The Man Show

Sarah Thornton on Andrea Fraser’s Men on the Line at the CCA Wattis

Left: Artist Andrea Fraser performs Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK, 1972. Right: Collector Michael Solomon, CCA Wattis director Anthony Huberman, and collector Ross Sappenfield. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

ANDREA FRASER is the artist “On Our Mind” at the CCA Wattis Institute of Contemporary Art in San Francisco. Last year, Joan Jonas was on their mind, and next year they’ll be mulling over David Hammons. “It’s not retrospective. It’s not hagiography. It’s a unique opportunity to consider an artist’s work in depth with your peers,” explained Jacqueline Francis, an art historian at the California College of the Arts, as a waiter topped up her pink champagne last Friday. We were gathered for cocktails ahead of the Bay Area premiere of Fraser’s Men on the Line: Men Committed to Feminism, KPFK, 1972.

Earlier that day, Fraser was rehearsing across the street at the Brava Theater. “I’d like to look half-decent,” she hollered in the direction of the lighting technician, “because I’m not taking my clothes off in this piece.” The artist neighed like a horse, then trilled like a bird, and then huffed, “Ma mah, pa pah.” Fraser has been doing these kinds of warm-up exercises since she studied drama at Berkeley High School. She dropped to the floor and did a few push-ups. “Once, when I was about to perform Official Welcome, I wasn’t feeling Damien Hirst, so I did some push-ups. It did the trick. It brings energy to the shoulders,” she explained with a pump of her pecs.

Fraser was preparing to embody the voices of four men in a consciousness-raising session about gender identity and equality that was broadcast on Pacifica Radio in the early 1970s. In green Levis, a white shirt, gray pullover, and, true to the era, no bra, she explained, “My approach to my clothes onstage is that I wear things that I happen to own. I don’t want it to be a costume. I am not trying to suspend disbelief.” Fraser did a skyward stretch. “I hate the idea of characters,” she added. “I am performing fields and different positions in the field.”

Left: Art historians Julia Bryan-Wilson, Richard Meyer, and Karen Fiss. Right: Brian Deshazor, head of Pacifica Archive.

While Fraser’s work is underpinned by the social theory of Pierre Bourdieu, it is also grounded in personal feelings, a combination that contributes greatly to the power of her performances. “These men are my father, and my internal male selves,” she said. “I grew up in a lesbian-feminist household. My father wrote about men’s liberation and struggled to engage with the change around him.” Fraser’s cellphone rang. It was her father, calling from Hawaii. She hadn’t talked to him for a while, but now was not the time.

This would be the ninth performance of Men on the Line, which had been commissioned by Emi Fontana’s West of Rome as part of the Pacific Standard Time Festival in Los Angeles. Fraser started hunting for recordings that might inspire a work in the summer of 2011. Nothing came of her search until artist Suzanne Lacy pointed her toward Pacifica Radio’s archive, where she discovered the conversation, which she then transcribed, edited, and memorized.

A few hours later, a who’s who of San Francisco curators and art historians, a handful of collectors and dealers, and a mob of artists and students invaded the theater. Carmen de Monteflores, Fraser’s mother, sat stage left among a couple rows of family. The house lights dimmed and an announcer with a deep radio voice announced “Men on the Line.” Fraser took the spotlit seat from which she would perform all four parts for the next fifty minutes. The conversation moved through a nuanced discussion of men’s fear of the women’s movement and their hope that it would entail a general human liberation; their desire to shed their “brainwashing” and overcome residual “male chauvinist pig” behaviors, the femininity of feelings, the burden of the traditional male role, and the desire for an androgynous world. Fraser took on a series of masculine poses, which sometimes felt like an actor performing distinct people and occasionally like a schizophrenic in fervent debate with himself.

Left: Dealer Jessica Silverman and artist Suzanne Lacy. Right: Artist Tina Takemoto and art historian Jacqueline Francis.

Laughs arose from moments when the naive idealism of the early ’70s met with today’s cynicism, such as when one man confidently declared that he was “largely cured of sexism” or that he enjoyed “a real feeling of glorious equality” with his third wife. Other chuckles came from the embarrassment involved in discussing intimacies in public (“I feel very guilty about my penis”) or from the ding of an insight (when men appear weak and vulnerable, they’re in need of Alka-Seltzer or “some kind of tonic to cure that indisposition”).

When the performance ended, the audience clapped for a very long time, then lingered, hoping that the artist would return for a bow or a few words. But this was not the theater. Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson called it “an incredible work of acting and appropriation.” Leigh Markopoulos, head of curatorial practice at CCA, felt “extreme empathy toward these guys struggling to be better men. They weren’t assholes. Their chauvinism was inherited rather than inherent.”

Many in the room had lived through the era, but Suzanne Lacy had known two of the men personally. As a result, she was sure that her primary experience of the work was different from most present. “I’d love to do fifty interviews to understand how men and women of different ages received the piece,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of work that explores how young women perceive feminism and activism. This research—a kind of Part II—would complete Men on the Line for me.”

Andrea Fraser and family.

Left: SF MoMA curator Rudolf Frieling with artist Jordan Kantor. Right: Andrea Fraser and Jamie Stevens, curator of CCA Wattis.

Left: Dominic Willsdon, SF MoMA curator of education and public programs, Leigh Markopolous, head of curatorial practice at CCA, and Lucía Sanromán, director of visual arts at Yerba Buena. Right: Art historian Moira Roth.

Left: Art consultants Kelsey Shell and Sabrina Buell. Right: Frish Brandt, president of Fraenkel Gallery, with Kathy Klausner and Veronica Gaynor.