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Before Pictures: John Killacky on Douglas Crimp’s New Memoir

Douglas Crimp is a prodigious New York intellect. In his curation and critical writing of the late 1970s, he identified a group of emerging visual artists, (i.e. Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine) appropriating popular culture images in subversive critiques. They were often referred to as the “Pictures Generation” after Crimp’s 1977 exhibition, Pictures, […]

Douglas Crimp's 2011 Artforum feature on Trisha Brown, via academia.edu

A spread from Douglas Crimp’s 2011 Artforum feature on Trisha Brown, via academia.edu

Douglas Crimp is a prodigious New York intellect. In his curation and critical writing of the late 1970s, he identified a group of emerging visual artists, (i.e. Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine) appropriating popular culture images in subversive critiques. They were often referred to as the “Pictures Generation” after Crimp’s 1977 exhibition, Pictures, at the Artists Space gallery.

In 1987, he edited a special issue of October magazine entitled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism.” His contribution to this groundbreaking collection illuminated the engaged art strategies of various ACT UP collectives: “Their work demands a total reevaluation of the nature and purpose of cultural practices in conjunction with an understanding of the political goals of AIDS activism.”

His discursive essays brilliantly analyzed Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film, In a Year of 13 Moons, in October magazine, and Trisha Brown’s “wholly new lexicon of ordinary movement performed with effortless directness” in Artforum. Critically acclaimed books include Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol and Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics.

Crimp’s latest, Before Pictures (2016), tenderly chronicles his initial years in New York City (1967–1977). Interwoven personal and professional stories create a vivid historical narrative of post-Stonewall Manhattan. Moving there after college, Crimp, “would have to learn how and where to be queer all over again” as gay sexual culture exploded around him.

Early jobs included reviewing for ARTnews, organizing the papers of society couturier Charles James, and working as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim Museum, while hanging out with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Joe Dallesandro. His first curatorial effort was an Agnes Martin exhibition in 1971 at the School of Visual Arts Gallery, where he was an adjunct professor.

In this hybrid memoir, the author revisits his nascent critical thinking about Agnes Martin, realizing he had been wrong to reduce her aesthetic to mathematical minimalism. He also reconciles his contradictory views on Ellsworth Kelly’s “highly intelligent and accomplished painting,” and shares details of a failed liaison with the artist.

Sexual trysts, both casual and loving, are a crucial part of his education with the West Side piers, Greenwich Village trucks, backroom bars, and outdoor public cruising as backdrops. His drug-enhanced years dancing at Flamingo, 12 West, and Paradise Garage are reverently described: “What is extraordinary about it (disco) and also show how it is symptomatic of a wider experience of pleasure in our society…”

Crimp’s burgeoning cinephile-self attended Anthology Film Archives and his balletomane obsession with George Balanchine’s neo-classicism—“in which sharp angles replace soft curves, legs turn in as well as out, feet are flexed as well as pointed, and extensions are stretched to the breaking point”was nurtured in the upper balconies of New York City Ballet’s State Theater.

As his career progressed, Crimp sojourned downtown from Spanish Harlem to Chelsea, then to Greenwich Village, Tribeca, and finally landing in the Financial District, where he presently lives. Photographs and luminous descriptions of his various apartments function as framing devices for each of the chapters, with Crimp serving as a cultural anthropologist and architectural historian.

The final chapter discusses Crimp’s career-defining Pictures exhibition, hailed by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl as “a movement-initiating, instantly legendary group show.” That same year, 1977, Crimp became managing editor of October magazine, and under his stewardship for the next thirteen years, it became required reading in the art world.

However, Before Pictures primarily focuses on art and life in the formative decade prior to 1977. Back then he was convinced “with sufficient insight a critic could—even should—determine what was historically significant.” Reflecting back on these early years, he reconsiders: “Coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it.”

Douglas Crimp is a pivotal figure in contemporary art and AIDS cultural activism. Before Pictures fills in his backstory. Utilizing lived experiences as a primary source, he is his own archive. In reaching into his past, he fully embodies the present, and history benefits from this erudite and compelling storytelling.

