Simon Starling and Martha Friedman take performance back to its roots—in modern art and in dance. They just happen to start their histories continents apart. Before them both, though, Lygia Pape was working away on modern art when something remarkable happened: she stumbled onto the 1960s. Yet she never left her roots in drawing behind.
Performance can call up memories of disconcerting encounters in the gallery. Think of Richard Serra flinging lead, Chris Burden dragging himself over broken glass, Yoko Ono waiting to have her dress cut, or Marina Abramovic waiting for nothing at all. Before conceptual art, though, came Modernism's mechanical ballet. These artists rely on video or film to bring performance to life. They also surround it with props that feel darker than the performance, daring one to join in the dance. Yet they struggle very differently with darkness.
Starling recalls an earlier meeting of epochs and cultures. He recreates the choreography that gave an Irish hero the trappings of modern poetry and Japanese theater. Friedman asks a dancer to take her across decades, too, with elements of Minimalism and Surrealism. She also has a dark sense of humor in place of a darkened room and a solemn ritual. She had better, for her show ran just as Andrea Rosen announced an end to the storied gallery and its support of living artists. As for Pape, in Brazil in the face of dictatorship, she helped to bring a decade alive.
Simon Starling calls his work At Twilight, at the Japan Society Gallery, but its heart lies in darkness—the darkness of night giving way to morning, of a threat to one's very life, and above all of a darkened theater. It unfolds on video as a dance but also a drama, and it recreates the dance at the climax of a drama by William Butler Yeats. A man shrouded in refuge from age, poverty, the wind, and the cold stumbles forward and collapses to the floor. For Yeats, he was all that was left of Cuchulain, a legendary Irish hero searching in vain for a fountain of youth. And then not water but music summons him to life. He throws off his shroud, rises in glory, and spreads once and for all his hawk's wings.
Starling conceives the work as part installation and part history lesson. It opens with the usual wall text and two hanging objects that could almost pass for headphones bearing further explanations and obligations. They are instead Japanese swords. The video plays out behind masks like those of Japanese Noh theater from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, set on the shapes of thin, bare, twisted trees. They also include a horse's head in fabric much like the aging hero's stark gray cloak. Past them all lies a brighter room with costumes for the drama, along with the horse's headless body.
A longer lesson comes after that, with further objects, this time the originals—as well as documents, period photographs by A. L. Coburn, and prints by Edmund Dulac. Starling explains more in person on a second video and also diagrams the connections as his "mind map," a collage. It gets complicated. Yeats wrote At the Hawk's Well for Dublin's Abbey Theater, which he had founded with Lady Gregory. He wrote in 1916, during World War I and amid Vorticism, the English version of Cubism indebted to Wyndam Lewis. Jacob Epstein built on the damage of war and the triumph of Modernism alike in sculpture, with his Rock Drill.
Starling describes the Hawk Dance as the Irish poet's Noh "reincarnation," but he is charting a torrent of influences and collaborations. Michio Ito choreographed and performed the dance, and the designs of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a follower of Epstein, lie behind more than one mask. Isamu Noguchi paid his own tributes to East and West, and Ezra Pound, as secretary to Yeats, turned him on to Noh theater. Nancy Cunard brought many of them together in London's fashionable Cavendish Square and served as their muse. That horse turns out to be Eeyore, because A. A. Milne found comfort and ideas in the same Irish woods as Yeats. Heehaw!
Starling, an English artist who appeared with "Ostalgie" in 2011 and the Wagner collection in 2016, adds influences and collaborations of his own. He credits still others for his music, his choreography, and even his masks and costumes. They include a mask of Yeats, jaws sewn shut and his features almost Asian. They also include a mask of Cunard Constantin Brancusi, who abstracted away from her in bronze. They can evoke mythic terrors, terminal whimsy, or both at once—like the head from Winnie-the-Pooh. Trust me that Pound did not have them in mind when he later wrote off Noh as "all too damn soft."
You may find yourself quoting him anyway. Starling's theater can approach archeology, and his history can grow arbitrary. Still, it is hard to turn away. His sheer scope reflects the turmoil of Modernism and its greatest poet, and the central room recreates their power. One passes through the masks on their bare trees as if through a real forest, an eastern mystery, an Irish legend, or a metaphoric dark woods. One wants to sink to the ground with the dancer and to spread at last one's wings.
When life presents only obstacles, Martha Friedman has a suggestion: engage them. And when the going gets impersonal and industrial, she has another: get physical. She sure does, even if she just happens to have put the obstacles in her own path and yours. They were not altogether of her own making, but in her hands they become the scene of a struggle and a dance.
"Dancing Around Things" opens with one obstacle, a white rubber sheet suspended from the ceiling and facing the entrance. It has another at the center of the gallery, set on a table but spilling onto the floor. You will not want to touch the first because it serves as the screen for a video, not to mention as art. You will not want to touch the second because, frankly, it is a trifle creepy. Metal spikes and sagging rubber tubes protrude from a small wall of stacked metal piping, as Two-Person Operating System. Another tube lies curled up like a snake, beneath the table on the floor.
