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Root of an Unfocus: On Cunningham, Cage, and “Common Time”

This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017. With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances […]

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus New York City, 1944 Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus, New York City, 1944. Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017.

With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances that made up his first solo concert. The performance took place in New York City in 1944, five years after he moved there from Seattle to dance in the Martha Graham Company and two years into his partnership with composer John Cage. All six dances were prepared in collaboration with musical compositions by Cage, who also presented additional works of his own that April evening. For this do-it-yourself affair, Cunningham made his own costumes, Cage designed the program flyers, and both footed the bill to rent out the theater. More importantly, however, this self-acknowledged debut registers on a level beyond being brash and self-starting: it demonstrates just how early the duo’s radical approach to collaboration gained momentum. Unencumbered by expectations of accompaniment, their alliance was driven rather by a principle of simultaneity and independence for dance and music within a shared register. For Cunningham, this moment was the beginning of a career that operated out of a “root of an unfocus” that was based in collaborative work and would stretch over six decades of restive creation.

Cunningham later told an interviewer that Root of an Unfocus was made “when I was still concerned with expression. It was about fear.”1  Even so, the dance marked a crucial moment of development for both Cunningham and Cage, as it pivoted around the notion that time, rather than melody or narrative motif, should constitute the underlying relationship between dance and music. Having agreed on a durational structure where sound and movement would align only at the transitions between the dance’s three sections, Cunningham and Cage were free to create independently of one another, with their shared aesthetic only fully revealed in the performance itself. The radically deconstructed space and time that began with this work was subsequently inscribed as existing in between dance and music.

As Cunningham told it to author Calvin Tomkins as early as 1962, the ripple effect implicit in this first work’s title quickly became concentric and widening:

The main thing about it—and the thing everybody missed—was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.2

This dissociative experiment would be developed into a praxis that would not only endure but also thrive over nearly six decades of shared work and hundreds of collaborations across disciplines. The “root of an un-” swiftly became a network, circulating what Cunningham would later describe as “a shared history that reflects to me a change or enlargement of the underlying principle that music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.”3

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College, was the catalytic engine, an unparalleled and unique nexus of collaborative practice oscillating within the frame of choreography that continues to reverberate today. By dismantling hierarchies and conventional boundaries, Cunningham and Cage’s “common time” made possible an expanded field of dance, music, moving image, and visual art based in their own brand of recombinatory aesthetics. Their concept can almost be seen as a how-to guide for creating vital new forms that are rooted in the enduring scenic space of a new common time.

With common time as the core ethos of their work, Cunningham and Cage overturned a succession of conventions during their first decade together, in the process opening up the fertile and nervy ground from which MCDC emerged. With a propulsive imperative that demanded what Cunningham called “a continuing flexibility in the relation of the arts,” their collaboration shape-shifted the landscape of modern art as no other had ever done, creating a nearly cellular approach to recombinant composition methods.4  It was understood from the outset that MCDC could expand but also contract, serving as an inter- platform and fluctuating organism for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary experimentation. Through its many iterations, the company and its network of collaborators maintained an attitude of openness to change (and changes). Exits and entrances abound. Working within and through common time demands acceleration, deeply focused technique, and a highly adaptive use of version and variation that Cunningham described as ongoing: “We are involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects.”5

Cunningham’s own retrospective assessment of Root of an Unfocus, which he acknowledged “still worked with expressive behavior,” benefits from a comparison with two solos created ten years later that taken together show the expanding nature of common time over these pivotal early years of collaboration.6 The differences between them reveals the crucial role “chance operations” (Cage and Cunningham shared the use of this term) played at this time in expanding and focusing the evolution of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary. In Untitled Solo (1953), Cunningham first used the ritual of the coin toss to determine, through chance, the outline for a sequence of isolated movements that could be combined with unexpected, fresh results. “[Using chance means] I also began to see that there were all kinds of things that we thought we couldn’t do, and it was obviously not true.… If you try it, a lot of the time you can do it, and even if you can’t, it shows you something you didn’t know before.”7 Untitled Solo follows Cage’s first use of chance in composing Sixteen Dances (1950–1951), the sound accompaniment for Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a breakthrough that Cage saw as moving him outside of inclination, or predetermined creation. As he put it, “I reached the conclusion I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste.”8 By applying chance operations to the core of their respective compositional practices, Cage and Cunningham moved beyond taste and toward unexpected amplitude, folding time in on itself in the process. For Cage, this move was directly related to his increased use of electronics and the micro-exploration of sound within their collaborations during the 1950s. For his part, Cunningham experimented first on himself, and then on the body of a company. The space between nerve and expanded gesture opened up.

In Changeling (1957), the embodied motif of chance concatenation moving against memory and familiarity is taken even further than in Untitled Solo. Ten minutes in length, Cunningham’s performance expresses the dynamic of a “changeling,” a being masquerading as human but with otherworldly presence. The incredibly difficult choreography, in which possible movements for head, torso, arms, and legs were determined separately, exemplifies his striking ability as a performer. Disassembled into isolated phrases only to be recombined via a series of coin tosses, the movements contort in a push-and-pull tension when fit together.


Changeling is one of Cunningham’s most enigmatic early solo dances. Capturing an essential dissolution at the heart of acutely observed gesture, it was concerned with what Cunningham called “the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.”9 In just a single sequence, Changeling encapsulated the unique compression central to the elaboration of his choreography as a recombinatory aesthetic. (Indeed, Cunningham would often share with friends that he was convinced he himself was a changeling.)10 Recently discovered film footage of the dance, shot during a 1958 European tour by the company, displays Cunningham’s virtuosic technical skill and daring decentralization of the body, a mix that would characterize his style as a solo performer and choreographer from then on. Now free to combine ordinary movement drawn from everyday observation and social behavior with modern and classical dance technique, Cunningham’s choreography embraced a new hybridity and acceleration through a field of wide-ranging quotation fueled by chance operations.