Before Pictures in available for purchase in the Walker Shop. John R. Killacky is Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

Luminous Non-Intention: John Killacky on The Selected Letters of John Cage

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.” —John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology […]

John Cage reads from Muocye at the Walker Art Center, Februrary 1980. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

John Cage reads at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.”

John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992)

One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology in his artistic practice. And yes, silence. His seminal composition, 4’33” (1952), wherein musicians sit in silence and do not intentionally make sounds for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, taught us all to listen more deeply.

Our paths crossed a few times. Once, while I was on tour in the mid-1980s with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in France, I sat in a hotel lobby with him watching the French Open on television, and then shared a taxi with him to the theater. On the drive over, he repeatedly lowered and closed the window, amused by its squeaky sounds.

Then in 1990, when I worked at the Walker Art Center, I invited him to do a reading to celebrate the opening of the Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols exhibition. Cage had written about Johns earlier in their careers, and for this performance, he randomly rearranged his text utilizing his computer and presented this.

We had gotten a request for ASL interpretation. Cage was concerned, warning the interpreter the speech did not really make any linear sense. During his performance, he repeatedly stopped and watched the interpreter, who, of course, also stopped. The bemused Cage then continued reading. Afterward, Margaret Leng Tan performed Cage’s compositions on a toy piano.

While his public artistic persona was expansive, Cage was reticent about his private life. When asked about his relationship with life partner choreographer Merce Cunningham, he would often politely reply, “I do the cooking, and he does the dishes.” Although openly gay, neither of them chose to discuss their homosexuality publicly.

However, The Selected Letters of John Cage (2016, Wesleyan University Press), with more than 500 letters, brings readers intimately into his personal life, beginning in the 1930s when he was a 17-year-old dropout traveling in Europe and Algeria to shortly before his death in 1992. His affable nature resonates throughout this luminous collection and gives the reader insight into his prodigious intellectual and artistic pursuits.

When a nascent musical student, we read his pleas to study with Arnold Schoenberg, acquire expertise on Erik Satie and Virgil Thomson’s music, and build relationships with Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and other emerging mavericks. These composers performed each other’s works in concert, and often wrote about the other, since few critics understood the new aesthetic frontiers they were fomenting.

Frustration is present in Cage’s missives to orchestral and museum directors around the world as he struggles to earn a living and be taken seriously as a composer. For decades, he was his own booking agent and asked people to help underwrite concerts. As well, he pleaded valiantly trying to establish a center for new music at Cornish School, Bennington College, and Mills College—all for naught. Tellingly, he wrote to young composer, “I never made enough money (from my music) to live on until I was fifty. Interrupted my music in order to do odd jobs in order to eat, etc.”

Throughout his life, Cage remained a cultural omnivore. Interwoven into The Selected Letters of John Cage are details as to how his study of the I Ching and Zen Buddhism, his burgeoning interest as an amateur mycologist (love of mushrooms), and his embrace of a macrobiotic diet informed his life and art. He aspired to have “all distinctions between art and life removed.” This blending of eastern and western traditions put him at the epicenter of the American avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

His early notes to Merce Cunningham are beautifully innocent, “I think of you all the time and therefore have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you… I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

Cage became musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and together they disrupted prevailing notions of modern music and dance. Aiding their revolution were visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, often collaborators on scenic and costume elements. These relationships, and the masterworks they created, are gloriously annotated throughout the book.

Cage did so much more than music for the Cunningham dance company. Early letters show him writing to festival promoters to book engagements, sending fundraising appeals to donors and funding agencies, and pleading with fellow artists to donate artwork to make up shortfalls from touring.

His persistence, entrepreneurship, and unequivocal questioning of the status quo as evidenced in this volume could in fact be a textbook for modern day artists struggling to forge a career. Ever the courageous anarchist, Cage states, “I think my activity in the arts is analogous to political activity. It gives an instance of how to change things radically.”

