Point Break: As Oscar Calls, a Look at Kathryn Bigelow’s Decade in the NYC Art World

Lawrence Weiner met Kathryn Bigelow at a party at Gordon Matta-Clark’s house in Soho in the early 1970s, when she

Zero Dark Thirty.
‘Zero Dark Thirty.’

Lawrence Weiner met Kathryn Bigelow at a party at Gordon Matta-Clark’s house in Soho in the early 1970s, when she was around 22. She was, in the words of a boyfriend from that time, “the most beautiful woman on God’s green Earth,” and Mr. Weiner, well, he was 10 years older. He was also already an artist of some note, and though he’d seen Ms. Bigelow around, he’d never spoken with her. He thought they might work together.

“Listen,” the conceptual artist began, after he’d walked up to her at the party. “I would like to—this is not a sordid gesture.” Ms. Bigelow cut him off.

“I know who you are,” she said.

She’d always been a good student. Shortly after she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972 and moved to New York to attend the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, she took a trip to Italy and, while there, informed curators at a museum that they’d misattributed a Renaissance piece. When they looked into it, they discovered Ms. Bigelow was right.

In New York, she would find herself surrounded by art of a very different kind. While Ms. Bigelow has been reluctant to talk about this period of her life for profiles, she also hasn’t distanced herself from it completely. And with the debate surrounding her use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, her decade in the 1970s art world has never been more relevant. The scene was politically fertile, and it would be hard to argue that those 10 years had no influence on the action movies she would later direct.

Mr. Weiner eventually became Ms. Bigelow’s official mentor for the Whitney ISP—“the person who signed the forms so she’d get her check and all that,” he said—and the two made several films together in that period (they remain close). The Whitney’s studios would later host the likes of Glenn Ligon, Jenny Holzer and Julian Schnabel, though at the time she attended, they were housed in a modest warehouse at 185 Cherry Street. Ms. Bigelow, who declined to speak for this story, lived nearby with the aforementioned boyfriend, Jeffrey Lew, in the basement of 112 Greene Street, a revolutionary exhibition space he owned that would later become White Columns. To make money, she renovated lofts with Philip Glass. The avant-garde was a small group then, and the Whitney ISP would schedule studio visits that had students mingling with the likes of Vito Acconci and Richard Serra. Later, Kathy, as friends called her, would fall in with the New York branch of the conceptual group Art & Language and contribute to the journal Semiotext(e). She also collaborated on a video with the art punk band The Red Krayola.

“Everybody worked with everybody,” Mr. Weiner said. “You’re talking about a context that for the past 25 years has not existed, that a person coming in to New York City could find themselves with older artists and somehow or another survive without the grinding and all that.”

This led to a fluidity in terms of both mediums and ideas. Yvonne Rainer developed her improvisational dance sessions at 112 Greene Street, which allowed artists to show and sell work without any percentage to Mr. Lew, and Mr. Serra locked Leo Castelli in the basement there for a film called Prisoners Dilemma (1974), which demonstrated that scenario of game theory. Ms. Bigelow played a district attorney’s frequently hit-upon assistant.

Many in that crowd were drawn to the leftist politics of the time, along with the newly in vogue elements of literary theory. The critic and former Columbia professor Sylvère Lotringer said in an interview that he found an “immediate osmosis” in the 1970s between those who went to art school and those with an interest in French theory, particularly those interested in film. Screen magazine, he said, was a particular touchstone for many up-and-coming artists, and it was one of the first publications in America to translate Jacques Lacan. Mr. Lotringer often found film artists, Ms. Bigelow among them, sitting in on his classes uptown.

“When I came to New York, these ideas were received as pretty realistic,” he said, “whereas in France they were viewed as science fiction. They were on the same level of the philosophers, but they didn’t immediately connect with the philosophers, so they connected with the artists.”

