July 1979. Margaret Thatcher is the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Iran has entered its fourth month as an Islamic Republic, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front has deposed the US-backed Samoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. It was against this political backdrop that Lucy Lippard’s exhibition Some British Art From the Left (June 16–July 14, 1979) finished its run at Artists Space in New York City.
The announcement card promoting the exhibition had an open call printed on its reverse:
This exhibition is the first in a series of socially concerned art intended to expand international communication and to form an archive of political art. Anyone interested in participating in future manifestations should contact Lucy R. Lippard, 138 Prince St. NYC 10012.
Lippard didn’t know it yet, but her plan to build and preserve an archive of political art would develop into a collective of politically conscious artists and writers. Eight months later, PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution) was born. An explicitly leftist organization, PAD/D rejected the pursuit of gallery representation and sought new economic strategies for artists. The group adopted an holistic approach towards art activism. They attended demonstrations; organized meetings, talks, and performances; and commissioned artists and exhibitions. They insisted that all art is political on the basis that it reflects the cultural perspective of its creator, regardless of whether a work is explicitly political or not.
PAD/D’s archive, a rich treasure trove of documents, prints, and ephemera from political groups and organizations around the world, resides at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) library in Queens. Despite the institutional preservation of its vast archive, the group’s history and achievements remain virtually unknown in the art world. Its status is particularly perplexing given that Lippard’s career has been so well documented and discussed. Lippard, a pioneering activist, curator, and chronicler of Conceptual and feminist work, is a key figure in 20th-century art. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1972) is considered a standard art historical text. In the 1996 catalogue for Sniper’s Nest, a touring exhibition of her art collection, Lippard described PAD/D as “the most effective political art group I’ve been in.” Why then has PAD/D been forgotten when other 1980s New York collectives such as Group Material, Fashion Moda, and ABC No Rio have been the topic of art historical discussion?
From February 1980, Lippard began hosting regular open meetings at Printed Matter (then located on Lispenard Street) and Franklin Furnace to discuss the establishment of an archive. With the end of the Art Workers’ Coalition fresh in her mind, Lippard was reluctant to establish or participate in another political organization, but it quickly became apparent that the artists attending the meetings were hungry for demonstrations, actions, and exhibitions. Eventually, Lippard acquiesced. “I said firmly: ‘This isn’t about starting another organization, this is only about having an archive.’ By the time the meeting was over we had a goddamn organization,” she writes in the Sniper’s Nest catalogue.
Clive Phillpot, who was director of the MoMA Library at the time and a former colleague of Lippard’s, named the archive “PAD,” an acronym for “Political Art Documentation” (the additional “D” for “Distribution” was added later at the behest of artist members). The group organized itself into a number of nonhierarchical sub-committees and secured their first space at PS 64, a disused public school building on the Lower East Side. By February 1981, PAD/D had published the first issue of what would subsequently become UPFRONT, the group’s arts and activism magazine (published roughly twice a year). PAD/D described their mission in the issue’s opening statement:
Our main goal is to provide artists with an organized relationship to society. PAD defines “social concern” in the broadest sense, as any work that deals with issues — ranging from sex and racism to ecological damage or other forms of human oppression. Art comes from art as well as from life. One of PAD’s most crucial tasks is to build an understanding of the importance of the artist in the construction of a new “people not profits” society.
PAD/D had no official party line or stringent ideology, factors that had historically weakened other left wing groups by alienating potential members. Any subject or social issue was fair game. This was an important distinction for PAD/D member Jerry Kearns. Kearns had previously worked with other political organizations, including the Black United Front (where he documented demonstrations and instances of police brutality) and Amiri Baraka’s Anti Imperialist Cultural Union. Having experienced firsthand the debilitating impact of party politics and petty ideological arguments, Kearns insisted that the focus always remain on providing opportunities and outlets for PAD/D members. “I remember saying to Lucy early on that we needed to put on exhibitions and produce publications, or [artists] aren’t going to come,” Kearns said in an interview with Hyperallergic.
Kearns’s keen pragmatism earned him the moniker ‘the Cultural Commissar’ among other members, who viewed Lippard and Kearns as PAD/D’s guardian figures. But despite their parental status, neither Lippard nor Kearns staked any claim to leadership. PAD/D was strictly nonhierarchical. As artist Mimi Smith recalled in an interview with Hyperallergic, “often in these organizations, someone becomes the dominant voice or the boss. There was none of that in PAD/D. That I really liked. It was democratic.” Barbara Moore, an art historian who along with Smith would later organize and donate the group’s archive to MoMA, admired PAD/D’s pragmatism. Moore found the daily activities of other political art groups slow and ineffectual. “This is not what I want for political art, this sitting around … parsing with words in this intellectual way. I was a person of experience. PAD/D engaged me. I immediately saw it as an organization which was committed to action. They went out and marched,” Moore said.
