Radical Absence

John Haber
in New York City

rAdicAl preEsEncE: Black Performance Art

Rituals of Rented Island: Performance in the 1970s

One of the most haunting acts in a survey of black performance art never appears. At least Adrian Piper wanted out, but performance will not so easily let go.

Piper withdrew her work from "rAdicAl preEsEncE," at NYU's Grey Art Gallery and the Studio Museum in Harlem. The show bears a subtitle, "Black Performance in Contemporary Art," and she wanted it to be true to its name. Black artists, she believes, deserve more than a ghetto. Why not display them alongside others, she argues, so that you can judge? She need never have worried. This year brings more than one way to remember performance, and Piper dropped out of the best of them. Sylvia Palacios Whitman's Passing Through (photo by Babette Mangolte, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977)

The Whitney calls its review of performance art "Rituals of Rented Island," with Manhattan in the starring role. It dares one to ask how Soho took off in the 1970s and what has changed, as performance spawned pop-ups and institutions before spinning off into memory. Yet its voices have a way of shouting a little too loudly, while making a point of their incoherence. If one thinks of performance art as self-indulgence and tedium, one will find plenty of both. Even up in Harlem, when William Pope.L asks for silence it comes as a relief. Pope.L in fact copies out the score to Silence, by John Cage—and "rAdicAl preEsEncE" makes itself an heir to both black and white culture, just as Piper might have hoped, but without overlooking the silent terrors in each.

Community and context

Adrian Piper opens that show after all, but now with a blank monitor—and a provocative question. Can African American art hold its own in the mainstream? It fact, black performance did much to found the mainstream. "rAdicAl preEsEncE" covers ground 1962 to the present. It includes Benjamin Patterson, a musician and founder of Fluxus, along with Sur Rodney (Sur), a partner in Gracie Mansion gallery in the days of East Village art, and Papo Colo of Exit Art. The two halves of the show overlap considerably. NYU's display comes off as more cerebral, like a laying out of themes, while the Studio Museum brings them alive, with objects, stage sets, and video.

One can hardly help comparing the thirty-six artists to performance at the Whitney, Chris Burden at the New Museum, and Mike Kelley at MoMA PS1, exactly as Piper desires. Conversely, one could not possibly see all of performance art together. A curator can provide only a selection and a context. If you do not a curator's choices, you are free to propose your own. And if the context works, it supplies not just an excuse, but a lens. Demanding attention to black performance does just that.

Besides, if the context is African American experience, these artists insist on it. (How much that context matters to black abstraction is best left to another story.) That can mean a Cuban American's experience for Coco Fusco, a Puerto Rican American's for Colo, or the experience of a train compartment in Sri Lanka for Xaviera Simmons. It can mean the experience of race and class for William Pope.L, in Eating the Wall Street Journal. He did the deed on a high stage, with a toilet available, plus ketchup. He may have had to eat the words of others, but he did not have to eat his own.

It can mean experience forged in politics and history. Satch Hoyt piles books about the past on a stepladder, to the tune of James Brown's "Say It Loud." Fusco restages FBI surveillance footage of Angela Davis, while Adam Pendleton renders Congolese independence as a dance. Lyle Ashton Harris conceives of his art as spanning world history. He calls his "ethnography" Memoirs of Hadrian, after Marguerite Yourcenar's novel about the Roman emperor. Yet he places the image of a bruised boxer front and center.

It can mean the experience of community—or of creating one. Wayne Hodge smears a bust of Cleopatra in chocolate, to reclaim her for blackness. When David Hammons sold snowballs in 1983, he took to the most prominent street in Harlem. Patterson took to the streets, too, to ask others their thoughts, while Sur set up a table to offer free advice to anyone who would listen. Lorraine O'Grady walked with the African American Day parade, where she held a picture frame up to faces, to cherish them as art. Pendleton's interview with an older O'Grady recalls that art, too, is a community.

Community is all well and good, but experience is not just about belonging. It can be the experience of vanishing, at least to white eyes. Dread Scott in jacket and tie walks through a crowd wearing a signboard, I AM NOT A MAN. Hammons meant his snowballs to melt, and he started leaving only his body prints in 1969. His avoidance of the camera also set a model for others. Even at his most stylish and poised, Derrick Adams photographs himself beneath Hammons's shadow.

Minorities into majorities

For the curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum, visibility leads right to questions of African American identity. As Clifford Owens directs, "Be African American, Be Very African American." Zachary Fabri plays with stereotype when he dribbles a basketball between filing cabinets. Jean-Ulrick Désert plays against it, when he dons lederhosen (or, as he prefers, "negerhosen"). Remember all that stuff about the male gaze and the regard of the other? Now think of being black in America.

Stereotype enters most especially through popular culture. Dave McKenzie enacts movie roles shoeless and a street dance as a seizure. Kalup Linzy boogies in the office, Jamal Cyrus deep-fries a saxophone, Jason Musson (aka Hennessy Youngman) mixes rap with thoughts like "impress the curator," Terry Adkins honors Bessie Smith, and Rammellzee seeks a "gothic futurism" in graffiti. Ulysses S. Jenkins sums up his ambivalence from a wheelchair, while taking a sledgehammer to a bank of TVs: "you're just a mass of images you've gotten to know / from years and years of TV shows." For a more positive take, the Studio Museum also exhibits work inspired by Sun Ra's "Afro-futurism"—like a sci-fi sequel to the Whitney's recent look at art and jazz.

Senga Nengudi's Performance Piece (photo by Harmon Outlaw, Thomas Erben gallery, 1978)Black identity also gets physical, and the results are not often pretty. Tameka Norris leaves a slim stain across three gallery walls in lemons, saliva, and blood. She had taken a knife to her tongue. Chitra Ganesh and Simone Leigh render a woman's back as pure form worthy of Constantin Brancusi or African art, but the lack of movement on video and the burial of her head in pebbles are more sinister. Senga Nengudi spreads her arms between nylons stuffed with sand, while semen stains the floor. Maren Hassinger threads through objects, alone and in groups, measuring every distance with her body.

