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The Dropout Piece

Lee Lozano, circa 1971
Mark Graham

Even by graveyard standards, the Southland Memorial Park in Grand Prairie is a desolate place, littered with decaying tree branches and beer cans and stray dogs that piss on tombstones. On this clear, crisp November morning, the sun seems to shine around the cemetery without ever making it through the gates. The sound of a new roof being laid upon a home nearby only adds to the surreal setting -- the constant bap-bap-bapbapbap-bap of the nail gun, the voices of workers that rise and fall. This is where death comes to die.

Dallas County uses this cemetery to dump its discarded, its unwanted and unclaimed. It's where the homeless are buried without headstones to mark their final resting places. God help the poor soul looking for the departed here without the aid of the gravedigger, whose only map consists of three rows of squares inscribed on a manila folder. Inside each square is the name of the dead and the date of burial. The gravedigger points to one: "Knaster 10/5/99."

"This is the head," says the groundskeeper, who introduces himself as Jose. He holds the map and a tape measure, pointing to the spot in the ground -- or so he guesses -- where the woman once known as Lenore Knaster was buried on October 5. He points again. "And this is the feet."

About two dozen bodies lie beneath this mound of black dirt, none identified beyond the squares on the map. Only a few feet away is a house, its limp gray wooden fence the only separation between the living and the dead. A sulking brown dog in a back yard stands guard over Lenore Knaster, barking whenever anyone approaches her grave.

Surely, the woman buried beneath this loose dirt is the only person in Southland Memorial Park to have received an obituary in The New York Times. She is most likely the only person in this cemetery to have been feted in New York during the 1960s, when she ranked among the world's most celebrated and confounding conceptual artists, garnering rave reviews in such publications as Art News and Artforum.

But none of that matters now. Not when someone can only guess where you're buried.

Trying to locate Lenore Knaster in death is as difficult as trying to piece together her life, especially the last 27 years of it -- when Knaster, then known by her married name, Lee Lozano, abandoned New York City for parts unknown and finally settled in Dallas.

Lenore Knaster -- or Lee Lozano, or simply E, or whatever one chooses to call the woman who wanted no part of any of these names -- did not quite disappear. Too many vestigial traces remain to describe her existence in such dramatic terms. If nothing else, there are the court documents, the medical records, and the letters to lawyers that prove she did indeed walk among us, even if hers were tiny steps that have since washed away.

There is, of course, her art -- the drawings and the paintings, the journal entries, the private diaries meant to be read by no one. During the 1960s, she showed in the most prestigious of New York's galleries and museums, until one day she decided she wanted nothing more to do with the commodification of her work. Her writings became her work; soon enough, her life became her art, around the time she decided to stop talking to women and opted to leave behind the world that once embraced her. Even now, nearly an entire decade of her life remains unaccounted for.

Only within recent years has the art world welcomed her back into its good graces -- without Knaster present to explain herself. She was long gone by then, ensconced in Dallas apartments and hospitals and nursing homes, with only her dope and the occasional boyfriend to keep her company. And, perhaps, a madness that would go undiagnosed by doctors but not unnoticed by anyone who came in contact with her.

Even in life, Knaster was a ghost, haunting her poor, tormented parents until the final moments of their own lives. Her cousin Mark Kramer refers to her as "The Ghost of Greenville Avenue," since she often could be found wandering that Dallas street, where those who came across her thought she was nothing but a lost, lonely homeless woman.

How, then, to answer the most inexplicable question of all: Why is this woman, once a colleague and confidant of some of the modern art world's most prestigious names, buried 68 years after her birth in a Grand Prairie cemetery where not even angels could find her? Not even those who knew her best -- which is to say, hardly at all -- can explain that mystery.  

"She disappeared and died many, many years ago, as far as the art world is concerned," says Jaap van Liere, a New York City-based dealer who began representing Knaster in the early 1980s. "She was extraordinarily private and impossible to pin down. There are 10 years of her life I don't know anything about. It's hopeless. I spent 10 years working with her, and there is still so much I don't know. And I don't know who does."

"Lee Lozano, 68, Conceptual Artist Who Boycotted Women" -- that's what the Times' headline read, as though that's all she will be remembered for. She was noteworthy enough to warrant the obituary, and forgotten enough to merit only a few small paragraphs that focused on the more sensational aspects of her life.

But in the end, she got what she wanted.