As the technique and rigor of Cunningham’s choreography intensified, so did the level of his experimentation. His training in ballet and modern dance mixed with his direct experience of a grab bag of American vernacular dance forms from vaudeville, dance hall, soft-shoe, solo dances from the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, and beyond. Just as he disrupted hierarchies among dance styles early on, his company further jettisoned conventional understandings of décor and the musical score as backdrop and accompaniment. Stage space was decentered in favor of a simultaneity that maintains music, dance, and décor in a precarious proximity that nevertheless refuses to ever integrate. Each discipline operates uneasily beside the other.

During three formative summers at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cage and Cunningham were exposed to an impressive array of artists, composers, designers, architects, and writers, and experienced a flurry of approaches to radical pedagogy. Embracing an evolving praxis, Cunningham himself began to offer regular classes in dance technique in New York in 1951, while Cage taught musical composition at the New School of Research for four years beginning in 1956. Playing an increasingly pivotal role in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene, Cage and Cunningham directly influenced the most risk-taking and influential art movements of the era in no small part through their own distinctive “how to” experimental pedagogies, from Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) and a remarkable group of the next generation of innovators, including George Brecht, Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, Deborah Hay, Takehisa Kosugi, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. But nowhere was this ever-widening influence more profound than within the company itself.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed by Cunningham after an exhilarating summer at Black Mountain College in 1953. He had brought to that session a group of young dancers who had been studying with him off and on in New York; among them was Carolyn Brown, who would be his principal dancer for more than fifteen years. The founding of the company happened a year on from the previous summer session at Black Mountain, during which Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, or “Theater Event #1,” as Cunningham referred to it, had taken place. Cunningham described this now infamous and influential piece rather nonchalantly: “The audience was seated in the middle unable to see everything that was happening. There was a dog that chased me around the arena. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events the spectator could deal with as each chose.”11 Reflecting as it does an increasingly important expectation of the spectator to “unfocus” their attention to the work and learn to follow simultaneity itself, the pedagogical stakes were heightened, plentiful, and in motion at the time the company was formed.

Robert Rauschenberg Merce Cunningham and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Indeed, many of Cage’s students at the New School later noted that they received and rejected his teaching in equal measure, which was exactly the responsive quality that he looked to instill and expose thorough his teaching. Cage’s radical acceptance of incident and duration, along with a complex, multilayered use of chance, cultivated what he described as “response ability” in the active listener.12 To cultivate response ability is not to court followers to a method but to spur new levels of acceptance and residual impact, something that both Cage and Cunningham lived by in their pedagogical approaches. Cunningham’s students and company dancers alike worked through and off of the demanding focus of his approach. As Yvonne Rainer wrote in a third-person passage recounting her experience working and studying with Cunningham, this was both exhilarating and something to contend with or possibly counter. “ ‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say. She loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and the mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else. Beside that exhaustion, opinion paled. And beside that sense of completion, ambition had to be especially tenacious. But while absorbing the spirit of his genius she fought its letter.”13

This tension between Cunningham, the demands of his technique, and the rigorous level of challenge that members of his company regularly remark upon is no doubt part of what led so many dancers who were talented choreographers in their own right to work with MCDC over the years. The list includes Rainer but also Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton, key participants along with Robert Rauschenberg in the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1964), which brought its own radical questioning to the legacy of Western dance.

Even as any historic consideration of the use of everyday observed gesture or task-based movement (as Judson collaborators would describe it) has to begin with Merce Cunningham’s experiments, it was clear to Cunningham himself that the terrain of common time within choreographic inquiry required discipline and training with inter- forms that was demanding and expansive. As he reflected on the period, Cunningham contrasted his own trajectory with that of the Judson Dance Theater: “It all struck me as very limited. The instant they attempted something outside that, it didn’t work because they didn’t have the training. I was always interested in all kinds of movement. They said no to this and no to that, and my idea was to say yes—not to be fixed but to be flexible and open.”14 His own trajectory, by contrast, had been a polymorphous and constantly shifting path of acceleration and increased amplitude.

Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross

Cunningham’s permissive yet rigorous style was not lost on the younger collaborators who joined MCDC, including the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg. Minutiae (1954), Rauschenberg’s first collaboration with Cunningham, initiated a fertile decade of work together that would continue through MCDC’s 1964 world tour. Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae, which is considered his first Combine, premiered in the dance weeks ahead of his exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, a solo show that featured a group of so-called Red Paintings and important early Combines such as Charlene (1954). In his invitation to Rauschenberg to participate in the company by making something for the “dance area” of what was then an unfinished piece of choreography, Cunningham gave the younger painter scant direction, noting only that it might be something with passages, and that perhaps “we could move through it, around it, and with it if he liked.”15 Years later, when further describing the highly independent collaborative work of Minutiae to Calvin Tomkins, Cunningham remembered the collaboration with charming matter-of-factness:

Bob had made a very beautiful object that hung from the ceiling, with ribbons trailing from it. I knew right away it wouldn’t do because it couldn’t be installed in the sorts of places we performed in then—college auditoriums where there were no flies to hang anything from. Bob understood at once. He’s always been completely practical in his work with us. He said he’d do something else, and what he did the second time was really wonderful. It was a freestanding construction in two sections, so the dancers could go in between them, and there was a lot of collage. I loved it because you couldn’t say just what it was. One critic, after the first performance of the piece, complained for this reason. She said she didn’t know whether it was supposed to be a bathhouse at the beach or a fortune-teller’s booth, or what. That was just what I liked about it.16

The décor was small and mobile enough that it could be deconstructed and carried with the company in John Cage’s Volkswagen bus, the chief method of transportation for the young company at the time. Minutiae’s choreography, meanwhile, was made of complex and detailed chance-derived sequencing, inspired by the small, short, abrupt movements Cunningham observed in people walking the streets of New York, while the accompanying music was an existing work by Cage, Music for Piano 1–20 (1952/1953). Pleased with the collaboration, Cage and Cunningham invited Rauschenberg to join the company as its first art director, expanding the common time of the company to a triangulated form that would continue from then on. Cunningham recounted this turning point succinctly: “So there were now three elements, the movement, the sound, and a visual action.”17

Robert Rauschenberg Décor for Minutiae 1954/1976 oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood 84 ½ x 81 x 30 ½ in. (214.63 x 205 x 77.47 cm) Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011.

