FIVE FIGURE EXERCISE – Harpers & Queen, May 1979
I reckon this is a historic document, so re-publish it here.
On a still undefined boundary of modern art painter Sol LeWitt, dancer Lucinda Childs and composer Philip Glass are working together to produce new work. Stuart Sherman and Robert Wilson have already been acclaimed as outstanding performers. Anthony Howell, director of the English company the Theatre of Mistakes, reports on all five figures, some of whose work will be seen in Europe over the next few months.
Lucinda Childs, leader of her own New York dance company, practises alone to attain the ‘chiselled precision’ demanded by systemic dance.
Three qualities make for a city with a lively art scene. The first is that it can sell art, the second is that it can inspire art, and the third is that it can provide an environment where art can be made. On the first two counts, at least, New York beats every other city hands down. Art, good contemporary art, sells: rich collectors and museum curators from all over Europe and from all over America may be seen literally queuing up to purchase work from galleries uptown or in SoHo. At Paula Cooper’s gallery the atmosphere is politely hectic, with the gallery attracting the amount of business we might associate with a top beauty salon – yet Paula is not selling charm or sentiment or nostalgia, but fine modern art, from Linda Benglis to Joel Shapiro. Round the corner, John Gibson leans out of the window of his gallery on the second floor and shouts down at the disappearing head of an artist who has just left a book of xeroxes in the ante-room – Gibson likes the work, he’ll show it, and he does.
And New York is inspiring. Perhaps its inspiration is born of the sheer momentum of the city -hardly cerebral – you keep working for as long as your intensity lasts, and if you miss anything out, tack it on at the end. It is a force which may be a bit muddled and rather romantic, but still a driving force. Inspiration is everywhere, in the people you meet, in the architecture you confront, at the exhibitions, performances, recitals, happenings. On the third count, New York is not so hot. ‘Survival in New York is an art in itself,’ one poor Brit artist told me, as proud of her loft and her secretarial job as she would have been with a show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. There is no adequate dole, the life support for British art-making. The funds allocated to the National Endowment for the Arts in America are proportionally smaller than those given to the Arts Council of Great Britain, the organisers of venues have a desperate fight to get money on top of their job of organising, and many good artists who might have stuck it out in England drift off into the pop world or the graphics industry. It’s a crazy place, savage, competitive and enthralling. Great bars to chat or jive in until the early hours of the morning – so long as you don’t get knifed commuting between one bar and the next. During one month when I was there, two artists were murdered going to some of the nicest downtown bars. Some of the artists and performers currently the toast of New York will be in Europe over the coming months, and if you happen to be in Amsterdam, Paris or London, you may get the chance to see their work.
Lucinda Childs is the first ‘systems’ dancer. Systemic music has already gained fair headway through the work of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass in America, John White in England. In dance, Lucinda Childs will repeat a limited vocabulary of steps until every juxtaposition of the chosen steps has been shown. Modern performers often derive much of their aesthetic from the visual arts – the idea that a sculpture may have more than one side from which to be viewed – an idea expressed by cubism in painting. So the context of the movement, what it comes before, what it follows, still doesn’t tell the whole story – each variation needs to be seen from the front and from the back and from the sides. Like systemic music, the result is often hypnotic – seemingly endless spinning, long, hesitant, complex running steps, and glorious sweeping glides backwards. Often Lucinda Childs employs no music, allowing the repetitive pattern of the dance to set up a tune, her feet echoing the notes of an imagined piece of dance music – a Landler perhaps.
This is very much an art of ‘spin-off’, in the sense that, as one sits watching, the dance changes with the suggestions and associations that crowd into the head. Gertrude Stein maintained that no repetition is the same as another – it’s either earlier or later in a line of repetitions, and so one is less saturated with one image during early repetitions of it, more so later, and each repetition slightly changes one’s view. The ideas suggested first, fade, and deeper insights stir in the mind. During Lucinda Childs’s recent performance at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, I began by feeling like some Eastern potentate watching my favourite houri. Tall, impossibly, remotely beautiful, she danced alone, tensely; anyone looking at her with the eye of a balletomane would almost say stiltedly – there is a sort of tension in the neck and upper back muscles one often sees in American dancers. Rosella Hightower exhibited the same characteristic. In Childs’ case this tension seems appropriate. Modifying the houri idea, it gave the impression of a captured barbarian queen, a Boadicea; unbroken spirit rather than one whose mood was that of the erotic inveiglement affected by the ballerina tradition with its roots in the crush-bars of Russian opera houses, which were practically high-class bordellos.
