Sam Miller. Photo: New England Foundation for the Arts.


SAM MILLER'S IMPRINT on the performing arts in the United States is indelible, but he himself was an enigma. I was always at a loss for what to call him. Curator? Producer? Funder? Entrepreneur? Cultural architect?

He was all of these things. And as well, he was a poet.

When he was the director of New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) between 1995 and 2005—during which time he founded the National Dance Project (NDP), and the Contemporary Art Centers (CAC) and Centers for Creative Research (CCR) initiatives—he became impatient with writing the obligatory annual “letter from the director.” So instead, he wrote minimal, idiosyncratic texts as introductions to NEFA’s annual report. I always wondered what his board of directors made of them. The following is from 2001:

Three funds plus three zeros
Equals six states and two dozen dances
A maze, a necklace, an emerald minotaur
Asking and offering forgiveness – in public, in process, in secret

One of his recent literary obsessions was Paula Fox, a writer he discovered reading Lynne Tillman’s collected essays What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (2014), in which she writes:

After September 11, reckoning with Paula Fox’s memoir, Borrowed Finery, is intellectually consoling. Like most people, I’m roller-coasting: Nothing means anything, everything’s urgent, life’s precious, obviously, expendable. Her memoir asks: What does another life tell us? How is the manner in which a life is written significant?”

In what significant manner did Sam write his life? He carried long, slim cards on which he customized lists for friends and colleagues with whom he met regularly. They included initials of artists, books, cities, and single words like “neuroscience” or “digitize.” I thought of them as “list poems,” and as I would wait for him to pull one for me from his jacket pocket I’d wonder, “What does he want me to think about now?” During our meetings, usually over breakfast at the recently shuttered Noho Star, he would listen intently while mapping new cultural initiatives on paper napkins or the backs of envelopes. It was during one of these breakfasts that we first talked about creating what he called a “think space” or “idea store” for Danspace Project.

Two of Sam's early influences stem from his time as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in the 1970s: Joseph Beuys’s performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, and Lucy Lippard's 1973 book Six Years: Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Beuys’s utopian ideas about social sculpture, and social architecture, undoubtedly seeped into Sam’s programmatic, philanthropic thinking. And like Lippard, he was never as interested in material artifacts or final artistic products as he was in cultural, political, and economic processes and systems. Given the impact Wesleyan had on his life and work, it is fitting that in 2011, he co-founded (with Pam Tatge, myself, and others) the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at the university—the country’s first program dedicated to performing arts curation.

Sam’s translation (or was it his mistranslation?) of social architecture was to direct the flow of money from individuals, governments, and foundations to artists. He had an unshakeable belief that giving them unfettered support and resources was his civic responsibility. Although he fiercely advocated for all artistic disciplines, dance was closest to his heart. It infuriated him to see the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham among them, struggling to make ends meet at the end of their lives, after decades of radical contributions. He was also devoted to Cambodian classical dance. During his tenure as director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the early 1990s, he produced the Music and Dance of Cambodia programs, and assisted in efforts to reunite practitioners who were refugees in the United States with the few artists still alive in Cambodia after Pol Pot’s reign of terror (1975–79). He understood that dance is a political, precarious art form, one that requires a person-to-person transmission of knowledge.

Sam’s genius was his ability to persuade and galvanize artists, funders, presenters, and curators to get on board with his ideas. In 1999, he collaborated with Mikhail Baryshnikov on Past Forward, a project revisiting seminal works by artists associated with the Judson Dance Theater: Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, and Brown. Sam was also one of the architects behind Ralph Lemon’s ten-year Geography Trilogy (1997–2007), an evolving vision involving three continents, three epic theater productions, three books, and numerous videos, installations, and drawings. As President of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) from 2011 until his retirement in 2016—as well as through collaborations with Danspace Project—he supported a new generation of performance innovators, among them Sarah Michelson, Maria Hassabi, Trajal Harrell, Okwui Okpokwasili, luciana achugar, Faye Driscoll, and Kaneza Schaal. Even in his retirement he could be seen regularly at performance venues, galleries and museums. He was always, as he wrote to me, “responding to the impulse to construct creative conditions for ourselves [and] for others.”

