With a museum director dad (Glenn Lowry, director of The Museum of Modern Art), Alexis Lowry spent all of her childhood free time visiting museums and galleries, being taught to analyze and appreciate art. Many kids might have gotten bored of the art world, but Lowry caught her dad’s bug instead. After falling in love with minimalist art from the 1960s and ’70s at age 10(!), it was all over for Lowry. She studied art history at NYU, then landed as a curator at the Dia Art Foundation, which focuses on minimalism, conceptual art, and post-minimalism from the 1960s and ’70s. So when you visit her “Kishio Suga” show at Dia:Chelsea (and you should), appreciate that it all started with a 10-year-old’s keen eye. Lowry talked to us about the show, her childhood, and getting lost at The Met.
What Should We Do: Tell us about the “Kishio Suga” exhibit. And how do you pronounce his last name?
Alexis Lowry: It’s “Soo-ga,” although my autocorrect really wants it to be “sugar.” A lot of embarrassing emails have been sent this year! Jessica Morgan [director of the Dia Art Foundation] and I were interested in thinking about artists who are intellectually and historically related to the period of Dia’s collection. Our collection is centered on mostly American art with some European art, so we wanted to think more broadly about what was happening on a more international scope. We were interested in Mono-ha, which was an artistic movement that emerged in the late ’60s in Japan, around the same time as post-minimalism in the United States. And Suga is one of the most interesting voices within the Mono-ha movement. He makes sculpture with a reductive visual strategy, bringing together Buddhism and philosophy and phenomenology, in particular. He’s never had a show at a museum in the United States, so it seemed like a great opportunity to introduce him to our audiences.
WSWD: In general, how do people react to “reductive visual strategies”? Is it a harder sell than other forms of art?
Lowry: I think it is on paper, but when people actually come into our gallery, it’s not. So much of the work demands that you engage with it physically. It’s a full-body experience, so to speak. In many ways it’s actually more accessible than some forms of really abstract painting or even figurative art that can have really poignant meanings because it’s open-ended in that way. It’s really accessible to people of all ages precisely because it’s something that’s grounded in your own body. So I find that the second we get people in the door they almost immediately understand it or get it in some capacity.
WSWD: Which is why this type of art lends itself so well to site-specific installations.
Lowry: Yeah, absolutely. We currently have a project, for example, in Puerto Rico [near Ponce] that we did with the artists Allora & Calzadilla. They installed a historical sculpture from our collection called Puerto Rican Light by Dan Flavin in a really beautiful cave in southern Puerto Rico. It requires an elaborate hike through several ecosystems to get into this cave. The installation has been reconfigured to use solar power, so it’s the idea that Puerto Rican Light is actually powered by Puerto Rican light. It looks at power relations and the economic condition of Puerto Rico right now and the legacy of land use in that region. It closes this September, so people should go to Puerto Rico now.
WSWD: So cool! There haven’t been any large-scale, site-specific installations in New York City since 2005’s The Gates in Central Park by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Are we due for something new?
Lowry: It’s true, The Gates was the last really, really big one, although Creative Time and the Public Art Fund do elaborate, temporary events [like Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety] in the city. But, you know, it’s much more difficult in the five boroughs to find the time and the space and the resources. That being said, Dia has site-specific projects in the city that have been on view since the ’70s that we still maintain, so there is work to be seen that is there in perpetuity and there are great surprises. The New York Earth Room and the The Broken Kilometer in SoHo, for example, are two hidden gems of really ambitious site-specific art that have been on view since ’77 and ’79. You feel completely transported into a totally different world when you are in those spaces.
WSWD: Your childhood was steeped in art. What were your favorite museums, artists, or favorite artistic experiences as a child?
Lowry: Yeah, I basically grew up in a museum. I saw a lot, but I had an affinity for minimalism since the beginning. I remember seeing a Donald Judd progression for the first time when I was 10 or so and just having my breath taken away. I think it’s partly because I understood the work in terms of a physical relationship with this large structure that has repetitive components. There’s a sequence and there’s movement and your body is involved in that you have to traverse the length of the field. So I just understood it physically as a child and remained interested in that period ever since. I was lucky enough to get dragged around to enough museums and galleries to know I really liked it.
WSWD: Did you ever get bored of all the museums and galleries? Were you ever like, “I don’t want to go to another museum!”?
Lowry: No. In fact, when I was really little, my father and I would do all the galleries on the weekends. He would bribe me to go around with him by promising me lunch afterwards. But when I was about 10 or 11, I said, “Dad, you can quit it with the bribes actually. There are some shows I want to see.”
WSWD: What is an ideal day in the city for you now that you’re a grown-up?
Lowry: I still love to traipse around to shows and galleries. And one of my favorite things to do of all time is go to The Met and get lost. I can still get lost there after all these years. I don’t have a particularly good sense of direction so that may be why, but still. There’s a section near the American wing where they have old frames and silverware and portraits that are not The Met’s most important pieces, I guess, and it’s all in clear-glass open storage. It has always felt sort of eerie and haunted and teeming with history. I always try to find my way back to that section, which I can’t always do, because I refuse to use a map!