The Lucinda Childs company: in collaboration with Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt, they will perform a new work in Brooklyn this year.
This seeming stiffness about Lucinda Childs, the chiselled precision of the steps themselves, counteracts any possible vertigo which might be brought on by the repetitive nature of the dance. Too much spinning in any piece of hers reminds me uncomfortably of the Sufis, who do it better, and of the dancing choreographed by Andy Degroat and others for Robert Wilson in works of his such as Letter to Queen Victoria and The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. But then Childs has worked with Wilson on more than one occasion -with Wilson, Degroat and Philip Glass on the opera Einstein on the Beach, presented at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1976, and with Wilson alone in his two-act play, I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating, which recently toured the United States and Europe, and, wonder of wonders, came to the Royal Court in London for an all too brief week, last summer.
When the spinning does not predominate, her dancing affects me strongly. Having worked with one diagonal, presenting one side, approaching and retreating from one section of the audience, she will work with the other diagonal in the next piece, reversing the audience’s point of view. A variation will stop and start in unexpected places – there is a strong relationship between repetition and practising – the more one repeats anything the better one gets, improving initial expressions. The thoroughness of the activity brings something to her work which is almost like punctuation, as if she has dotted each i, employed semi-colons only where appropriate. And then come these marvellous glides backwards, as if to the starting point, with head askance to the audience, and in the midst of all this seemingly remote, practically mathematical work, all the atmosphere of high classical dance, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, the impossibly regal ice queen of an enchanted world sweeping back in the ballroom; such images rush in upon the mind with this tiny action of the head.
Lucinda Childs is currently collaborating with Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt on a major evening-length work which will tour in Europe and the United States during the 1979-80 season, and while, for the moment, I prefer to watch her in the silence – affected only by the sound of her feet, I expect this work to be well worth attending.
Philip Glass: ‘as if we were listening to the music of mathematics.’
More about repetition. Repetition is often considered dull – but we cannot do without it: night and day repeat themselves endlessly, a street is a repetitive string of houses; we survive by eating again and again, breathing again and again. Artists have been preoccupied with repetition at all times: repetitive themes, colours, ways of making a brushstroke. What we often dismiss as repetition is not repetitive at all – one day is not necessarily like the next. The roses which make up the repetitive pattern printed on a fabric will alter when the fabric is made into a gown, becoming a riot of petals where the fabric folds, intact blooms where the fabric falls straight and sheer. It is one of the delights of repetition that through it we perceive differences. Philip Glass has come to understand this in music.
In his early works a single phrase may be chosen and then repeated, while minor changes are made to the phrase itself, until we have heard all the possible variations of it. It is as if we were listening to the music of mathematics. Again, this may sound dull, but remember, the same has been said about Bach. Watered-down renditions of systemic music have been heard on some pop albums, banalised by people like Terry Riley. It’s worth listening to Philip Glass for the real thing. It takes you further. The listener comes more to grips with the phenomenon of repetition, the ear becomes more attuned to the changes.
Glass employed electric organs and reed instruments in his early ensembles, with a singer bringing out new harmonies set up between the phrases being played by the instruments. Nowadays he often works with a choir. His recent solo organ music deals with more complex structures than before. It is not so easy to grasp the tune of the repetition, more like putting one’s head inside a bucket full of stars and feeling a variety of twinklings going off around, above, below, inside the head; a truly sublime sensation, the musical structure of which I hesitate to analyse. Glass wrote the music for Wilson’s opera Einstein. At present he is working with the writer Constance DeJong and the designer Bob Israel on a new opera, Satyagraha, based on incidents in the life of Gandhi, and apparently incorporating such figures as Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King and Rabindranath Tagore. This work has been commissioned by the City of Rotterdam for production by the Netherlands Opera in 1980. He is also working on the dance piece for Lucinda Childs which will have enormous projections by Sol LeWitt.
Sol LeWitt: All Combinations of Arcs from Corners and Sides, Straight Lines, Not-Straight Lines and Broken Lines
Americans are often idealists. America itself is a sort of ideal – ‘the land of the free’. ‘Oh, my America, my New Found Land!’ exclaims John Donne, writing of his true-love. This may help us to understand why Sol LeWitt, one of the elite modern American artists, has founded his work on an idealism as high as that of Beata Angelico in the Renaissance. Just as Walt Whitman, in the nineteenth century, liberated American poetry from all the constraints of European precedents, LeWitt wishes to free painting of many of the time-honoured traditions still respected this side of the Atlantic. He was a pioneer of the minimal and conceptual movements of the Sixties.