Robert Rauschenberg, Décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

The full network was now up and running, neatly captured in a Cage aphorism that could read as a motto for the company: “Time … is what we and sounds happen in. Whether early or late: in it. It is not a question of counting.”18 At the onset of the 1960s, MCDC found an increasingly global reach as it performed in a variety of international settings and incorporated a wider range of collaborators and dancers within the core of the company. With an ever-refined mobility and provisional acuity in regard to flexible set, costume, and sound design, the company continued to push the boundaries of stage space.

Notes

1 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 79.

2 Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde: Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 245.

3 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1992), 139.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Merce Cunningham quoted in Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

7 Cunningham and Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, 81.

8 Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 105.

9 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan, “Changeling,” Dance Capsules, accessed September 13, 2106.

10 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 102.

11 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 139.

12 Branden W. Joseph “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity,” in The Anarchy of Silence, ed. Julia Robinson (Barcelona: Museu Dart Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009), 228.

13 Yvonne Rainer, “This Is the Story of a Man Who …” in Merce Cunningham, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 1999), 120.

14 Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

15 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

16 Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Deckle Edge, 2005), 93–94.

17 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

18 John Cage, “45′ for A Speaker,” in John Cage, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 151.

A Reading List for the New America

Our country and world are clearly in the midst of seismic changes—politically, environmentally, socially, economically. How do we prepare for the uncertain future we’re facing?  In the days leading up to Friday’s presidential inauguration, we posed this question to an array of artists, writers, curators, and Walker staff members. Inspired by reading lists from the #CharlestonSyllabus to […]

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Our country and world are clearly in the midst of seismic changes—politically, environmentally, socially, economically. How do we prepare for the uncertain future we’re facing? 

In the days leading up to Friday’s presidential inauguration, we posed this question to an array of artists, writers, curators, and Walker staff members. Inspired by reading lists from the #CharlestonSyllabus to Public Books’ Trump Syllabus 2.0, we asked them to share recommendations for articles and books, poems and novels that could prove instructive in the coming years. Their suggestions range from the tactical to the poetic, the historic to the ultra-contemporary, optimistic to brace-for-the-worst realism.

We’ll be updating this list as more responses come in. Want to help us expand it further? Please leave your own recommendations in comments.

Chloë Bass
Artist, writer

The Wall Street Journal’s “Red Feed Blue Feed
While we may not have access to people with political opinions far outside of our own, or, more likely, may not want to spend time embroiled in emotionally exhausting discussions, it’s still important to know what people are seeing—and sharing—via social media. These forms of sharing still constitute a lot of what we think we know. As the graphic shows, and will continue to show, the contrast is stark.

a range of reflections on resilience,” by Adrienne Maree Brown, November 9, 2016
I think learning from personal language and reactions is important. Adrienne Maree Brown does a wonderful job of articulating her feelings and responses just after Election Day 2016, and many of these feelings may correspond to things we’re still feeling. Let’s admit to those things and put language to them so that we can then put them aside and keep moving, resiliently. As Brown states: “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.”

Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agendaavailable in English/en Español (2016)
We need to learn how to operate towards progress, for sure, but worst-case scenario, at least we can jam signals, put up consistent opposition, and resist moving backwards any further that we already have. The Tea Party, a minority government group, successfully jammed government signals for years. Let’s learn from these tactics and use them for better outcomes. Also: forgive me if this is over-stepping, but I want to question the title, “Reading List for the New America.” I think calling it “the New America” misses some major aspects of what’s going on—and has been going on for awhile: that this really is an America that has continued to exist since the nation’s founding. Is there a group that could meet to talk about the title choice? Maybe it’s too late for that, but I want to remain kind of clear on my own stance that what we need to do is prepare ourselves for ongoing revolution in a way that resists even the paradigms of “old” and “new” and accepts that our nation contains contradictions at all levels.

Philip Bither
McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2015) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
A Christmas present from my daughter: I thought I knew a lot of this, but I’m finding it eye-opening on many fronts.

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth
Eerily prescient to the rise of Trump. I read it when it was released in 2004 and plan to revisit very soon. 

Chris Cloud
Artist; Social Media Specialist, Walker Art Center

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (2o16) by Jeff Chang (Read an excerpt.)

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2016) by Michael Eric Dyson

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016) by Carol Anderson

Why Rural America Voted for Trump,” Robert Leonard, New York Times, January 5, 2017
Key passage: “While many blame poor decisions by Mrs. Clinton for her loss, in an environment like this, the Democratic candidate probably didn’t matter. And the Democratic Party may not for generations to come. The Republican brand is strong in rural America — perhaps even strong enough to withstand a disastrous Trump presidency.”