When she was a young woman, before she became Lee Lozano, Lenore Knaster was a skilled painter. Not so long after that, she put down her instruments, shunned all of her names, and began living her art.

She called it "The Dropout Piece."

"WIN FIRST DONT LAST

WIN LAST DONT CARE"

-- from the journals of Lee Lozano

It is tempting to sensationalize the artist's life, to render it in shocking blacks and striking whites -- so much violence, so much madness, and, at the end, so much pain. The Art Institute of Chicago's James Rondeau, who curated the most extensive showing of Lozano's work only a year ago at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, warns against such over-dramatization. But that is because Rondeau is concerned only with the art, with what he can hold and see. He once made it his life's work to preserve her images, at least those one can hang on a wall.

In his essay accompanying last year's exhibit at the Wadsworth, Rondeau deals solely with her work, concentrating on her "Wave Series" paintings, which were renderings of electromagnetic impulses, and her detailed journal entries. Of her life after New York, Rondeau writes only this: "After leaving New York City in the early 1970s, Lozano eventually settled in Dallas, Texas." Though he spent months researching the artist, he discovered little about Lozano beyond the work she left behind. But Rondeau also chose to keep a distance from the life story.

"I wanted to desensationalize the work," he says. "We don't indict quality or worth by the vagrancies of the biography. She's a woman, an older woman, who had removed herself from the mainstream. I am always trying to keep the other stuff at bay in order to keep her from being cast as the local kook."

Yes, but once you look beneath the surface, it's hard to keep the other stuff at a distance for long. Indeed, one might say the other stuff defined her. To separate the art from the artist would do both a disservice: If Lee Lozano is an artist worth remembering, then why push aside Lenore Knaster? They are the same person, sharing the same talent, the same madness, the same sad end. Rondeau and the New York art world may choose to remember Lee Lozano, but only because her story has a better ending.

Her own self-penned biography is nothing but a sketch. Contained within one of her meticulously kept journals is a bio that reveals everything and absolutely nothing.

"Only true name: Nov. 5, 1930, 4:25 PM, Newark, N.J."

She was the only child of Rosemond and Sidney Knaster. Her father worked as a mid-level furniture buyer for the once mighty Bamberger's department store. Three days after her birth, Sidney and Rosemond (or "Rookie," as she was known) named their child Lenore. That, wrote Lenore, was the first time her name was changed; it would not be the last. Fourteen years later, in December 1944, she would begin referring to herself as Lee Knaster. The reason, she wrote: "Rejection of traditional middleclass female trip."

By all accounts, hers was a rather benign upper-middle-class existence in New Jersey -- though, when she was a teenager, Lenore was tremendously overweight. Doctors would place her on thyroid medication, which she would take for much of her young adult life. Before long, she became impossibly thin, a stick figure replacing the round child.

According to Mark Kramer, his uncle Sidney was an odd sort -- crusty on the outside, fragile beneath the harsh exterior. Kramer recalls that Sidney liked to write poetry and ride horses, and that he was a self-hating Jew.

"Sid was a real middle-management Willy Loman," Kramer recalls of his mother's brother. "He had an attitude, so he never got above the mid-level buyer echelon. Back in Newark in the '40s, when Newark was a bustling metropolis, Sid smarted off to an important executive at Bamberger's, and it haunted him the rest of his life."  

In 1948, Lenore enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she studied science and philosophy. Three years later, by which time her parents had moved to Detroit, she received her bachelor's degree in liberal studies. Lenore had decided to stay in Chicago after school, and in 1952 went to work at the Container Corp. of America, the legendary product-packaging firm where many young artists began their careers, toiling in the art-direction department.

There, while laying out ads, she met Adrian Lozano, among the company's most respected designers and a prominent muralist. They began a casual friendship, though Adrian, a Mexican-American who had fought in World War II, always hoped it would become something more. He recalls even now, almost 50 years after their initial meeting, how strikingly beautiful and frail Lenore was.

"She looked like she needed someone to watch over her," recalls Adrian, an architect with his own firm in Berwyn, Illinois. "Women in the department were very jealous and always saying bad things about her. They didn't latch on to her too well, for whatever reason. Maybe they thought she was standoffish or uppity -- and she wasn't, not particularly. She wasn't super-gregarious, but she made friends easily, as we found out in Europe years later. In Spain, the men were always following her and wanting to talk to her."

