On Thursday, Catherine B. Lord ’71—a visual artist, writer, curator, and intellectual focusing on queer theory, feminist history, and colonialism—will receive the Spring 2010 Harvard Arts Medal. Within a matter of days she will publish an article arguing that Valerie Solanas, better known as the woman who tried to assassinate Andy Warhol in 1968, should be taken more seriously as a voice in the feminist movement.
The controversial piece is characteristic of Lord’s style. Her oeuvre is polemical, iconoclastic, and highly visceral. The exhibitions she has curated, with titles like “Pervert,” “Trash,” and “Gender, fucked” appropriate and subvert the language used to marginalize lesbians and other groups. “The Summer of Her Baldness: A Cancer Improvisation” is challenging in both form and content. A collection of images, e-mails, and journal entries, it is a breed of memoir about Lord’s experiences with breast cancer, but also a treatise on gender, language, and the culture of serious illness.
Although controversy stands out in a cursory examination of Lord’s work, a closer look reveals an inventive and nuanced thinker. Despite Lord’s concern with radicalism—in her own words, an interest in “different kinds of margins”—her work still boasts broad relevance and appeal.
Born in Dominica to multicultural parents, Lord boasts an international background and a slew of accomplishments within the U.S. Since receiving her Master of Fine Arts, Lord has traveled between the country’s universities and foundations for the past 40 years, accumulating fellowships and professorships almost continuously—including one from the Andy Warhol Foundation. Her visual art has been shown at various venues, including the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center; her writings have been published in numerous artistic journals. Currently she holds a position as a professor of Studio Art and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
The selection panel favored Lord for the interdisciplinary nature of her career—which, in their view, is emblematic of the modern artist. “I love the way she approaches art,” says Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art and a member of the selection panel for the Arts Medal this spring. “She does so from the position of someone who makes art herself, from the position of someone deeply immersed in the history of ideas or the history of theory, and she is also an extraordinary writer. She has a beautiful facility with language, and she has a way of writing that comes from a deeply personal place that never feels diaristic or narcissistic.” Molesworth gained personal experience working with Lord when the two taught an undergraduate seminar.
It is perhaps unsurprising that someone who studies sexuality is a master at deriving conceptual arguments from highly personal topics, and nowhere is this clearer than in “The Summer of Her Baldness.”
“I think there’s this thread of idiosyncracy and personal inflection in what I write. What’s important to me is to confuse that. Some people define things as either personal or political, and I’d rather taint either side of that with the other. People have politics. Politics inform people, and then they live their lives differently. People often react to ‘Her Baldness’ as a highly personal thing,” Lord says, stressing that such a view misrepresents the book’s aims. “But,” she adds, “something happens when you write down that stuff. It becomes something that’s outside of you. You put things into a form, and the form begins to have its own integrity.”
Indeed, Lord is an intellectual at heart and if anything, she seems slightly uncomfortable that her work has been controversial. Her most recent project is a survey text called “Art and Queer Culture: 1885-2005,” on which she collaborated with her colleague Richard Meyer, Associate Professor of Art History and Fine Arts at the University of Southern California. “Art and Queer Culture” was born from a failed attempt by the pair to curate a show on that topic. The idea originated from their work together on another exhibition about art and feminism.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we do a queer show?’” Lord said. “We made a proposal and sent it off to the obvious museums—museums I won’t name here, but that have demonstrated their dedication to contemporary art. Museums where we have connections. There was a resounding silence, if that’s possible.” Lord demurred about whether the subject matter was the cause of the show’s failure.
Meyer is more explicit about the controversial aspects of Lord’s work. “Even today,” he says, “most American art museums would shy away from a show focused on queer culture. Museum trustees and directors, especially behind closed doors, remain fairly conservative and risk-averse.”
Meyer and Lord have disagreed before. “We had a pretty extreme difference of opinion about Valerie Solanas,” he says. “I felt that Catherine was idealizing a woman whose writing was incredible but whose actions were indefensible,” he says, adding that “Catherine saw Solanas’ ‘SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto’ as an indelible representation of feminist rage and lesbian revenge, and I saw it as, well, scary.”
Lord was quick to qualify the criticisms from Meyer and others levelled at her work on Solanas. “I don’t think it’s right to shoot people, unless you really, really have to,” she says. “But nonetheless I think it’s important to come up with a reading of [Solanas’ manifesto]. There are a lot of guys who shot people or strangled their wives or knifed them to death, and they continue to be taken seriously. I’m really not condoning that.”
At her acceptance ceremony, Lord will discuss her less controversial current work, a “text/image project” inspired by a group of commonplace books from the Caribbean. The book does not push a particular argument, but rather reflects Lord’s personal interests. “It’s a matter of combining things that I’m actually interested in. I’m really interested in plants, you know? I’m really interested in food, and its relation to taste literally. I’m interested in bad paintings. I love photographing paper. I like being outside. All of this stuff is actually my life.”
Lord does not see this move as a step down from her previous work. “To sound utterly cliché about it, you have to trust what you’re interested in,” she says.
Lord will receive the Spring 2010 Harvard Arts Medal at the New College Theatre on Thursday, April 29.
—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: April 28, 2010
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the Apr. 27 arts article "Spring 2010 Harvard Arts Medalist" stated that Catherine B. Lord '71 was born in the Dominican Republic. In fact, she was born in Dominica.