Blogs Untitled (Blog) Fionn Meade

Fionn Meade was artistic director (2015–2016) and senior curator of cross-disciplinary platforms (2014–2015) at the Walker Art Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

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

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

8 Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 105.

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

10 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 102.

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

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

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

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

15 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

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

17 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

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

Interiors and Identity: Fionn Meade on Question the Wall Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

Becoming American: Fionn Meade on Less Than One

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition. At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it […]

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker

Installation view of Less Than One, with works by Jasper Johns and Kara Walker (foreground)

The first in a series of entries exploring Less Than One, on view through December, “Becoming American” begins with a consideration of author Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), whose essay provides the exhibition title, and Flags (1965), a painting by Jasper Johns included in the exhibition.

At an early age Joseph Brodsky experienced much of what it means to be an exile in one’s own country. Born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky in 1940 in St. Petersburg (later renamed Leningrad), he grew up in poverty after his father lost a ranking position in the Russian Navy due to a surge in anti-Semitism against Jewish Russian families in the postwar years leading up to Stalin’s death in 1953. Brodksy quit school as a teenager and embarked on his own self-styled education, beginning to develop the cultural imagery that would eventually win him the 1987 Nobel Prize for literature.

Dodging many of the very real barriers of his time and place, Brodsky grasped intently for something different, working odd jobs—including as a coroner’s assistant, metalworker, and as part of a geology research team traveling to Central Asia—all while assembling an unusual arsenal of artistic skills. Brodsky taught himself Polish, for example, in order to translate poet and dissident Czesław Miłosz (a Nobel laureate who also became a US citizen), and learned English so he could translate John Donne and read Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Out of the prejudice and censorship surrounding him, Brodsky fashioned a unique style of direct observation and an unflappable belief in individual freedom and what he called the importance of “world culture,” a phrase borrowed from Russian essayist and poet Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), a touchstone figure for the young artist. Indeed, Brodsky’s idiosyncratic style is one that evaded authorities for some time due to its unusual bearings.

As Brodsky writes in the title essay of his collection and intellectual autobiography Less Than One, he was part of a group of young artists and thinkers imagining something new beyond the strictures of Soviet life: “If we made ethical choices, they were based not so much on immediate reality as on moral standards derived from fiction…. In its ethics, this generation was among the most bookish in the history of Russia, and thank God for that. A relationship could have been broken for good over a preference for Hemingway over Faulkner.” This “uncommon visage,” as Brodsky would later come to term his imagining of an ethics based in aesthetics, is exactly what guided the poetry he wrote and distributed as a young man, a form of underground literature printed on mimeographed sheets (called “samizdat” to describe the censored DIY publications of the Soviet bloc era) and often recited by Brodsky and others on street corners.

 Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Joseph Brodsky with his cat Mississippi, 1991, photo: Bengt Jangfeldt

Writing with a great wit and flare for the intimate observations of daily life, but with little to no overt political address or commentary, Brodsky gained steady recognition in the underground Soviet literary scene of the time and eventually acquired the counsel and mentorship of the great Russian poet and witness Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966). It was just this flare for the observed beauty of daily life that eventually caught up with Brodsky as he was forcibly committed twice to mental institutions by Soviet authorities and later sentenced to five years hard labor in a work camp in the Artic, accused, tried, and convicted by the Soviet state. Even as Brodsky’s real crime was the circulation and popularity of his essays and poetry in underground forums, it was the charge of his not having a steady full time job, hence “social parasitism,” that was officially leveled at Brodsky during a trial that would add to his international notoriety upon the leak and distribution of his eloquent self-defense. A transcript of his trial was smuggled and distributed in the west, highlighting the following exchange, one that eventually reached an international reception:

Judge: What is your profession?

Brodsky: Translator and poet.

Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?

Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

Due largely to coordinated efforts on the behalf of Brodsky via an international network of writers—including notably the New York–based English poet W.H. Auden, an adopted American citizen as well—Brodsky was released from his five-year prison sentence early after 18 months and allowed to return to Leningrad. Harassed continually upon returning, Brodsky was encouraged to leave for Israel, which he refused to do, before being forcibly exiled from the Soviet Union at the age of 32 to Austria where he met with Auden and was eventually received as an immigrant to the United States.

Brodsky would eventually translate much of his own poetry from Russian into English, and he increasingly wrote prose in an adopted, inimitable English. As American poet Mark Strand once put it regarding Brodsky’s full embrace of the English lexicon, “The English he writes is exotic. The choices of words he makes are those that no native-born speaker would make.” Reinscribing and revitalizing language as many American innovators before and after have done, Brodsky’s English is both arresting and nervy, a remix of styles that is formal in flourish yet fresh in its oddity.

                        Life, that no one dares

to appraise, like that gift horse’s mouth,

bares its teeth in a grin at each

encounter. What gets left of a man amounts

to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

Taken from the poem A Part of Speech, written shortly after coming to the States in 1972, the excerpt above echoes a primary theme in what would come to characterize Brodsky’s mature work, namely the repeated acknowledgment of the responsibility in the “spoken part” of protecting individual artistic expression and freedom, a part that Brodsky identifies with the agency and urgency of protecting the place where art is encountered, where “a work of art addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.” What gets left is a part, Brodsky implores, a part to play in protecting the space of direct artistic encounter.