Lenore and Adrian became close when Lozano's first wife, Gloria, hanged herself in the early 1950s. Gloria and Lenore knew each other only casually, but Adrian recalls that Lenore became fascinated with the suicide. She considered it so dramatic -- so Virginia Woolf. When Adrian began seeing a psychiatrist after Gloria's death, Lenore became even more fascinated, insisting Adrian tell her everything he had told his shrink. When he refused, simply because his therapist told him it wasn't wise, Lenore was infuriated.

Soon enough, theirs became a romantic relationship.

"I was looking for stability," Adrian recalls. "Lee and I commiserated, and when my first wife hanged herself, Lee was very supportive."

But Adrian was concerned about Lenore's weight. She had stopped eating and become so thin that she stopped menstruating. Many times he found himself telling her, "We've got to get you back to being the beautiful woman you are." Finally, doctors put her on massive doses of vitamin B.

Not long before the couple married in 1956, Lenore became pregnant. But she refused to have the baby, telling Adrian she never wanted to have a family. She decided to have an abortion, something she would later write about in her journals -- only to cross it out, as though it never happened. Adrian knew children were impractical for them at the time, but he was "partially disappointed" with her decision.

When the couple finally wed, Lenore told Adrian one thing: In five years, she was leaving for New York.

He forgot all about it.

"Information is content. Content is fiction."

-- Lee Lozano, July 1971

There is no single defining moment -- that flash when the sane little girl became the crazy old woman, when the fissure opened that would forever separate the two. If anything, hers was a life built upon the slow burn. One moment she is a bright student with great potential; the next, she is that lunatic cruising Greenville Avenue bars, scouring the Winedale Tavern for young boys to shack up with, if only for the night.

Roll back the calendar 43 years, and see the beautiful, frail woman with whom Adrian Lozano fell instantly in love. There's not a hint of "madness" there -- only energy, desire, light. The husband, even now, recalls theirs was "a pretty happy and pretty normal marriage."

It began so wonderfully, with Adrian on his way to becoming a revered architect, and with Lenore -- now known as Lee Lozano -- enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sure, by 1957, she began psychoanalysis, but it lasted a mere two years; nothing wrong with Adrian's gal. She was constantly working by then, painting with oil and charcoal. She stayed up all night, impressing her new husband with her work -- even though she would often run her finger across the wet paint, "ruining" her work, in his estimation. The student, he recalls, had suddenly blossomed into a mature artist, cagey and inventive, so much so that during a trip to the Art Institute, the Queen of England sought out Lee, spoke with her for a few moments, and asked her some questions about her work.

"That was the high point," Adrian says. "I mean, the Queen of England comes by, pauses, talks to you, shakes your hand, and asks you a question. Lee was excited. She told everyone."  

But their marriage was not to last. Not because of any strife, not because the two did not love each other, but simply because Lee had decided she could no longer live in Chicago. Adrian might have forgotten about her pronouncement, but Lee had not. She had written it down on their wedding night. She was going to New York, with or without him.

Adrian was well ensconced in Chicago and couldn't leave; Lee, who was already meeting with artists in an old warehouse in what would eventually become known as SoHo in Manhattan, was to go without him. But before they split, the couple decided to travel Europe together for a few months -- their last hurrah. It was, for the most part, a lovely trip -- Christmas in Madrid, stops in France and Italy, visits to every enormous museum and minuscule gallery along the way. But it did not end well. Adrian wanted to visit England, but Lee had become enamored of Florence and stayed there. When Adrian came back to retrieve her a couple of weeks later, Lee had lost 20 pounds. She had, again, stopped eating. "She had destructive tendencies," Adrian recalls.

At the beginning of 1960, the couple returned to the United States -- Adrian to Chicago, Lee to New York. She called and told her husband where to send her belongings.

"My feelings about the whole thing were very vague," Adrian says. "I stayed for another year in our apartment, then moved out. She came back for a while, and we said, 'Let's see what we can do.' After a week, she said, 'I hate Chicago, and I'm going to New York.' We said goodbye again, and I packed all her things. It was not to be."

She would call every now and then, telling Adrian about some new friends she met, some new piece she was working on, some exhibit she was preparing.

Then, she stopped calling.

Many years later, Adrian would begin hearing from mutual acquaintances about...how does he put it? Ah, yes. Episodes.

"Seek the extreme," Lee wrote in her journal in April 1969. "That's where all the action is."

