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Working Towards a World: Lutz Bacher (1943 – 2019)

The poet Kevin Killian remembers the artist’s ‘knowing, malicious but ultimately magical gaze’

Our encounters with the extraordinary woman who called herself by the pseudonym Lutz Bacher (1943-2019) were, from the first sighting, of someone who might never contain herself to expectations. She was a bit older than my partner, the novelist and essayist Dodie Bellamy, and I were, and we ourselves were not really young in the Bay Area art scene of the late 1980s. She was settled and well-off in a way we would never be. Maybe in every American city there’s a handful of disarming people, detached from any gallery scene, that one thoughtlessly referred to as ‘non-profit artists’, people who made work tirelessly and got it placed on auctions for artist-run spaces. The Lab in San Francisco, the late revered New Langton Arts, Intersection—with these, an artist didn’t need to sell work to live. (Though a day job might have helped.) You met Lutz’s husband, who called her ‘Susan’ without any sense of revealing her secret every time he opened his mouth. The husband was an astronomer who studied black holes, at UC Berkeley – was his name Herbert? No, it was Don. And the two of them lived in one of those charming twisty houses high in the Berkeley hills, almost prelapsarian in comfort like the wee house of Mr. Tumnus in Narnia (see The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)). Not that it ever snowed in Berkeley that I recall, but when you were with them there was an Alpine sense of comfort and rightness, everything in its place. It was the perfect place to have Thanksgiving in, maple polished, candles gleaming. And they were in love; it was cute. They lived on Euclid Avenue, so perfect because if I know anything about Euclid, they were mathematical.

Circus of Books. Courtesy and photograph: Rachel Mason

But Lutz had a southern life as well as an Alpine one, and she told us about her teaching practice at the University of California, Los Angeles. With a student or two as a guide, she visited the legendary Circus of Books in Silverlake and pawed through its assorted porn books, magazines and tapes. She bought a number of novels featuring Southern California wife swapping and swinging, illustrated by black and white photos that were X-rated in nature. There’s a new documentary about the Circus of Books that amusingly portrays the mom and pop owners as a couple who could tell you what sex acts were in what film, and yet had never actually seen any of their blue movies or read the books and magazines. But the place operated as sort of a gay sex club, one with a heterosexual frenzy that Lutz appropriated for her series ‘Sex with Strangers’ (1986).

She was frequently in the southland, where she had her own style. When I directed myself and Hermosa Beach’s own Raymond Pettibon at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) to act out a number of his un-filmed genre scripts, every performance was packed with LA-based art stars and, often, their students sitting in clumps around them: Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Lutz, too, classy and with designer flare like Candice Bergen in Rich and Famous (1981), with big Joan Didion shades on, as though disguised as a Hollywood wife.

Dodie and she hit it off in some strange way and, preparing the huge paintings that were to make up her appropriative homage to pin-up illustrator Alberto Vargas, ‘Playboys’ (1991-93), Lutz engaged Dodie to write a text to accompany it. Somehow no fee was mentioned, but by this time Dodie and I were in a crowing mood, certain that no artist was ever going to give any writer enough money to make it worthwhile. Lutz, who liked a bargain, agreed.  Although no book ever emerged from the ‘Playboys’ show, neither at New Langton Arts or later, as the galleries of Colin de Land and Pat Hearn caught Lutz fever and ran with it, Dodie wound up with a small painting from ‘Sex with Strangers’, for Lutz had sold so few of them that they were piled up in a shed in the backyard at Euclid and Cedar.

Lutz Bacher, Playboy Pumpkin, 1992, acrylic and silkscreen on canvas, 112 × 91 cm. Courtesy: Greene Naftali, New York and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York

We have had this strange souvenir since when? The 1990s, I guess, maybe 1992? The one we have depicts a Southern California girl crouching under a stone wall, fellating a David Hemmings lookalike under a huge, falling bouffant, while behind her a second stud’s hairy, Tumnus’s long arms steady her hair like Warren Beatty in Shampoo (1975). And underneath, the sober caption reads ‘Unfortunately, some hitchhikers are not able to detect the signals of the disturbed personality until it is too late.’ But who was the hitchhiker, who the disturbed personality? When Dodie’s mother came to visit us from Hammond, Indiana that was the one picture we had to remember to turn to the wall, and slip off its hook and cover it in an oven mitt, for surely Winnie Bellamy had never been exposed to actual raw sex? The picture is the smallest size, only 18 by 25cm: you could hide it in a big Kleenex box. Mrs. Bellamy died in 2007, and Lutz Bacher this week, and now both of them lie hidden from us – the north of them, the south of them, the heat of them, the chill of them.

Lutz Bacher, ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’, 2018, installation view, K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; photograph: Achim Kukulies

Dodie’s ‘Playboys’ text survives as a chapter in her epistolary novel The Letters of Mina Harker (1998). Lutz makes an appearance in it, captured at the ripening of her powers, right before she became famous – her delicious grin, her love of fabric, her knowing, malicious but ultimately magical gaze. I speak of it as an Aleister Crowley acolyte. I quote, but you should read the whole chapter:

Lutz leaves a message on my phone machine meet me at the Best Western, 9th and Harrison—Saturday between two and four. When Sing and I arrive, Lutz in gold sunglasses is stretched out on a plastic chaise lounge beside a swimming pool littered with algae and leaves. Her husband is across the parking lot in a station wagon and Sing jokes that’s a good place for a husband. Lutz smirks and points to a row of identical turquoise doors, “Go on up to room 202 it’s open.” We climb the concrete stairs, enter a coordinated cube of beige salmon teal, pastel cityscape above bed of blond veneer a space where the most elementary distinctions are constituted but also threaten to break down a muffled voice from the bathroom draws us in eerie flicker across white and blue tiled walls we pass the shower and face the toilet: seated upon it is a video monitor and inside the tube is a person, a looped tape of William Kennedy Smith on the witness stand: “I uh did have my penis” grimace “I uh did have my penis” grimace “I uh did have my penis” grimace “I uh did have my penis” grimace “I uh …” Professor Brian O’Blivion all over again the scent of lysol overlays his well-scrubbed charm … I think of operating rooms, of rubber-gloved specialists inserting video cameras up women’s vaginas blobby pink hot spot—not rape but technical difficulties, lubricate the nozzle

In ankle-strapped pumps of plum velvet Lilith handles filth manipulates waste buries placentas and burns the cauls of newborn babies for good luck she makes partial objects useful, puts them back into circulation, “I’m working toward a world where kitsch can masturbate itself.”

Main image: Lutz Bacher, The Silence of the Whale, 2016, installation view at Galerie Buchholz, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York

Kevin Killian is a poet, playwright, novelist and art writer. For Ratio 3 in San Francisco, he and artist Colter Jacobsen recently curated a retrospective of the short-lived Mission District gallery Kiki (1993-1995), reuniting Nayland Blake, Vincent Fecteau, Lutz Bacher, Catherine Opie, Keith Mayerson, Chris Johanson, D-L Alvarez and others whose careers began at the lowest-rent space in all of the Bay Area during the reign of AIDS.

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