In 2016, I invited him to be a writer-in-residence for Eiko Otake’s six-week Danspace Platform, A Body in Places. He wrote weekly responses to her site specific performances in and around St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, including the following excerpt from a longer poem:

I feel about Eiko as
Lynne Tillman feels about Paula Fox or Susan Howe about Emily Dickinson or maybe the way Ana Mendieta feels about Ana Mendieta in her films showing right now at Galerie Lelong.
 Eiko, Ana, and Maria all in town at the same time! This is certainly the royal eclipse of the sun and all of us attendants will be able to say that we were here under this lunar shadow, tidal in its affections.

And all of us attendants are able to say that we were here under Sam’s enigmatic shadow, the better for his affections.

Judy Hussie-Taylor is executive director and chief curator of Danspace Project in New York.

James Yood. Photo: the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


IN 1989, the same year I started graduate school at Northwestern University, Jim Yood was hired as the college’s lecturer and assistant chair in the department of art theory and practice. He had stepped in to take the reins from the cantankerous art critic Dennis Adrian, who was proudly dispassionate about anything that diverged from a Chicago Imagist tradition. It was here where my deep and enduring respect for him began.

For the past twenty-nine years, Jim has never stopped teaching me. He taught me the virtue of the art review. As a spirited advocate for Chicago, he underscored the cultural value of living and working in Middle America. As a mentor, he impressed upon me the obligation to nurture and make room for new generations of critical voices. And, moreover, he understood contemporary art and art histories to be a vast and interconnected contextual whole.

Yet even before instilling in me an obligation to criticalness, Jim modeled a generous, supportive, and curious spirit. My time in graduate school coincided with the birth of my first kid. Jim was the only faculty member in the department who afforded me the dignity to work from home instead of in the assigned studio building on Colfax Street in Evanston, a few blocks from the Lakeside campus. At the same time, I was also swayed by his challenging curricula that commingled established Chicago practices with a new wave of yet untested conceptual artists who had recently emerged from of the School of the Art Institute. His was a classroom where Gaylen Gerber, Jeanne Dunning, Tony Tasset, Mitchell Kane, and Hirsch Perlman were examined and theorized alongside Hollis Sigler, Karl Wirsum, Edward Flood, Roger Brown, and Ellen Lanyon.

Critical analysis, for Jim, was not harsh, aggressive, or without imagination. He made it plain to his students that criticalness was not taste or discernment but instead active and committed in description and context-giving. With history and the cultural forces of contemporaneity, Jim measured material culture. Acting on his words and zeal, Jim contributed many hundreds of reviews to a wide variety of local and international publications throughout his life. Over the course of three decades, he contributed 203 reviews to Artforum alone. From his Midwestern perch, he deployed his freedom to reject the hierarchies that separated craft from art. A regular contributor to American Craft and GLASS Magazine, he championed ideas instead of technique, form instead of medium. Within the covers of GLASS, he fluently evaluated exhibitions by traditionally celebrated glass artists such as Dale Chihuly, Laura Donefer, Richard Whiteley, and Ginny Ruffner as readily as he reviewed the unsung work of Josiah McElheny, John Torreano, Dan Flavin, Tania Pérez Córdova, Keith Sonnier, Christine Tarkowski, Anne Wilson, and Monika Wulfers.

Jim also eschewed the authority afforded by academic specialization in favor of breadth and depth. He was a polymath who valued a generalist’s pursuit for critical well-roundedness. He shared his aptitude to write across varying artistic fields in his class offerings. The chair of the New Arts Journalism program at the School of the Art Institute, this past spring he was also teaching two art history classes: “Southern Baroque” and “Chicago in Art & Architecture.”