At the beginning of the 1960s, she found herself in New York City's anything-goes world -- a place where society's existing definitions of art were quickly sliding into the gutters. In such a place, painters would lay down their brushes in order to create. She sought such freedom, such action. Finally, she would become it.

But, from most accounts, Lee's first years in Manhattan were tranquil ones, those of a child first learning to walk just before she discovers she can run. Upon moving to Manhattan, Lee ended up living in a building on Grand Street where rats outnumbered tenants. Before long, she had become friends with artists considered, even then, among the most talented and notorious of the conceptualists: Sol LeWitt, Hollis Frampton, Carl Andre, and Dan Graham. By 1964, she was appearing in her first group show at the respected Green Gallery in Manhattan; two years later, she had her first solo exhibition.

An artist's work is often more subjective than the artist's place in history. The progenitors of conceptual art are a tricky lot to place along art's walk of fame. To the conceptualist, anything was art -- snippets of wire laid out on a floor, letters to friends, chalk circles, enlarged maps, math problems, the act of talking with friends.

Lucy Lippard, who would begin curating shows and featuring Lee's work, insists that Lee Lozano was "the major female figure in New York in the 1960s," the leading conceptualist among her gender. But her later self-imposed exile from the world that spawned her career is no way to maintain presence in the minds of those keeping track of careers. On the other hand, perhaps Lozano's absolute dedication to living her art made her one of the most convincing conceptual artists.

Even Robert Hughes, longtime art columnist for Time, didn't know what to make of Lozano in the wake of her willful obscurity. "Perhaps the most touching radical gesture of the time was made by New York artist Lee Lozano," Hughes wrote in his 1980 survey on modern art, Shock of the New, "who announced the enaction of a 'piece' in which she would 'gradually but determinedly avoid being present at official or public uptown functions...' What became of this Timon, the record does not show." (A later version of the book would omit the last sentence.)

But in the past several years, the record has surfaced, in the form of a survey of Lozano's paintings organized and displayed by several cooperating New York and Connecticut art spaces in 1998 and the ensuing press. Not to mention her recent death -- the kind of finality that nearly always sheds new light and perspective on an artist's achievements. The jury on Lozano may never assemble for a final verdict, but that's as much because of her uncategorizable artwork as it is her leaving the scene of the crime.  

Her earliest work, the pieces she began while attending the Art Institute of Chicago and during her first years in New York, took a far more tangible form than her later offerings. She was initially noticed for her paintings, the first of which were quasi-figurative and psycho-sexual, combining transmogrified body parts with cartoonish overtones and suggestions of violence and tension; her works had names like Hard, Stiff, Tight, Butt, and Hack.

Thematically, these works hinted at things to come, once her painting gave way to pure concept. Still, she made that leap only after a notable transitional phase, around 1967, best illustrated in her "Wave Series."

Lozano's "Wave Series" paintings, the 11 primary canvases completed between 1967 and 1970, are the most visible of the artist's canon, though in some ways the least fascinating. Large, dense, and dark, their vacillating lines and shapes echo the patterns of sound waves. The images reflected Lozano's beliefs that art was inseparable from the nature of physics.

Her personal journals are crammed with notes on the development of the waves, and trial and error prevails: "Boy is it ugly" and "Can't think, can't write, can't draw" are the notes scattered among her charted and graphed studies for the series, along with "Trite!" and "Oh, fuck protecting the edges." Once it was complete, Lozano made specific requests for how the series should be displayed (leaning against black walls instead of hung) and lighted (dimly), hoping to foster a sense of ringing and diminishing sonic tone. This done, she finally divorced herself from paint and any other tangible medium, and turned her full attention to the emergence of conceptual art.

"Lozano's 'conceptual' work, conceived simultaneously with the end of a large series of paintings on wave phenomena, combine art and life to an extreme extent," Lucy Lippard wrote in her 1972 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object. "Her art, it has been said, becomes the means by which to transform her life and, by implication, the lives of others and of the planet itself."

By then, conceptual art, which had its roots earlier in the century in Marcel Duchamp's re-labeled urinal and Dada, had swollen into a movement. The loose-knit international conglomerate of artists known as Fluxus was doing all manner of idea-based art. Joseph Beuys was murmuring about the horrors of war into the slack ears of roadkill, Chris Burden was having himself nailed to the roof of a car, Vito Acconci was masturbating under a gallery floor. As long as these recognized artists declared their actions artistic and purposeful, the public was charged with accepting it as a valid art form.