Kimberly Drew
Founder of Black Contemporary Art, co-founder of Black Futures, Social Media Manager at The Met

The Green Book (1936–1967) by Victor H. Green and George I. Smith
This series of guidebooks was created to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Faye Driscoll
Choreographer; creator of Thank You For Coming: Play (Out There 2017), Thank You For Coming: Attendance (Out There 2016), others

Hope in the Dark Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2016) by Rebecca Solnit

Adrienne Edwards
Curator at Large, Walker Art Center; Curator, Performa

Zora Neale Hurston, “Crazy for This Democracy” (1945) in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…(1979), edited by Alice Walker
A poignant reflection on the malicious role of racism in American society, of which Jim Crow was merely the latest manifestation at the time of its writing, and that is as strikingly relevant today: “Why this sentimental over-simplification… I have been made to believe in this democracy thing, and I am all for tasting this democracy out. The flavor must be good. If the Occident is so intent in keeping the taste out of darker mouths that it spends all those billions and expends all those millions of lives… to keep it among themselves, then it must be something good. I crave to sample this gorgeous thing.”

American Civilization (1950–1953) by C.L.R James
An unfinished manuscript written by the Trinidadian Marxist writer and theorist while he was living in the United States. He was deported in 1953, never finishing the text, which was edited and published posthumously in 1993 by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart, whose introduction explain, “Its central theme was the struggle of ordinary people for freedom and happiness, a struggle which he found to be most advanced in America. At the same time James recognized that the forces mobilized to repress these popular energies had never been so developed, or so brazenly employed, as in the twentieth century.” To this one might add, until now.

The Angela Y. Davis Reader (1998), edited by Joy James
A must-read for change agents and radical intellectuals, which gathers in one tome Davis’s essays on prison reform, anti-racism, feminism, aesthetics and culture, and coalition building with particularly astute readings of these necessities in the American context.

The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981), in Sister Outsider (1984), by Audre Lorde
Lorde considers anger as insight and therefore a path to collective understanding and action among women: “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation… The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying.”

Toward a Political Philosophy of Race (2009) by Falguni A. Sheth
A fierce analysis of how race is produced and reified in liberal societies in order to preserve state power and its institutions. Perhaps most important is the multiplicity of race upon which Sheth insists by considering the particularities of Arabs, Asians, and other people of color in the persistence of race as a tool of political power.

Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (2011) by Judith Butler
Butler doing what she does best: reworking the body, revealing the ways it resists in order to illumine how it performs in the context of forces that seek to delimit it through race, gender, and sexuality.

Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race (2015) by Emily S. Lee
Lee’s poignant philosophical intervention addresses the ways in which race is experienced by a range of people, including Latinas, Jews, black Americans, and Asian Americans in the context of banal, everyday settings in which life shaping incidents occur and thereby are made scenes where individuals come to know themselves.

Sam Gould
Cofounder and editor of Red76; creator of Beyond Repair, a community print-shop/art project in Minneapolis’s Midtown Global Market

Conflict is Not Abuse:Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (2016) by Sarah Schulman

Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (2016) by Yates McKee

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell

Deep EconomyThe Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007) by Bill McKibben

Imagevirus (2010) by Gregg Bordowitz

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2013) by David Harvey

Stokely Speaks: from Black Power to Pan-Africanism (2007) by Stokely Charmichael (Kwame Ture)

In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James & Grace Lee Boggs (2016) by Stephen M. Ward

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2011) by Grace Lee Boggs

TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (1991) by Hakim Bey

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013) by Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

Black Mask & Up Against the Wall Motherfucker: The Incomplete Works of Ron Hahne, Ben Morea, and the Black Mask Group (2011)

Show & Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material (2010), edited by Julie Ault with essays by Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Sabrina Locks, and Tim Rollins

Gordon Hall
Artist, contributor to the Walker’s Artist Op-Ed series (Read “Reading Things: On Gender, Sculpture, and Relearning How to See”)

Now Is the Time for ‘Nobodies’: Dean Spade on Mutual Aid and Resistance in the Trump Era,” Sarah Lazare, AlterNet, January 9, 2017

White (1997) by Richard Dyer

Sex In Public” by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, first published in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1998

The Ethics of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” (1984), Michel Foucault interviewed by Raul Fornet-Betancourt, Helmut Becker and Alfredo Gomez-Müller

Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) by José Esteban Muñoz

Notes Towards and Performative Theory of Assembly (2015) by Judith Butler

000.000 Nothing. No Confidence No=Nothing No=0000 (2016), by Sondra Perrywith Lumi Tan, Aria Dean, Manuel Arturo Abreu, Hito Steyerl, Hannah Black, Robert Jones, Jr., and Sable Elyse Smith. This zine was released in conjunction with Sondra Perry, Resident Evil at The Kitchen

Ann Hamilton
Visual artist

Both of my picks have “hope” in the title—and have moved and motivated me deeply. They’ve filled me with the hope and resilience that motivate us to keep working, the hope that shows us where we have been, the hope that sets in motion a clear and long-term vision for the cloudy path that is aheadThese are the books that sustained us after 9/11 and come off the bookshelf again.

Hope in the Dark Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2016) by Rebecca Solnit

Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2008) by Jonathan Lear
Lear considers the fate of the Crow Nation and what it means when everything the Crow Nation lived for and believed in has vanished.

Thomas Hirschhorn
Artist, creator of The Gramsci Monument (2013), Cavemanman (2002), Abstract Resistance (2006), others

The Terror of Evidence by Marcus Steinweg
Steinweg’s capacity to implicate the other is beautiful, bright, precise, and logical, grounded in everyday questions, which to him are always big questions.

Cynthia Hopkins
Composer, writer, musical performance artist; creator of This Clement World (2013), Accidental Nostalgia (2005), others

Blessed Unrest (2007) by Paul Hawken
This book gave me hope when I was learning about the climate crisis. It proposes that human civilization is part of a biosphere that, like any organism, has an immune system compelled to spring into action when the health of that organism is threatened. The environmental movement springing into action in defense against threats to the health of the biosphere is compared a human body’s immune system springing into action in defense against disease. In much the same way, social justice movements have the power to rise up and defend the health of this nation, and the noble principles upon which it was founded (such as basic human rights), against threats posed by President Trump. 

