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Insistent Presences: Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017)

As we near the completion of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden renovation, we are saddened to hear of the passing of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990) will once again be on view to our audiences in June. A student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts between 1950 and 1954, […]

Magdelena Abakanowicz in front of Bronze Crowd (1990-1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz in front of Bronze Crowd (1990–1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

As we near the completion of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden renovation, we are saddened to hear of the passing of the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990) will once again be on view to our audiences in June. A student at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts between 1950 and 1954, Abakanowicz’s early works incorporated textiles, ropes and soft materials such as canvas and sisal that resulted in abstract forms she termed ‘abakans’. Speaking of works from this period, Abakanowicz said in 1969: “I became concerned with all that could be done through weaving […] how constructed surface can swell and burst, showing a glimpse of mysterious depths through cracks… My particular aim is to create possibilities for complete communion with an art object whose structure is complex and soft.”1 Abakanowicz’s materials were often found or discarded—she collected old pieces of wood, and would purchase used burlap vegetable sacks from market sellers in Warsaw. The “abakans” ranged from modest-sized sculptures to 15-foot-tall suspended soft works that suggested veils and shrouds, dense treetops, and oversized fantastical clothing.

A model showing Magdalena Abakanowicz's proposal for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Court, 1990

A model showing Magdalena Abakanowicz’s proposal for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Court, 1990

A trial installation of Magdalena Abakanowicz's Bronze Crowd (1990-1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

A trial installation of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Bronze Crowd (1990–1991) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

In 1992, Abakanowicz was invited to create a series of sculptures that would be placed on a newly designed court within the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Designed by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg, the court quoted from Edward Larrabee Barnes’s designs for both the Walker building and Sculpture Garden. The resulting space took the form of a granite-paved 110 x 60-foot sculpture plaza, bounded on one side by a wall surfaced with dark violet brick, identical to the sheathing of the Walker building. Abakanowicz was chosen, as her sculptures offered a “strong counterpoint to the geometry of the plaza, her headless figures would be alien intrusions in an essentially polite space […] their human scale and emotional intensity would make them insistent presences,” as Martin Friedman, then Walker Director Emeritus, wrote in a small publication made to accompany the unveiling.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989-90), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Bronze Crowd (1990-91), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Bronze Crowd (1990–1991), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 1992

Abakanowicz’s commission resulted in Bronze Crowd (1990–1991), a grouping of upright headless human figures, and Sagacious Head 6 and 7 (1989–1990), a pair of sculptures, which return to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden this summer. In the mid-1970s, Abakanowicz began taking molds of the human body, directly from a sitter in her studio. Leaving aside the head (“too complicated”) and hands (“too narrative”2), Abakanowicz created proliferations of anonymous, headless figures that she would group together, often to a menacing or haunting effect. Sagacious Head 6 and 7 followed from a series of sculptures the artist made in Seoul, Korea titled Space of the Dragon, which featured ten giant heads. Without recognizable facial features, Sagacious Head 6 and 7 were made specifically to reference natural forms such as rocks, and imagined organisms.

Magdalena Abakanowicz inspecting Bronze Crowd (1990-1991), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992

Magdalena Abakanowicz inspecting Bronze Crowd (1990–1991), Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, May 1992


Unveiling of Magdalena Abakanowicz's commission, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, 9/12/1992

Unveiling of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s commission, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, September, 12, 1992

Looking back at her Minneapolis Sculpture Garden commission, Abakanowicz said:

I remember my first visit to the Walker Art Center. I walked in the mud to the area destined for the future extension of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. I found myself there, overpowered by the highway in constant motion and the downtown skyscrapers in the background. This feeling of the power of the city organism remained strongly in my memory. Asked to make one Sagacious Head, with some Standing Figures, I felt unhappy and insisted on two Heads. I felt two justified each other better, protected each other. I decided to add a crowd of figures that could help the Heads resist the urban environment. The whole area will change over time. Grass has already covered the soil. Trees planted around the area will introduce the unchangeable law of changing seasons. Long before cathedrals were erected as areas of meditation and landmarks for towns, even before Stonehenge was raised, the need to divide and shape space was a necessity for man. Sites of contemplation and spiritual shelter provided a sense of measure in endless territory, offered goals for our wandering, and justified our existence. Overcrowding is as aggressive as emptiness and demands areas where we may “take off our sandals.” I feel sculpture gardens could become such places, where people can meditate and become aware not only of new tendencies in art but also of their own relation to space, scale, and the important world of metaphor and imagination. These gardens could constitute sites of spiritual shelter, in accordance with the very old needs that accompany human existence.3

As we prepare to open the renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and unveil several newly commissioned works by a new generation of artists, we think back to Abakanowicz’s impressions. With nearly 20 new works, and a total of 60 sculpture on view in the Garden, we hope our visitors will find both old and new favorites, and sculptures that offer moments of contemplation, pause, and perhaps even respite.


1. Magdalena Abakanowicz quoted in Inglot, J. (2004) The Figurative Sculpture of Magdalena Abakanowicz, University of California Press.

2. Magdalena Abakanowicz quoted in the Walker-produced exhibition booklet made to accompany her Minneapolis Sculpture Garden commission.

3. Ibid.

Wear Dark Glasses: The Relighting of Merce Cunningham’s Canfield

The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. […]

Performing Arts Collateral Merce Cunningham Canfield 1969 set by Robert Morris

Merce Cunningham Canfield (1969) décor by Robert Morris

The décor for Canfield (1969) entered the Walker’s collection with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company acquisition in 2011. It is a rare Robert Morris sculpture, little-studied within his practice, and due to its size and logistical challenges, it was only used a handful of times by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before falling out of repertory. Following a six-month restoration project by the Walker’s registration and program services crew, the conserved décor is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time.

Stored in three original touring crates, the décor the Walker acquired was a mysterious vestige of the magic environment it was intended to create onstage. The 25-foot-tall column broke down into two joined five-foot units and a single five-foot unit of hammered aluminum. Years of disregard had yellowed the paint, which was still scratched and stained from its last performances.

The design for Canfield was entirely Morris’s own conception, as he would not have discussed or known the nature of the choreography before proposing his design to Jasper Johns, then the artistic advisor of the Cunningham company. Morris’s original vision for the Canfield décor was to have the dancers wear leotards dyed with a reflective paint that would glow when caught by a beam of light. Admittedly, Morris was less than active in his creation of the work; after communicating his concept to Johns, Rick Nelson and James Baird—lighting designer and stage manager for the company, respectively—were put in charge of producing his idea. Nelson and Johns sourced airplane runway lights, which produced a blinding glare upstage when attached to a reflective scrim. Baird mechanized Morris’s column to travel slowly across the stage, from left to right, meaning that most of the choreographic activity occurred outside the lights’ glow, in shadowy darkness.