PAD/D’s activities can essentially be divided into five core components. Along with UPFRONT magazine, the group also published Red Letter Days, a calendar of leftist and activist events. Aside from subcommittee meetings, members would meet once a month for Second Sundays, a series of talks and performances centered on sociopolitical issues such as abortion rights, state surveillance, and gentrification. The PAD/D archive steadily grew under the careful watch of a few fastidious members, with material pouring in from individuals and organizations around the world. Most members lost interest in Lippard’s initial archival intentions for PAD/D in favor of the more immediate and action-based activities. The most visible of PAD/D’s activities were their exhibition projects, discussed regularly in issues of UPFRONT and subsequently documented in the PAD/D archive.
One such exhibition, Death and Taxes (April 1–18, 1981), was an open call for responses to the US military budget. Though a slideshow and discussion was held at the 345 gallery, most of the works were displayed on the streets (an approach typical of the group). Artist Micki McGee printed images of troops and fighter jets onto blank tax forms before returning them to circulation. Another exhibitor, Lynn Hughes, added stickers to public pay phones detailing the portion (then 2%) of federal tax on calls that went directly to military spending.
Viewed from the present age of market driven self-promotion, PAD/D was strikingly self-reflective. Issue 9 of UPFRONT includes a discussion of PAD/D’s Not For Sale (NFS) project, a series of outdoor guerrilla art exhibits (entitled Out of Place: Art For the Evicted) displayed throughout the Lower East Side. In an effort to discuss gentrification, abandoned buildings were given mock titles such as the “The Discount Salon,” “Another Gallery,” and “The Guggenheim Downtown,” their facades plastered with artworks. One such work, a parody of a monopoly card by Day Gleeson and Dennis Thomas, has since entered MoMA’s permanent collection. The introduction to UPFRONT’s discussion acknowledged that the NFS group had mixed opinions on the project’s success. “While some members describe it … as effective in pinpointing the artists’ role in gentrification … others feel that the show actually helped contribute to the problem, making the neighborhood even more ‘the place to be’ for those on the cultural edge.” Regardless of whether one can fault PAD/D’s individual actions or projects, the group did succeed in raising an awareness of the artist’s sociopolitical role in society. As PAD/D member Gregory Sholette surmised in his conversation with Hyperallergic, “we put on the table the notion that artists could align themselves with cultural activists. The relationship between art and politics is taken for granted today, though back then it wasn’t at all.”
It’s fascinating, though historically treacherous, to view PAD/D’s forays into issues such as gentrification through the prism of the present. Sifting through the group’s archive, one inevitably contemplates the current debate surrounding neighborhoods such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick. In another instance of foreshadowing, some eight years before the advent of the Culture Wars in the early ’90s, the group found itself at the center of a scandal within the National Endowment of the Arts. In 1982, UPFRONT had been approved for a modest grant by the NEA’s peer-review panel. NEA Chairman Frank Hodsoll, appointed by President Ronald Reagan the year before, withdrew the grant. Never in the NEA’s history had the chairman personally intervened to reverse a grant issued by the panel. That year, Hodsoll rescinded a total of four grants, almost all of which were for social programming, including an approval for the feminist journal Heresies, with which Lippard was also affiliated. The art world balked at what appeared to be an overt politicization of the grant decision process. “Of course it’s political,” Lippard stated in a February 1983 interview in Afterimage, “but we’re going to do the program without the NEA — this just proves there’s a need for it.”
PAD/D technically remained active up to 1988 when its non-profit 501(c)3 status expired, although by most accounts the group’s activities began to wind down around late 1987. In a cruel irony, PAD/D eventually received a small grant which it used to produce the last and most lavish issue of UPFRONT. The group had turned to a number of fundraising methods, including at one point a tithe for members. I asked Mimi Smith why PAD/D members were disinterested in gallery representation. “I know it sounds stupid, but I didn’t really think about it much. We didn’t need the money,” she said. Sensing my incredulity, Smith continued: “It was such a different time and place. You couldn’t imagine it compared to now. It was cheap to live, cheap to work. The nonprofits were the most interesting places to show. You could do whatever you wanted. When I came up it was idea driven. Now it’s totally market driven. You’re either blue chip or you’re nothing.”
For many PAD/D members, the pressing needs of family and work took precedence. As Lippard put it during our interview, “people got tired and burnt out.” In the the group’s final statement, PAD/D described its demise as “a paradox all too typical of the left cultural movement. We seem to have reached the end of yet another cycle of organizational energy.” In Kearns’s opinion, the landscape of the art world had changed, with the art market becoming much as we recognize it today. “The interest in broader culture rarefied into gender politics, race, and the AIDS crisis. … The stars were being anointed out of various groups. The mainstream sucked them out,” Kearns said. Just as the group’s activities drew to a close, MoMA curator Deborah Wye approached PAD/D to discuss the museum’s upcoming exhibition, Committed to Print (January 31–April 19, 1988).
