My Perfect Adventure: Lita Albuquerque

The environmental artist on how deserts have influenced and defined American art, why open spaces are crucial to her work, and the reason her fellow artists call her the Queen of the Here

Lita Albuquerque.     Photo: Courtesy of the Lita Albuquerque Studio

"He is changing the world. If there is anyone on the planet I want to be like, it is Richard Branson."

Lita Albuquerque uses the most extreme of earth’s surfaces as canvas: Antarctica, the Arctic, Death Valley, and South Dakota’s Badlands. She “paints” with all kinds of media, including crowds of brightly clad humans, whom she shapes into patterns over wide-open spaces; a photograph taken from above preserves her otherwise ephemeral creations.

She has also used Egypt’s pyramids and the Washington Monument as centerpieces for her temporary, contemporary installations, many of them featuring spirals, circles, or lines imbued with rich, saturated color. She’s part of modern art’s “Light and Space" movement; her works, regarded by now as national treasures, are in the Smithsonian’s collection.

Raised in Tunisia and France, Albuquerque lives in Los Angeles, where she’s been a professor at the prestigious Art Center for more than 25 years. Her perfect day, she says, would involve running Malibu’s Nicholas Canyon Beach and meeting Richard Branson, someone for whom she has vast amounts of admiration. A perfect year, she says, would be spent experiencing the full span of Antarctica’s seasons (she admits to being eccentric for wanting to do this, but that’s part of why she wants to—to be with other eccentrics). She swims anywhere she visits, even Antarctica.

In this interview, Albuquerque discusses how deserts have influenced and defined American art, why open spaces are crucial to her work, the reason her fellow artists call her the “Queen of the Here,” and reveals that her aspirations include becoming a filmmaker.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
My perfect day is one in which I am inspired from morning ‘til night. When I saw Wim Wenders’s film Pina, about [dancer and choreographer] Pina Bausch, I told myself that I wanted to live every day inside that movie. If we had such a technology, I would want the film to be projected around me as I go about my day, the color, the movement, the genius, and the passion enveloping me.

That aside, I do have a perfect-day ritual: It starts at dawn by going to Nicholas Canyon Beach in Malibu with my best friend, the artist Susan Kaiser Vogel, and my dog. That particular beach has the feeling of wild nature coming down to meet the sea. We run the whole length of it while doing a series of energetic meditations as the sun rises. Then we might swim in the ocean, depending on the weather. What this does is set the day totally inspired by nature, literally inspiring the sea air, being one with the elements.

We go back home to have coffee and share news of the day. Then, in my studio, I start reading, perhaps Agnes Martin or other writings on art. I do some writing myself, then let the studio tell me where it wants to go—I follow those ideas. There’s a lunch break with other friends—filmmakers, dancers, fashion designers—then back to the studio. The evening is spent going to galleries or museum openings, a dinner out with my husband [Carey Peck], and visiting with my daughters and their amazingly creative and unique friends.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Definitely space. I’d give anything to be able to see earth from space and experience that depth. I would also love to be on the moon or Mars to experience a different geography beneath my feet, to have my body experience what could only have been science fiction a few centuries back. If I were limited to this planet, however, I’d go to the Namibian Desert, the Gobi Desert, and Bolivia’s great salt flats. I imagine that experiencing the immense stillness, where the sky is imminent and where stars are reflected onto the sand, is close to what I’d experience in space. I’d also want to spend a year at the South Pole to be able to experience three months of total darkness, three months of total light, and six months of twilight. I’m fascinated by what that would do to my perceptions.