It remains unclear whether Lozano considered her own actions part of this movment, or whether hers were the exploits of a deteriorating mind. She never became incoherent, never stopped functioning, never lost her sense of humor. But even she couldn't help but notice her own altered state. In an entry from her private journals, she wrote that on February 22, 1969, "My mind snapped. My ribbon reversed." Later, she offers that she "shuffled my brain, dealt it, got a better hand." Around that time, she would leave behind the world of canvases and decide hers would be the art of action. New York was still the epicenter of evolving art forms, but Lozano would one-up the scene and the scenesters by ditching them -- and declaring that art.

On February 8, 1969, she began work on her "General Strike Piece"; she had decided she would no longer attend "public 'uptown' functions or gatherings related to the 'art world.'" As she explained in her journals, she was about to embark on a life of "total personal & public revolution." She began withdrawing even from shows that her closest friends were putting together. She wrote in her journals, "I have started to document everything because I cannot give up my love of ideas." As Rondeau points out in his essay, Lozano, like many of her colleagues, believed art "could be created in conversation, in political action, or even in thought."

In the months that followed came "Grass Piece" (smoke pot continually for more than a month and keep a record of her state of mind); "Cash Piece" (what would happen if she passed around money to her visitors as though it were an appetizer); "Party Piece" (describe your latest art idea to a failing artist to see whether he "cops" it for himself); "Dialogue Piece" (invite people over and just talk). She insisted that the last was "the closest so far to an ideal I have of a kind of art."  

She filled page after page with often hilarious detail: "This feeling wasted might be from smoking so much grass," she wrote in April 1969, three weeks into "Grass Piece." A month later, she began work on "No-Grass Piece."

These undertakings, because of her increasing loner status, went largely unnoticed in the art world. Nonetheless, she carefully documented her ideas and their intent.

It was perhaps the grandest contradiction in the life of a woman full of them. On September 23, 1969, she wrote in her diaries that "people (in some ways) are more important than art." Yet, in the years to come, she would cut them out of her life -- and, in the case of her parents, ruin their lives. "Maybe I could live as though people are more important than art. Perhaps what's been wrong is that I havent [sic] lived this way."

Only a few months later, Lee Lozano apparently changed her mind.

"The Dropout Piece," conceived at the beginning of 1970, was, for all purposes, the apex of her career. Disillusioned by the bastardization of art as commerce, disgusted with the cliché categorizing of both art and the people who make it, and seemingly driven by a sort of misanthropic compulsion, she protested by disengaging herself from any social or cultural scene or cash-yielding art endeavors.

"It was inevitable...that I do the Dropout (note the pun) Piece," Lee wrote in her private journals, on April 5, 1970. "It had been churning for a long time but I think it's abt [sic] to blow. Dropout Piece is the hardest work I have ever done [in] that it involves destruction of (or at least complete understanding of) powerful emotional habits. I want to get over my habit of emotional dependence on love. I want to start trusting myself & others more. I want to believe that I have power & complete my own fate." There are several words crossed out between "complete" and "my own fate."

In August 1971, she began her "Boycott Piece." Initially, she intended to stop speaking to women for one week. She claimed in her journals that this would "make communication better than ever" with women. But the concept kept growing -- first a week, then a month, then forever. For 28 years, she never again had civil conversations with women -- not just because she was a misogynist, but because she adored the notion of carrying her pieces to the most extreme conclusion. According to Mark Kramer, she wouldn't even enter a shop if a woman was behind the counter.

In the end, Lozano's body of work comes off as confounding and determined as the artist herself, as sad and alienated as it is razor-sharp. If the validity or success of art can be gauged by how well it achieves its goals and embodies its maker, then we can consider Lozano one of the most effective artists of her time. If you go for that sort of thing.

Perhaps there is someone out there who knows what happened to Lenore Knaster/Lee Lozano from 1971 to 1982. Maybe there are a handful of people, or a hundred.

Or maybe Lee got just what she wanted when, at the end of 1971, she left her home at 60 Grand Street and, well, dropped out. Mark Kramer insists his cousin left New York because her so-called patron, Max's Kansas City founder Mickey Ruskin, died, leaving her with no more "free lunches."

Kramer would later ask his cousin where she had gone, but she was secretive even with her own flesh and blood. Jaap van Liere has heard that she went to London or Belgium. But he can't be sure, and she never told him what happened to her during that lost decade.