The exact mechanics of this early design were confounding to us at the Walker as we attempted to reconfigure the apparatus using as much of the original assemblage of pulleys, weights, and steel I- and T-beams as possible. Once successfully mounted in the Walker’s McGuire Theater and safely rewired by Egan Electric, the process of mechanizing the column began. At times the process of mounting the piece felt like a humorous contemporary take on the projects developed collaboratively by Experiments in Art and Technology.

Lead technician David Dick examines an early motor for Canfield Photo: Mary Coyne

Lead technician David Dick examines an early motor for Canfield Photo: Mary Coyne

It was apparent that, in order to properly restore Canfield, the column had to operate as it had in 1969. The traveling beam of light, as opposed to the column itself, was Morris’s vision for the design, and a stationary column hanging from the gallery wall would not have successfully conveyed Canfield’s purpose. Peter Hannah, from the Walker’s program services team, sourced a Teknic motor, which was programmed to traverse the I-beam, stop gently, and return in the opposite direction.

Now operational and installed as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time for the first time since its acquisition, Morris’s desired effect was visible. As an active design, rather than a stationary sculpture, the piece’s relationship to Cunningham’s work of that late 1960s emerged. Perhaps most interestingly, the decor shares a direct relationship to artist Francis Picabia’s stage design for the 1924 ballet, Relâche. Cunningham and Cage had seen René Clair’s film, Entr’acte, created for Picabia and Erik Satie’s ballet, in the late 1950s and, likely through their ongoing friendship with Marcel Duchamp over the next decade, processed the work as an important historical reference. Commissioned by Rolf de Mare for the Paris-based Ballets Suédois, Picabia’s design consisted of hundreds of white lights shining at the audience upstage of the performers. Combined with Satie’s score (it would be his final composition), the ballet was an early Dadaist celebration. The work’s title, which translates to “canceled” or the “show has been canceled,” made any scheduled performance of the work into a pun (the first advertised performance was indeed cancelled, adding to the play). Relâche’s disjointed relationship of dance to music, challenging décor, and seemingly non-narrative action on stage makes it an ideal progenitor of Cunningham’s own choreography.

1924 Relache_001

Relâche, 1924

1924 Relache_002

Relâche, 1924

In Walkaround Time (1968), Cunningham split the dance into two acts broken by an intermission, or entr’acte, during which the dancers remained on stage in view of the audience. Even Cunningham’s “strip tease,” in which he changes costume on stage following the entr’acte, coyly mimed from not only Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase (a gender reversal of the bride being stripped bare by the bachelors) but also the male dancer’s onstage costume change from evening tails into white unitards in Relâche, a move responded to as radical in the 1920s.

An advertisement for the ballet carried Picabia’s own disclosure: “Above all, don’t forget dark glasses and something to plug your ears.”1 Writing in 1981 (over a decade after Canfield’s premiere), Rosalind Krauss considered the experience of viewing the ballet against such harsh lights an act of “terrorism” striking out against the audience. This dramatic reading is supported by first-hand accounts of the work; Paul Souday, reviewing the work, wrote that the lights—reflecting off circular mirrors against the wall behind the stage—were “unbearable” to look at, especially once reflected against the small mirrors decorating the dancer’s unitards.

Morris’s design for Canfield could be read as his riff on the historical work. In a reversal of Picabia’s conceit of a tableau against which the audience viewed the activity occurring downstage, Morris’s column, which continually moved across the stage, referenced his interest in actively altering the structures of time and space around the body through acute focuses on light and dark.2 Morris used a similar strategy—the dancer’s body against a dark ground—in his first dance work, Arizona, which premiered at the Judson Dance Theater in 1963. The dancer (Morris) wore white coveralls against a white column against a dark performance space. Spinning electric lights on ropes hung over the heads of the audience while, over the course of the piece, the stage area went dark. Morris would later consider:

the establishment of a focus shifting between the egocentric and the exocentric could be accomplished by swinging overhead in a fully lighted room a small light at the end of a cord. The lights in the room fade as the cord is slowly let out until, finally, in total darkness, only the moving point of light is visible as it revolves in the large space above the heads of the audience.

Cunningham was interested in these affronts to the body of the dancer and, perhaps even more so, that of the expectantly passive viewer.3 In Winterbranch (1964) Cunningham made his perhaps most challenging work to date, a foreboding choreography set to a grading score by La Monte Young. Cunningham opened the dance by moving onto the dark stage carrying a flashlight, the only source of light on stage. Automobile headlights placed on the stage lit the end of the dance; much of the dance occurred in shadows. Further adding to the sense of unrest, the dancers’ faces were marked with eye black (as used by sports players to minimize glare). Cunningham asked then-resident designer Robert Rauschenberg to light the work and to “think of the light as though it were night instead of day. I don’t mean night as referred to in romantic pieces, but night as it is in our time with automobiles on highways, and flashlights in our faces, and the eyes being deceived about shapes the way the light hits them.”4 Rauschenberg, who had worked as the lighting designer for the company since 1954, as well as creating the costumes and stage decors, saw Winterbranch as his pièce de résistance in his contributions to lighting: the deep shadows and harsh lights contributed to the mood.

Winterbranch, 1965

Cunningham’s work often was met with resistance, understood as too difficult to watch. Since the 1940s, scores by John Cage, Bo Nilsson, and others were reported as an affront to the audience. To this day, many viewers comment on how Cunningham’s work is best enjoyed on mute or in silence. By 1965, Cunningham seemed prepared to embrace this challenge, intentionally drawing out what made the audience uncomfortable and thus more aware of their action as viewers of—and participants in—the work.

This planned affront to the audience members initially embraced by Cunningham in Winterbranch took on a sculptural form in the late 1960s. It is difficult not to look at the stage décor presented under Johns as in conversation with what Lucy Lippard termed “Dematerialized Art.” Andy Warhol’s helium-filled Silver Clouds (1966/1968); Bruce Nauman’s décor for Tread (1970), in which 10 fans blew directly outward form the edge of the proscenium stage onto the audience; and Morris’s column of light all capture the elements of Lippard’s dematerialized art. Morris dealt with this indefinite, or “dematerialized,” art not only in his inclusion of light and abstraction such as the time in his early performance works but also in his “sculptures” leading up to the commission for Canfield, including Steam (1967), an amorphous cloud of steam routed via pipes to small ruptures in a rock bed; Dirt (1968) a 2,000-pound pile of soil; and Continuous Project Altered Daily (1969), the latter of which notably was on view at the Leo Castelli Warehouse on Manhattan’s upper west side when Canfield premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Johns’s commissions during the last three years of his tenure as artistic advisor should be understood together, with Canfield at its heart, of the 1960’s preface Morris’s Bodymotionspacesthings at the Tate in 1971, an interactive sculptural installation that allowed him to translate this confrontation of sculpture in space with that of the viewer/participant.


