Zoe Leonard’s Messages Strike Hard — and Cast a Spell

Zoe Leonard’s Messages Strike Hard — and Cast a Spell

In Kassel, Germany, as a participant in Documenta, she designed an installation for the one of that city’s venerable fine arts museum. She cleared a few galleries of everything but 18th-century pictures of women, and interspersed them with images of her own: 19 close-up photographs of female genitals, for which friends and lovers had served as models. With its cool but startling blend of aesthetics and politics, art history and autobiography, the piece was an instant landmark in queer feminist art.

It was also site-specific and probably era-specific, and impossible to reconstitute in its original form. Without some equivalent of its shock-effect gesture in the Whitney, there’s a danger that a visitor might miss the activist impulse in Ms. Leonard’s art, but it’s absolutely there.


“Wax Anatomical Model,” from 1990.

Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York

A series of 1990 photographs, shot in medical museums, of anatomical wax models of women, seems to have laid the groundwork for the Kassel piece. An installation of dozens of sewn fruit skins scattered across the gallery floor not only recalls Ms. Leonard’s 1995 solo but also her life at the time. She was a member of Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). She dedicated that show to the artist David Wojnarowicz, a close friend who had died of complications from AIDS in 1992.


“I Want a President,” 1992.

George Etheredge for The New York Times

In the year of his death, which was also a presidential election year, she produced her most flat-out polemical work, a 300-word anti-authoritarian statement, part manifesto, part embittered cri de coeur, demanding radical change. The original typewriter-written version, on a single sheet of onionskin paper with ink corrections, is in the retrospective. It begins: “I want a dyke for president,” and continues:

I want someone with no
health insurance and I want someone who grew
up in a place where the earth is so saturated
with toxic waste that they didn’t have a
choice about getting leukemia. I want a
president that had an abortion at sixteen and
I want a candidate who isn’t the lesser of two
evils and I want a president who lost their
last lover to aids, who still sees that in
their eyes every time they lay down to rest,
who held their lover in their arms and knew
they were dying.

Never published, the statement circulated in various forms over the years. Basically, “I Want a President” was a form of participatory public art, completed by being passed from hand-to-hand. Then in 2016 it went big time. In the run-up to the election it was posted billboard-size on the High Line, not far from the Whitney, and became a social media hit.

Ms. Leonard’s art often has a collaborative dimension. In a 1993 project with the filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, the sharing was direct. Ms. Dunye was working on a film called “Watermelon Woman,” partly about the life of a black lesbian Hollywood actress named Fae Richards, whose career had been thwarted by racism. Ms. Leonard created what amounted to an elaborate archival storyboard for the film, photo-documenting the actress’s life.

In fact, Fae Richards is an invented character. And, although her “life” is more than plausible, Ms. Leonard’s documentation of it, on display at the Whitney, is entirely staged. As a pictorial narrative — a film made from stills — the piece is a tour de force. It reveals this artist to be not only a gifted storyteller, but a virtuoso of photographic technology.

Some of that technology became obsolete even as Ms. Leonard was using it. And the idea of obsolescence — of the present slipping irretrievably into the past — haunts her recent work. A series of pictures called “The Analogue Portfolio,” dated 1998-2009 — and made with a now-discontinued dye-transfer process — records the facades of small storefront shops on the Lower East Side, and in countries she’s visited: Cuba, Mexico, Uganda. Many of the New York shops she shot a decade and more ago are now gone, wiped out by high rents and globalization. Chances are their equivalents elsewhere are too.

If Ms. Leonard has strong ideas or feelings about this, they aren’t spelled out in individual pictures. Her art isn’t expressive that way: the opposite, really. It sometimes suggests the point-and-shoot blankness of tourist photography. Evidence of her investment tends to lie in how she returns to a subject or theme.

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