"Off the Wall"

The Whitney tackles performance in a two-part exhibition.

  • ON THE WALL Marker Cones, Jimmy DeSana

  • Marker Cones in 3-D!

  • Dara Friedman, Bim Bam

  • Robert Longo, Body of a Comic

  • Laurie Simmons, Walking Camera II (Jimmy the Camera)

ON THE WALL Marker Cones, Jimmy DeSana

Click #2 for a 3-D image (3-D glasses required).

If the current rage for performance is, in part, a backlash against technology overload—it is, after all, refreshing to see a body without the filter of a computer screen—the Whitney Museum of American Art has assembled a wealth of “performative actions.” In Part 1 of “Off the Wall,” subtitled “Thirty Performative Actions,” curator Chrissie Iles has culled a group of works (drawings, photography, video) that deal with the body; the subtly tactile show is not just about looking, but living inside the pieces. “When you’re walking through,” Iles says in the gallery space, “I want you to almost get to the point where you feel your presence in the space is, on a certain level, performative too.”

From the time of its inception, the Whitney has enjoyed a deep relationship to performance. To honor that, this fall, Part 2 of “Off the Wall” will feature seven works by Trisha Brown from her “equipment cycle,” including Walking on the Wall (performed in 1971 at the Whitney) and Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (strapped into a harness, the performer literally descends the outside of a building). But as exciting as Brown’s revivals will be, Part 1 is also required viewing, where the live aspects are less obvious, but the effect is mesmerizing. Included are art students reperforming John Baldessari’s 1971 I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (the sentence is carefully written over and over again in pencil across the white gallery wall) as well as Carl Andre’s 1975 Twenty-Ninth Copper Cardinal, in which the viewer walks from one gallery to the next on a 48-foot-long row of square copper plates. Nate Lowman’s reinterpretation of Yoko Ono’s Painting to Be Stepped On from 1960 is another participatory piece; the painting, placed in the center of the space, is something of a bull’s-eye with jagged edges.

“When you walk in and see someone writing on the wall, carefully and in pencil, it really does bring the place to life,” Iles says. “Just like you don’t walk on a painting, you don’t write on the wall, especially in a museum. It’s so simple and yet it is very strange when you see it or do it.”

With a devilish glint in her eye, Iles gestures to Lowman’s canvas, which is placed in the middle of the gallery like a mini stage and asks, “Why don’t you step on it?” She laughs, knowing how wrong and disconcerting it will feel. “It feels weird enough walking on the Carl Andre sculpture, but somehow that’s more imbedded in your knowledge that you can. But paintings are something else. They’re more delicate.”

There are other surreal details: Iles includes Walter Gutman’s 16mm film transferred to video, Trisha Brown Co. at the Whitney Museum 1971—The Rehearsal, which features Brown’s Walking on the Wall in the same space that it was originally performed (and in September, it will be performed there again). Another work, the luminous, haunting Striding Crawling (1977), a hologram by Simone Forti, works best if you move with it. “The quicker you walk around, the more she moves,” Iles notes, leading the way. “She made this from looking at animals in the zoo, so you’ll find that when you stoop down you’re mimicking the animals that she’s influenced by.”

But Iles doesn’t just focus on the crossover works of the ’60s and ’70s; she is interested in the way pedestrian gestures shifted into something more theatrical in the ’80s. Jimmy DeSana, who died of AIDS in 1990, is represented in five photographs from 1979 and 1982 that actually seem like stills from contemporary dance today. “He got a bit forgotten, but I think these are really wonderful, so I’m showing them for the first time,” Iles says, pointing to Fur Coat. “Look at him! The Dash Snow generation. I think they’re fantastic. I really wanted to think about what performative action meant in a staged sense.”

Iles also contemplates a different approach to the body in Tony Oursler’s Tunic (Song for Karen) from 1990, in which Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon plays Karen Carpenter, who died of heart failure brought on by anorexia nervosa. “Women’s bodies are so under attack now with airbrushing, with these impossible, very commercialized images that young women are given of what they’re supposed to look like,” Iles says. “It’s complete rubbish.” Together, the works create a performative world in which David Hammons’s potent Phat Free (1995/1999), a video installation of the artist kicking a tin bucket down the Bowery, and Robert Longo’s triptych Untitled (Men in the Cities) from 1979/2009—which appears to show a dancing figure, but really highlights poses inspired by a murder scene in a Fassbinder film— create a cinematic layer to the body and action. The exhibition, as much as curated directed, makes you slow down.

“We live in such a hypercommercialized environment,” Iles says. “I think society has created a situation where everybody is in perpetual shopping mode, me included. I can see them when they walk into the museum; it’s like they’re walking into Barneys or something. It’s like, Just have a look. This is different. It’s not a department store, it’s not a boutique. You want to throw their shoulders back, you want them to come and experience something in a different way. That’s why I love watching people look at this—you can see that they’re really being drawn into actions that are taking place.”

"Off the Wall" is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Sep 19 (part 1) and Sept 30-Oct 3 (Part 2).

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