Robert Morris, Bodyspacemotionthings 1971, Tate Modern, London

Watching the now-mobile Canfield column installed at MCA Chicago, generating a steady illuminated glow against the reflective wall (in galleries, walls stand in for upstage scrims) the sensorial aspect of Cunningham’s work of this period was readily palpable. Always ready to physically challenge an audience, Cunningham’s collaboration with Morris, although appropriately developed independent of each other, is a key project within the artist’s interest in the spatial and psychological relationship between dancer, viewer, and object.

Canfield is on view as part of Merce Cunningham: Common Time at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 30, 2017. The Walker component of the dual-venue Common Time exhibition closes July 30, 2017. 


1 391, no. 19, October 1924.

2 Morris articulates the relationship to light and dark to that of the temporal/spatial experience of the body in his seminal Notes on Dance, originally published in The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965): 179–180.

3 Although Cunningham was not making these choices directly, he clearly supported Johns’s partnerships with Nauman and Morris. When presented with an idea he wasn’t particularly keen on, Cunningham would famously suggest “maybe later,” rather than respond in the negative.

4 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997).

Sonic Spirituality: Louise Erdrich on Postcommodity’s Ceremonial Transformation of LRAD

The LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, was first used in 2009 to control protesters at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. Since then, it has been purchased by more than 60 countries to disperse demonstrators. Originally developed to deter pirates at sea, it has been notoriously used by Japanese whaling fleets against Sea Shepherd Conservation boats and […]

The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking, 2017 Two channel sound installation (four act opera, two LRADs, Aristotle’s Lyceum). Installation view. Photo: Postcommodity; Image: Courtesy of Bockley Gallery documenta 14, Athens, Greece

Postcommodity, The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking (2017), a two-channel sound installation installed in Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens as part of documenta 14. Photo courtesy Bockley Gallery

The LRAD, or Long Range Acoustic Device, was first used in 2009 to control protesters at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh. Since then, it has been purchased by more than 60 countries to disperse demonstrators. Originally developed to deter pirates at sea, it has been notoriously used by Japanese whaling fleets against Sea Shepherd Conservation boats and helicopters. The military-grade device can project voice messages and eardrum rupturing “alarm tones” over a distance of two miles or more via a 30- to 60-degree beam.

The ACLU opposes the use of LRAD on First Amendment–protected protesters because of its chilling effect on free speech. “I’d rather be tazed, shot with a rubber bullet, maced, and then kicked in the balls than have my eardrums erupted,” an anonymous protest veteran told Digital Justice. LRAD was recently employed at Standing Rock, against water protectors attempting to save the reservation’s water source by halting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is set to run beneath the Missouri River. LRAD’s effect on people is devastating. But in a moving act of cultural transformation, the art collective Postcommodity is using LRAD in a radically different manner. The innocuous-looking gray LRAD speakers are installed in Athens, Greece, and the more softly pitched acoustical beam is directed at the archeological site of Aristotle’s Lyceum. Here, LRAD is used to speak to the origins of western civilization, not in weaponized tones, but in the language of the human spirit.

An LRAD in Standing Rock. Photo: Ryan Vizziones

An LRAD mounted on an armored vehicle in Standing Rock. Photo: Ryan Vizzions

I met with Postcommodity artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist at Bockley Gallery during the opening of an exhibition based on an earlier project, or ceremony, Repellent Fence (2015). I had never met Postcommodity before, but as they talked about the documenta 14 project in Athens, something switched on for me. It is unusual to be simultaneously moved, spiritually shaken, and visually and/or intellectually seized by an art installation. Good pieces of art get to you as who you are. Great ones speak to you as more than you are. They direct you to an area of thought and emotion where you want to express something beyond your grasp.

Aristotle’s Lyceum was founded in 335 BC, and as a school it fostered such intellectual inventions as inductive and deductive reasoning and organized scientific inquiry. The Lyceum was excavated in 1996, and today it is a historical park and an archeological site, open to the public. LRADs, placed by Postcommodity on the rooftops of the Athens Conservatoire of Music and Theatre and the Hellenic Armed Forces Officers’ Club, currently broadcast the voices of immigrants. In quiet song journeys, narratives of forced displacement, opera and silence, Postcommodity confronts the genesis of western philosophy. In its current iteration, western civilization includes runaway corporate capitalism, so in effect western philosophy has resulted in massive global destruction. An unrestrained free market has thrived on carbon emissions, causing climate change. And climate change has in turn caused droughts like the one that displaced Syrian farmers to cities, which caused desperation and unrest, answered by genocide, which then initiated the largest human migration in history. Unprecedented famines and water shortages are ravaging the Sudan. More than 65.3 million people are now displaced, most from Syria and Somalia. Distressingly, 51 percent are children, many of them separated from parents or traveling alone. They leave behind everything and go where there is nothing for them. They travel with only their stories and their songs.

The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking, 2017 Two channel sound installation (four act opera, two LRADs, Aristotle’s Lyceum). Installation view. Photo: Postcommodity; Image: Courtesy of Bockley Gallery documenta 14, Athens, Greece

Postcommodity, The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking (2017), with Aristotle’s Lyceum in the background. Photo courtesy Bockley Gallery

People who have been subjected to LRAD report its haunting effect. Sounds traveling via the directed beam create phantom speakers. A voice, for instance, seems to emerge from an invisible person right in front of you. The LRAD sound beam “gets in your head.” For 100 days in Aristotle’s Lyceum, ghosts are speaking to ghosts. Restless contemporary spirits are interrogating the dead. Instead of broadcasting military orders, the art installation’s LRAD broadcasts questions.

How has deductive reasoning resulted in the monster of the military state? Can you see the connections between Standing Rock and all else that lives and moves? Why is scientific inquiry useless in arguing for the fate of the world? How did western thought and the fruit of western thought beget the invention of weapons systems that can demolish everything we love? How and why have so many humans been driven to wander the world?