Committed to Print consisted of over 130 political posters, graphics, and artists’ books, with one room comprised entirely of material loaned from the PAD/D archive. The US section of the International Association of Critics voted it the second most significant exhibition of 1987–88. Mainstream reviewers were less kind. Hilton Kramer trashed it. Roberta Smith described the show’s achievement as “documentary and historical [rather] than esthetic.” Roger Kimball of The New Criterion branded the exhibition “a jumble of unadorned political propaganda without a shred of aesthetic interest.” Politics is a contentious business in the art world, and critics often have a hard time reconciling aesthetics with political persuasions. Art — as the cliché goes — is meant to be lofty and transcendental, whereas politics is terrestrial and messy. The contradiction often defines the ambivalence with which political art is received.
Following MoMA’s exhibition, conversation centered on the future of the PAD/D archive. Lippard approached Clive Phillpot, who advocated that the archive be donated to the museum. MoMA agreed. The caveat was that once the archive was interred, its content would remain static. Thus, the material in the archive dates from between 1979 and ’90. Armed with a modest stipend and a desk placed under one of the museum’s staircases, Barbara Moore and Mimi Smith returned to prepare the material for the hand over.
Moore and Smith had remained steadfast in their dedication to the archive throughout PAD/D’s active existence. While other members had become bored of tedious filing and organizing, Moore and Smith persevered, becoming close friends in the process. Referring to the sexism of her milieu, Smith joked, “it was women’s work, and we were used to it.” Moore drew a feminist analogy. “It’s comparable to the role of the house wife … [The archive] was maintenance that we did. In society, maintenance work is considered a derogatory thing, which I don’t think it is. It’s the people in the background who are making what’s in the foreground happen,” she said.
A few years later, together with Clive Phillpot, Moore and Smith curated an exhibition of PAD/D ephemera at the MoMA library (June 1993–May 1994). To date, it constitutes the only institutional exhibition wholly dedicated to the group itself. When works by PAD/D are exhibited, it’s usually as part of a broader thematic show (such as Committed to Print, and most recently, the Whitney Museum’s I, You, We exhibition). Around 2011, Sabine Breitwieser, then a curator at MoMA, contacted PAD/D members with a view to possibly organizing an exhibition on the group. It never materialized. “Sabine left [the museum], and she was the one I was talking to,” Lippard explained via email. “I suspect that without a champion it fell through the cracks for obvious reasons.” Visiting the archive at MoMA QNS today, it’s clear that researchers browse the archive for reference to individual artists or other collectives; there are files dedicated to notable artists such as Hans Haacke, Nancy Spero, The Guerrilla Girls, and even the Clash. Only a few PAD/D members can recall being approached by an academic or student with an interest in the group itself. “You could probably count on two hands the number of times that its been referenced,” mused Sholette.
In recent years, Sholette has revisited and chronicled the group’s activities on his website, darkmatterarchives.net, which includes PDFs of UPFRONT along with other contemporaneous publications such as World War 3, Red Herring, and Left Curve. For Sholette, the term “dark matter” (the title of his 2011 book on art and politics), stands in for the artists and collectives whose work goes unrecognized, forgotten, or ignored by the art world. The term was originally coined by astrophysicists to describe the invisible but detectable mass that theoretically makes up most of the universe.
So why has PAD/D been largely forgotten? The group’s antithesis to the market would have played a role. Another reason is that collectives are tricky for art historians and curators to chronicle. In an industry that lauds marketable individuals, collectives require a careful consideration of interpersonal relationships and aesthetic differences. It helps if collectives have a readily identifiable aesthetic, which PAD/D certainly didn’t have. “If PAD/D had an aesthetic,” Sholette mused, “it was carnivalesque. Traditional art historians would have a hard time with that.”
Perhaps the simplest explanation as to why PAD/D has slipped into obscurity, is also the most obvious. Politics.
“I always hated the label ‘political.’ It’s anathema,” Kearns told me. “We did not sit around having political discussions. We were not political in that way. We were cultural. You could look at our events and see the politics.” I asked Sholette whether the attitude towards political art has anything do with our understanding of propaganda: “We thought of ourselves as doing propaganda, seeking to de-stigmatize that concept. All art is political, it’s a question of whether this art is this propaganda or that propaganda. We were using art to promote our cultural and political perspectives. If other artists accused us of producing propaganda, we would have said, ‘and so are you’! Did that turn people off? Probably, sure.”
Dark Matter touches on the role of the internet and its capacity to illuminate forgotten histories. Indeed, were it not for Sholette’s online resources, this very article may never have come to fruition. As museum collections are digitized and made freely available, the potential for rewriting traditional art histories increases exponentially. “MoMA has to have a dead body in the crypt that it can point to and say, ‘we’ve covered all the bases,’” Sholette told me. “When it starts coming back to life and turning into a zombie, then they have a problem. It’s happening more and more now in collections. All this stuff has become the walking dead.” Mimi Smith’s final statement from our interview echoes in my mind: “The archive is in a place that will forever be there, and perhaps no one will show it much attention. But maybe one day, someone will see it, and will.”