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The 1970s is a decade whose image has not yet crystallized. As Rosalind Krauss reported at the time in “Notes on the Index,” seventies art in America was “diversified, split, factionalized” (October 3 [Spring 1977]: 68). Despite art history’s attempts to trace a clear picture that would bring this “willful eclecticism” into some explanatory order, the decade that followed the Minimalist and Conceptualist reductions of the 1960s and preceded the excesses of the 1980s continues to pose challenges to viewers and students of contemporary art. The Whitney Museum’s ambitious exhibition Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980, curated by Jay Sanders, supplies no easy answers. What it does, however, is show why easy answers are not forthcoming. Bringing together a staggering collection of artifacts—scripts, scores, photographs, videos, props, set reconstructions, artists’ notes, and several re-framings of historical material—from New York’s underground performance art scene of the 1970s, Rituals of Rented Island makes the strongest possible case for the link between vitality and disorder.
As its subtitle suggests, the exhibition does not take a prescriptive view of performance, but instead conjures numerous examples of performance art’s hybrid couplings with a range of disciplines and practices, from theater and dance to musical composition, film, visual arts, scientific research, stand-up comedy, popular music, television, religion, the occult, psychotherapy, space travel, and in a great many cases, the practice of life itself. Exiting the elevator on the museum’s third floor, the viewer finds herself or himself before a construction of a storefront window screening scenes of an Andy Warhol look-alike riding a horse through the streets of Manhattan. The window transports the viewer to Squat Theatre’s performance and living space on West 23rd Street where the troupe—a group of expatriated Hungarians with deep roots in European avant-garde theater—collectively created striking theatrical collages of scripted dramatic narrative and musical numbers that occasionally erupted into the real spaces of the city, shocking bystanders who had not suspected that a show was taking place around them. Seated inside the makeshift space, which has been wallpapered with photographs of some of Squat’s best-known productions, viewers can watch video of the Warhol character meeting an alien Ulrike Meinhof, played by a child, or a naked witch performing an exorcism (both from Andy Warhol’s Last Love [1978–81]). In another clip, actors indistinguishable from armed soldiers pull up to the storefront in a Jeep to storm the stage in Squat’s 1982 disco war musical, Mr. Dead and Mrs. Free. Squat’s major insight concerned the performance situation: staging its scenes before the storefront window meant that the city’s street life entered the frame from the perspective of the paying audience located inside; meanwhile, these same spectators fused with the drama for a secondary audience of onlookers and passersby who happened to gaze in from the street. It is an inspired image to open the exhibition, since it introduces some of the aesthetic possibilities and utopian aspirations to produce new publics and transform experience held out by performance in the 1970s.
The labyrinthine layout of the exhibition offers viewers multiple ways through the material. In one direction, videos and scripts of Julia Heyward’s monologues in alternative venues like Franklin Furnace and Artists Space use wordplay and ventriloquism to slip in and out of a medley of voices, from the plaints of a modern working girl to the pronouncements of an angry God. Elsewhere in the show, the narrative thread is picked up by Theodora Skipitares performing Skysaver (1980), a solo multimedia work in which multiple narrators weave together stories of a Catholic saint martyred for her determination, institutionalized New Yorkers attending a dance at the Roseland Ballroom, Daedalus and Icarus setting out on their celestial journey, ships of fools carrying society’s unwanted out to sea, and mentally ill patients toiling away on secret art projects at a facility by LaGuardia Airport. Next to the video and cue sheet is the extraordinary wall-mounted backdrop that Skipitares activated as she performed Skysaver, molding her body to the props and manipulating its moving parts as she recounted her own work with the emotionally disturbed. In yet another room, Jared Bark channels alien scientists as they experiment on the inhabitants of planet earth in Zero G (1977), and tells the story of Louis Slotin, a scientist at Los Alamos who died an agonizing death after he accidentally set off a fission reaction, in Slotin’s Light (1974). These ominous and absurd allegories of a brave new world of alien overlords and nuclear nightmares animate Bark’s light-bulb constructions with both comic resonance and tragic urgency. Other artists in the show whose work deals with narrative and metaphor include Ericka Beckman, Jill Kroesen, Mike Kelley, Stuart Sherman, and Laurie Anderson.