Postcommodity often mentions ceremony in describing their work. Ceremony in Native American life has to do with addressing the mysterious in ritualized ways, bound up tribal history, and language. A ceremony usually involves a transformation. A water drum once ceremonially assembled becomes human. A sacred pipe once blessed, dedicated to each direction, and lighted, carries prayers to the Creator in its smoke. A person becomes known to the spirits by a newly dreamed name. In the documenta 14 installation, a sound weapon is transformed into a delivery system for spirituality. Those who were at Standing Rock speak of the instant agony produced by LRAD bursts of sound, typically between 150 and 162 decibels. The threshold level for hearing damage is 85 decibels. Extremely loud, sudden noises can cause permanent cellular damage to the inner ear, and even to the human brain. Postcommodity’s work is to heal that damage, to inflict, instead of pain and loss, complexity, meaning, and gorgeous sound.

Louise Erdrich is the author of 15 novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. She has won numerous awards for her fiction including the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction (The Round House) and, most recently, the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for her novel LaRose. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis.

Postcommodity’s The Ears Between Worlds Are Always Speaking (2017) can be experienced at documenta 14 in Athens through July 16, 2017. For more on the collective, read “2043: No Es Un Sueño,” a meditation on indigenous identity, the border, and the year when whites are predicted to become a minority in the US, commissioned as part of the Walker’s Artist Op-Eds series, or watch video of their Walker artist talk from March 11, 2017.

Larger than Life: James Rosenquist (1933–2017)

For me, things have to be life-size or larger. I believe it is possible to bring something so close that you can see through it, so it comes to you right off the wall. I like to bring things into unexpected immediacy—as if someone thrust something right next to your face—a beer bottle or his […]

Hollis Frampton, untitled from the series James Rosenquist, 1963, black-and-white photograph, Collection Walker Art Center

Hollis Frampton, untitled from the series James Rosenquist, 1963, black-and-white photograph, Collection Walker Art Center

For me, things have to be life-size or larger. I believe it is possible to bring something so close that you can see through it, so it comes to you right off the wall. I like to bring things into unexpected immediacy—as if someone thrust something right next to your face—a beer bottle or his shirt cuff—and said, “How do you like it?”

—James Rosenquist, 1965

James Rosenquist, a key figure in the Pop art movement, passed away on March 31, 2017 at age 83. Rosenquist was known for his large-scale, vivid, and colorful paintings that combined and cropped imagery that reflected the excesses of postwar consumer America—movie stars, automobiles, domestic objects, and food items.

Like his peer, Ed Ruscha, who brought the techniques of layout, illustration, and lettering with him into painting, or Andy Warhol, who was a successful commercial illustrator in New York in the 1950s, Rosenquist similarly incorporated commercial techniques into his artistic practice. The artist was deeply influenced by his time working as a sign and billboard painter in the 1950s, translating the size, format, and mass-recognized imagery of billboards onto his canvases. Asserting larger-than-life images, Rosenquist transgressed categories and pushed the boundaries that defined what art could be and how it could be experienced.

Minnesota billboard

James Rosenquist with his mother and an early creation from his sign-painting days in Minnesota, 1954

Rosenquist was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and lived in various cities in Minnesota and Ohio in his early childhood until his family settled in Minneapolis in 1944. In junior high school, Rosenquist studied art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and in 1952 he enrolled in the studio art program at the University of Minnesota. During the summer break of 1953 Rosenquist worked for a contractor painting gas station signs, storage tanks, and grain silos, before he left college to pursue his artistic career in New York in 1955. In order to support himself in the big city, where he was studying at the Art Students League, Rosenquist painted billboards in 1957 to 1960—advertisements for movies, liquor, and soft drinks—and was briefly employed by Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation, painting some of the largest billboards in the world.


James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964-65, oil on canvas with aluminum, Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York

Rosenquist began his early artistic career in Minneapolis, and over the course of his life presented his work at the Walker Art Center on numerous occasions. While his early work was primarily rooted in Abstract Expressionism—evident in his 1957 painting, Passing Before the Horizon that was included in the 1958 Biennial: Paintings, Prints, Sculpture at the Walker Art Center—in 1960 he began to work with existing commercial imagery, and soon adopted his signature billboard-inspired, mural-scaled paintings. In 1964 Rosenquist started making the painting for which he is perhaps best know, the monumental F-111. At an astounding 86 feet in length, with panels that occupy multiple successive walls, the painting’s central subject is an F-111 bomber plane, which was being developed at the time for use in the Vietnam War. The plane collides with visual imagery ranging from food to consumer items to war references, drawing links between the Vietnam War, consumerism, the media, and advertising.

Rosenquist 1971.8

James Rosenquist, Area Code, 1970, oil on canvas, Mylar, Collection Walker Art Center

After F-111 Rosenquist created a series of five large-scale paintings with winged, Mylar side panels that enabled the paintings to take up three-dimensional space. The Mylar panels serve to extend each painting by reflecting it, refuting the finality of its outer edges. As early as 1963, Rosenquist was concerned with “purging myself of devices that would put boundaries on my pictures.” One of these works—a 1970 painting in the Walker permanent collection, Area Code—presents fragmented images of a bird’s wings and telephone wires sharply severed, perhaps indicating the artist’s interest in mass media and communication.

Where the Water Goes

James Rosenquist, Where the Water Goes from the series Welcome to the Water Planet, 1989, colored, pressed paper pulp, lithography collage, Collection Walker Art Center

Rosenquist was also an accomplished printmaker. Resistant to the medium at first because of the difficulty of translating the splintered compositions of his paintings into print form, Rosenquist eventually began working with Kenneth Tyler, of the renowned Tyler Graphics Ltd., who introduced him to paper pulp—a medium that offered a surface similar to that of painting. Rosenquist explained to Tyler that he wanted to make prints as big as paintings, and to work in a spontaneous manner akin to painting, and Tyler responded, “OK, I’ll make the biggest pieces of handmade paper you’ve ever seen.” Together the pair made some of the most boundary-pushing prints of Rosenquist’s career. A repository of the archives of Tyler Graphics, the Walker holds many of Rosenquist’s works on paper, including his most ambitious prints from the series Welcome to the Water Planet (1989–1990). Made at an unprecedented scale—so large that the Walker had to build new drawers to accommodate their size—the prints were inspired by the vegetation of Florida, where Rosenquist had a studio. The works were scaled-up versions of smaller collages, featuring a splicing technique that meshed foreground with disparate background imagery. The series reflected the artist’s disquiet with what was happening to the earth.