What’s the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
By far the best place I have ever visited is Antarctica. I went there to create a large sculptural installation, Stellar Axis: Antarctica, a reverse sky onto the ice. Antarctica probably gives the closest experience to being in space. It’s an unknown and potentially dangerous environment, a place where great explorers have made history, a place that isn’t habitable, a place where a great deal of infrastructure is required for survival. It really felt as if I were part of NASA. But what really makes it stand out from any other place I’ve ever been is the quality of light. The environment is so pure and still that the light particles affect perception. There is also the whiteness that fills your field of vision, so that everything is perceived through white. Also, the people who are attracted to Antarctica create a sense of camaraderie; it comes from our eccentricity, and the understanding that we depend on each other there. That was beautiful and intoxicating.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer or explorer, who would it be?
No question. If I could have lunch with anyone in all of history, it would be Richard Branson. He is a true genius who lives an exceptional life and knows how to surround himself with other visionaries in order to create change in the world. And he is changing the world. If there is anyone on the planet I want to be like, it is Richard Branson.

What’s something you can’t travel without?
Two things: my laptop and my bathing suit. My laptop because I love writing and to be connected to information. And my bathing suit because wherever there’s a body of water, I have to plunge in, which is what I did at the North Pole and in Antarctica.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
To get on a beach, if it’s that kind of place. In a city, it’s to get into the museums and galleries.

What motivates you to keep doing art?
I don’t need any motivation. It is the air I breathe.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, do you have any regrets?
When I was five years old, I saw a children’s production of L’oiseau Bleu in Paris, and decided that was it. I was going to leave my mother and stay in Paris to study theater. When reality rudely interrupted my musings, we were back in Tunisia. I was sent back to the convent and to school. Then I saw a dance production in Tunis and decided that was it. I was going to be a dancer. But we couldn’t afford dance lessons, so back to my studies. When we came to America, poetry was my big love. I was going to be a writer. Which morphed into being a visual storyteller. To this day, I still love dance and do wish I had that background. At least my daughter, Jasmine, is a dancer, so I’m able to be around dancers, which gives me great joy. I incorporate that into all of my work.

When and how did you first venture into making environmental art?
In the mid-‘70s, when my peers were going to the desert to shoot videos, people like John Sturgeon, Nina Sobel, John Gordon—all UCLA classmates in the art department—I became fascinated with what would happen if I put color in such vast expanses of white. Of course, by then, Heizer, Smithson, and De Maria had started going out to the desert to define a distinct “American art,” and I was influenced by that as well. We also were all students of Robert Irwin, whose ideas about space had a big impact on me.

What advice you would give to a young artist?
It is complicated. On one hand, I would say to focus on the work that is coming from within, to not get swayed by the glitter and seduction of the art world, and to think in terms of legacy. At the same time, it is important to get the work to live in the world and to have fluidity there. The greatest people always have known the importance of their contribution and how to have it exist in the world.

Who has been your most important mentor?
I come from an artistic family. My mother was a playwright, my grandmother a musician, my father a jewelry designer. So I had no other concept of life but an artistic one, a non-traditional life. But there was no awareness of the visual arts, and it wasn’t until I went to UCLA that I met artists and was affected by their work. There was a whole cadre of them that I hung out with, including Robert Irwin, who really was our mentor. He taught me to think not in terms of a singular object, but in terms of space.

Do you have a life philosophy?
The most important thing is to truly be aware of the present moment through space-time. By that I mean to be conscious of where we are at what time: in our bodies, on the planet, and in the cosmos. I have devised a number of practices to be able to do this, and I’ve been called the “Queen of the Here” by some of my peers. It’s a way of being objective, of having a very large perspective—a bird’s-eye perspective—at every moment of the day. It’s not easy to achieve, but it’s incredibly liberating.

Have you ever made a mistake that made you think twice about traveling again?

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I’d be a filmmaker. I think cinematically and I love a time-based medium that also incorporates sound. Plus, deep down, I am a storyteller. I have many ideas that can only be expressed through film.

Name three things you want to cross off your bucket list.
One, making a film about my mother’s life.

Two, writing a book called Gen I Us Remembered, a quasi-sci-fi, quasi-autobiography about multidimensionality.

Three, meeting Richard Branson and going into space.

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