John Howell

  • The Kipper Kids, Into the Box, Out of the Box

    The Kipper Kids (a.k.a. Brian Routh and Martin von Haselberg) are the original bad boys of performance art. Nonsensical nuttiness was the Dadaesque raison d’être of this Los Angeles-based duo when they practiced their acts of infantile aggression in the serious Conceptual art context of the mid ’70s. Such antics were at most taboo-threatening, as when they burst baggies of realistic-looking fake excrement over their jockstrap-clad rears, and at least amusing in their acting-out of messy-children-at-play (i.e., slinging paint, spitting up partially chewed food, etc.), but their “forbidden” behavior

  • Robert Wilson, Quartet

    In director Robert Wilson’s theater works, the visual mise-en-scène and the music and/or text have always operated on two parallel tracks; each has demanded equal, split attention from the viewer. The general idea seems to have been inspired by Merce Cunningham’s separation of music and dance, and, in plays like I Was Sitting On My Patio . . . , 1977, the actual practice drew on the little-known plays of Gertrude Stein. Beginning with Hamletmachine, 1985, however, Wilson has collaborated with German playwright Heiner Müller, whose literary style more closely matches Wilson’s visual sensibility,

  • Jerri Allyn

    American Dining: a Working Woman’s Moment was an art installation produced in restaurants throughout the United States last winter by Jerri Allyn, a former real-life waitress and a co-founder of a Los Angeles–based performance group called The Waitresses. For Allyn, the occupation has been not simply a frequent job but a rich metaphor for the position of women in contemporary culture. She has used the idea of woman-as-ill-paid servant as a fertile springboard for ideological posturing on related issues from sexism to capitalism. In New York City, Allyn programmed the tabletop jukeboxes in a

  • Richard Foreman, Symphony of Rats

    “Don’t have a mind, BE mind,” says one of the video robots in Symphony of Rats, 1988, Richard Foreman’s latest Ontological-Hysteric Theater performance piece, a co-production with the Wooster Group. Foreman’s theater has consistently embodied a manic, probing mental condition, not merely reproduced attitudes and/or statements about it. His goal has been to create a vertiginous, multisensory event in which the operations of thought are the actual subject of drama. Further, he wants to instill that particular mental condition in the viewer’s mind.

    In Symphony of Rats, however, Foreman, who wrote

  • Creation, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

    Nearly 70 years after its premiere, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari continues to attract theatrical adapters. It’s not hard to see why. Structured and staged like a Jacobean revenge tragedy, the silent movie displays a dramatic range that is practically Shakespearean, from moments of supernatural horror to the larger allegorical theme of institutional power run amok. Interwoven with these classically theatrical elements are a feverish Weimar psychosexual angst and an Expressionist mise-en-scène that give this unusual art-film period piece the appearance of a quintessentially modern myth.

    As a

  • “The Arts at Black Mountain College”

    Black Mountain College has been a quasi-mythical footnote to the histories of some remarkable artists since its closing in 1957 after only 24 years of existence. Like an avant-garde version of a top-flight prep school, its name figures in the lives and careers of, among others, artists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Josef Albers, and Robert Rauschenberg, dancer Merce Cunningham, musician John Cage, poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and that unclassifiable esthetician Buckminster Fuller. Its complete roster of teachers and alumni reads like a Who’s Who of the cultural ’40s and ’50s in

  • Merián Soto and Pepón Osorio, Wish You Were Here

    Wish You Were Here, a rambling performance spectacle about Puerto Rican popular culture by Merián Soto and Pepón Osorio, inhabited the lobby of the Philip Morris midtown headquarters the way the displaced Caribbean culture occupies New York City: like colorful scraps of confetti blowing around the edges of a glass-and-steel civilization. It was presented as an evening of “video, dance, music, and performance set in a Puerto Rican social club,” with a decor by set designer and sculptor Osorio consisting of balloon-festooned cabaret tables, cartoonish palm trees and cabanas made of patterned

  • Curt Royston

    The agenda for Curt Royston's mixed-media installation Half Light, a mélange of painted environments, real objects, photographs, simultaneous live video broadcast, was mind games: perspectival paradoxes, trompe l'oeil tricks, and ultimately reality conundrums. In the Whitney's sterile, relatively small film and video exhibition space, Royston's photographs and video images were shown side by side with the “life-size” constructions on which they were based. These funky tableaux, with their garish, van Gogh colors and confusing juxtapositions of real and painted objects, set up strange, Caligari-like

  • Robbie McCauley, Indian Blood

    Like an orthodox neo-Brechtian performance artist, Robbie McCauley fed the stomach first in Indian Blood, 1987, her politically bent mixed-media work, by passing around casually introduced plates of fruit to the audience. But the ideological stew that followed was a half-baked dish, a smorgasbord of personal anecdotes and sociopolitical attitudes that didn't congeal. Instead of echt Brecht, McCauley gave us a well-intentioned, passionately felt, and personally meaningful exhibition that was too monotone, too diffuse, and finally too unresolved to be effective agitprop. Indian Blood desperately

  • Kit Fitzgerald and Peter Gordon, Spectaccalo

    Like its ersatz title, a made-up word that resonates with implications of baroque futurism, Spectaccalo was a singular hybrid that reveled in its boundary-stretching serendipity. A laid-back audio-visual performance in which live video projections controlled by Kit Fitzgerald provided the visual counterpoint to music composed by Peter Gordon and played by the saxophonist with an ensemble, Spectaccalo stated its self-chosen contradictions by flanking a huge, state-of-the-art video-projection screen with “natural” decor: birdhouses, an aquarium, and a circular tower of vines. A performance

  • Maguy Marin, Babel Babel

    The conceptual underpinnings of Babel Babel, a 1982 dance-theater performance work staged by the French choreographer Maguy Marin, are stupefyingly banal: that humanity once existed in innocence, has been corrupted by civilization, and now must fight its way back to paradise. It’s hard to believe that this simplistic premise was put forth by a contemporary French artist (how were the layers of esthetic fog that smother so much French performance completely bypassed?) and even harder to understand that Marin made it so incredibly believable on stage. Her intuitive, faux naif theater may traffic

  • Ann Magnunson, Transmissions

    After years of late-night club shows and occasional museum gigs, character chameleon Ann Magnuson brought her one-woman revue of multiple personae (with a minor cast of supporting players as a sort of decor/chorus) to its biggest venue yet, a Lincoln Center stage. A conceptual humorist who thinks in quotes, Magnuson presented her latest work, Transmissions, 1987, as a “live” version of a television broadcast. Transmissions was both a send-up of a TV-besotted culture and a sincere revel in its absurdities, for Magnuson actually likes the characters and themes she ridicules. Here she appeared as