seems to say, “Come on, come with me, let’s go do something. Let’s go recognize where we are, who we are, and let’s make something of this.” She takes a look; she makes the space.
AP: Cool, so we can look for High Desert Test Sites in two years? Every couple years?
LL: That’s the plan. It’s a big project. I think they’ve learned a lot about just the amount of workload—so whether it’d be two years or three years, I do think they want to repeat it. Something like that could really grow; certainly give hope to a lot of artists who are longing for it.
AP: Do you think you’ll be involved again?
LL: If she asks me, I’ll be happy to. They’re having a kind of ramen-moon dinner, out at Joshua Tree. Everything in it involves food. Maybe they just want to look at the moon. That’s one thing you can count on in the West: you can see the moon.
AP: Do you think you’ll be writing about some of these pieces?
LL: I’d really like to. I’d like to write more about local things. There’s not a lot of editors calling me asking to write for them. But I feel like something’s about to break. You know how that is—in Idaho there’s “this” thing happening, and in Montana there’s “that” thing happening, and all of a sudden, everybody looks up like prairie dogs and realizes, Oh, you’re doing something too! We’re at that point where it will all coalesce into something. Certainly, all the works won’t look the same, but we’ll start to feel a culture, a contemporary culture.
AP: Sure, everybody has some urban sophistication, even if they’ve lived here all their lives. There’s so much travel and information moving around.
LL: Sure, maybe we’ll all just live out in our adobe huts and never talk to anyone again, but maybe we’ll find that next great artist living in their adobe hut. But there are a lot of pitfalls. It’s easy to fall into cliché and romantic traditions out here, so I guess the question is: Can you go howl at the moon and not make it a religious experience? And then you’d look around and notice, Oh, you howl at the moon too!
I don’t even know what to expect, but I know that Andrea’s done more than a lot to even imagine this culture of finding cohorts; to cross the miles and the distances. It’s like the Voyager leaving the solar system—“Hello from earth!”—and it’s like sending up some smoke signals and waiting to see who answers. I think there’s something beautiful about that, and something really unique about that. What I’ve seen—I haven’t seen all of the art out there—but what’s interesting is the urban art. They came out here because it’s pleasant to live out here and to do it. I’d like to see something that has a visceral connection to the landscape, that’s not land art. I think they’ve found some really interesting things, from people living in places like Magdalena [New Mexico]—like, “Okay, you want to make a pot of gumbo in Magdalena! Okay! Give me a bowl!” I’m very emotionally attached to the desert Southwest, in particular, so all that support is great. I’m here, who else is here?
AP: That’s fantastic. Is there anything else you want to add?
LL: You know, I feel really bad. There were some things that I didn’t get to see, and I really wanted to go do and see.
AP: And that’s what’s amazing, there were things that I wanted to go do and see too, that were all happening at the same time.
LL: I just thought it was great that it all ended next to the Octopus Car Wash in Albuquerque! That’s a fitting end to it, don’t you think?
See also: Trade Winds Sign Rally