Installation view of Less Than One

Installation view of Less Than One

When Brodsky eventually became the first immigrant to be appointed US poet laureate (in 1991), he was asked if there was any particular significance to be gleaned from the selection of a person born outside the United States receiving the honor. His immediate call and response was worldly and characteristically crisp, “Would you ask the same of Lafayette, who was from France? It’s the history of the place.” Referring to the French aristocrat and military officer Marquis de Lafayette who fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War, Brodsky quickly added with self-awareness and self-effacing wit that he very much regarded himself an American. “I’ve been here 19 years, I pay taxes here,” he said, further declaring that in his new post as US poet laureate he would advocate that poetry be published and made available in hotels and supermarkets throughout the country: “People who buy The National Enquirer would buy poetry. They should be given a choice. I’m absolutely serious.”

Now on view at the Walker, the exhibition Less Than One takes its title from a 1986 collection of essays that would help Brodsky win the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year. A poetic meditation on the nature of human existence and artistic expression, his text suggests that a person—defined in political and aesthetic terms—is always “less than one.” We can never be a discrete whole at any moment in time, Brodsky argues, as we are inextricably tied to our past and future selves. This drives the writer and artist to attempt to meet reality through words, images, and an uneasy embrace of artistic personae.

Brodsky wrote passionately throughout his career of art’s ability to trouble consent, question power, and disrupt the “heralds of historical necessity,” arguing instead for a “polyphony” and multivocal resonance that exists in the place “where art has stepped.” Exploring such themes as iconoclasm, the graphic use of silhouette and shadow forms, and the questioning of identity through performance, Less Than One celebrates the differential urge and unruly spirit that lies at the heart of artistic practice.

Jasper Johns's Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

Jasper Johns’s Flags (1965), installed in Less Than One

The uncommon visage that can result within the space of direct artistic encounter, “free of any go-betweens,” as Brodsky put it, introduces what American philosopher William James described as the positivity of many-sided perception, not unlike a boulder or gem. Elongating perception into a shape that is sensed as duration suspended, the “direct relations” of artistic encounter are not unlike experiencing time with a friend, when you lose track of time. When Jasper Johns wrote the following note in his sketchbook in 1964, he underscored a pragmatic method that placed repetition and a startled awake active perception at the heart of his practice, and that resonates to this day: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Breaking away from the dominant painterly mode of the 1950s that consisted of highly personal and expressive abstraction, Johns looked to “things the mind already knows,” incorporating flags, targets, numbers, and other familiar signs and symbols into his artistic production. These ordinary objects take on an iconic, emblematic presence that articulates a particular type of postwar American iconoclasm—represented here by the various doubled, inverted, and multi-colored flags on view in Less Than One.

The initial encounter with Flags, 1965, at the entry to the exhibition is one of immediate recognition coupled with a companion estrangement, the familiar design of the American flag outlined in green, black, and orange (top), and gradations of grey (bottom) against a mottled grey background, with a white dot centered above and a black dot bullseye below. As an exercise in visual perception, Flags asks the viewer to focus on the dot above for a time, then close one’s eye briefly and switch focus to the dot below, activating a red, white, and blue afterimage as our retinal receptors tire from holding the initial impression and seek out a fuller range of the color spectrum triggered. Looking at Flags is an exercise in active perception where one must submit to a time beyond the clock, beyond constantly updated information, beyond the flatness of visual compression and image production, beyond ever widening abstractions of finance, beyond the atomizing nature of networked communication, and, also, beyond the rhetorical demagoguery of our moment. It is rather an opening to the active looking and “uncommon visage” that Brodsky adopts, into “direct relations” with the cultural imaginary of becoming American.

 

Announcing Galleries, a Digital Home for Walker Exhibitions

I’m excited to unveil a new initiative of the Walker’s Visual Arts, New Media, and Design departments: Following the recent launch of the Cinema page for our Moving Image department and Stage for Performing Arts, the Walker’s Visual Arts department is excited to launch Galleries, a new landing page that offers visitors an augmented presentation of the in-gallery experience at […]

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 12.06.57 PMI’m excited to unveil a new initiative of the Walker’s Visual Arts, New Media, and Design departments: Following the recent launch of the Cinema page for our Moving Image department and Stage for Performing Arts, the Walker’s Visual Arts department is excited to launch Galleries, a new landing page that offers visitors an augmented presentation of the in-gallery experience at the Walker Art Center.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 12.07.30 PMWith eleven spacious galleries, the Visual Arts team mounts between eight and ten exhibitions per year of contemporary, historical, group, monographic, thematic, and media-specific shows. Beginning with the last year and a half of exhibitions, this new slideshow format will showcase a virtual walk-through of our gallery spaces and exhibitions on view. From the first US solo exhibition of work from Andrea Büttner and the retrospective Jack Whitten: Five Decades of Painting, to the art historically layered and multi-faceted Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia and Art at The Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections, this new page will provide a dynamic level of in-gallery presence for audiences. This will be ongoing as we continue to go back and add select exhibitions from over the years, offering visitors not only a closer look at the curatorial approach for each individual show currently on view but also a visual understanding of the Walker’s history of presenting innovative and multidisciplinary exhibitions.

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