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|Born||1961 (age 51–52)
Liberty, New York
Zoe Leonard (born 1961) is an American artist who works primarily with photography and sculpture. She has exhibited extensively since the late 1980s in institutions around the world, and has been included in some of the most seminal exhibitions of recent decades, including Documenta IX and Documenta XII, as well as the 1993 and 1997 Whitney biennials.
Zoe Leonard was born in 1961 in Liberty, New York. At 16, she dropped out of school and started taking photographs. She has spent most of her adult life living in New York City, whose built environment has been the subject matter of much of her work (e.g. sidewalks, storefronts, apartment buildings, chain link fences, graffiti, and boarded up windows.) Leonard became well-known internationally following her installation at Documenta IX in 1992, for which she removed classical paintings of men from the walls of the Neue Galerie in Kassel and replaced them with small black and white photographs of women's genitals, which were hung alongside various portraits of women which remained on the museum’s walls.
From her earliest aerial photographs to her images of museum displays, anatomical models, and fashion shows, much of Leonard’s work reflects on the framing, classifying, and ordering of vision. She explains in a recent interview: “Rather than any one subject or genre (landscape, portrait, still life, etc), I was, and remain, interested in engaging a simultaneous questioning of both subject and vantage point, the relation between viewer and world — in short, subjectivity and how it informs our experience of the world.”
Leonard was active in AIDS advocacy and queer politics in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, as a member of ACT-UP and as a founding member of the Feminist collectives fierce pussy and GANG. In 1995 she staged an exhibition at her studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan which featured the work Strange Fruit, an installation of various fruit skins (oranges, bananas, grapefruits, lemons) that Leonard saved and then sewed together by hand with wire and thread. Strange Fruit grew out of a deeply personal response to the losses of the AIDS epidemic (including the death of Leonard’s longtime friend David Wojnarowicz), and as a meditation on mourning, it became a seminal work of the 1990s. Strange Fruit was exhibited in 1998 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it currently resides.
During the mid-1990s Leonard spent two years living in a remote part of Alaska, an experience that influenced much of her later artwork, which often foregrounds relationships between humans and the natural world. The tree in particular has been an ongoing motif in Leonard’s practice, ranging from a “reconstructed” tree which she installed in Vienna’s Seccession in 1997 to numerous photographs of urban trees mangled in chain-link and razor wire fences.
Between 1998 and 2009 Leonard worked on Analogue, a monumental project that began as she started to photograph small storefronts around her home in New York City, many of which were rapidly vanishing as a result of urban gentrification. The project eventually took Leonard to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America as she followed the circulation of various consumer products with her Rolleiflex camera. The final work comprises an installation of 412 C-prints and gelatin silver prints (in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Reina Sofia, Madrid), a book (published by the Wexner Center and MIT Press), and a portfolio of 40 dye-transfer prints. Influenced by Eugene Atget and Walker Evans but born out of a 21st-century re-consideration of the role of photography, Analogue explores transformations in global labor, trade, and social relationships in parallel with the shift from analogue to digital image-making. Holland Cotter described the experience of the work in The New York Times in 2009:
“In her straight-ahead photographs of storefronts, an arrangement of shoes or shrink-wrapped furniture becomes a vanitas still life. A hand-painted shop sign becomes a relic. Over several photographs, we sense that an unnamed neighborhood — Ms. Leonard expanded her field work to include East Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights — is packing up to leave. A city’s material culture is doing a vanishing act. And where is the material going? Back to a version of the world it came from. Many of the cut-rate goods sold in the Lower East Side shops originated in urban sweatshops in China and Pakistan and are eventually passed on as surplus to other poor cities in Africa and Central America. In the wraparound grid of pictures in Analogue we follow recycled clothes from Brooklyn to the city of Kampala in Uganda, where they are sold as new in stores like the Money Is Life House of Garments.”
Analogue was first exhibited in 2007 at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and at Documenta XII in Kassel, Germany, followed by presentations at Villa Arson in Nice, and Dia at the Hispanic Society in New York. Analogue was also included in a major touring retrospective of Leonard’s work which originated in 2007 at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, and later traveled to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; MuMOK — Museum Moderner Kunst Stifting Ludwig, Vienna; and Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.
More recent exhibitions have included You See I Am Here After All at Dia: Beacon (2009), Observation Point, Camden Arts Centre, London (2012), and a forthcoming installation at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas (2013-2014.) An insightful writer and a pre-eminent thinker on the discipline of photography, texts by Leonard have appeared in LTTR, October, and Texte zur Kunst, and in recent monographs on Agnes Martin, James Castle and Josiah McElheny. She is co-chair of Photography at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.
- Zoe Leonard: You See I Am here After All (with texts by Ann Reynolds, Angela Miller, Lytle Shaw, and Lynne Cooke), Dia Art Foundation, New York; Yale University Press, New Haven, CT and London, UK, 2010
- Zoe Leonard: Analogue, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, MIT Press, 2007
- Zoe Leonard: Photographs (with texts by Svetlana Alpers, Elisabeth Lebovici, Urs Stahel), Fotomuseum Winterthur, Steidl, 2007
- Zoe Leonard (with text by Elisabeth Lebovici), Centre national de la photographie, Paris, France, 1998
- Zoe Leonard, (with interview by Anna Blume), Secession, Vienna, 1997
- Zoe Leonard, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, 1997
- Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit, Paula Cooper Gallery, NY, 1995
- Information: Zoe Leonard (with text by Jutta Koether), Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, 1991
- "Zoe Leonard -- Photographs", e-flux, November 30, 2007, retrieved May 13, 2010
- Hammond, Harmony (2000). Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History. New York: Rizzoli International Publications. p. 80. ISBN 0-8478-2248-6.
- Beyfus, Drusilla (February 11, 2010), "Zoe Leonard: Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010", The Daily Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Limited), retrieved May 13, 2010
- Elisabeth Lebovici & Zoe Leonard. "The Politics of Contemplation". Murray Guy, New York. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
- "Museum Acquires 'Strange Fruit' And A Group Of Photographs By Zoe Leonard", Philadelphia Museum of Art, retrieved May 16, 2010
- Debord, Matthew (January 1999), "Zoe Leonard talks about her recent work", ArtForum (Artforum International Magazine, Inc.), retrieved May 15, 2010
- Godfrey, Mark (March 2008). "Mirror Displacements: The Art of Zoe Leonard". Artforum. Retrieved July 9, 2013.
- Coter, Holland (March 5, 2009). "Change and Permanence, Captured by Cameras". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 July 2013.