“Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama–Manhattan, 1970-1980”
Whitney Museum // October 31-February 2
Modern Painters, April 2014
Jay Sanders has accomplished something rare: He’s attained the status of a curator’s curator without theoretical gymnastics, heavy-handed exhibition premises, or convoluted metacuratorial conceits. This show proves why. A well-researched and thoughtfully installed survey of 1970s performance in New York, it includes key artists of the era (Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, Mike Kelley) along with more obscure avant-garde figures (Richard Foreman, John Zorn) and virtually forgotten characters (Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Ralston Farina). Titled after queer filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith’s nickname for New York—Rented Island—the show’s interdisciplinary works coalesce around a fertile network of alternative spaces rather than a single theme.
Accordingly, a map of downtown Manhattan plotting the galleries, cinemas, and nonprofits of the ’70s is one of the exhibition’s most intriguing objects. Today, it’s difficult to imagine New York’s microniche art communities concentrated in a single outer-borough neighborhood, much less a few blocks of chic SoHo. Back then, however, dozens of organizations, from Anthology Film Archives to Paula Cooper Gallery, enjoyed close proximity and rock-bottom rent.
But most of the works on display do not have a strident polemical orientation or address the problems of urban decay. Nor do they embrace the 1960s sculptural aesthetic. Rather, due to a combination of the downtrodden art market and shared resources with other art disciplines, the performances approach experimental theater’s narrative complexity and allegorical bent. Films of Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater productions transferred to video illustrate an adherence to post Brechtian conventions. Jill Kroesen, a playwright and composer resembling a distant cousin of Cher with a flat Debbie Harry affect, creates sweeping musical theater that touches on histories of violence and colonization. Her works feature monologues by former Warhol superstars, dances by Bill T. Jones, and New Wave songs. Yvonne Rainer and Julia Heyward, among others, represent evolving feminist approaches. The display of Rainer’s this is the story of a woman who…, 1973, includes films and ephemera beyond Babette Mangolte’s stunning photographs—an unusual treat. Heyward’s trancelike spoken-word performances are a forerunner to Karen Finlay’s polarizing work of the 1980s.
Sanders’s most insightful curatorial category may be his designation “object performance.” His inclusions suggest a prototype for contemporary work riffing on the voguish theories of Speculative Realism. In these works, objects become open-ended characters subject to willful individual projections. The performances of Stuart Sherman—a deceased artist whom Sanders began curating several years ago—are a touchstone. Palacios Whitman’s dances with whimsical, uncanny props and Ericka Beckman’s films, which recall Montessori lessons with their bouncing, primary-colored forms, complement them. Michael Smith’s hilarious videos are shown with his costumes in pleasant, cubicle-like spaces, while Jack Smith’s and Zorn’s performances receive attractive built-out displays. Smith’s set for Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad, 1977, is re-created and filled with videos, photographs, and his lumpy props, such as a glittery brassiere. An avant-garde musician, Zorn has since 1975 hosted late-night shows at his loft called Theater of Musical Optics, where he presents detritus in silence as relics. These tiny trinkets—pieces of string, buttons—get pride of place in a precious single-occupancy chamber. In a show that largely makes judicious use of a small floor, treating each artist’s work with individualized care, this display veers toward the indulgent.
In the end, the exhibition suggests a latent narrative of anticipation about the decades to come. As the art boom of the ’80s succeeded the ’70s, modes of political performance and ironic appropriation would replace the speculative nature of the works on view. But just as history cannot be prescriptive, this show does not seek to pit one sensibility against another. And yet, it raises the question: How does the current contemporary-art obsession with object theory sync up with works from this pre-gentrification era—and which elements are passé? —Wendy Vogel