Yet if one comes thinking of the body in art as a woman's body, think again. Men put themselves at risk—to confront images of masculinity and aggression with heroics, desires, and rituals. Jacolby Satterwhite brings his body to a funky animation, and Owens weaves through an audience, offering kisses. (Urban myth has it that he has also peed on a Richard Serra.) Colo dragged himself and a lot of weights along the West Side Highway in 1979, and Sherman Fleming stood naked, bound by taut ropes. He later posed for Pretending to Be a Rock, while hot wax covered his skin.

Not all, though, is slavery, torture, and humiliation—not when these artists bring so much comedy and endurance. Carrie Mae Weems sells "hopes and dreams" in clown pants, a top hat, and a mask out of Phantom of the Opera. Trenton Doyle Hancock builds a private myth, in which an ape man masturbated into a field of flowers. Still, one knows whose gaze counts, when Daniel Tisdale offers testimonials to skin lightening. "Women have stopped clutching their purses as I walk by," because "we turn minorities into majorities." Fortunately, art can do the same.

One could take Piper's refusal to appear as itself an African American performance, especially since her monitor is black. It looks no stranger than the spaces on a museum wall after a theft, and it could almost bear the name of her 1973 performance, Mystic Being. But then performance has a way of insisting on what you were happy to leave invisible, much like black experience in white America. And then it passes, no matter how hard a museum tries to recover it. With luck it will have passed into common memory, and so it does here. These radical presences are real.

From performance to pop-up

For a few months, the Whitney becomes a pop-up space. At least it can boast of one. Its survey of the 1970s opens with a New York storefront—with grainy black and white continuously playing. That storefront is only a recreation, but then so was the original. Squat Theatre had come to town from Budapest, finding a four-story space not so very far from Chelsea galleries today. The scene was all but deserted back then, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Does that sound like the plight of artists today, caught between high rents and treasured rituals like painting? Artists were colonizers then, too, only the principal colony was Soho and not Bushwick. The Kitchen, Artists Space, Judson Dance Theater, and Franklin Furnace took shape as acts that would do today's Brooklyn artists proud. Squat Theatre, with the High Line only an abandoned freight rail and the first Chelsea art walk more than twenty years away, was merely a bit player. The curator, Jay Sanders, presents Soho as one art ghetto among many in its wake, such as LA or the AIDS- and punk-inflected Bowery of the New Museum's "NYC 1993." He even supplies a map.

Still, this ritual did not cling to tradition. Performance bleeds easily into installations, conceptual art, and kitsch, like the white pyramids surrounding Jill Kroesen's recitals or a boxing ring for the Kipper Kids. These artists were not so much redefining the canon as defying one—much as J. Hoberman, who contributes a catalog essay, shifted Village Voice film crit from Andrew Sarris and the American cinema to indies and imports. Many occupied other worlds than the visual arts, such as John Zorn or Laurie Anderson for music, Yvonne Rainer or Babette Mangolte for dance, Robert Wilson for opera and the stage, and Richard Foreman for his Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Some of the best known, like Jack Smith, relished their role as cult figures. Others have largely vanished, enough to make one wonder at the show's claims for itself.

The exhibition title borrows from Smith's The Secret of Rented Island, but these artists cannot keep a secret. They tell all, like Kroesen in her "system portraits" or Julia Heyward on her father's degenerative illness. (If one cannot make out the words, text is available in the lobby.) They get campy, like Smith in his glitter, like Foreman and Kelley (in the Californian's New York debut). The Whitney turns its modular Marcel Breuer architecture into a dark maze, where one can get lost in private imaginings. Most of the artists already have.

It was all, a subtitle explains, "Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama." Little remains but the last. Confession veers into irony and confrontation, as for Vito Acconci, who performed blindfolded while exerting a "brutal claim over space." Ericka Beckman's stop-motion animations wield a mean baseball bat, while Wilson's staging drew on old horror films. Yet the horror mixes with sight gags, like outsize hands for Sylvia Palacios Whitman and TV clowns for Ralston Farina—and the performers seek comfort in letting it all hang out. Foreman aimed for "bodies in spacetime," Jared Bark in jumping rope for zero gravity, Heyward for a "trance-like states" (abetted by red lights and leather), or Acconci for "self-hypnosis."

They take as their models the disturbed child and the adult psychotic. For Theodora Skipitares in another display of kitsch and electric lights, "mental illness might be merely a perception." More often, though, the artists return to a state seen as both violently troubled and utterly primal. Kelley spent his life in that state, while Wilson built a Ka Mountain and Michael Smith his Baby Ikki. "You mustn't scream," Jack Smith sobs. "Will you promise me that, mother?"

That plea belongs to a more personal scene than today's DIY, along with the slide carousels, super 8 film, and reminders of $3 tickets ($2 for members). And it thrived most in its all too rare moments of silence, like Ken Jacobs in shadow play or Whitman in profile, with the glow of mist from dry ice in her hands. It could be improvised or scripted. It could unfold on the streets, like Stuart Sherman with three-card monte, Anderson with her violin, or Squat Theater with a pretend Andy Warhol on horseback. It could occupy old institutions, like the Whitney itself, or galleries more often known for art objects, like Sonnabend and Paula Cooper. Maybe art had its communities after all, but never ghettos.

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"rAdicAl preEsEncE: Black Performance in Contemporary Art" ran at the Grey Art Gallery through December 7, 2013, and at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 9, 2014. "Rituals of Rented Island" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 2.


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