LeWitt would do away with an art appreciated for the intelligence shown by the gestures made by the artist’s hand – dexterity, moment-to-moment decision-making – since this allows ‘caprice, taste and other whimsies’ to get in the way of the initial notion upon which the work is based. Many of his pieces are the methodically composed outcome of a recipe he has decided upon in advance. All Combinations of Arcs from Corners and Sides, Straight Lines, Not-Straight Lines and Broken Lines is the title of one such work. Ideally, anyone could create the piece, once they understood the instruction: a step along the road to the land where everyone can be an artist, sweeping away all European notions of genius, of artist as special case, removed from the rest of society. He uses the simplest ingredients in his cooking: cube and square, horizontal, vertical and parallel lines, and while he would not apply the word ‘systemic’ to himself he will pursue these basic units through endless permutations, and there are distinct similarities in the results he achieves and those arrived at in dance by Childs, and in music by Glass – so we can expect a fairly unified result from the Childs/Glass/LeWitt collaboration. I hope it will not prove too unified; artists sharing a similar taste are sometimes too willing to accommodate each other.
LeWitt’s work has been seen in this country at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in May 1977, in a show which included the work of Frank Stella and Hans Hofmann; at the Lisson Gallery in London during February this year and in the early part of 1978 a major retrospective of LeWitt’s work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. My reaction to his cube-grid sculptures was ambiguous. They reminded me of models for factories outside Detroit. As such, I cannot make up my mind whether they represent a mirror or a manifestation of the nastier aspects of America. Ideals and opportunities go hand in hand. But I was impressed by his wall drawings, as usual created from simple rules, which exhibited the clarity of line I associate with the contours of the early Renaissance in Florence, which were themselves arrived at through the Florentines’ appreciation of the clarity of drawing to be discerned on a Greek vase. So LeWitt’s work is often rewarding, but rather because it inadvertently reasserts certain classical notions of fine draughtsmanship than because it has cast aside traditional methods.
Stuart Sherman: ‘his work is based on a language of signs, words, sounds, actions and objects, the anecdotes suggested rather than stated’
Portrait of Places, a work by the performance artist Stuart Sherman, is being presented in a tiny loft in downtown SoHo, New York. On either side of the small stage is a heap of tat – plastic roses, artificial grass remnants, plastic macs, bits of card. My programme tells me that I’m about to witness approximately 30 vignettes of places – Amsterdam, Cairo, Coconut Grove, Copenhagen, so the list goes on through the alphabet. A little man, casually dressed, comes on to the stage, chooses various items from the heaps, sets up a camper’s table, touches something, scrubs this with that, holds both in front of his nose, puts away his table, exchanges the objects for fresh ones, glances at a list he removes from his breast pocket – presumably to see which country comes next opens an umbrella, sticks a plastic rose through a hole in the umbrella, answers the telephone, searches in his pockets, throws away the telephone and the rose, picks up another object, spins it, blows on it, unties a package, allows some small rubber balls to roll out on to the floor, places patent leather shoes under the legs of the newly erected table, turns on a tape, turns off a tape, dismantles everything, runs a film, does something else, does something else.
At the end of the performance I am nonplussed. I have never seen so much happen in so short a time, but I am unsure of what I have seen. I can’t say I recognised any of the places from the events which took place. Anyway, I go to a nearby bar to mull over what I remember. I have to make a phone call. I go to the phone, put down my drink on the ledge, pick up the phone, put it down while I unzip my jacket, search for my address book, my dime, my specs, pick up the phone, insert the dime, dial, pick up my drink – and there I am perceiving myself doing this, coping with the myriad procedures of living. Could these actions in a phone booth be my vignette of New York? When the work of an artist enables me to glimpse some new aspect of myself I know I have seen something original.
Walking out of the Rothko exhibition at the Hayward Gallery several years ago, I noticed that as I stood at the kerb I could see cars approaching in either direction without turning my head; being brought to comprehend the spread of vision because Rothko’s paintings had encouraged my eyes to fill with the entirety of each canvas, rather than swinging from one particular point to another.
