Lee Lozano: Untitled, 1962, oil on canvas on wood in artist’s frame, 2½ by 7 inches; at Karma.

Lee Lozano’s name is inextricable from her caustic personality and the series of radical performative acts she carried out after a decade as a painter. Among the most notorious of those acts are the “boycott” of women she began in 1971 and—her pièce de résistance—Dropout Piece (1970–99), in which she went into gradual self-imposed exile, refusing to attend gallery openings, visit museums, and speak to anyone in the arts (except, perhaps, in private meetings held in her SoHo loft). Some argue that the final “gesture” of Dropout Piece was Lozano’s interment, upon her death in 1999 at age sixty-eight, in an unmarked grave outside of Dallas. 

The recent exhibition at Karma offered an important and illuminating look at Lozano’s rarely seen early work, from around 1962, the year before she began her famous “Tool” paintings, which launched her career and consist of large expressionistic depictions of hammers, wrenches, screws, and the like. The paintings here (all untitled) can be read as studies made on the path toward her mature work: fighter planes, vampiric mouths, phalluses, and body parts foreshadow the violent, brash utility that would soon explode in the “Tools.” 

The first painting one encountered was a friezelike piece that measures just over two inches high and fifteen inches long. The composition shows a yellow fighter plane nosediving over a cluster of forms evoking boulders and, zooming in from the right edge, a shadowy torpedo-esque shape; the background is a dirty olive green. Lozano created a handmade wooden frame for this painting, as she did for most of the works on view—a presentation strategy that suggests an early industriousness, an eagerness toward professionalism that Lozano would, by the end of the decade, abandon.  

In another painting, a pink breast floats at the left edge of the canvas, while, at center, an oblong green face with a long white flaccid proboscis is tucked under what seems to be a midcentury bench with elegantly curved legs. A black check mark appears at the top of the composition and runs onto the white-painted frame. This tiny act of defacement serves as a subtle harbinger of Lozano’s move toward more fully eschewing painterly decorum.

In spite of such glimpses of rebellion, the works are largely tradition-bound and convey, due in part to their diminutive scale, a sense of tentativeness. A miniature landscape (measuring 3¼ by 2¾ inches) features a fleshy slab punctured by a wooden stake and topped with three crosses; beside it hovers a red-lipped grinning mouth. Masters of anxiety like James Ensor and Philip Guston are summoned forth in the toothy grins, grotesque faces, skulls, and cartoonish, anthropomorphized objects that populate much of the works on view. 

In 1962 Leo Steinberg wrote that “it takes about seven years for a young artist to turn from enfant terrible to elder statesmen.” By 1969, Lozano had entered the citadel of Conceptual art and was already planning her exit from it; that year, she began General Strike Piece, in which she documented her final visits to galleries and museums, laying the foundation for her total withdrawal. The reasons behind Lozano’s break with the art world are many and speculative, but the agitated tone of the early ’60s paintings suggests what was to come.