Still, the video feels almost like home—if also, for an artist, the scene of frequent anxiety and eternal struggle. It unfolds in her studio, and she invites another in as well, Silas Riener. The dancer and choreographer conducts his own struggle with a third obstacle, thick rubber bands stretching from floor to ceiling. As for the tubes, spikes, and piping, they serve as the set of a performance twice during the run as well, by Susan Marshall & Company. These are engaging obstacles.
Plainly the artist relishes collaboration. The two people sharing her operating system could include the dancer or the viewer, and "dancing around" could mean avoiding what lies before one's eyes or taking it on like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire. Friedman says that she gave Riener limited direction, apart from begging him to mess things up—and he dives right in, upright or on his head, as the bands give way or fight back. Now and then they unhook from the floor, leaving him hanging from above and leaving a threatening bed of hooks inches away. At a given moment, the dance can become awkward, funny, graceful, or supremely athletic. The video cuts between scenes of hooked and unhooked bands just as smoothly and silently.
The industrial as the setting for a threat or physical comedy goes back a long way, at the very least to silent film. The spikes and rubber recall Surrealism and, later, the Post-Minimalism of Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse. Friedman connects them further to the body by identifying the colors of the four rubber tubes with the four humors of Greek and medieval medicine—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Here phlegm has a sickly green. The rubber bands have flesh tones, bringing them all the closer to the dance. The gallery describes the entirety as at once abstract, erotic, and commonplace.
They also bring the work closer to the bare space of a gallery, much as Minimalism engages the viewer with its surroundings. Photos show a construction like the pipes, with still more pieces hanging out. They or similar photos also appear in the background of the video. One can treat the show as a single work—gaining in unity and directness from the gallery's smaller second location, a few doors down and across the street from its first. That makes it harder to dance around, but easier to engage. Bring your own sense of four humors.
Coming into the Met Breuer, you, too, can stumble onto the 1960s. A photo covers the entire wall across from the elevators, with dozens of heads popping out of a rippling white sheet. Who knows what it hides—and who knows how many more children of the favelas extend beyond the photo's edges? Like any happening, it brings people together in the name of chaos, protest, or play. Lygia Pape first staged it in 1968 and called it Divisor (or "divided") rather than assembly, but then the decade that inaugurated the culture wars was notoriously divided. Her retrospective ends with bursts of color, including a red table and chairs covered with parrot feathers, like her very own strawberry fields.
Pape was not at the center of a mod London, and she was too old for a baby boomer. She was bringing a changing century to the Americas. Modernism had arrived before, with Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola in their travels from the Bauhaus, and yet abstraction was still something of a novelty in Rio when Pape, born in 1927, joined with others in founding Grupo Frente in 1954. Frente means the front, as in the vanguard, but this avant-garde looked way back to Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands and what Theo van Doesburg back then called Art Concrete. It had a lot of catching up to do. Five years later she and others, including Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, issued a Neo-Concrete manifesto.
Her work keeps moving back and forth between book art and, on film, performance. She traces parallel lines in ink and woodcuts, but with gaps that transform the image into overlapping triangles and circles. She cuts and peels paper so that it becomes an object in three dimensions or a frame for whatever lies before her. Even when she works in wood blocks or paint, she sticks to small dimensions, and she spoke of her most ambitious projects as books. They include the books of time, night and day, architecture, and creation—each suggesting art or a woman's life as a coming to be. The first, or Livro do Tempo, cuts into and layers onto small squares, one for each colorful day of the year.
Art itself, then, has become a happening. It has the desultory pace of the crowd that gathered into a circle, as Espaços imantados (or "magnetized spaces") in 1995. It has the intimations of violence of her woman with a stabbed tongue—like the woman shot in the eye in Sergei Einstein's Battleship Potemkin. Pape knew about violence at first hand, too, for she lived through a military coup in 1964, soon after the Neo-Concrete movement disbanded, and chose to remain in Brazil at the cost of imprisonment. She retains, though, the optimism of her tales of creation and change, with her Objects of Seduction from 1968 and Wheel of Pleasures from 1976. The first involves false eyelashes and make-up mirrors, the second white bowls of brightly colored water.
The water makes use of food coloring and flavoring, including such native ingredients as banana, coffee, and coconut. And Pape keeps returning to her nation's poverty and indigenous people along with her Modernism and sophistication. Barely clothed men play tribal percussion in one video, and they hang out near a house on stilts by the water in another. Pape obtained her BA and MA only in her forties, and she taught architecture at a time when Roberto Burle Marx and Latin American architecture were thriving. Her layered paintings and books could pass for architectural models as well, much like those of Mateo López later in Colombia. Yet they keep looking for a culture present for her at the creation.
"A Multitude of Forms," curated by Iria Candela with the Projeto Lygia Pape, keeps up well with her shifting interests until her death in 2004. Yet a decade's tale of becoming is present all along. At first her vocabulary is right out of Mondrian, as is the matte white of her gouache on board—but the lines and squares land with the spontaneity of the I Ching. The parallel traces from 1956 cohere all at once into black stripes exactly like those of Frank Stella three years later. Years later, with Ttéia (or "web" with an extra T), much the same parallels become shimmering masses in metallic thread, like rising beams or falling water. A new concrete is finally happening.