Another viewer might chart a different course through the exhibition, focusing on the problem of re-presentation and immediacy posed by the artifacts and recordings. At one end of the spectrum is the extreme antipathy to documentation adopted by Ralston Farina. A good-humored but elusive personality, he saw his downtown performances as a form of “time art” whose only impressions remain in the viewer’s memory, suitably represented here in others’ recollections and ephemera. A more nuanced approach may be seen in the by-now familiar videos and texts chronicling Vito Acconci’s performances of stalking, masturbating, and confronting viewers in public spaces. The dispassionate records of these actions bind Acconci’s work to straightforward reportage, even as they mark the distance between the recording and the deeply unsettling experience of the works themselves. Bridging the two extremes are a number of artists whose work strives to produce a heightened sense of viewer perception, hinted at but never fully realizable on video. These include the extreme durational productions of Robert Wilson and his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, the three-dimensional cinematic shadow plays of Ken Jacobs’s Apparition Theater of New York, and the leveling of all expressive elements in Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysterical Theater.
In several rooms, the exhibition’s organizers have taken a maximalist approach to representation, situating video footage within installations of objects and sets. This strategy is particularly successful for Mike Smith and the Kipper Kids, both of whose comedic antics touch upon deeply antisocial aspects of contemporary life. The wood-paneled rec room complete with ironing board and kitty litter tray is the perfect setting in which to observe the behaviors of Smith’s character “Mike,” a bumbling guy whose attention span has been curtailed by copious amounts of television. Likewise, the Kippers’ boxing ring and collection of firecrackers, prosthetics chins, and matching jockstraps convey the sense of a backstage dressing area. There is no chance of mistaking these sets for sculptural assemblages; rather, their identities as objects in the world deliver a gut punch and anchor the routines in the best tradition of critical cabaret.
In some cases, artists have been invited to participate in the re-presentation of works in the museum setting. Thus, in a poignant doubling, Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s delicate wire and paper props and Babette Mangolte’s 1970s photographs of them in use on stage are exhibited together with more recent video Mangolte shot of Palacios Whitman performing the props once again as a visibly older person. Elsewhere, Mangolte, a filmmaker and cinematographer in her own right, has paired footage of Yvonne Rainer’s dance This Is the Story of a Woman Who . . . (1973), which Mangolte shot on film when it was first produced, with fragments of script narrative and commentary mounted inside an angled exhibition case. The installation creates a parallel structure to the dancers’ movements and reveals in a novel way, perhaps better suited to these archives-infatuated times, the multi-layered nature of the original work.
All that being said, much is also lost. The energy of producing work in lofts and alternative spaces and the relationships that anchored the creation and reception of that work is glimpsed only in fragments. One such fragment appears in the form of a lobster claw placed next to a cassette tape labeled Requiem for Jack Smith, just two of the dizzying array of tiny objects contained in a display of John Zorn’s Theatre of Musical Optics, presented publicly for the first time. These private concerts, which Zorn has been putting on for audiences of two or three in his apartment since the mid-1970s, involve a stage no larger than a kitchen table upon which the objects are manipulated in an elaborate form of visual music. The lobster claw is an homage to Smith, another pioneering figure and the originator of the phrase that gives the show its title. (“Rented Island” was Smith’s nickname for Manhattan and “Lobsterism” his term for capitalist exploitation.) Smith’s underground performances at the Plaster Foundation of Atlantis (the loft on Greene Street where he lived and worked before his 1971 eviction) resisted documentation in part due to their length and in part due to the extremely contingent nature of their glitter-sprinkled conjuration of the exotic Technicolor landscapes of popular film and collective imagination.
In filling the museum with an effusion of archival matter and hours of video, Rituals of Rented Island risks overwhelming the viewer and leaving her or him without a compass to make sense of so much information. The catalogue essays by Sanders and writer and critic J. Hoberman, who consulted on the exhibition, go a long way toward providing historical background and useful categories for putting into context the twenty artists and groups whose documentary materials are included in the show. They remind the reader of how the artist-occupied lofts and independent art spaces of New York’s SoHo became the sites of a burgeoning underground art scene, just as a downturn in the city’s fortunes produced a surfeit of affordable real estate and left a patchwork of urban spaces in transition. The essays also bring into relief the period’s fascinations with subject-object relations, social conditioning, and the mediation of collective memory by the media. Without reducing the works to cultural symptoms, Sanders and Hoberman illuminate the connections between these diverse bodies of work and sweeping shifts in the political, social, economic, and media environments that shaped the decade. An annotated map and detailed chronology provide additional orientation. Even with all these points of reference, the primary sources on view in Rituals of Rented Island, in their sheer quantity and variety, are never reduced to depoliticized myth. In this way, they retain their historical contingency as partial traces of larger forces at work, be they artistic legacies, social ties, or political investments. The picture of the 1970s that emerges is messy and fragmentary, but in its particularity, it approaches the texture of life.
Adjunct Lecturer, Department of Art History, Rutgers University