"Her life, her mysterious life, was not something she shared with me," van Liere says. "She made this transition out of New York, but in a way that I can't give you specifics. I can't tell you what happened in 1972, 1974, 1975. Do I find that odd? Yes and no. People are very private about their lives. Artists go into their own world, and you just don't know what they do."

It would be easy and so very tempting to speculate what happened to Lee during that lost decade -- perhaps some (or a dozen) love affairs went wildly wrong; perhaps her pot habit gave way to something much harder. Perhaps. Maybe.  

A friend of the family's hints at some illness she contracted during that period, but she doesn't know what it might have been. All she or anyone else knows is that in 1982, Lee arrived in Dallas to be with her mother and father, who once again would be forced to take care of their little girl.

Her parents had moved here 22 years earlier: Sidney and Rosemond Knaster left Detroit for Dallas once Sid took a job at Sanger-Harris selling furniture. They lived in the Shenandoah Apartments, on Glencoe Street near Greenville and Mockingbird, where they had resided since coming here. The couple was neither rich nor poor, just middle class -- two people with enough money in the bank to live out their final years in absolute peace. They had redecorated their apartment, looked forward to taking one or two cruises. They hosted dinner parties and Thanksgivings with Mark and his mother. They liked being alone, together in their modest apartment.

Then, their 52-year-old daughter moved in with them. It was the last thing they ever wanted.

Mark Kramer was living in the same complex. He had moved from New York to Dallas in 1977: He was on his way from the East Village to San Francisco when he got "bogged down" in Dallas, taking such jobs as putting up displays in liquor stores and managing the Granada Theater. When his cousin, whom he had never met, showed up at his doorstep five years later looking like a paler, thinner version of punk-rock icon Joey Ramone, Kramer was shocked. And not a little delighted.

"I just saw her for what she was -- a pure, if mad, visitation from New York," says Kramer, a freelance writer in Manhattan. "She came directly from a barstool and arrived at my apartment in a swirl of pot smoke."

He recalls that the first words out of her mouth were: "I have relinquished my artistic identity." She also told him never to call her Lee again. From now on, she explained, her name was E. She told him that she no longer wanted anything to do with "the L universe," hence her new name.

Around the same time, in 1982, Lee's work was being shown once again in New York, this time at P.S. 1 Institute for Art and Urban Resources as part of a show titled Abstract Art of the Sixties. It was there Jaap van Liere and his partner Barry Rosen decided to represent her -- even though she had long since disappeared. When they finally tracked her down in Dallas, she was more than happy to allow them to show -- and even sell -- her work, as long as she had nothing to do with it.

For six years, until 1988, Lee did very little. She walked constantly, smoked cigarettes and pot constantly, and ate very, very little. "But she was lean, she was tough, she was strong," Kramer recalls.

Strong enough to tear apart a family.

When Lee showed up, it was as though an elephant had been let loose in the living room. She essentially trashed her parents' apartment, moving furniture to suit her whims. In an instant, Kramer says, "that household became a place of fear and denial and ultimately of terror."

The terror went on for years. It got so bad that on October 5, 1988, Sidney went to the Dallas County District Attorney's Office and filed for a protective order. He was scared to death of his daughter.

"On or about September 26, 1988 my daughter, Lee Knaster, threatened to hit me," Sidney scribbled. "In the past Lee has kicked me on my shins until they were bleeding. I am afraid of her and I feel if I do not get a protective order the violence will continue against me." He wanted her out of the apartment, and Sidney got his wish on October 10. Lee moved into an apartment in the same complex but was ordered to stay 500 feet away from her father.

On October 28, 1988, Sidney Knaster died of old age. Then, Lee turned her campaign of terror on her mother.

Marie Malouf worked with Sidney at Sanger-Harris. Sid liked Marie, who worked in human resources, and he trusted her -- so much so that he asked Malouf to became Rosemond's guardian shortly before his death. His wife needed medical attention, and Sid knew his daughter didn't care. Truth is, Sid was scared to death of leaving Rosemond with Lee.

"[Lee] didn't trust women, didn't like women," Malouf says. "She didn't like me at all. She saw me as a woman. I was a threat. She was so troubled, it's difficult to evaluate anything with her. They did everything they possibly could -- legally, morally, emotionally -- within their power to protect her and safeguard her...and she would trash the apartment and, on at least one occasion, knock her mother down. It was so painful for them. When she came back to Dallas, it was not as an acclaimed artist. She was just troubled."  