Selection from Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address (1861)
This brief quote from Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address seems appropriate to consider at this time of intense division between wildly opposed points of view within a single electorate. One could argue that the last time this country was so fractured, it was on the brink of a civil war. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Misa Jeffereis
Visual Arts Curatorial Assistant, Walker Art Center

The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, June 2014
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of a racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.

I Want a President: Transcripts of a Rally by Zoe Leonard, et al. (Art Resources Transfer)
Documentation of a November 6, 2016 rally/reading inspired by Zoe Leonard’s 1992 text on the High Line in New York.

The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (2016) by Kristin Dombek
“They’re among us, but they are not like us. They manipulate, lie, and cheat. They may be irresistibly charming and accomplished. But narcissists are empty… Or maybe they’re too full of themselves; experts disagree. But one thing is for sure: They don’t have empathy. And we do.” Empathy may be our strongest weapon moving forward. 

Thomas Lax
Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, The Museum of Modern Art

Scenes of Subjection (1997) by Saidiya Hartman

In the Break (2003) by Fred Moten

Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” (1987) by Hortense Spillers, in Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2

Lucy Lippard
Writer, critic, activist, curator; author of The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (1998), others

Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (2011) by Gregory Sholette

Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (2016) by Yates McKee

Kalup Linzy
Video and performance artist

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (2005) by Eckhart Tolle
“In his insightful look into humanity’s ego-based thinking, Eckhart Tolle provides practical teachings for waking up to a new, enlightened mind-set. If you’re seeking a more loving self and a more loving planet, A New Earth has the tools to begin your transformation.” —Oprah.com

Nisa Mackie
Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs, Walker Art Center

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2012) by Jon Ronson

The End of Progress (2016) by Amy Allen
A gutsy book doing the politically important work of attempting to bridge seemingly polar schools of critical theory.

What Is a People? (2016)
A provocative collection of essays by Alain Badiou, Pierre Bordieu, Judith Butler, Georges Didi-Huberman, Sadri Khiari, and Jacques that problematizes concepts of emancipation, populism, exclusion—and the ambiguous notion of “the people.”

The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) by Margaret Atwood

A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works (2015) by Stellan Vinthagen

Okwui Okpokwasili
Artist; she performs her Walker-commissioned work Poor People’s TV Room January 19–21 as part of Out There 2017

Delicious Foods (2016) by James Hannaham
Filled with humor and pathos, this picaresque novel is a sly wake-up call for those of us who think slavery is a relic of the distant past. 

Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Artist, writer, creator of How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette), others

won’t you celebrate with me” (1991) by Lucille Clifton

Microwave Popcorn” (2015) by Harmony Holiday

Parable of Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler

Space Traders” (1992) by Derrick Bell

The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

Winter in America” (1974) by Gil Scott Heron

Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2003) by Robin D.G. Kelley

What Exceeds the Hold?: An Interview with Christina Sharpe” by Selamawit Terrefe

Conscripts of Modernity (2004) by David S. Scott

Paul Schmelzer
Writer; Managing Editor, walkerart.org

A People’s Art History of the United States (2015) by Nicolas Lampert
Lampert chronicles the pivotal role the arts have played in social change, from the graphic agitation in the abolitionist and anti-war movements to the activism of ACT UP, Gran Fury, and the Yes Men. A look back in order to move forward.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (1991) by Wendell Berry
“As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. “

The Twilight of American Culture (2000) by Morris Berman
Written pre-9/11 and updated in 2006, the book begins by describing the ways in which symptoms of the fall of Rome—massive wealth inequality, an evaporating social safety net, rampant anti-intellectualism, etc.—are actually mainstream cultural values in America today. “Internal barbarisms,” Berman calls them. He then makes a case for the “new monastic individual.” These new monks, or “native expatriates,” he writes, “could provide a kind of record of authentic ways of living that could be preserved a kind of record of authentic ways of living that could be preserved and handed down, to resurface later on, during healthier times.” He likens it to the characters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 who, faced with brigades of book-burners, memorize the entirety of great works of literature to save them and pass them on orally. 

Dread Scott
Artist; creator of A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday (2016), What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? (1988), others

Call to Action” (2016) by refuseFascism.org
This call—”No! In the name of humanity. We refuse to accept a fascist America”—has been signed by Cornel West, Alice Walker, Rosie O’Donnell, John Landis, Chuck D, Marc Lamont Hill, Pastor Gregg L. Greer, Carl Dix, Robin D.G. Kelley, as well as many artists, and sharply calls out the Trump/Pence regime as fascist and calls on people to stop them before they can consolidate power.  

The New Communism (2016) by Bob Avakian

Witt Siasoco
Artist; Studio and Community Arts Associate, Minneapolis Institute of Art

March Trilogy (2013, 2015, 2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Who We Be: The Colorization of America (2014) by Jeff Chang (Read an excerpt.)

The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

Good Time for the Truth (2016), edited by Sun Yung Shin

A Choice of Weapons (1966) by Gordon Parks

The Power Broker (1975) by Robert A. Caro

Victoria Sung
Visual Arts Curatorial Assistant, Walker Art Center

In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti: Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World (2012) by Susan Tejada
President Obama reminded us in his farewell address last week that “the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles.” This world is played out in Tejada’s study of Boston in the 1920s and the trial of two Italian-American radicals convicted of robbery and murder. (I should add that Siah Armajani recommended this book to me while we were in his studio talking about his work Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room, of which he made four in the late 1980s.) Despite mounting evidence that the two men were not at the scene of the crime, the prosecution exploited the jury’s prejudices and made the case about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s radical beliefs, underlining their status as immigrants and outsiders. Sacco and Vanzetti represented the Other in an era long past, but the dangers posed by prejudice and irrational fear feel as relevant as ever.