The Selected Letters of John Cage is revelatory, illuminating his creative processes, as well as the heart and mind of this multifaceted individual who has influenced generations of artists—essential reading for understanding 20th century American art history.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

 

Story/Time: Bill T. Jones on John Cage

Three decades ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped-down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers, and visual artists. A new queer aesthetic emerged that was anything but minimalistic. When I worked at Walker Art Center (1988–1996), I presented Jones’s […]

Bill T. Jones in STory/T

Bill T. Jones in Story/Time. Photo: Paul B. Goode

Three decades ago, choreographer Bill T. Jones jolted the New York dance scene. Bucking the prevailing stripped-down postmodernism, he and his partner Arnie Zane created sensational dances collaborating with composers, fashion designers, and visual artists. A new queer aesthetic emerged that was anything but minimalistic.

When I worked at Walker Art Center (1988–1996), I presented Jones’s company on multiple occasions. During this period, the AIDS pandemic ravaged his world, killing lover Arnie Zane (1988) and collaborator Keith Haring (1990), as well as scores of friends, colleagues and dancers. Consequently Jones’ work became politicized. Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990) had him searching for hope as a gay black man in America. Its final resolving tableau included 52 nude bodies of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages, and genders.

The conceit of this work proved electrifying, as it included his core company augmented with local dancers on tour. Everybody had to own the nudity, claim the identity politics of survival and transcendence. The work was rapturously received by those who saw it—and picketed by those who feared it.

Jones continued mining his grief and rage in Still/Here (1994). He developed this piece in workshops with people facing terminal illnesses. Newsweek called it “a work so original and profound that its place among the landmarks of twentieth-century dance seems ensured.” Arlene Croce refused to see it, but wrote about it in the New Yorker, dismissing it as “victim art.” No one was neutral.

Jones continues to create iconoclastic dances across a vast array of aesthetic explorations. His collaborators are eclectic: Cassandra Wilson, Orion String Quartet, Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, Fred Hersch, Jenny Holzer, Vernon Reid, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Toni Morrison, and Jessye Norman. The company has performed in more than 200 cities in 40 countries.

Commissions and honorary degrees, a MacArthur “genius” award, and the National Medal of the Arts ffrom President Obama have not tempered this firebrand provocateur. Outside his own company, Jones has created dances for Alvin Ailey, Boston Ballet, Lyon Opera Ballet, and Berlin Opera Ballet. He directed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and won two Tony Awards for his choreography in Spring Awakening and FELA! Operatic collaborations include Houston Grand Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Munich Biennale, Boston Lyric Opera, and New York City Opera.

As a writer, Jones published his memoir, Last Night on Earth, in 1995 and a children’s book, Dance, in 1998. He also contributed toContinuous Replay: The Photography of Arnie Zane in 1999. This month, Princeton University Press released his Story/Time: The Life of an Idea, a book about the genesis of Story/Time, a dance work commissioned by the Walker and Peak Performances at Montclair State University and performed at the Walker in February 2012. (For more on Story/Time, watch this video interview between Jones and Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator of performing arts).

As Jones writes in the acknowledgements: “Story/Time is a meditation on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, a 1958 work in which Cage read ninety stories, each one minute long. … Engaging with this seminal work allowed me to examine and interrogate a system of thought and practice grounded in ideas held by many—myself included—striving to understand how Eastern thought, liberation philosophy, and art could be used to redefine reality for both the maker and his or her audience.”

In advance of his November 4–14 performances of Story/Time at New York Live Arts, I talked with Jones about his new book and projects under development.

John Killacky: Story/Time is such a beautiful homage to John Cage. You are this hot, politically engaged, out gay artist. I think of Cage as this cool, philosophical, quiet, disengaged from the world, theoretical genius. Can you talk about his influence on you and in particular this project?