EX1993jr_ins James Rosenquist:Time Dust, The Complete Graphics 1962-1992 Mar 7- May 9, 1993 disc location: 161.ex_b

Installation view of James Rosenquist: Time Dust|The Complete Graphics, Walker Art Center, 1993

Rosenquist continued to experiment with printmaking techniques, and in 1993 the Walker hosted a retrospective of his editions, James Rosenquist: Time Dust|The Complete Graphics, organized by the University Art Museum at California State University. The survey of more than 100 prints examined the artist’s graphic production from his groundbreaking Pop images to the mural-sized handmade paper and lithographic collage prints. Rosenquist was a prolific image maker, undeterred even after his Florida studio burned in 2009. He was described as having a child’s energy, and he liked to move around and dance. “Let’s boogey” was one of his favorite expressions, meaning “Let’s go.” To Rosenquist, who worked ever since he could remember, movement implied work. Rosenquist was a devotee of the ever-moving, the infinite, the larger-than-life. And while the scale of his work brought immediacy to the subject, he stated, “The reason for bigness isn’t largeness. It’s to be engulfed by peripheral vision; it questions the self and questions self-consciousness.”

Imagining the Future Before Us: Forward to Sharon Louden’s The Artist as Culture Producer

How can artists extend their practices outside of their studios, contribute to creative economies, and create change in their communities? That’s the central question behind Minneapolis-based artist Sharon Louden’s new book, The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, which features 40 essays on the topic by visual artists including Alec Soth, Edgar Arceneaux, […]

Matthew Deleget High Value Target 2014

High Value Target (2014) by Matthew Deleget, a contributor to The Artist as Culture Producer. Photo courtesy the artist

How can artists extend their practices outside of their studios, contribute to creative economies, and create change in their communities? That’s the central question behind Minneapolis-based artist Sharon Louden’s new book, The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, which features 40 essays on the topic by visual artists including Alec Soth, Edgar Arceneaux, and Andrea Zittel. In advance of its March 22 Walker launch event—featuring Louden, Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian, artists Tia-Simone Gardner and Graci Horne, and Mn Artists editor-in-chief Susannah Schouweiler—we share the book’s forward.

At the dawn of the High Renaissance, in 1480 to be exact, the wealthiest artist in Florence was Neri di Bicci, who didn’t make his fortune from the altarpieces he’s known for today, but from the sale of small tabernacles containing a “painted plaster sacred image (made with a mold), and in an ‘antique style’ wooden frame.” The second richest artist in town was di Bicci’s student, Andrea di Giusto Manzini. He’s largely unknown today, but during his lifetime Manzini was also a “painter of plaster statues.”1 Artists, it appears, have always been creative at finding ways to sustain their creativity, and their artistic, personal, public, and financial lives have always been more complicated than they seem.

Only recently have we begun to talk about the economic and social realities of being an artist, long hidden under the myths of “genius” or “passion” that can marginalize the serious work of making art. Books like this one are helping those artists trying to shake free of the unrealistic fantasy created by a steady stream of inflated stories about the luxury art market and how it caters only to the richest 1%.

Though the new media spotlight on contemporary art has given the field renewed attention and glamor, there’s another type of renaissance taking place in the art world around the evolving relationship of artists to society, and it’s one that’s largely overlooked. This new wave is being led by creative individuals working to revitalize their communities, often redefining their roles, and challenging the boundaries of art today. Artists are our conscience; they are innovators, healers, chance-takers, and activists. Most importantly, they are a microcosm of society.

Artists excel at generating new models, and their resilience and popularity often come because they respond to the idea of culture as a lived, constantly evolving, and malleable thing that springs from the fount of everyday life. If contemporary art, particularly its newer forms—like performance, new media, street art—has blurred the boundaries of work and life, then all the systems that sustain this type of work are slowly catching up. The lives of artists tell us about our society, and how we do (or more shockingly don’t) properly value those who help produce some of the most important aspects of our culture. They are stories we need to hear.

Kat Kiernan Untitled

Untitled (2015) by Kat Kiernan, a contributor to The Artist as Culture Producer. Photo courtesy the artist

Some may be apprehensive about the idea of artists as cultural producers, but the evolving nature of artistic practice means we have to adapt our language to reflect a new reality. Artists can’t be beholden to old stereotypes of inspired acts of creation—or even galleries and museums—to determine their path. They work in culture, but they’re also plugged into larger networks of power, finance, identity, and information systems; they create the objects, generate the ideas, and produce the models that allow others to dream, feel, and ponder. Sometimes they reflect our world back at us, and the best of them do it with uncanny precision. Others imagine what we thought impossible and wait while everyone else catches up.

In my dream world, artists would be part of every aspect of our lives. They would help make hospitals more receptive and healing places; they would create street furniture that encourages contemplation and community; and they’d help local governments communicate more effectively with the public. I hope this book will help shatter the old stereotypes of artists as exotic and enigmatic creatures and, in their place, construct a new image using stories of individuals who sustain remarkable artistic lives while nurturing themselves with families, activism, volunteerism, small businesses, hobbies, and politics.

Sharon Louden is one such remarkable individual, who has been a proponent of rethinking artists’ roles in society and responding to their needs. When I first met her, I immediately recognized how much compassion she had for her fellow artists—their lives, work, and even their insecurities—but also how contagious her commitment and optimism can be.

How do we create art that challenges capitalism? How can we find new ways to give comfort to those confronted with violence? How do we shed light on those overlooked by society? Why do we make art in a culture that can be antagonistic towards it? Why even continue? The answer to these questions lies in the work of individuals who imagine the future before us, and we call them artists.


1. Guerzoni, Guido. Apollo & Vulcan: The Art Markets in Italy 1400–1700 (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2011), p. xxiii

Reprinted with permission from The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, edited by Sharon Louden, published by Intellect. © 2017 Sharon Louden and contributors. All rights reserved.

Aesthetic Portals: A Postcommodity Primer

“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes. […]

Postcommodity: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist

Postcommodity: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist

“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes.

In the coming month, the interdisciplinary collective’s “indigenous lens” will be featured in several prestigious exhibitions, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial (opening March 17), documenta 14 (opening in Athens April 8 and in Kassel on June 10), and at Art In General, where their commissioned installation Coyotaje will debut March 24. In preparation for these engagements—as well as their arrival in Minneapolis this weekend—we offer a primer on several Postcommodity works that address the theme of portals.

