A bouquet of yellow Craspedia flowers stands in a vase between two armchairs in Annette Carlozzi’s study. She adjusts the shade and shuts out the sunlight that spots the carpet. There are things everywhere: books pack shelves, artwork covers walls, the top of her large desk is blanketed with both.
We sit in the study because it is where Carlozzi is “most comfortable.” When she says this, I let myself relax by half of a millimeter. We both settle into the chairs and she realizes that her chair positions her higher than me. Details draw Carlozzi’s attention. Everything seems observed, turned to a different angle, assessed, and reassessed.
Carlozzi has spent decades of her life putting the spotlight on others and she will continue to do so. Since retiring from the Blanton Museum of Art, she’s done projects with the Linda Pace Foundation and The Contemporary Austin, and now she’s working on a book for UT Press.
“I’m still in the research phase,” Carlozzi says. “Still scanning all the information I’m getting for key individuals and events and thinking about their importance before the writing starts. As laborious as writing sometimes can be, I’m trusting it will come relatively quickly. But it’s the nuances of when and where and why and how that I want to have understood or spelled out on a page somewhere before I start shaping the book.
The fun part is the creative part — how you tell the stories and how you tie them all together. The more labor-intensive part is the surveying to make sure that I have a really wide range of perspectives and that my own lived experience doesn’t become the only architecture for the book, that it’s much broader than that. And then knowing when to stop the research and get started on the writing.”
Carlozzi’s writing brings a warmth to art that she also brings to her speech. Her voice and the way she uses her hands to emphasize her words — sometimes hitting the armrests of her chair — shows a passion for her work that is irreplaceable. Added to that, her writing retains a lyricism that fiction writers look for and that some academics abandon for bombastic intellect.
“I’ve done a lot of projects that are playful in their use of words — and they’re some of my favorites. There was a testsite project back in 2004….where I invited Annette Lawrence to do an artist/writer collaboration with me. At that moment she was thinking about how to use the remnants of ten years worth of installations made from string. So she basically had 95 balled-up accumulations of string that had literally been all over the world from Johannesburg to Houston in different installations she had done, and she wanted to make one culminating installation with it. How could we both work with that idea at Laurence’s house? When we went over to look at the space together, lo and behold he had just completed — like that week — a redo of his living room for the first time in a generation — you know, the beautifully appointed living room you see now at testsite.
It was so considered: there was a certain kind of black furniture, and a certain floor, and a certain wall, and everything about it said, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ And I thought, ‘Ohh, you’ve invited people into your home, you’ve invited artists and writers to come and do things, and yet you haven’t had five minutes to enjoy this place you’ve created that clearly represents some kind of dream space to you.’ That seemed so contradictory. So Annette chose a side wall and we said we wouldn’t touch anything else and I would do a sound piece that would emanate from the room’s built-in sound system. I wrote a long, multi-stanza poem essentially about Annette’s work, and then we brought in a third collaborator, Ana Sisnett, who voiced the piece.
It was wonderful to walk into the transformed space. You could really feel Laurence in the space, and then you could really feel Annette in the space, because she taped these string balls to the wall in the form of a spiral, and it was so counter-intuitive to see them hanging there, so striking. And then you could hear Ana in the space and the words were my words. So the four of us were there. We joked that it was Annette and Annette and Ana Sisnett at Laurence’s House and the artist was Annette Lawrence, so there were all these echoes within it. And in a funny kind of way, that’s how I approach writing. That to me is one of my perfect places in writing — doing that kind of work and even describing it in that way. Describing that I could see those echoes and ripples within the complexity of that situation, some part of which was visible, some part was sensory and intuitive, some part emotional, some part intellectual.”
In 2010, Carlozzi brought together works from 32 international artists for her exhibition, Desire, at the Blanton Museum of Art. In addition to an exhibition full of feeling and blushes, she asked 30 writers, most from Austin, to contribute texts to the catalog. The resulting catalog was meant to stand alone and is not simply an exercise in ekphrasis, but its own archive of arts people in Austin at the time.
Here she replies to my question about her writing style:
“Despite years at a university museum, I don’t think I’m an academic person at all and I think that probably comes across in the writing. I always try to think of who I’m writing to. Normally my audience is a general audience—sometimes that’s because I’m writing for an institution that’s trying to reach general audiences, and sometimes that’s because I am an inherently egalitarian person who wants to reach as many people as possible. I come from that world and I write to that world.
I’m from suburban Boston, a working-class suburb, a very blue-collar, Italian American family. I grew up on a block that was mostly settled by my relatives with one big conjoined garden in the back, and every father grew different vegetables that were then shared with the whole extended family. My dad worked at a shipyard; he didn’t complete his high school education, and while my mother had, she was a homemaker, raising my two older brothers and me. All my aunts and uncles either worked at the shipyard or the A&P, which was the grocery store chain in my town.
The art world has its own language, much of which is coded, and I think about writing that way, but I don’t think I do that well. I don’t like the sound of it, so I try to avoid it. Over the years I’ve ended up with a kind of hybrid voice: not quite academic, not quite museum education-speak, but language that hopes to be rich and deep and maybe, at best, a bit poetic. At least that’s how I would describe it when I’m really pleased with what I’ve done.”
Carlozzi is one of the few who have landed in Austin and been able to stay to buoy the community through the many ups and downs. It is special to have those who are devoted to this town, this community and are willing to build something that will foster the careers of those after them.
“I’ve always liked working with emerging and under-recognized artists and I’ve always chosen to live in what might be considered ‘regional art centers.’ That’s because I’m really interested in place and the phenomenon of place,” says Carlozzi. “But also I like that the economies are different in these communities, cultural work is not so much about huge transactions. It’s more about introducing ideas. And like with what you guys accomplished at Tiny Park, it’s not so much about selling a lot of work — that’s not going to happen except once in awhile — but it’s largely about exposing the work and having the conversations and gathering the people, and that’s exactly the thing that I care about the most.”