Suzanne Lacy - Biography and Legacy
American Performance Artist
Biography of Suzanne Lacy
Suzanne Lacy was the first of three children born to Larry and Betty Little Lacy in Wasco, California in 1945. She described her father's heritage as "a very poor Tennessee hillbilly environment," while her mother was white Canadian Scottish. Larry had a military background and flew bombing raids over Germany during the World War II before becoming an insurance salesman. Betty worked as a clerk in a gas company. Suzanne's brother Philip was born in 1947 and sister Jean in 1962.
From a very young age, Lacy had a heightened conscience, stating "I was interested in social issues as a child. At first, it was homeless and hungry cats, but after five I began to understand, in some primitive way, injustice." She read magazines and was interested in the Salem Witch trials. She would come to learn that women were not seen as equals to men and that Jewish people and the black community were badly treated.
In 1963, Lacy became the first in her family to seek further education when she enrolled at Bakersfield Community College. She excelled, winning a scholarship to the University of California in Santa Barbara in 1965. There, she obtained a degree in zoology while also studying art and modern dance. Her initial intent was to train as a medical doctor, specializing in psychiatry, and she went on to study psychology as a postgraduate.
In 1968, she joined Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) where she started to become politically engaged. She found great inspiration in the Civil Rights Movement dealing with class inequality. She recalls, "We were concerned with how working-class boys were sent to Vietnam and how farmworkers in the Central Valley were being mistreated."
Lacy's experience as a female growing up amongst the Californian counterculture of the time shaped her beliefs. She would continue on to Fresno State College to further her studies in psychology and while there gained a reputation as "that angry woman." According to her, "I suspect I was quite formulated by that moment in ways that have lasted: my relationship to my body and to physicality, my commitment to social change, equity, my lifelong interest in cross-cultural friendships, understanding difference, my general resistance to tradition. I can't say that I've come to reject much of that at all."
It was at Fresno that she met artist Faith Wilding with whom she felt an instant connection. Lacy says, "She was probably the only other person at Fresno that knew anything about feminism. We proceeded one day to stick up signs all over campus saying, 'Feminist meeting tonight.' There must have been over thirty or forty women who showed up. Faith and I sat there dumbfounded and looked at each other and said, 'What do we do now?' We did what has become, I think, a kind of strategy. We began talking about sex." Together the pair started organizing groups to discuss women's liberation.
In 1970, the artist Judy Chicago arrived at the school to teach art and sculpture and began to build the seminal Feminist Art Program. But when Lacy tried to join she was rejected because of her lack of artistic background. Lacy recalled, "[Chicago] said, 'You are on the career track for psychology, and I'm only interested in working with women who will become professional artists.' I didn't know what on earth she was talking about, but I did know I really wanted to be in that program. So Faith and I proceeded for the next several months to strategize how to get me into the program, which we eventually succeeded in doing...I love to tease Judy now, because I'm probably one of the most successful of the artists from that time, along with Faith. We've always teased her about what bad judgment of character she has."
When the Feminist Art Program transitioned to the California Institute for the Arts in 1971, Lacy followed. She worked as a teaching assistant to artist Sheila de Bretteville and studied with Performance artist Allan Kaprow. Inspired, she began producing her own unique brand of what she called "new genre public art," utilizing a mixed media smorgasbord of visual art, film, performance, installation, public practice, and writing. As biographer and art historian Sharon Irish said, "This variety indicates her ceaseless experimentation and challenges her critics and audiences both in labeling her art and in knowing what to expect with each new work."
Yet regardless of medium, Lacy's intentions toward affecting real social change would sit forefront in all of her burgeoning art and activist endeavors. For one early effort, which was inspired by the late '70s Hillside Strangler murders and other acts of violence against women, Lacy and Leslie Labowitz set up the woman's network Ariadne, a group that brought together women in the arts, media, and government to promote feminist issues and act as a voice for the underrepresented.