On June 14, 1990, at the age of 84, Rosemond Knaster finally escaped her daughter. She died in a nursing home, with about $24,000 to her name, much of which went to paying lawyers and doctors.

And then, Lee was alone. The lawyers handling her parents' estates gave her what little money they had left, paying her rent ($400 a month) and giving her an allowance of $25 per week. It was not long before the money ran out, if only because Lee never had any source of income -- unless van Liere and Rosen were lucky enough to sell one of her paintings, which even now tend to go for relatively little, a few thousand. Maybe.

They tried paying her rent for a while, but it wasn't long before Lee was evicted from her apartment.

"I worked with her for months, and the art dealers in New York would catch her up by selling a painting," says Jim Hewtell, the attorney who represents the apartment complex. "It also got to be a safety issue -- someone told me she had 50 candles in there lit, and I knew she wasn't stable. It was a safety issue. I had to let her be somebody else's problem."

For a while, Lee bounced around from one crappy apartment to another -- most likely, she lived with men she met during her cruising. Her apparent mental illness did not render her incomprehensible; she could, by all accounts, function quite normally when forced to do so. Her caretakers in New York wrote off her behavior as nothing but the eccentricities of an artist.

"I don't know if she was mentally ill," van Liere says. "Her family thought so. She denied it. But God knows she was a challenge."

In November 1992, Lee applied for medical assistance from St. Paul Medical Center, begging them to admit her. A month later, she received a notice from the Social Security Administration that she owed almost $6,000 in past-due payments. In December 1992, Lee sent a letter to James Hartnett Jr., a local attorney who dealt with her mother's estate. In the missive, she claims to have been abused by a boyfriend.

"To cure resulting 'cyst' from the vicious tweak he gave my left breast involved medical treatment that will be lengthy, costly, and un-fun. That is, it will force me into a sociology that endangers my mental stability." She signs it only "E." It is likely the last letter Lee Knaster ever wrote. God knows what it would fetch in New York.

By the beginning of 1993, the great conceptual artist was broke, homeless, and abused, and the government was after her. If she was indeed living her art, then the canvas was solid black.

Yet, at the same time, her work was being shown in Switzerland and in New York. She was being written about in art journals. Van Liere and Rosen were re-establishing her legacy, polishing her name. And the odd thing was, the woman who left New York because she claimed to hate the commodification of her art enjoyed the newfound attention. She simply didn't want to be in the midst of it: Van Liere and Rosen were free to show her work, as long as her presence was not required.

Perhaps Lee knew her time was nearly up. She spent much of the '90s being hospitalized, bouncing from St. Paul to Baylor, from one shithole apartment to the next, from one boyfriend to another. (None would talk about her for this article.) Then, at the beginning of 1999, the woman who hated women discovered she had cervical cancer.

By the time doctors at Baylor Hospital found the cancer, it had metastasized, and there was little anyone could do for her. Van Liere says Lee received radiation and chemotherapy treatment, but the side effects of the latter were too painful. A few months after the tumor was discovered, she discontinued her treatments -- even though, at first, van Liere tried to talk her out of it. Even he admits his efforts were half-hearted; he could hear the pain in her voice when they spoke.

"The effects of the treatment accumulated over time, and she didn't want any more to do with it," van Liere says. "It stopped."

About three months before her death in October, Lee moved from Baylor Hospital into the Health and Rehabilitation Center in Oak Cliff, a nursing home and mental-health facility. There, she stayed to herself, hiding behind her closed door. Mike Felton, the center's director, recalls she had no visitors. He, like most who came in contact with Lee, knew nothing of her days as an artist in New York. To him, she was simply a dying patient.  

"She was a mystery," Felton says. "But if you drop out of sight and disappear from a high profile, she must have wanted it that way."

Lee apparently did have one visitor: a priest, though Felton can't say exactly with whom she spoke, since the center has at least six church groups that come through to visit with patients. Van Liere says he does not know how Lee came to be buried in an unmarked county grave, only that she decided upon such a resting place after visiting with a priest at the center -- at least, that is what he thinks.

Felton says that after her death on October 2, Lee was taken to the medical examiner's office, which finally took the body to Southland Memorial Park.

Van Liere insists the unmarked grave was Lee's idea. No one, it seems, has plans to purchase a headstone.

"The Dropout Piece" is complete.

Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dallas Observer staff writer Christina Rees.


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