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Mierle Laderman Ukeles in conversation with Alexandra Schwartz

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing, June 13, 1974, 1974, Maintenance Art Event XI, sidewalk performance at A.I.R.Gallery, New York Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Based in New York City, Mierle Laderman Ukeles is known for her feminist, service-oriented artwork and performances. In 1969, she wrote a manifesto titled ‘Maintenance Art – Proposal for an Exhibition’, challenging the domestic role of women and proclaiming herself a ‘maintenance artist’. Lippard first met Ukeles in 1971 as a result of her interest in this project, and Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Tasks (1973) were then developed as part of ‘c.7,500’.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: I read about this exhibition Lucy Lippard had p.21 made, titled ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, which was about sculpture that was sort of ‘soft’. 01 I was dying to call her up, because I was making ‘Bindings’ that were soft, stuffed, knotted. I thought I was making abstract art about energy, containing energy. The sculptures looked very organic, because I was stuffing cheesecloth with rags. They would get full, until they had hernias and burst. Despite being soft, the works were also very strong. And they looked female. The dean of Pratt Institute, my graduate school, said I was making pornographic art, and my teacher, Robert Richenberg, was fired for supporting me.

Lucy was, then, organising a show with Louise Bourgeois and with Frank Lincoln Viner, who was also making these soft things. And I wanted to call her up, but I didn’t dare.

Alexandra Schwartz: Did you see ‘Eccentric Abstraction’, or you just read about it?

MLU: No, I read about it. I didn’t see it. I don’t even know why I didn’t see it. I thought she would understand what I was doing. But I just was afraid to call her. In 1969 I wrote the ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’, and I sent it to Jack Burnham, who asked me for permission to publish it in Artforum. 02 In January 1971 the telephone rings, and it is Lucy Lippard enquiring about the manifesto and asking if we could meet. She actually asked me on the phone: ‘Are you real, or did Jack Burnham invent you for his article?’ She lived approximately three blocks away from me. We met in the playground, with my kid, showing that I can be the artist and the mother at the same time. And of course, when the child sees that the mother is paying attention to somebody else, they immediately start pulling on you, crying. So we had this rather truncated, tense, frustrating conversation – and at the same time a very good conversation, because it was real.

AS: She had a young child too then, of course.

MLU: Yes, so it wasn’t a problem. And she was also in a fury about feminism at that point, and dedicated to organising. She invited me to WEB, or West- East Bag, a group of women artists who were based on both the West and the East Coasts. 03 I started coming to some of the gatherings, and in them I met Ana Mendieta and Mary Beth Edelson, Anne Healy and other women artists. This was the time when women were joining consciousness-raising groups. And it was very appealing to me, because I met other women who were trying to understand themselves and keep their power; work and hang in there. It was a lifesaver. Lippard had this kind of wildness to her; you couldn’t phase her. I felt that she was open to anything. She was very energetic, and very angry. She wasn’t afraid to express anything whatsoever. But she was also extraordinarily generous. She wanted to be a writer, because she had this passion for feminism. The West Coast was organising itself in a very different way, with Miriam Shapiro, who came out of a pretty traditional art background, or with ‘Womanhouse’, which [Shapiro] developed with Judy Chicago. 04 They organised themselves in a sort of art manifestation, while the East Coast was much more decentralised, more individualistic, more isolated.

AS: Do you think that was partly because the art world establishment was stronger on the East Coast?

MLU: Yes, accessing the power was harder here. Los Angeles was then a backwater. Even though great things were going on there, it was still only beginning to happen for many. The heavy-duty power of the art world was right here in New York. And this affected how the feminist artists operated.

AS: Did Lucy invite you to be in ‘c.7,500’ pretty soon after you first met her?

MLU: I think so. I met her in 1971 or 1972, and she called me again in 1972 or 1973. And I thought this was a chance to make some heavy-duty maintenance artworks. I don’t think I even asked too many questions. All I knew was that it was going to travel. It was feminist artists, and it had to be Conceptual art. I guess Lucy must have said something along those lines, although it seems more categorical than she would have said. I think this was meant to indicate that it should be not too big and pretty inexpensive. There was no budget, or very little budget. I was thrilled to be in a feminist art show.

AS: Was it your first big show?

MLU: Actually, I think it probably was. I was in graduate school at the time.

AS: That was after you left the Pratt Institute?

MLU: Yes, after that I started all over again at New York University; I joined the graduate school programme called ‘Creative Experiences in Inter-related Arts’, tucked away in the School of Education and Nursing, since they had no MFA at the time.

AS: Which works did you contribute to the exhibition?

MLU: Now, in the show itself, which travelled, [the work] had to be, I quote, ‘mailable’, so I made this photographic series titled Maintenance Art Tasks, and put them into a photo-scrapbook. I drilled a hole in the cover, and attached a rag with a chain, so that it had its own maintenance system.