Achieving recognition as a female artist in the 1970s was no simple feat. Lacy met with all the usual gender discrimination, saying, "People don't always recognize what it was like then, particularly given that there are so many women in the art world now. While there's still a lot of discrimination (men's art prices are higher, they are better recognized, etc.), at that time there were very few women at all recognized or exhibited." Much of Lacy's work was produced in collaboration with other female artists, at times attracting aggression. On one occasion, as she performed with Chicago and Wilding, she uttered something so provocative to one of the men in the audience that he jumped up on stage and tried to strangle her.
This devout feminism enhanced by perpetual curiosity, and a mission to exhaustively research, analyze, and present the results of her never-ending lust for aiding activism and social justice efforts within our society dominates Lacy's public persona. Not much is known, or written about, her social or personal life as she has continued to travel widely for her work, both inside the United States and internationally to places as varied as Vancouver, Canada to the United Kingdom to Quito, Equador. She says, "I just go where I am invited, and where I will learn something. I like traveling and working in a place different to the one I grew up in. I am quite curious about new environments and people."
Because the nature of her work is typically performance-based, Lacy's pieces cannot be archived in the traditional sense. This has resulted in a lack of solid documentation representing her oeuvre. But the connections she has fostered and relationships she has built are timeless. Through these associations, she has sought to leave a legacy for Feminist artists such as the work she did in her early role as a cofounder of the Women's Building, the center of study and activism for women artists that grew out of the Feminist Studio Workshop, established in 1973 by Chicago, Arlene Raven and Levrant de Bretteville. For her 1979 work International Dinner Party, a tribute to Chicago's legendary The Dinner Party (1979), Lacy organized more than 200 women to host dinners worldwide, including artists Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, and Louise Bourgeois.
Although Lacy has found critical international recognition for her work, it has not been a lucrative career. As Sharon Irish said, "Lacy made substantial sacrifices in terms of opportunities, income and fame." Her works - often expensive and complicated to organize - have been largely funded through foundations and corporations, leaving her without a straight-forward commodity to sell to a collector or gallery per se. As such, she has consistently supplemented her income through teaching, arts administration, and critical theoretical writings on her art, her process, and art's place in social change.
Lacy's artistic practice continues to thrive and influence the next generation. A recent project titled "School for Revolutionary Girls" orchestrated at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin saw Lacy working with twenty teenage girls over a ten-day period. The "workshop" had the young women explore their own relationship to the 1916 rising of the Irish Revolution and its connection to their own lives growing up as females in contemporary times. After the consciousness-raising process, the girls presented their own "manifesto," for some the first endeavor at practicing, and experiencing the power, of their own "public" voices.
The Legacy of Suzanne Lacy
In 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts simultaneously presented the first full retrospective of the artist's 50-year career. Titled Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here, the exhibition was, in her own words, "reactivated" for a contemporary audience. The curators explained, "Her work resonates very much with our current times - given her focus on issues such as the rights of women, the role of media in criminalizing youth of color, the importance of dialogue across divides of gender, age, race and class - these are of central importance everywhere today, including in museums, and we expect it will continue to resonate for the foreseeable future." As art historian Bridget Quinn pointed out, it is a "somewhat depressing commentary on social progress" that Lacy's work is still so relevant today.
After visiting the retrospective, Quinn described, "Maybe it's coincidence, but the further into the exhibition I went - passing pieces on animal cruelty, aging, plastic surgery, rape, and other forms of violence against women - the fewer people were with me. By the time I reached the back wall, only two other women were still looking. One said, 'Let's change, Joyce. This is dealing with some very heavy subjects,' and they went back the way we came."
The power of Lacy's work has undoubtedly been in its ability to effect real social change. For example, her works focused on sexual violence in the 1970s helped end societal silence toward acknowledging rape and improve police response. The feminist art historian Moira Roth has discussed Lacy's impact in terms of her status as both "witch" - the messenger who highlights taboo subjects which otherwise would not be spoken - and "shaman" - a figure standing at the center of society, observing in order to hold benign healing space.
Lacy's reach can be seen in the work of a new generation of politically engaged artists such as activist artist Eric Millican, performance artist Cindy Rehm, and painter and sculptor Mabel Moore.