To meet the artists and pick up a free copy of their just-published essay, “2043: No Es Un Sueño,” commissioned as part of the Walker’s ongoing Artist Op-Eds series, join us Saturday, March 11 at 6 pm for an op-ed launch and artist talk—the first time we’ve activated this long-running series with a live event. (Free pamphlets are available to the first 75 attendees.) The event is presented in collaboration with Minneapolis’s Bockley Gallery, which opens the exhibition Postcommodity on Friday, March 10.


Do You Remember When? (2009/2012)

Do You Remember When? – 2009. Site-specific intervention and mixedmedia installation (cut concrete, exposed earth, light, sound). Photos Above: Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Ceramics Research Center, Tempe, AZ.

Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, 2009. All photos courtesy the artists, unless otherwise noted

This mixed-media installation creates a passage between worlds. A slab of gallery floor, cut out and placed on a pedestal—“a trophy celebrating Indigenous intervention in opposition to a Western scientific worldview”—leaves a doorway to the exposed earth, and to spiritualities and cultures tied to it, below. Site-specific audio provides a “psychosocial soundtrack”: at Arizona State University in 2009, it included a closed-circuit audio broadcast of a Pee Posh social dance song performed by the collective; at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, it featured “songs and animal calls performed by members of local communities that are part of the aboriginal peoples of Sydney.” In each instance, a microphone was suspended over the square of soil, “positioning viewers as listeners to a feedback loop of Indigenous voices in dialogue with the exposed earth” (as Mark Watson put it in his 2015 Third Text essay, “Centring the Indigenous”). The work, the collective writes, “shifts the sustainability from a focus dominated by Western science to a balanced approach inclusive of Indigenous knowledge systems.”


My Blood Is in the Water (2010)

My Blood is in the Water – 2010. Mixed-media installation, sculpture with sound. (mule deer taxidermy, wood poles, water, amplifier, drum). Dimensions variable: Structure: 15’ height, 10’x10’ base; taxidermy 70” long; drum 36” tall, 22” diameter. Detail of Pueblo drum, Installation View, and Detail of Mule Deer.
“The history of art is largely deaf,” Postcommodity’s Kade L. Twist told Bill Kelley, Jr. in a 2015 Afterall interview. “Sound is the glue that holds us together.” In My Blood is in the Water, the sound is both a pulse and a drumbeat, created by blood dripping from the carcass of a mule deer onto an amplified Pueblo drum. Created in commemoration of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary, the piece served as “an ephemeral time-keeping instrument relaying the history and intonation of this land.”

Here’s how Lucy Lippard characterized the work:

One of Postcommodity’s most impressive fusions of “traditional” imagery and political message is P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood Is in the Water, 2010), commemorating the city of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary. A buck mule deer’s carcass, hung upside down, donates its dripping blood to create sounds on an amplified drum below, “memorialising the mule deer as a spiritual mediator of the landscape and [paying] tribute to the traditional means by which indigenous people put food on the table” without destroying whole species. The striking image of the deer—simultaneously beautiful and tragic—is intended to turn around “the dominant culture’s process of commoditisation, demand/supply and convenience.”


Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (2011)

Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (Mechelen) – 2011. Interactive four channel video and sound installation. Duration: Infinite. Photo Above: Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, BE.

Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, Belgium

This immersive multi-channel installation greets viewers with pastoral scenery—fields and mountains, pristine waters, a child picking flowers—but such soothing imagery is jarringly (and noisily) ripped away, replaced by visions from an apocalyptic future where pollution and other forms of environmental degradation rule the day. Postcommodity writes:

While engaging the seemingly meditative video installation and walking about the gallery space, audience members will inevitably step on one of eight detonation triggers embedded in the floor, setting off a concussive sonic explosion shaped by a generative physics model of real-world IED explosions—particularly IEDs that utilize found consumer objects and electronics. The audience-triggered explosions are comprised of fragments of sampled music ranging the iconic pop of Burt Bacharach, Beach Boys, and Beatles to the heavy metal of Slayer, Metallica, and Black Sabbath and punk rock of the Ramones, Bad Brains, and Stiff Little Fingers. In all, hundreds of samples are randomly utilized as sonic shrapnel. The result is an exaggerated moment in which audiences are enveloped by the physical properties of an Afghanistan hot spot and simultaneously assaulted by the sonic artifacts of Western colonialism in which members of the audience share the sudden and disorientating experience of having their collective musical memories envelop them and flash before their eyes.


Gallup Motel Butchering (2011)

Gallup Motel Butchering - 2011. Multi-channel video. Duration: 9:05. Video Stills.

A tourist hotel in the traditional homelands of the Navajo people becomes the site for an act that, only due to its setting, might seem violent or out of place. Shot from various angles with high-definition cameras, this four-channel video shows in gritty detail a Navajo woman butchering a sheep for a family feast. The woman is a former runner-up in the Miss Navajo pageant, but the year she competed, sheep butchering—a role reserved for women in Navajo culture—wasn’t a requirement. With no prior experience slaughtering sheep, she butchered the animal on camera—awkwardly, and in the awkward setting of the hotel bathroom. The work reveals “how a traditional act of cultural self-determination can appear violent and disorientating within the context of a ‘non-place’ and pose a poetic, metaphorical transgression against the assumptions of the Western imagination.” Like a rip in the space-time continuum, the work illuminates twin realities coexisting in this Gallup, New Mexico motel.


Pollination (2015)

Pollination - 2015. Immersive Installation. Peepshow architecture, viewing booths with sound, large scale terrarium, terrarium heat/light lamps, electronic arcade coin slot shutters, tokens, plants, mirrors, razor wire, monarch butterflys, odors, cleaning supplies, Kleenex, trash cans, paper towels and hand sanitizer. Installation Views, Postcommodity: SouthwestNET., Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona. Photos: Sean Deckert / Calnicean Projects

Photo: Sean Deckert, Calnicean Projects

Installed at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, this immersive installation recasts the doorway as a peepshow window. Visitors enter one of eight doors, insert a token in a slot, and get a glimpse of a garden of earthly delights: a lush world of butterflies, plants, and floral scents—rendered surreal by artificial lighting. “Playing on the idea of the peep show and the fetishized female form—which throughout art history and literature has been implicitly and explicitly linked to the garden—Postcommodity comments on fantasy, objectification, and the male gaze,” writes Hyperallergic’s Erin Joyce. “Yet by presenting an actual garden, the piece also speaks to the powerlessness of nature in the face of mankind’s domination and abuses. The incorporation of the ‘pay-to-play’ model, meanwhile, brings in capitalism’s role in the devastation of the natural world, global market systems, land development, and the exploitation of natural resources, all of which suggest Western colonial endeavors in what is thought to be a postcolonial world. Though the piece only requires the viewer to insert her token to participate—a small gesture—it implicates her as she sees her reflection in the garden room’s mirrors.”


