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Alice Aycock in conversation with Alexandra Schwartz

Alice Aycock, Maze, 1972, 12-sided wooden structure of 5 concentric dodecagonal rings.

In 1968, North American artist Alice Aycock moved to New York to study a Masters in Studio Art at Hunter College under Robert Morris. In the late 1960s she developed site-related works primarily made from wood and stone, referring to machinery and construction sites, architectural models, archaeological sites and public or social settings. Lippard first showed Aycock’s work in ‘Twenty-Six Contemporary Women Artists’ at the The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in 1971. Within ‘c.7,500’, Aycock showed photographs of Maze (1972), a large outdoor work constructed in wood, sited in the landscape in New Kinston, Pennsylvania. In 1977, she created the installation Studies for a Town at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, now part of its permanent collection.

Alice Aycock: It was 1971 to 1972, and things were in the air. I don’t know who suggested to Lucy Lippard that she look at my work, but the art world was very small. I had graduated from Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers University, in 1968, and gone on to graduate school at Hunter College in New York City, where I studied primarily with Robert Morris, Leo Steinberg, Tony Smith and Gene Goossen, among others. I audited Linda Nochlin’s class, and she had recently published ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ 01 Rosalind Krauss was there in some capacity as well. I had a graduate assistantship at Hunter and I was curator of the slide library, which gave me access to images from all of art history through many of the art historians who would come and go.

The Rutgers graduate studio art department was in the undergraduate art building at Douglass, and so I met Jackie Winsor, Keith Sonnier and Charles Simonds, and attended graduate critiques whenever I could. Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris and Allan Kaprow had recently been there, and the artists teaching at Douglass were predominantly Fluxus artists. I studied with Geoff Hendricks and Bob Watts, to name a few.

[…] When I was an undergraduate everybody was looking towards New York. My teachers were pretty emphatic about needing to go to New York, to the galleries, every other weekend, and they would bring us in to see things. It’s hard to realise how small the art world was then, and how so many exhibitions were breakthrough work. I got to go to ‘9 Evenings’ (1966) that the Experiments in Art and Technology [E.A.T.] organised. I saw a seminal Eva Hesse show at Fischbach Gallery, Robert Smithson at Dwan. Robert Morris took us to the opening of the Castelli Warehouse show ‘Nine at Leo Castelli’. If an Andy Warhol film came out, I went to see it and discussed it in class or with my friends. Anthology Film Archives was just starting. And my then-husband, Mark Segal, was studying film with Annette Michelson and working in the film/publicity department at MoMA with Kate Linker, Roberta Smith and Regina Cornwell. And nobody was a superstar the way they are now. Even Warhol. As a young artist, I was really impressed and intimidated, but everyone was an outsider, or trying to be an outsider, and to the rest of the world we just didn’t exist. At the same time there were only a few galleries that showed contemporary work and hardly any showed women. The one exception was the artist-run 112 Greene Street, where I began to show early on, along with Gordon Matta-Clark, Suzanne Harris, George Trakas, Tina Girouard, Susan Rothenberg, Ned Smyth and others. It was a great stewpot for young ‘emerging’ artists who did site-specific sculptures, performances, music, films, videos – just about anything – and in the context of older artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, Philip Glass.

Alexandra Schwartz: You were living in SoHo by this point?

AA: When I first moved to New York I had a little apartment on the Upper West Side. And then I got a studio in a basement up there for a year or so. Then I moved to the Wall Street area, where I had a studio for six years. I moved to my SoHo loft in 1976, where I still live. I don’t know whether it was Morris who mentioned my work to Lucy, or Jackie Winsor… maybe Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson’s wife. I used to look forward to reading Lucy’s writing in Art International. At some point, roughly 1971, Lucy took myself, Jackie Winsor, Charles Simonds and one other artist to Virginia Commonwealth University, where we spent a few days making art and doing a seminar with the students. I remember Jackie made this structure out of tree limbs she found in the woods. Around that time Lucy made the decision to devote herself to the art of women. It was a very exciting, tumultuous time. As a country we were still involved in Vietnam, and there was the antiwar movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the beginnings of the environmental movement, the beginnings of the women’s movement and the gay rights movement… all of those things. We had a youthful energy and we were going to change so many things. Even the so-called established artists were antiestablishment and anti-commodification. Many of us were graduates of liberal arts colleges as opposed to art schools.

And so we brought all of that to the scene. Which, I think, was partly why there was so much Conceptual art: we weren’t just about colour theory and formalism. You could engage things in an intellectual way, as well as in a formal, visual way. I was very engaged with Robert Morris intellectually. He was fascinating to study with because he used art as a probing tool of the mind. And there was the performance work of Yvonne Rainer, which had a big effect on me. And there was Robert Smithson, whom one could always find at Max’s Kansas City, along with Nancy Holt, Carl Andre, Dennis Oppenheim, etc.02I remember showing Smithson the Maze there in the summer of 1972, when I first built it. And I think Nancy Holt was friends with Lucy. There were all these ways in a small art world in which people met each other or found out about each other. My learning curve was very fast. I was very stimulated by the art I saw and the people I met.