Hank Willis Thomas

Artist; co-founder, For Freedoms, an artist-run super-PAC

The End of Protest (2016) by Micah White
“In The End Of Protest Micah White heralds the future of activism and declares the end of protest as you know it. Drawing on his unique experience as the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, a contagious protest that spread to eighty-two countries, White clearly articulates a unified theory of revolution and the principles of tactical innovation that are destined to catalyze the next generation of social movements.”—endofprotest.com

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell

JoAnn Verburg
Photographer; creator of Julia Breaking Through (1983), Terrorized (2006), others

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009) by Tamim Ansary

The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin

Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine

Leaves of Grass (1855) by Walt Whitman

The Gorgeous Nothings (2013), facsimile reproductions of Emily Dickinson’s 52 extant writings on envelopes (from the Amherst College Library)

Underground: New and Selected Poems (2013) by Jim Moore

Haiku: This Other World (1998) by Richard Wright

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990), translated by Jane Hershfield and Mariko Aratani

Fire on the Mountain (1977) by Anita Desai

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) by Gertrude Stein 

LaRose (2016) by Louise Erdrich 

The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa 

A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (2006) by John Yau

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing that One Sees (1982) by Lawrence Weschler

Interiors and Identity: Fionn Meade on Question the Wall Itself

Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts.  […]

Installation view of Nina Beier's China in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of Nina Beier’s China in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts. 

Recasting our conception of interior architecture and décor, Question the Wall Itself explores artistic practices and artworks that inhabit and articulate the spaces between artwork, prop, and set or stage. From the evocation of an anteroom or entryway to such unlikely interiors as a prison cell or commode, to a library, a showroom, and even a winter garden, the exhibition hosts a series of psychologically charged, politically animated, and gendered interiors hailing from a truly international array of cultural contexts, including the Middle East, South America, Europe, the United States, and beyond. Exploring how we trace, embellish, and disentangle social conventions, habits, and cultural codes, the exhibition reveals a public and critical dimension of artists’ engagement with interiors since the 1970s. Serving as a platform for what can at first glance appear to be intimate, hermetic, and even personal modes and moods of artistic address, décor reveals itself to be a resilient and persuasive minor key for artistic criticality and questioning the contemporary.

Suggesting a new hybridity that emerges from contemporary rather than modernist aesthetics, social and historical commentary is embedded within presentations that recall the performative staging of a film set or a showroom, with styles borrowed from house and history museum displays and even social clubs. Through artistic procedures of defamiliarization, fragmentary contextualization, and the use of provisional personae and storyboard-like plot development, the viewer passes through a series of interiors in which the active construction of identity holds uneasy sway over the place of exhibition making itself, with the viewer implicated in an unfolding drama, whether as protagonist or mere passerby. This staging is cinematic but not cinema, house museum but not museum.

Installation view of Marcel Broodthaers’s Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say Everywhere I Said So) (1974) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

One of the exhibition’s guides and tutelary spirits is the Belgian artist and poet Marcel Broodthaers, who turned the phrase esprit “décor” in reference to his late series of mostly room-scale interior artworks known as the Décors. In 1975 he explained, “I have attempted to articulate differently the objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year, in order to form the rooms in a ‘décor’ spirit. That is to say reinstating to the object or painting with its real use. Décor not being an end in itself.”1 Beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, Broodthaers deployed décor as critical stagecraft and an approach to mise-en-scène, creating a series of highly designed and convention-altering spaces that prompted questions, among them: Am I looking at art, product, or an image-language mix from an advertorial or political campaign? What is this mix of nationalistic emblems, comic props, and poetry? Why does this feel globalized and nostalgic at the same time? Broodthaers offered up a mixed-up sociopolitical space and framework in between private and public, commercial and intimate, outward facing and by invitation, status revealing and eccentric, a more resilient border space, an interior within critique. The format of the interior that emerges here is a space of choice and decision making, a space of the artist-curator but also of the display of taste, a portrait of sensibility and identity constructed.

Installation view of Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

With Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014), the feel of nonintegration and epochal slippage extends to the future of Arab art as his speculative museum fiction unfolds in a sequence of eleven partitioned or excerpted wall fragments purportedly taken from displays at new museums of modern Arab art around the world. Raad’s speculative panels, painted in varying colors and tones, each contain a different laser-cut shadow-like form embedded in the center, accented by a different style of applied marquetry along the base, suggesting parquet floor patterns sampled from different museums.  Letters to the Reader is itself part of an ongoing larger project, Scratching on things I could disavow, begun by Raad in 2007, that inquires into and critically engages the emergence of new platforms for framing and valuing modern and contemporary Arab art. By addressing and questioning an accelerated present in which some of the largest and most expensive new contemporary art museums are being built in the Arab world, Raad’s museum fiction cuts into the walls themselves of the speculative museum futures for modern and contemporary art.

Installation view of Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

In Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012), an uncooperative design traces onto the wall itself the second thoughts and provocative manifesto-like stances of two radical architectural thinkers active in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century. Taking as his point of departure a photograph of the entryway of an exemplary modernist two-family house built in the 1960s in his home city of Recife, de Andrade mimics the geometric pattern of the tiled entryway connecting the two dwellings and linking them to the street. The ideological aspirations of this private and public modernist foyer become touchstones for de Andrade’s room-scale installation in which the patterns formed by 340 red, yellow, blue, and black fiberglass tiles both reveal and obscure vinyl wall text with quotations from the artist and architect Flávio de Carvalho and the architect Marcos Vasconcellos. Creating an antistyle that combines competing designs, the artist lays bare the cultural aspirations and social fissures that continue to ripple through Brazilian city life, captured in a passageway.