People of Good Will  (2014–2015)

People of Good Will – 2014 - 2015. Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada

“We are very critical of social practice art in general—it’s a colonial model, very paramilitary, to parachute artists into a community for two weeks and then leave the community holding the bag,” Crístobal Martinez told Crystal Migwans last year. But when Postcommodity was asked to be part of a two-year project in Guelph, Ontario, the collective signed on. Reimagining city development through a “ceremonial filter,” the group collaborated with the Guelph Black Heritage Society on the renovation and revitalization of Heritage Hall, a church built in 1880 by fugitive slaves who arrived in Guelph via the Underground Railroad. In addition to contributing funds and manpower to the renovation, Postcommodity helped program events by immigrants and artists of color within the space, and when they left, they left behind capacity-building tactics as well as practical tools, including a PA system for use in future events. The aim, says Martinez: fostering “self-determination in the arts.”


Repellent Fence, 2015

Postcommodity’s most ambitious project, Repellent Fence (2015), was also the genesis of the collective’s formation. It began in 2007 with a simple premise: intervening, somehow, on the US/Mexico border. The initial idea was to “create a monument of futility that mocks the concept of borders, particularly, their fortification, militarization and marginalization of peoples and cultures within the contested space of their geographic location.” They continue, “Our hope was to facilitate public dialogue that specifically addressed the human and cultural violence instigated and perpetuated by borders as geopolitical implements that uproot cultures from their traditional homelands, and divide indigenous peoples and communities from each other.”

In the ensuing eight years, the group embarked on a project to work with community members in the border cities of Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona, as well as with the US Border Patrol and the Mexican government, in creating a land art work that refused to touch the ground: Repellent Fence‘s visible manifestation was comprised of 26 giant “scare-eye” balloons that for four days formed a two-mile line bisecting the US/Mexico border. The balloons’ “open-eye” motif—an indigenous symbol appropriated and printed on commercial bird deterrents used by gardeners and farmers—seemed to echo the border’s constant state of ominous surveillance, but the ten-foot orbs ended up reinforcing a different message. Members of the two communities—who began programming events, including a binational art walk, around the project—came to see Repellent Fence as a tool for healing, as a “suture, reconnecting two bodies of land that had been divided… a monument to inter-connectedness,” Twist says.


The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking(2017)

Product shots of the LRAD 500X, which its maker says unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force

Product shots of the LRAD 500X, a long-range acoustic device advertised as offering “unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force.”

Just announced, Postcommodity’s contribution to documenta 14 in Athens will consist of a “long-form, two-channel hyper-directional opera projected upon the ancient ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum.” The work’s physical manifestation will be limited to two LRADs—commercially available long-range acoustic devices, or “sound cannons,” typically used in military or law-enforcement contexts, including against water protectors at Standing Rock—mounted on rooftops around the edge of the site. Visitors navigating ruins of the school where Aristotle gave his major lectures will experience a hyper-directional sonic call-and-response. The artists explain:

The Lyceum, situated between the Athens War Museum, Hellenic Armed Forces Officer’s Club, and Athens Conservatory of music, offers a rich environment for engaging oral tradition [and] contemporary and ancient history, as well as a sense of embodied learning. Each day, the installation will perform multiple movements of music spanning the hours in which the Lyceum is open to the public, continuing as a cycle throughout the duration of the exhibition.

By activating a contemporary variant of Aristotle’s peripatetic learning on the ancient site, Postcommodity will focus its shared indigenous lens to dialogue with Aristotle, as well as implicate audiences as part of an international dialogue on global market systems in relationship to walking and movement upon lands.

In the exhibition’s Kassel manifestation, Postcommodity will create a related work, Blind/Curtain, at the entrance of the Neue Galerie, as the collective’s “indigenous gift and blessing to the visitors of documenta 14.” This sonic curtain, the trio writes, will “act as a threshold for audiences to cleanse themselves of the outside world, and prepare their hearts, minds and spirits for engaging the transformative experience of documenta 14.” A doorway itself, they note that Blind/Curtain will be “a physical and conceptual threshold for demarcating outside and inside, and acknowledging and reifying the spaces and artworks of documenta 14, as well as the spaces and contexts between.

Simultaneously, Blind/Curtain is aware of itself as a node of power—it is a determiner of space—a border. It is a membrane constructed of pink noise and submerged poems. Blind/Curtain is a human dilemma that contains secrets, provides access, creates the illusion of privacy (prevents access), provokes surveillance, and embodies love.”

2043: No Es Un Sueño

As an institution dedicated to the free expression of artists, the Walker commissions a multiplicity of makers across disciplines—including Ron Athey, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Gary Simmons, and Ana Tijoux—to respond to the headlines through its ongoing Artist Op-Eds series. In the series’ eleventh commission, the indigenous art collective Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist) melds poetry and prose […]


Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, 2015. Photo: Michael Lundgren, courtesy Bockley Gallery

As an institution dedicated to the free expression of artists, the Walker commissions a multiplicity of makers across disciplines—including Ron Athey, Natascha Sadr HaghighianGary Simmons, and Ana Tijoux—to respond to the headlines through its ongoing Artist Op-Eds series. In the series’ eleventh commission, the indigenous art collective Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist) melds poetry and prose in a powerful reflection on native self-determination, ethnic and national identity, and the year 2043—when whites are expected to become a minority in the United States. To launch the print edition of this text, the artists participated in an artists’ talk at the Walker on Saturday, March 11, 2017. 

It seems that here, seventeen years into the 21st century, we have more people than ever before envisioning themselves in places they never thought they might be. They can be at Standing Rock, protecting water via six degrees of “status shares.” Through a sepia filter on a camera app aimed at a panoramic desert, they can walk a northbound mile in someone else’s burning shoes. One can even triangulate their preferred newsfeed to one pinpoint, not geographically speaking but rather to objectively arrive at a comfortable destination of information that agrees with them. Of course, one may not physically be at these sites of conflict. Or maybe they are. When one can so easily define and understand the world for themselves, what can be done to rebreak it?2 (more…)

Strengthening our Cultural Defense: The Walker’s Pledge on Arts Advocacy Day

At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action […]

At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action for the arts, I assert the Walker’s mission to be a catalytic and forward-thinking organization devoted to artists and audiences, and to supporting an open and inclusive culture grounded in the principles of free expression and concern for the common good, which are the foundations of our democracy.