He embraced the osmosis. His “Schizo-Culture” panel at Columbia featured John Cage, William Burroughs and Jean-François Lyotard. Around this time, he founded the journal Semiotext(e), which invited artists to contribute pages. For Ms. Bigelow’s first effort, she used the font and language of a pharmaceutical advertisement to sell schizophrenia, or the schizophrenic state of a media-saturated culture, which was that issue’s theme. Ms. Bigelow was introduced to Mr. Lotringer by the South African filmmaker Michael Oblowitz, the cinematographer for many of Mr. Weiner’s films, and with whom she would later teach a graduate level class at Columbia “Deconstructing The Cinema.”

The politics in the air had an effect on Ms. Bigelow’s artistic development. When she first came to New York, she painted, though Mr. Lew said that when he met her, she had an obsession with coins and magic tricks. According to him, she had coins with two heads made, and intended to shoot them with Minox spy cameras. (In a fact-checking email, Ms. Bigelow said this was innacurate, and described her practice at that time as involving “mixed media, performance pieces, installations and painting.”) Though Mr. Lew couldn’t recall her ever showing her work, she is listed in a 1973 group exhibition in a recent book about 112 Greene Street published by David Zwirner and Radius Books.

She is credited in Mr. Weiner’s archives on four of his short films: “Done To” (1974), “Affected and/or Effected” (1974), “Green as Well as Blue as Well as Red” (1975/1976) and “Altered to Suit” (1979). Ms. Bigelow didn’t care for acting, but she appears on-screen in “Affected and/or Effected” and “Done To.” Most of “Done To” has her chatting with a friend and someone off-camera, though their conversation doesn’t appear on the soundtrack. Instead, the two women and Mr. Weiner recite a mantra-like script over the film. It builds on itself, and they trade off saying things like “A treatment of dissonances!” “An indictment of dissonances!” “A defense of dissonances!” prompted by another voice that keeps asking, “And then?”

“Green as Well as Blue as Well as Red” has two women at a table playing a game Mr. Weiner has invented, a pile of small orange notebooks between them. In this film, Ms. Bigelow sits mostly off-camera and questions Mr. Weiner, who is behind the camera, about the politics of the game and about himself (e.g., KB: “What is the structure formalizing your manner and usage of language?” LW: “Normal standard American usage”). The game seems improvised, as the two women sometimes lock arms or eat paper from the notebooks, and at times they sweep everything off the table. “She was able to follow the aesthetic line of it,” Mr. Weiner said of why he liked making art with Ms. Bigelow. “Trying to do this relational thing of object to object.”

Around that time, Ms. Bigelow started working with Art & Language, which established itself on the cutting edge with a self-retrospective at Documenta 1972: eight filing cabinets filled with text work by its artists, which at that point included its British founders Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harold Hurrell, along with the U.S. editor of its journal Art-Language, Joseph Kosuth. The work generally took the form of unbylined radical dialogues between them about the art world and politics, but a list of “statements” by Mr. Weiner, presented without introduction in Art-Language in 1968, distills their shared aesthetic: “1. A field cratered by structured simultaneous TNT explosions … 3. One sheet of plywood secured to the floor or wall … 23. A 2” wide 1” deep trench cut across a standard one-car driveway.” Art & Language was serious about disruption.

“I was very influenced by them,” Ms. Bigelow told Artforum in 1995, “and my concerns moved from the plastic arts to Conceptual art and a more politicized framework. And I became dissatisfied with the art world—the fact that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate abstract material.”

If Art & Language merged the practical, leftist politics of the time with the philosophical politics of literary theory, the New York branch of the group ran aground on a third kind of politics, the interpersonal kind. The group had a hard time deciding how radical it wanted to be, whether it should confine its work to the artistic method or organize factory workers. Art & Language New York put out just three issues of its own journal, The Fox, though it did participate in the 1976 Venice Biennale, with a large banner that read, “Welcome to Venice: the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie ‘eternalizes’ local color.” Ms. Bigelow contributed to the third issue of The Fox, which was published in that year and largely documented the group’s dissolution. Her two-page essay compared the mission statements published in the two previous editions of The Fox and was titled “Not on the Development of Contradiction.”