Installation view of Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013), modeled on the dimensions of the salon or living room of the architect Adolf Loos’s 1930 Villa Müller in Prague, is a makeshift, scaled-down version of Loos’s original footprint. McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil rendering mimes Loos’s signature use of green Cipollino marble within the villa’s living room to outline and frame the primary social space in one of his signature buildings. But here the approximation is unfaithful and knowingly awkward. Rather than homage, Loos House is an uneasy quotation of Loos’s concept of Raumplan, or spatial plan, wherein interiors look down, up, and askance into the next room and there are constant shifts in volume and level as you cross over a given threshold in the interconnected complex of rooms.2 McKenzie appears to approach architecture, and here a pinnacle of interior architecture, with exactly the confidence of occupying a caesura in that her work posits and frames the empty volume of the Loos House Raumplan as yet open to questioning and repurposing. The use of décor as decoy reveals McKenzie’s interest in the unfaithful copy as a form of critique, and questions the reverence within the reference, framing an uneasy time and place, with family dysfunction and sexual subcurrents suddenly visible and readily traced.

Installation view of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s Here and There (1978/2016) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

For Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation Here and There (1978/2016), an anteroom was pitted against its counterpart, the neutral gallery space, disrupting viewers’ expectations as they turned the corner in what was sequenced as a domestic entryway. A series of overlapping panels leaned against the gallery walls, each picturing a provisional character captured in different domestic scenes and poses. A back is turned, hands reach for a teacup, a shadow is elongated by the setting sun coming in through a window: the effect is like that of a storyboard held in reserve and only partially revealed. Making a distinctive style of the chaptered sequencing familiar from showrooms, Chaimowicz offers us a showroom of the uncanny in his décor, the familiar yet “violated, modified” returns continually and is done with incredible élan. Playing off the familiar consumerist behavior of flipping through a magazine for the bits and pieces you might fancy or passing quickly from one display to another that catches the eye, Chaimowicz is a master of inverting consumerist taste. He achieves a disorienting feeling of recall yet dislocation.

Installation view of Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Existing as the index for an unrealized novel titled Crocodile Tears, Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) weaves a complex network of associations and seductive pairings simply through the proximity and promiscuity of the index. The absence of the body, in this case the novel itself, is substituted for by an index of artistic, literary, and theoretical references that speak symptomatically and playfully to one another, detailing aspirations, influences, fears, and even pretensions while inviting readers to imagine their way through the architecture of the unwritten yet mapped-out labyrinth. For his most in-depth index to date, Cesarco has made a sequence of indexes to imaginary books dating back more than fifteen years, tracing a form of self-portrait and, more to the point, a compressed interior portrait of artistic sensibility. As he has described it, the column-like infrastructure of the index allows for a “text that is a half-way biographical and half-way theory text; it is extremely personal, at times even hermetic, yet full of clichés.”3 Cesarco’s Index traces and makes present the objective construction of sensibility, laying out an interior architecture within the subjective.

Installation view of Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

 

Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) gives spectral presence and overlapping temporality to the disappearance of the sex industry from Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood at the time. As part of a gentrification campaign engineered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the peep shows, sex clubs, and gay theaters that populated Midtown were shuttered in an effort to make Times Square a homogenized tourist destination. A corner of the gallery demarcated by gray paint and a string of blue lights that conjure the abrupt turn of an entryway into a sex shop, Wall marks the outline of a threshold to a sexual interior, a boundary to the illicit. The installation at the Walker is accompanied by a nonarchival sequence of Polaroids taken by Burr in preparation for this exhibition as bare décor. Shown more than twenty years after they were taken, the photographs serve as a faded, quivering index and archive of an economy and subculture cleansed from the center of Manhattan.

Installation view of Tom Burr’s Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Wall is paired here with a newly commissioned sculpture, Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016), which finds Burr responding to and echoing the zigzag design of the architect Philip Johnson’s IDS Center building in downtown Minneapolis. The signature element of the building is what Johnson called the “zog,” a distinctive step-back design that effectively creates a series of corner offices, and thereby spaces of power and validation, on several floors of the skyscraper. Transposing the overlapping sequence into a large-scale sculpture in which photographic images are embedded in the “interior,” Burr surfaces the contradictory nature of the unfolding stack, or zog. By repeating the previously singular gesture of the zog and populating it with an eros-laden yet interrupted sequence of images, Burr ruptures the idealized space of power.

Installation view of Paul Sietsema’s Empire (2002) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Paul Sietsema’s film installation Empire (2002) pivots on the questioning of representation and value as it presents a layered depiction of the interior of the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s Manhattan living room. Having created a model of the critic’s space as it was shot and glamorized in the pages of Vogue in 1964, Empire quickly begins to layer in on itself, demonstrating a formal principle of comparison and contrast that inducing a tension between incident and acutely planful correlation that is characteristic of much of his work.

Prior to the reveal of Greenberg’s art-filled living room, Empire holes its way through a space reminiscent of the grotto-like cavities and interiors within the architect and artist Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1947–1960). Sietsema intercuts and layers spiraling shots that pass through perforated cave-like passages of a kindred model constructed by the artist to echo what appears as a primal and impossible interior. Providing episodic counterpoint are two further model interiors, also constructed by Sietsema: the interior of Greenberg’s Manhattan living room, based on the magazine spread, and a rendering of the ultimate period room, the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The latter is an eighteenth-century Rococo oval salon that is pristinely preserved, with gilded carvings and embedded mirror panels, within the now state-owned complex that also houses part of France’s national archives. While the former represents a zenith of a particular moment in American abstract painting asserting its vanguard status—including the implicit economics and power dynamics of the era’s signature art critic trumpeting his impressive private collection of representative works from the moment—the latter salon stands in for the unchanged, unaltered, historicizing period room emblematic of an aesthetic era synonymous with national style. The meticulous comparative nature of Empire approaches an ethnographic aesthetic in Sietsema’s film as epochal time becomes prismatic.