AS: The shipping list for the exhibition reads: ‘Maintenance artwork, 16 photo holders with dust rag on shredded plastic cord’.

MLU: Maintenance art tasks. Two large bound books. Inside there are four personal maintenance photographic series. One book contained the following:

Changing the Baby’s DiaperDoing the LaundryWell-Baby CheckupsWashing the DishesGetting a HaircutExcavating the Building. The other book must have had Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In. For some venues of the show, especially toward the end, ‘Dressing/Undressing’ was mounted on one large board and hung on the wall with the chain and rag attached.

I asked a friend of mine, Josh Siderowitz, who is a good amateur photographer, to come to my home and take sequential photographs capturing the tasks. It’s one of the funny things about maintenance, it’s almost impossible to see.

AS: Because it’s private.

MLU: We find it so boring that we can’t actually focus on it. I wanted to capture it in increments of time, so you could perceive the details of the sequence of the maintenance task. One of those personal tasks was dressing the children to go out, and undressing them when they came back in. It was in the winter, when it takes forever to put on all the layers on the children to go out. They stay out for ten minutes and start crying to go back in. I tried to show the work as a big mounted board, and then I had to take it apart, because they couldn’t ship it in that format. At a few of the later venues of the tour, the board was exhibited. What the detail in the pictures also revealed was the development of the kids – one three-year-old and the other five. You can see that the [older] child knows how to buckle her shoe, how to do her buttons. My older daughter didn’t like the photographer taking all these pictures of her, so she set up a distance that I loved in the photograph. Then I asked my husband to diaper the baby. I was trying to get at the details of parenthood. I also included the ‘Maintenance Art Questionnaire’ in the exhibition, which was shipped to every venue. They each had a self-addressed stamped envelope. So it had its own sustenance system.

AS: Were they sent back to you?

MLU: They were. In my graduate thesis I wrote about how to deal with the fact that I hadn’t been invited to do the show that I proposed in the ‘Maintenance Art Manifesto’, called ‘CARE’. So, instead, I transposed those ideas or expanded them in ‘c.7,500’. What was important for me as an artist in Lucy’s show was that it was feminist artists, but also that it travelled. I felt that the work was moving out into the world. Through the questionnaire I asked people questions about what kind of maintenance they did, in a specific manner, followed by more open questions about maintenance tasks, such as: how do you feel about repetition? What does this do to you? What is the relationship in your life between maintenance and freedom? There was also a special maintenance art questionnaire for artists, always attached to the questionnaire for a general audience. The show was like a bird or a flock of birds moving out, and the questionnaire was made in that spirit of moving things out. But once the show started, I actually got jealous that my work was travelling around, and I simply had the idea of calling the local curators at each stop of the show to offer to perform a ‘Maintenance Art performance’ or ‘Maintenance Art activity’. I told Lucy my idea, and she said, ‘Great.’ She gave me the list of curators and their telephone numbers. All the ones that I called said yes, and were extremely generous. For example, Jack Cowart, the curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum at the time, who granted me access to the entire museum. That was the first one.

AS: What did you do at the Wadsworth?

MLU: I did four performance works there – an analysis of the maintenance practices of the art institution. Together they amounted to a critique of the institution. The first one was called Mummy Transfer [1973], for which I selected an Egyptian female mummy that was on loan from the Met. I picked her out because she still had breasts. The rule of the museum is that only the conservator can touch the art object. I tried to expose this rule, which has a logic, but revealed it in a way that showed its limitations in human terms. I invited a maintenance worker and a conservator to do a performance work with me. I asked the maintenance worker to clean the vitrine, to do his regular work – which they actually did with diapers. Then he handed me his tools – the spray and the rag, the diaper – and I said, ‘I am going to make a dust painting.’ Copying him, because he was the expert, I did exactly that he did, but it was an artwork, because I said so. When I finished, I stamped the vitrine with my ‘Maintenance Art’ stamp. I also stamped all the diapers that I had used. Once I stamped that vitrine, the maintenance worker – the expert in maintenance – could no longer put his hands on this art object. Then the conservator did a condition report of this artwork, the vitrine and said, ‘This artwork, the vitrine, needs to be cleaned.’ At that moment I handed him my tools. He, copying the maintenance worker, cleaned the vitrine. We were photographed at the beginning, and we were photographed at the end. The same people, lined up the same way. But the notion of value had floated through me from the worker to the conservator. I wanted people to see that the logic of the institution creates a bitter aftertaste.