In a city that doesn't support a vast field of arts journalism, he made space for my urgent and presumptuously young voice. This was his first gift to me, but not his last; in Jim’s death, I lost a teacher, a mentor, and a colleague. His belief in a criticism of ethical engagement—one that demanded a lifelong dedication to writing and teaching—was also a gift to the history of artmaking in Chicago, and certainly to its future.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator, and writer.

Marcia Hafif painting “Shade Paintings,” 2013. Photo: Taketo Shimada.


AT DIFFERENT POINTS IN HER CAREER, Marcia Hafif proposed a cave, a solitary room with no distractions, and a lusthus (gazebo) in the middle of a remote forest as appropriate environments for and as art. Within the contemporary milieu, such possibilities promise particular grace, sheltering us from the chaos by which we find ourselves surrounded. She was not suggesting escape, however, for she also engaged consistently in an ongoing practice: studiously, carefully, one stroke after another. Nor was this proposal insular. Hafif’s almost lifelong practice of mark-making toward seemingly monochromatic surfaces, beginning in 1972 and continuing until her death in April, was intersected by conscious acts of dialogue—across geographies as she traveled and painted in situ, across spoken and visual languages, and even across religions. Perhaps best known is her essay “Beginning Again,” published in Artforum in 1978, in which she defended painting itself and defined the pared-down practice of her work and that of others: “The artist is involved in being as a way of doing and in letting be. . . .”

On several occasions, Hafif exchanged abstract marks for representational ones, composing texts across walls that asked her viewer to engage with her subjective presence in the world: as an aroused woman (Schoolroom, 1976), as an aging sexual being (From the day a woman…, 2013), and as a human facing the limitations of age and death. Schoolroom, just recently restaged for the MoMA PS1 anniversary show “FORTY” (2016), mourned, in meticulously composed cursive, the places she would never see again and the pain she experienced in old age, in an act of radical visibility for a society that disdains aging and hides death. Yet she tempered this reflection on loss with a patient understanding of all that she still had: “In spring I walk west to find the Ginkgo trees prickly with new growth…” In an era of distraction and incivility, Marcia’s meditative existence was a model for us all—insistent, curious, and attentive. Each mark, over sixty years, encourages us to be in dialogue with the world, and to see. Each work provides a generous abode.

Hafif was always exploring the world around her in multiple forms, and I am one among many who enjoyed days of conversation with her, reflecting on life and practice, sharing in her accumulated accomplishments: She had a persistent interest in working. She had a meticulous eye. She had a gift for making friends, and a lovely family. She had the ability to laugh. She had a beautiful record player in her studio, balanced in a corner on a small green table. She had the ocean at hand. She wrote to me this past winter to chat about playing with my children in the warm sun on the beach, where I last saw her. I will remember her there, bathed by the light and color that deeply informed her life’s work and infused with the vitality that fueled it.

Jane McFadden is Chair, Humanities and Sciences, at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.

Laura Aguilar, Nature Self-Portrait #2, 1996, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20". Courtesy: The artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


I FIRST SAW A LAURA AGUILAR PHOTOGRAPH about twenty-five years ago, I think in a local art magazine in Los Angeles. The fact that I cannot remember my first encounter has to do not with its lack of impact but, to the contrary, with the fact that from that moment onward, Aguilar's work became a mainstay in my thinking, teaching, and writing about issues surrounding embodiment in photographic representation, making it seem as if I'd always known these images, mostly portraits and self-portraits. I met Laura, and shortly thereafter, the photographs gained texture and depth. One on one, Laura was unsparing in her combination of directness and vulnerability, and these qualities now seem obvious in the generosity and affection of her camera eye, which offers both a tenderness and an incisive baring of her subject's energies.