Installation view of Nina Beier’s China in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

In her ongoing body of work China, Nina Beier pairs hand-painted porcelain vases with hand-painted porcelain dogs ordered from separate custom companies in Italy but chosen to be roughly the same size. Beier cuts jagged holes into each, creating a highly artificial effect that mimics “a form of logic from cartoons, where there is no difference between the abilities of dogs and vases,” as the artist has described the purebred face-off. Cultivated style and pedigree variation are brought into comic adjacency and punched through with a cartoon-like immediacy. The aesthetic of ornamentation achieves a new pop criticality as the hole punched into the dog reveals it to be an empty decorative surface, while the vase loses its function as a vessel and flattens into nothing more than pattern. As Beier has stated, “Both of them disclose their empty inner anatomy and somehow meet, in between image and object.”4

Installation view of Nick Mauss’s F.S. Interval II (2014) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman

Temporal distancing meets formal device in the mirror panel paintings of Nick Mauss, whose deportations and refractions of viewing were initially conceived as framing devices for a mini-exhibition organized by the artist within a retrospective otherwise devoted to the American painter, poet, and stage designer Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). Embedded within the 2014 exhibition at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Mauss became surrogate and positioned his paintings as “intervals” alongside a selection of archival material devoted to Stettheimer’s poetry. Opening up the room to reflection and projection by a viewer, Mauss’s mirror paintings elaborated a consistent motif within Stettheimer’s paintings, that of still-life compositions of flowers. Mauss elaborates on Stettheimer’s idiosyncratic view of still-life paintings becoming like portraits of people in one’s life just as people take up floral attributes, whether individuals, lovers, groups of friends, or professional associates. The resulting composition, F.S. Interval II (2014), is a multipanel door-scale mirror painting reminiscent of the folds in a dressing room mirror. Allowing for a multiperspective reflection of the viewing body, it is both refracted homage to Stettheimer and an extension of the exhibition space. The painting depicts bodies and abstract marks but also the spectator’s reflection in a prismatic embrace, an effect that the artist has described as “a chamber full of disconnected individuals and affects still somehow being together.”5

Installation view of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016) and Chômage Technique (2016) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Regularly hemming a performing body into an interior, Shahryar Nashat’s moving image works fragment the body into an at times claustrophobic frame, revealing context and task only through a repetitive emphasis on highly choreographed micro-gestures and heightened Foley sound. Nashat’s survey of a highly functioning yet partial body prompts a new awareness of a common experience, the newly prosthetic digital augmentation of contemporary life, in the installation Present Sore (2016). As the view of Present Sore moves incrementally upward, a detail image of Paul Thek’s sculpture Hippopotamus (1965), from the Technological Reliquaries series, interrupts. Seemingly throbbing behind Plexiglas, the body is put twice at remove—walled off and fragmentary—yet maintaining the wounded technology of its time, the violent trace. The screen multiplies and divides as the emphasis and focus on heel, wrist, knee, hip, neck, or shoulder—places where movement is most implicit in classical figurative sculpture—become newly cosmetic, motorized, and wounded, and thereby a composite body emerges, one fit for a high-definition time.

The pedestal or base that would hold such an exemplary figure in classical or figurative sculpture—think the erotic writhing and athletic twists and turns of Rodin—is retired by Nashat in favor of a digital composite of the virtual body. Giving the support structure of the plinth a newly decorative role as bystander to the augmented screen representation, he refers to the pedestals as having been laid off until further notice, titling his work Chômage Technique (2016), which indicates a workforce now redundant. With a playful correspondence made between pedestal and foot, the support structures that keep things upright, Nashat leans his pedestals into a nearly supine position, in which they become the figurative work rather than the armature. The masquerade is heightened via faux-marble finishes and bright coloration as Nashat’s benches and columns dress up, playing the parts of voyeur and passerby.

Installation view of Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009-) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman

Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009–) parcels out the ultimate resting place and décor, the grave. A black marble tombstone is placed in the gallery (according to the artist’s instructions) and adorned and incised with gold lettering bearing the phrase “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” the chosen epitaph of the English Romantic poet John Keats. Promised in the exhibition narrative and deed (and thereby within Question the Wall Itself) to serve as the gravestone for the artist’s father, Phung Vo, on his death, all your deeds will be transferred to Copenhagen at that time but remain in the Walker’s permanent collection until then. At the close of the exhibition, all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble will be transferred to the upper garden of the Walker’s campus within a copse of trees, waiting in the hold, in reserve, for its ultimate transfer to Copenhagen, while inside the museum the empty vitrine is its dialogue partner, content at present to question the wall itself.

Notes

  1. Marcel Broodthaers, “Notes on the Subject,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2012), 489.
  2. The theatrical impulse within Loos’s Raumplan can be investigated as one in which the interior is a space of persuasion and orchestrated seduction: “The very notion of shifting floor levels finds some Viennese precedent in theatrical scenography, of the nineteenth century but also the twentieth.” Joseph Masheck, Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 142. Indeed, Frederick Kiesler’s Raumbuhne, or “spatial stage,” was contemporaneous with Loos’s Rufer House and has connections to Arnold Schoenberg’s investigation of spatial music.
  3. Alejandro Cesarco, quoted in announcement for exhibition at Artpace San Antonio, 2010.
  4. Nina Beier, in “Nina Beier, Cash for Gold, at Kunstverein Hamburg, July 11, 2015” (interview with Chris Fitzpatrick conducted on June 1–2, 2005), Mousse.
  5. Nick Mauss, “Quivers in Time and Place,” in Florine Stettheimer, ed. Matthias Mühling, Karin Althaus, and Susanne Böller (Munich: Lenbachhaus and Hirmer, 2014).

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