The second performance took place that same day. It was called The Keeping of the Keys [1973]. I moved from one category of maintenance to another – to the guards, who preserve the selected objects. In those days, luckily for me, they held the keys to the museum. They handed them over to me. I locked one of the two main doors during opening hours, and put up a sign that read: ‘The security is now being maintained as art. It will be normalised shortly and transferred to the appropriate guard when the alarm rings. Please feel free to wait or return.’ I continued locking doors between galleries, so visitors were locked in. I moved through the entire three-floor museum, locking one gallery after another. And then I went to the curatorial offices and locked one door. As I was going to the other, with the exception of one curator, they all ran out, furious. This was a Friday. I came back on Sunday, and did a much simpler maintenance performance, Washing, Tracks, Maintenance [1973], more personal, less systemically institutional. I washed the main steps, and then cleaned the Avery Court, inside. Children joined me, even though I didn’t ask them to. Adults didn’t join me. When people walked in the inner court, I would wipe out their tracks.

The next stop was Philadelphia, at the Moore College of Art. There I made a performance work called Now You Have Heirs, in 1973, which referred directly to Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (or The Large Glass) [1923]which is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The next stop was at the ICA in Boston, and there I did three performances. One of them I find slightly embarrassing: I started by calling up my babysitter in New York to ask, ‘Is everything okay?’ And read a mantra: ‘For the good of my family, I must do my work. To do my work, I need a babysitter. It’s okay to have a babysitter, so I can do my work. For my good, too, finally, I can do my work.’ I printed a thousand of these, and I stretched them out in lines in the gallery where the show was, and read the mantra again and again.

AS: Out loud in the gallery.

MLU: Out loud. Then I stamped each one, as if saying, ‘Maybe if I say it this time, I’ll believe it.’ And then I hung it up like laundry on a clothesline. It took several hours to do this.

AS: How did you get the idea to do the performances? Did you have any kind of model?

MLU: No, I don’t think I did. I had seen Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Robert Morris… doing physical, very task-oriented work. I felt very connected to them. It was very important to me that the work wasn’t theatrical. Even the audience was just whoever was around.

This became key in the New York venue. I did two pieces in front of the A.I.R. Gallery, in June 1974, when the exhibition travelled there, for which I washed the sidewalk. I started off with rags, but it was so filthy that they were running out. And I would announce, on every hour, yelling, that the area was now being maintained as art, so people would know what I was doing. At some point a super who managed a building across the street, and had been watching me for a long time, saw that I was in trouble, because I was running out of rags. He brought me a big pile of rags, and shook my hand. I think that my work, from this point, shifted. Because the previous work, even when done in public, was me doing what I do, as performance work. But he pierced it, he entered the work. From that point, I felt I could do my work with other people.

AS: So that’s what led to Touch Sanitation [1978–80] and to the other interactive projects? 05

MLU: I think so. And another thing that happened was a shift in terms of who would lead in the work. Whenever anyone entered the space, I would wipe out their tracks. Some kids noticed, and started turning circles. They ended up making me do things, directing me. They knew how to play with it. The final one was this piece at Vassar, Fall Time Speed-Up: Husbanding Piece [1974] where there was a gorgeous tree in the centre of the campus. I simply raked a very big rectangle underneath it – a very Minimalist-looking work. But whenever the tree dropped another leaf, I ran and picked it up, to try to keep the green rectangle perfect. So the tree was playing with me. It kept dropping leaves and I was snatching them out. The second piece for Vassar was called Making a Fifty Foot Long Sanitary Napkin for a 100-Year-Old Tree [1974]. It was based on the idea that falling leaves are like a menstrual period – the seeds are gone, and the tree is killing the leaf because it no longer feeds the seeds. So the piece was making a connection between me and the tree. […] I laid out fifty feet of cheesecloth, and then a line of fifty feet of cotton and another line of cheesecloth. As the leaves were dropping, they would be caught on the cotton in the position in which they fell. It was a map of that particular time.

AS: So ‘c.7,500’ represented a turning point for you?

MLU: ‘c.7,500’ was such a great opportunity for me to do my work. Lucy wasn’t really involved in the individual performances, but she launched this very open structure from which to make work.

This interview was conducted on 10 December 2008.


  • Editors’ Note: ‘Eccentric Abstraction’ took place at Fischbach Gallery, New York, from 20 September to 8 October 1966, and included work by Alice Adams, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Gary Kuehn, Bruce Nauman, Don Potts, Keith Sonnier and Frank Lincoln Viner.
  • EN: See Mierle Laderman Ukeles, ‘Maintenance Art Manifesto: Proposal for an Exhibition’ [excerpts], Artforum, vol.9, no.5, January 1971, pp.40–41.
  • EN: WEB (West-East Bag) was founded in 1971 by Lucy Lippard, Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. It worked as a national liaison network of women artists, and produced bicoastal newsletters to link women and to encourage them to protest against gender discrimination by institutions.
  • EN: ‘Womanhouse’ was a project created by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro in 1972 in collaboration with the Feminist Art Program at CalArts. The women students created installations, performances and works of art in an abandoned house in Los Angeles. For more information, see (last accessed on 31 May 2012).
  • EN: For Touch Sanitation, Ukeles spent eleven months visiting all 59 sanitation districts in New York City to shake the hands of over 8,500 sanitation employees and thanked each one individually for ‘keeping New York City alive’.