Jack Smith, Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (a.k.a. Material Landlordism of Bagdad, a.k.a. The Secret of the Brassiere Factory), 1977. Performance view, Cologne Art Fair, Germany, October 26–31, 1977. Photo: © Jack Smith Archive, courtesy Gladstone Gallery.


FOR JUST UNDER A WEEK, Anthology Film Archives serves as the downtown annex of the Whitney Museum’s “Rituals of Rented Island” exhibition. Titled “Further Rituals of Rented Island,” the Anthology series brings together films and videos made by or documenting the work of many of the artists in the Whitney show, returning them to their point of origin—the underground venues of Lower Manhattan.

I am not the ideal viewer for the Whitney exhibition, subtitled “Object Theater, Loft Performances, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” (with a preamble in the late 1960s and an afterward in the early ’80s), for the simple reason that I “experienced” almost all the pieces in the show when they were presented as live performance or were screened hot off the Portapak or Super 8 camera, almost always with the artist present. Though I may complain about getting old, I also am still thrilled by the memories of Jack Smith’s after-hours performances in his Grand Street loft, Michael Smith’s “Baby Ikki” pieces at the Kitchen, Vito Acconci masturbating under a ramp cut into the floor of the Sonnabend gallery, and Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson’s glacially paced plays with their strategically placed eruptive visuals.

In the mid-’80s, when I was the video and film curator at the Kitchen, I programmed and distributed almost all the film and video in the show and felt then that moving-image documentation was a poor substitute for the live confrontation of performer and audience, which was the essential factor in the most subversive of these works. Although there are some very strong pieces in the Whitney exhibition—Michael Smith’s apartment-styled installation; an Acconci video that you have to crouch down to see; large projections of two of Ericka Beckman’s early films, which have great presence even at a distance—the show as a whole is as respectable as a mausoleum. It is, however, valuable in suggesting that the underground art of the ’70s was a preview of the performance-dominated mainstream in the first decades of the twenty-first century, where painting itself would be invisible were it not enveloped in the traveling circus that is the art fair. Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” meets Warhol’s “business art,” indeed.

Anthology’s series, organized by “Rented Island” curator Jay Sanders and catalogue essayist and éminence grise J. Hoberman with Anthology curator Andrew Lampert, has the virtue of demanding that audiences spend substantial amounts of time with essentially time-based works and/or documentation of the same. Most of the thirteen programs are each devoted to a single artist and run between sixty and 150 minutes. The series opens with Acconci’s monumental minimalist 1977 video The Red Tapes, in part a tribute to American visionaries Gertrude Stein and Jimi Hendrix. Not to be missed are the shows by artists named Smith: Michael Smith will appear in person with video documentation of his early Down in the Rec Room, which stretches time almost as deliriously as Jack Smith did in Midnight at the Plaster Foundation (ca. 1975), a Portapak recording of which makes the program devoted to the artist who coined the term “Rented Island” necessary viewing. Fragmentary, mostly Super 8 films of four of Richard Foreman’s great mid-’70s Ontological-Hysteric Theater productions should interest devotees of Foreman’s work, but I’m not sure they tell you more than that his recent work is as different as it is the same. Julia Heyward (once Duka Delight) will appear with her 1977 performance video Conscious Knocks Unconscious, one the Whitney show’s best rediscoveries.

The one artist in the exhibition who should never have been unearthed is Ralston Farina. Hoberman will present videos of Farina’s performances and attempt to explain why his support of the artist’s work is not just outré for the sake of being outré. Sometimes work that appears to be dumb and irritating is exactly that and nothing more. Among the Whitney show’s serious omissions were the ’70s films and videos of James Nares, many of which were performances created specifically for the camera. Anthology provides the remedy with a program of short pieces that include the powerful 1976 seventeen-minute version of Pendulum, and the Super 8 farewell to the ’70s, the 1980 Waiting for the Wind.

Amy Taubin

“Further Rituals of Rented Island” screens January 16–21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.