As I boarded the bus this morning to join Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and nearly 1,000 arts and culture workers at the Minnesota State Capitol on Arts Advocacy Day, I felt pride in knowing that both the Walker and the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1940 and 1965 respectively, were founded through federal support and action. Their creation was underpinned by a belief that national investment in the arts is essential and that it vitally matters.

Arts Advocacy Day. Phot

Arts Advocacy Day. Photo via Minnesota Citizens for the Arts

Although I am deeply heartened by this history, I am struck by how the purpose of Arts Advocacy Day has never seemed more urgent and necessary, as threats to the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) continue to mount and the values of openness and inclusivity are daily challenged. A society is only as free as its artists, and when individual freedoms around speech, travel, and funding are restricted, new more insidious forms of censorship and intolerance are bound to ensue.

Established by Congress in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NEA is the largest funder and champion of the arts across 50 states. Its mission is based on an abiding conviction that the arts play an integral role in our national life and public discourse. The NEA’s founding legislation attests to the belief of its legislative authors that the arts actively contribute to citizenry, to forging mutual understanding among people, and to improving livability in diverse communities across the country. I’m a member of the National Council on the Arts, a Senate-confirmed advisory body of nearly 20 artists and arts professionals who advise the NEA, and as a first generation Cuban American whose parents were Cuban exiles in the 1960s, I am proud to serve with an incredibly diverse panel of individuals who together represent the future demographic composition of our country and who all staunchly believe that the arts and the freedoms of artists in our society are integral to our democracy.

The mission of the Walker, which was founded as a public art center in 1940, was born of the same national conviction that art matters in society. Established under the auspices of the Federal Art Project and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Walker was conceived as a “meeting place for all the arts” in which the public could “meet the artist on common ground”—a place of gathering for citizens to find inspiration, connection, and community at a time of war and global conflict. We are thus a product of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal–era policies that sought to put Americans, including its artists, back to work following the Great Depression. As one of more than 70 community art centers established across the country by the WPA, the Walker was also envisioned as a vital space in which democracy and civil society could be enacted.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Arts and Humanities endowment act 1965. Photo:

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Arts and Humanities endowment act 1965. Photo:

As an exemplar of this mission, one of the Walker’s earliest exhibitions showcased the work of the German painter Franz Marc, whose iconic painting Die grossen blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) (1911) represented a work and painting style vehemently decried by the Third Reich as “degenerate art.” This painting, acquired by the Walker in 1942, became the cornerstone of the Walker’s collection of new art and enabled its director to host a broad public discussion about governmental censorship of the arts and the dangers of limits on individual freedoms. Its presentation and acquisition were foundational to crystalizing our active mission to “examine the questions that shape and inspire us individuals, cultures and communities” in an ever-changing world.

Since then, the Walker has been a curious and questioning institution that has sought to challenge the status quo in all forms of thinking and making. We take inspiration from the artists we present and seek to extend to our audiences the same freedoms that we offer artists. We have consistently championed the role of the art and artists in society and actively defended free speech and artistic freedom in the US and abroad. In the early 1990s, the Walker’s trustees and director testified before Congress during the Culture Wars. In the 2011, the Walker protested the Chinese government’s detention of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. A year later, we added our voice, along with hundreds of cultural organizations across the state, in opposing a constitutional amendment that, if successful, would have banned same-sex marriage (it failed). The following year, such unions were made legal.

We have also consistently sought to be a “safe place for unsafe ideas,” one where artists and audiences feel supported to ask provocative questions, gain insights about other cultures and alternative ways of thinking, and explore spaces of difference and intersection, as well as find unity and social cohesion, especially at times of great social division and political unrest. In a radio program in 1940, the Walker’s first director Daniel Defenbacher gave a telling and inspiring response to the question of why the arts matter on the eve of the United States entering World War II. He proclaimed: “Because our cultural defense is as important as our geographic defense.”


Olga Viso with a “Vote No” sign on Hennepin Avenue, 2012

Now more than 75 years later, our challenges are different as the Walker’s ability to enact its inclusive values and global mission are challenged by new restrictions on our borders and limits to individual freedoms. Yet we remain emboldened to affirm our pursuits with even greater resolve and conviction. We vow to:

  • Actively support artists and amplify their voices, no matter where they come from,
  • Champion the role of the arts and artists in society and the rights to free expression,
  • Bring artists and audiences together,
  • Host risk and experimentation,
  • Be a generative place for new thinking, and
  • Embrace the world around us through relevant programming, publishing, and events.

And we do so through the programs we offer and the artists we present:

  • A new website, launching in May, with new functionalities that foster cross-pollination of viewpoints,
  • An expansion of the Artist Op-Eds series, a digital platform that for nearly three years has commissioned artists to respond to events in the news.
  • Programming that’s relevant to both our times and the communities we serve, from the native film series INDIgenesis this March, which will include a showcase of indigenous perspectives on Standing Rock, to the exhibition Adíos Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, which looks at artistic expression during Cuba’s revolutionary epoch, when many artists were censored by the government.
  • Due to a dynamic response, the Cinema of Urgency film series—usually programmed only on election years—will continue next fall with a focus on films that pose critical questions about today’s most pressing social, political, environmental, and economic issues. Each screening will include discussions with filmmakers, local community leaders, and other guest speakers.
  • Major survey exhibitions of and new commissions with artists of color from the US and around the world.
  • A commitment to showcasing the works of artists from countries of origin impacted by the current administration’s travel ban.
  • Collective action with other arts organizations to preserve our federal agencies and challenge policies that negatively impact the advancement of culture.
  • A lasting commitment to creating accessible spaces for audiences of all genders and abilities in our new indoor and outdoor spaces.

We believe that the Walker and the expanded Minneapolis Sculpture Garden offer a welcoming civic space for the public to not only be introduced to and be inspired by art we present but to bring a multiplicity of perspectives into respectful consideration and focus. This is what the Walker does best, and has always done as a curious, questioning, catalytic organization founded on the principles of our democracy—principles that today more than ever call us to question everything.

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.


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 […]


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. 

Tania Bruguera

Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, 1972

Tania Bruguera, Manifesto on Artists’ Rights, 2012

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.”

Kemi Ilesanmi
Executive Director, The Laundromat Project

Brittany Cooper, “The Racial Politics of Time,” TED Talk, October 2016
Dr. Cooper gave this TED Talk before Trump Time was upon us, but it fully captures the reality of how this new political era continues to steal time—literal, metaphoric, psychic—from Black and Brown people and communities. I ask myself, how can we take back our time and power to narrate our world?

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.” —

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,

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
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.”—

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

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