The artist Sarah Charlesworth, who dated Mr. Kosuth at the time, said Ms. Bigelow was fairly unique, as a woman who participated in Art & Language. Much of the radical thinking at the time had a masculine quality to it. One woman who did the Whitney ISP after Ms. Bigelow said that on a visit to Donald Judd’s studio, the artist demonstrated a knife trick on one of the students—the same dangerous trick that makes a cameo in the movie Aliens, directed by Ms. Bigelow’s future husband James Cameron (in the movie, it is performed by an android on a spaceship).

Around the time of the last issue of The Fox, Ms. Bigelow began to make her own films through Columbia University’s film school. The most notable of them, “Set-Up,” was screened at the Whitney in 1978. In it, one man beats up another on a dark street in Soho. The attacker screams at his victim the entire time, calling him a faggot, but at the end of the scene, he leans in and kisses him, suggesting that the whole thing was a prearranged S&M trick, and that it was therefore safe to enjoy the film’s violence. (It has somehow been widely reported that Gary Busey appears in this film—alas, he does not.) The film then plays again, and Mr. Lotringer, with Marshall Blonsky, explains the semiotic elements of the scene in a voice-over.

“She’s fascinated by violence,” Mr. Weiner said. “You can see it in every film.” From the tense romance of her vampire movie Near Dark (1987) to the exposure of the terrorist’s genitals in Zero Dark Thirty, he said, violence hovers over everything she does. “There’s absolutely no empathy with anybody. It is what it is, and it’s an act of violence. She objectifies violence. She doesn’t romanticize violence, she objectifies it. She puts it in a context, and when you’re watching it, you basically think you’ve seen this before, that you don’t really feel anything, but you begin to think about it intellectually and morally.”

Mr. Lotringer agreed with this, recalling that Ms. Bigelow had a particular fascination with Georges Bataille during this period, and even wrote a script to adapt his incestuous story “Ma Mère.” Bataille was featured in Semiotext(e)’s famous “Polysexuality” issue, which featured a pantsless man on a leaking motorcycle on its front cover, and on the back showed a crime-scene photo of a lawyer who’d impaled himself on an oversized dildo in a motel room in Florida. Mr. Oblowitz found that photo while making a film at the New York City Morgue at Belleview. Ms. Bigelow worked on that issue for two years, along with conceptual painter Denise Green and psychologist Francois Peraldi, the issue’s editor.

The call to Hollywood came in the 1980s, as it did for Lawrence Weiner and for many others in the scene. In the 1990s, other artists would answer that call, with films like Office Killer (1997), directed Cindy Sherman, and Johnny Mnemonic (1995), directed by Robert Longo. Ms. Bigelow’s first feature film, The Loveless (1982), starred Willem Dafoe as an id-driven Wild One-esque biker. Mr. Lotringer said that when he first saw it, he couldn’t help notice the semiotic implications of the way she lingers on textures in the movie: motorcycle parts, lips.

Ms. Bigelow’s last act in the New York art world was her appearance in the second feature-length film by the feminist director Lizzie Borden, Born in Flames (1983). The film is loosely edited, in a way that makes it seem as though the camera has simply been taken from one location to another for each scene, so the plot is not easy to follow. It’s set in a United States that has recently undergone a Marxist revolution, though women, it seems, are still getting the short end of the stick. There is a Women’s Army that patrols the streets of New York on bicycles, preventing rape. A radical feminist leader dies in police custody, and the fringe elements suspect foul play. Ms. Bigelow plays one of the editors of the Socialist News Review, a popular post-revolution newspaper, so it’s her job to say things like, “Yeah but if we print the pictures of the death, we’ll be fetishizing it.” At the very end of the movie, the radical feminists decide they’ve had enough government propaganda. They blow up the radio towers on top of the World Trade Center.

dduray@observer.com Point Break: As Oscar Calls, a Look at Kathryn Bigelow’s Decade in the NYC Art World