AS: It seems like you were doing a lot of things simultaneously: drawing, making works to be shown in the gallery and also works that were made outdoors, in the landscape. I was wondering how you would switch back and forth between those things, and when you first got interested in doing work in the landscape versus interior works?

AA: So much was determined by the circumstances that presented themselves in a somewhat random way. I just took advantage of what came along. And that’s always been the case. There was the inspiration of the Earth artists. Mark and I had travelled out West in 1969. I had grown up in Pennsylvania, which was still very rural at the time, very provincial in relation to New York and the romance of the West. There was quite a lot of open farmland there, surrounded by mountains. And when I came to New York, I had to spend so much time inside in an urban environment; I realised that I also still longed for the landscape. I really loved the land, green, sky, nature, outside, freedom… I still do and I mourn the vanishing American landscape all the time.

AS: So you just started experimenting with making sculpture outside?

AA: When I was an undergraduate, I constructed sculptures, which related to Minimal art and had a physical architectural presence in relation to the human body. Then I went to graduate school and I continued to make work inside. But I explored Process art and work, which changed over time, such as Sand/Fans [1971] and the Clay Piece #1 [n.d.] (which Lucy showed at the Aldrich Museum [in Ridgefield, Connecticut] in 1971). I would go home in the summer and there was all this farmland, which I had access to. And I started making simple Conceptual pieces; for example, I would stake out the land and study erosion, and then in 1972, after I had finished graduate school, I built the Maze.

AS: It sounds related to your thesis on highways.

AA: Yes. I had analysed the highway system as a vast Earthwork and labyrinth, which was tied to the human perceptual system. I used the phrases ‘the necessary structure’ (highway) and ‘the contingent event’ (the driver experience), which I took from [Claude] Lévi-Strauss. At that point I was very interested in phenomenology, [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty and [Jean] Piaget. At the same time I was reading Virginia Wolfe’s A Room of One’s Own [1929] and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex [1949]. The maze seemed like a metaphor for the highway, in which I could explore ideas I had researched in my thesis – ‘Like the experience of the highway, I thought of the maze as a sequence of body/eye movements from position to position. The whole cannot be comprehended at once. It can only be remembered as a sequence… I had hoped to create a moment of absolute panic when the only thing that mattered was to get out…’ 03 Building the Maze also propelled me into architectural and archaeological history and literature, and I was influenced by Smithson’s trip to the Yucatan as well.

AS: Would you invite people to come to see the work, or was it mostly visible through photographs?

AA: The local people experienced the piece and the Silver Springs Police took the aerial photograph that is always shown. But the art world only saw the work through photographs.

AS: That must have been something that people talked about in your circle a lot, how to get the work out there?

AA: Actually, it’s the old adage of being at the right place at the right time. And Lucy was really important for that, because she was very prominent as an art critic and writer, so when she decided to focus on the work of women, it registered in the art world. Not just anybody could say, ‘Let’s show and write about the art that women are making’, because it wasn’t a popular thing to do. On the contrary, it was very unpopular. The older guys did not want to share the stage. It was difficult enough to be a female art critic let alone to decide not to write about the men. She made up her mind that she would devote herself to opening doors, to forcing doors open. And she really threw herself into it wholeheartedly. And the guys didn’t like it, because it meant that there was more competition.

AS: Was there resentment or hostility from some of the male artists?

AA: Yes, I think there still is, but it’s more generalised now. At the time, women were not considered players – they thought we didn’t have the ‘right stuff’. It’s still very competitive. And it may not be a level playing field yet, but nobody doubts how good the work is or that we should be doing it.

AS: Was it at all hard to be concerned with the issues you were dealing with as a woman artist and to still work abstractly and not engage directly with ‘feminist’ subject matter?

AA: Yes, because you could be considered a traitor if you did not join certain groups or deal with feminist issues in your work. We all had the same issues in terms of what we were up against, and I had no illusions about that, but we didn’t necessarily agree in terms of what we wanted to make art about. I felt at that time, and I still do, that no one really knows what is inherently male or female and what is simply cultural and contextual. Knowledge and creative permission/transgression is not exclusively the privilege of a chosen few. I always wanted to step out of the closed context I found myself in and examine the Other. I wanted to sit at the all-sex table not just the same-sex table. At the same time I thought it was really important to be influenced by and compete aggressively with other women whose work I admired, such as Suzanne Harris, Mary Miss, Jackie Winsor, Lauren Ewing, Laurie Anderson, Nancy Holt or Jennifer Bartlett, to name a few.

AS: How did you meet Lucy? And had you known her for a while before the show?

AA: I really can’t remember exactly. As I mentioned, we went to VCU p.56 together. She included me in the exhibition ‘Twenty-Six Contemporary Women Artists’ at the Aldrich in 1971, so she knew my work by then. I think she contacted me directly and asked me to submit images. 04

AS: What did you think of the idea of an all-women show? Was that interesting to you, or did you have reservations?