Bill T. Jones: He literally represented for me everything cool and removed and sophisticated at a time when I was trying to wend my way into the art world. There was a woman that had known Jasper [Johns] and John Cage. She tried to get them interested in what Arnie and I were doing. They were like “No way!” We were too “obvious.” We were too “in your face.” I always felt a little hurt by that. We did meet John later through a mutual friend. I had dinner with John and Merce [Cunningham] and went to a show with him and got to know him as a man. I couldn’t be in that club, but I realized there was a lot to love in him. This book is trying to come to grips with my need to be in the modernist cool club and acceptance that I will not be in that club. You have to build your ideas on your forebearers, and it is sort of Freudian because you are fighting with your father. What happens when I put on that suit of clothing is who I am.

Jones’s staging of Story/Time began a few years back when he decided to return to performing. Building off of Cage’s storytelling, he created a work in which he reads 70 one-minute stories (drawn from more than 170) while his dancers perform around him. Movement sequences are excerpted from existing repertory, rearranged on the day of performance to create a unique work for that evening. Composer and lighting and scenic designers improvise alongside. Jones was then invited to participate in the Toni Morrison Lecture Series at Princeton.

Merce Cunningham and John Cage performing at the Walker Art Center, March 1972. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Merce Cunningham and John Cage performing Dialogues at the Walker Art Center, 1972. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Killacky: How did this beautiful book come into being?

Jones: The deal with the Morrison Lecture people was we would do three lectures that would result in a book. I had been struggling with this work, trying to mesh these thoughts and ideas of John Cage with my own theatricality and the way my company moves. The process had been so strange and challenging and scary. I thought the lectures would be a great opportunity to talk theoretically about it in the first and third lectures, and show a version of it in one of those wood-paneled rooms in an august university. It felt very claustrophobic, very much of a throwback to a world that I’ve only seen in movies. I never went to an Ivy League school. We set this thing up as if it were site-specific and emulated something that he [Cage] would have been able to put forward in 1958: sitting alone at a table in a room and reading one story after another. The difference was we had a very sophisticated sound design, a rudimentary lighting design, and Bjorn Amelan drawing on the chalkboards before an academic audience. It was wonderful.

Included in the publication of Story/Time are gorgeous photographs of the work in performance as well as 60 of Jones’s masterful stories, weaving in childhood reminiscences and tales from touring around the world. Observing the mundane, Jones reaches for the profound. Vignettes with Virgil Thompson, Abbey Lincoln, Louise Nevelson, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor are peppered throughout, as is John Cage—whose theories disrupt, provoke, and inspire him.

Killacky: Your company is still performing Story/Time?

Jones: The work is part of our touring repertory. For the upcoming New York shows, we decided do the classic version and then to get rid of some of the “crafting” and strip the place down a couple of times. And we have guest artists: Kathleen Chalfont [Angels in America, Wit], Lois Welk [founder of American Dance Asylum] and Theaster Gates [conceptual artist]. They wrote some of their own stories; we’ll read mine as well and talk about a personal history.

Killacky: You juggle multiple projects at any given time. Can you talk about some in development?

Jones: The new one for the company is a three-part work influenced by W. C. Sebald’s The Emigrants, the story of a Jewish boy who was a “valet” to a rich German boy; an oral history of my husband Bjorn’s 94-year-old Jewish mother, who survived the war by working in an internment camp in eastern France; and my wild nephew Lance, who had drug problems and was a hustler on Polk Street [San Francisco].

In terms of the commercial art world, I would love to be able to talk with you about it. There are a couple projects on the table, but you know how the producers are: we will see which ones go the distance. One is a major motion picture from some years back that was very successful; now the filmmaker is making it into a musical that I am choreographing.

Jones: For the theater work, there is: “Can I do it?” “Can I make an entertaining thing that has some integrity?” So that’s maybe my pride. There is also hopefully my retirement; because in the dance world, you will not retire with what the dance world has to offer you. The company is the child that Arnie [Zane] and I had. Every time I make a new work, I get this excitement in my chest. I keep thinking, “Ah, this is the way I understand the world.” This is my religion. Something keeps pulling me forward that has to do with art-making as a spiritual activity.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

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