Back to Sherman, while I might not have been able to identify the place from the vignette, I recall each vignette quite clearly. And where I can pin place to vignette there’s a sort of crazy aptness – even if these are distillations of quite personal events which may have taken place in the cities in question. A large white slice of foam rubber, for somewhere in Scandinavia, with holes cut to fit the objects employed in the sketch, including two spaces for Mr Sherman’s feet. I reckon Scandinavians do rather like to keep things in their proper places, even the foam-rubber-like snow. Sherman’s work resembles ‘Korf’s Joke’, celebrated by the German poet Morgenstern – you don’t understand it at the time, but a week later you wake up in the middle of the night, laughing like a drain. In Sherman’s work there are few repetitions, everything changes from moment to moment; an incredibly fast delivery of a string of action-jokes. His use of objects is revolutionary. I have never seen an actor who could pick up a candle without turning its article from indefinite to definite – it becomes ‘the candle’, or still worse, the vocative, ‘oh candle!’ Sherman handles objects for less time than they might be used in life, nothing becomes a symbol of itself, he might use a toothbrush only for as long as it would take to say ‘toothbrush’.
His performances are like a visit to the zoo where some highly intelligent animal chatters away at us in a language of signs, words, sounds, actions and objects: the anecdotes suggested rather than stated. In more recent works his stage is no more than the surface of a table, drawing from traditions such as the now almost forgotten flea circuses which used to be the marvel of every fair. He usually performs solo, but his work has nothing solitary about it. We eavesdrop on the struggles of love with death, time with money, erection with destruction, available to parents watching a child play.
Sherman is a puppeteer without puppets, with amazing capacity for surprise – just as we become engrossed in the events taking place on the table he may cough or slip sideways – impinging on the microscopic action like a giant or like the divinity. He is both powerful and original. He received a special citation from The Village Voice OBIE awards for his performances, and there is a chance that he may be performing at the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam in May and at the ICA in late summer.
Robert Wilson: nothing is too large to attempt, too costly to organise, too revolutionary to be dared.
Robert Wilson is tall, brilliant, in his early thirties, and the most celebrated performance artist of the day. His large-scale, long-duration, hardly moving, visionary operas, mixing freemasonry with science fiction, Poussin with Saul Steinberg, sheer emptiness and lighting with special moments for casts of thousands; these works have won him prizes throughout the international theatre world. He pioneered theatre for the handicapped in America. Years ago, he took over a mountain near Persepolis with a piece which took a week to perform, and today, would make The Warp look like a piece of week-old jelly, dazzling only to the besotted eyes of some grey-bearded hippie. In London, his performances of I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating at the Royal Court last summer were greeted by non-comprehending notices.
But Wilson wears the laurels he has won abroad with aplomb, and with the approbation of all less parochial than ourselves. Not only is he an artist, but he is a king-maker among artists, a magician in the tradition of Diaghilev; nothing is too large to attempt, too costly to organise, too revolutionary to be dared. He has worked with many of the best of his contemporaries in the arts, including Lucinda Childs, in Patio, and Philip Glass, composer of Einstein on the Beach – the opera we in England have never been allowed to see. His smaller works, duets for himself and Christopher Knowles, or for himself and Childs, show an extraordinary grasp of the basic axioms of theatre, total theatre – if the term has not been belittled by incompetence here – the settings, pace, language, action, denouement of theatre, as well as bringing to light a new sort of dramatic irony and poetic melancholy. His achievement is too large, too various to be dealt with adequately here, spanning as it does surrealism and concept art.
Wilson is exhibiting video works at the Beaubourg, directing Shakespeare in Scotland, while a new piece has just opened in Berlin, entitled Death and Destruction in Detroit. Rumour has it that a new, large scale work is in the offing, with one or other of the greatest male classical dancers participating – that has to be Nureyev or Eric Bruhn, doesn’t it? What a shame the size-conscious Royal Ballet has sat on Wayne Sleep for so long or he could have been in the running for the role. Wilson’s work is extremely well received in Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and New York, to name but a few places, and his lack of exposure to British audiences cannot be excused by the holes in our pockets and has to be put down to the envy of the British theatre establishment – who are scared stiff of him – and the sheer inadequacy of the British critical establishment who, saving perhaps Nigel Gosling, lack both the guts and the criteria to judge him. A.H.
I have tried to find the photos originally used wherever possible, and I think the images of Childs and Glass are by Nathaniel Tileston. I will add credits whenever notified.