AA: Well, it was complicated. In both ‘Twenty-Six Contemporary Women Artists’ and ‘c.7,500’ I was a young artist, and I really wanted to get my work out there. I was very ambitious, as we all were. Painfully ambitious. And I also, in both cases, admired the women who were in the show. I liked their work. And I really admired Lucy, so I was very excited about it.

AS: When Lucy was doing these shows, were you part of some of the groups that she was involved in, such as the consciousness- raising meetings?

AA: Not too much, but I do remember seeing her at Art Workers’ Coalition meetings and attending lectures by her. I remember one in which she spoke about how thick her skin was. How she was never going to give up or let criticism get her down. I still use that remark. I say that my skin is so thick at this point, there are layers of scar tissue – that there may not be any warm blood underneath.

AS: Did you have another kind of community of women artists?

AA: I had a community of people whom I talked to and hung out with, including Rita Myers and especially the artist Lauren Ewing, whom I met at Williams College in 1974. She became a very close friend and intellectual partner. The independent curator Nancy Rosen and the artist Meg Shor were close friends and supporters. But I did not join groups that were issue-oriented.

AS: And you weren’t involved in the Heresies Collective later? 05 AA: No, I wasn’t. And that was probably intentional on my part.

AS: So could you tell me a little bit about the piece that was in the show?

AA: I still have the drawings for Tunnel Well [1973] and Curvature of the Earth [1973]. Project for Elevation with Abstracted Sightlines [1972] was recently purchased by MOCA, Los Angeles, and will be in the Land art show ‘Ends of the Earth’ at that museum later this year, along with a version of the clay piece that Lucy showed at the Aldrich. 06 Elevation is about walking up a hill, and just as you get to the top of the hill, another one appears. And as you get to the top of that one, there’s another one and so on. Finally when you attain the top, you are not really there – the last landing place drops down. These were

theoretical drawings, which I did not think I had the means to actually build. Later, I built Simple Network of Underground Tunnels and Wells [1975], which was rebuilt permanently at Art Omi in New York State in 2011. It was an underground piece in which one crawled from light to dark through tunnels and vertical wells. Sometimes these works were exhibited as just statements without the drawings. Maze was the first piece that I actually built that I referred to as semi-architectural. Asphalt Flat/Cloud Formation Project [1972] belonged to a group of Conceptual artworks I made about process, transience, systems and the environment.

I was in a transitional period in which I was veering back into building things again. But there were still some things that were more or less theoretical, like the Curvature of the Earth piece or Asphalt Flat, a Conceptual piece about how to make rain. I have always had this megalomaniac fantasy that I could mess with the weather or the universe. I found a recipe for the primal soup in the back of Scientific American and I thought maybe I could make an art piece in which I created life from inert materials.

AS: Do you remember if you saw the exhibition at any of its venues? AA: I don’t know that I did. Maybe I saw it in Hartford; I’m not sure. I did have the card catalogue.

AS: Do you remember people talking about the show at the time, other artists who were included in it?

AA: Yes. But I would have talked a lot about it with Rita [Myers]. Adrian [Piper] I knew a little bit. Martha Wilson I knew very well, and Jackie Apple. Jennifer [Bartlett] not so much. I got much more friendly with her later, when we were both included in Documenta 6 [1977]. Athena Tacha I remember talking to. She was teaching at Oberlin, I believe, at the time. Bernadette Mayer I knew. And I definitely had a lot of conversations with her.

AS: So it sounds like it was a transitional time, in a lot of ways.AA: It was. People were finding their voices amidst all of the other stuff that was going on.

This interview was conducted on 7 November 2008.


  • Editors’ Note: Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’; ARTnews , vol.69, no.9, January 1971, pp.22–39, 67–71.
  • EN: Max’s Kansas City was a Nightclub and restaurant at 213 Park Avenue South, New York City.
  • EN: Alice Aycock , ‘Work 1972–1974’, in Alan Sondheim (ed.), Individuals: Post-Movement Art in America , New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977, pp.105–08.
  • EN: ‘Twenty-Six Contemporary Women Artists’ took place from 18 April to 13 June 1971 at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, and included work by Cecile Abish, Aycock, Cynthia Carlson, Sue Ann Childress, Glorianna Davenport, Susan Hall, Mary Heilmann, Audrey Hemenway, Laurace James, Mablen Jones, Carol Kinne, Christine Kozlov, Sylvia Mangold, Brenda Miller, Mary Miss, Dora Nelson, Louise Parks, Shirley Pettibone, Adrian Piper, Reeva Potoff, Paula Tavins, Merrill Wagner, Grace Wapner, Jackie Winsor and Barbara Zucker.
  • EN: The Heresies Collective was a group of feminist artists that came together in the 1970s. They published Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics , from 1977 to 1992. For more information and pdfs of the publication, see http:// (last accessed on 31 May 2012).
  • EN: ‘Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974’, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 27 May–3 September 2012, including work by Michael Heizer, Mary Miss, Robert Smithson and Superstudio among others.
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