PASADENA, CA — Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, and Barbara T. Smith were in the first MFA program at the University of California, Irvine, in 1969. Run by Robert Irwin in the then-undeveloped ranch lands of Orange County, the studios not even built yet, it was a hotbed of experimental art. The work of the three artists, whose decades-long practices span performance, painting, video, and sculpture, is the subject of the group exhibition how we are in time and space at the Armory Center for the Arts. 

While conventional histories tend to isolate art-making as a solitary pursuit, art is as much the product of communities as it is of individuals. What the exhibition calls “empathic overlaps” are in fact the ways in which artists shared ideas, materials, spaces, and bodies as communal resources in the creation of a new avant-garde art. Between the three artists are multiple and intersecting connections, as they shared studio and exhibition spaces, babysat each other’s children, and took part in one another’s work. “I was most interested in choosing the objects that most elegantly articulated the relationships between them,” curator Michael Ned Holte said in conversation. “Some of them are very explicit connections, collaborations, portraits of one another, and then in some cases, they’re more oblique or inferred.”

Installation view of how we are in time and space at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena. Pictured: Nancy Buchanan and Barbara T. Smith, “With Love from A to B” (1977) (photo by Ian Byers-Gamber, courtesy Armory Center for the Arts)

Buchanan and Smith, part of the emerging Southern California performance art scene, were among the founders of F Space, the Santa Ana industrial park where Chris Burden infamously shot himself in the shoulder. The two later went on to share a space at the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park. The exhibition features their 1977 collaborative video installation “With Love from A to B,” a black and white single shot featuring two pairs of hands enacting a tabletop romance, as well as footage of Buchanan’s 1974 performance “Please Sing Along,” which had the two artists fighting in karate uniforms on exercise mats before melting into an embrace.

Though Hafif was primarily known as a minimalist painter, and left California for New York shortly after graduate school, one of Holte’s inspirations for the show was her 1970–77 Super-8 film Notes on Bob and Nancy, which documented the lives of Buchanan and her then-boyfriend, Robert Walker, as they went about their daily business. Another classmate, the critic Barbara Rose, also appears in the film. Hafif, in turn, later mailed Buchanan a plastic bag of her hair to use as an art material. (For a dinner party, Buchanan once asked Smith what she could bring. “She said ‘Hair!’ so I brought a big garbage bag full,” said Buchanan. “Barbara then sent friends envelopes that contained some hair and instructions to forward the hair to me.”) 

Installation view of how we are in time and space at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena (photo Anya Ventura/Hyperallergic)

In many ways, this cross-pollination was of the zeitgeist. The narrowing line between art and life, the feminist emphasis on the lived and personal, and the transformation of the social event into its own aesthetic category all fed into a collaborative ethos. “We helped each other by attending the performances because there was no audience for this,” said Smith. “You’re sitting there with all this work you want people to see, well, then, get another friend or two together and have a show in someone’s backyard. Don’t let the art world ruin you.”

At the same time, each artist followed her own distinct path, every one deserving its own major retrospective. Organized around common themes of dwelling, communication, and the body, Holte has managed to condense what he calls “150 years of collective art making” into a single impressive exhibition. In documenting the affinities between the three women’s work, it reveals how art is made possible not only by individuals but also the institutions and personal relationships — the complex physical and emotional infrastructures — we rely on to survive.

Ephemera case in how we are in time and space at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena (photo Anya Ventura/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of how we are in time and space at the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena. Pictured: Marcia Hafif, Notes on Bob and Nancy (1970-77), Super 8 film transferred to video, with sound, 60 minutes (courtesy the estate of the artist and Fergus McCaffrey, New York. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber, courtesy Armory Center for the Arts)
Nancy Buchanan, “Hair Art, Dirty Art” (1974), photograph (courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles)
Marcia Hafif, Notes on Bob and Nancy (1970-77), Super 8 film transferred to video, with sound, 60 minutes, installation photo at Armory Center for the Arts (courtesy the estate of the artist and Fergus McCaffrey, New York. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber, courtesy Armory Center for the Arts)

how we are in time and space: Nancy Buchanan, Marcia Hafif, and Barbara T. Smith continues at the Armory Center for the Arts (145 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, California) through June 12. The exhibition was curated by Michael Ned Holte.

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Anya Ventura

Anya Ventura is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.