Laura had the most trenchant way of condensing, in a single photograph, complex and sometimes conflicted ideas that others were hashing out at great length in academic art-world debates. This was certainly the case in the 1990s, when debates about fetishization and abjection swirled in feminist, queer, and antiracist theories in the visual arts. Aguilar, who once stated to me her disinterest in written theory (her dyslexia accompanied a fierce creative intelligence that didn't mesh with its demands), made pictures that achieved some of the same goals through visual means: The works activate questions about who is allowed into what spaces, which bodies are socially valued, and what kinds of people are encouraged or allowed to be artists. Among her “Artist: Will Work for Axcess” self-portraits from 1993, for example, is an image of the artist holding a cardboard sign with the titular text, standing in front of a building labeled GALLERY.

Laura Aguilar, In Sandy's Room, 1989–1990, gelatin silver print, 42 x 52". Courtesy: the artist and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


Aguilar's photograph In Sandy's Room, 1989–90, was a necessary inclusion in my 1996 exhibition “Sexual Politics,” which presented feminist art and pivoted around debates in feminist art theory. This self-portrait depicts Aguilar reclining naked on a chair, feet up on an ottoman, in an attitude of what I'm tempted to call extreme, even aggressive, repose—a large-bodied queer Chicana odalisque, hair cut in butch fashion, head laid back, eyes closed, cold drink in hand (with ice visible), a window open onto a riot of plant life, a fan pointed toward her. The picture exquisitely crystallizes the relentless objectification of the brown and the female body in Western representation and the way this freezing into fetish can flip into a sign of immense empowerment, perhaps because it is by/of a body so assertively uninterested in the viewer's gaze. The fact that we know Aguilar made this picture of herself helps in our appreciation of its function as self-empowering, but so does every detail in this meticulously composed image, from clearly self-confident naked flesh to external vegetation bursting its way into an otherwise plain room—the energy coiled in Aguilar's relaxed body explodes here.

I did not spend much time with Laura after I left Los Angeles for abroad in 2003, but one of her stunning 1996 “Nature Series” photographs—where she pictures herself (and in some cases other women) as both integrated into and corporeally separate from natural landscapes in California and Texas—has graced my living—room wall wherever I have lived, an uncanny photograph of a very large, boulder-shaped fleshy mass of body lying over a slab of rock, face not visible to view. We reconnected when I returned to Los Angeles in 2014, and in preparation for her retrospective at Vincent Price Art Museum, we had some chats. Her vitality (in spite of increasing health challenges), sense of humor, and ability to slice through the bureaucracy and posturing of the art world and its institutions were as fresh as ever. She could be acerbic but rarely at all off base in her sharp evaluations of what was going on around her.

She will be acutely missed as a friend. But the art world's loss is more epic: a creative vision that has no parallel in its ability to cut through talk with a kind of seeing that produces new relations in the world. A seeing that takes place in and through the body—and which Laura generously offered to us in the form of these extraordinary pictures that will live on in her absence.

Amelia G. Jones is Robert A. Day Professor and vice dean of critical studies in the Roski School of Art and Design at University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Josip Vaništa, “Thoughts for the Month,” 1964–2010, collage with vintage documents, 20 x 27 1/2". Photo: P420, Bologna.


IN 1959, a group of artists, critics, curators, and historians founded the group Gorgona, a clandestine association of like-minded creators who began sending transmissions into the world—most famously in the form of an antimagazine of the same name—until 1966, when the group formally disbanded. The driving force and intellectual motor of Gorgona was the artist Josip Vaništa, who had studied and taught architectural drawing since the early 1950s, though he never practiced the discipline himself.

If Gorgona was, in essence, an attitude, a rumor, and an invocation, Vaništa was the keeper of the secret. He was the publisher of the magazine—printed in small runs and distributed mainly by hand and sometimes by mail—and the producer of the most directly Gorgonic objects. These include a Collective ID card, 1961, which would prove each member’s affiliation with the group, and a tube of black paint titled Gorgona Black, 1962, which would serve as the group’s official color, the same way Yves Klein is forever associated with a certain shade of ultramarine.

Starting in 1964, Vaništa began to send his “Thoughts for the Month” (1964–2010), philosophical missives typed on carbon-copied sheets of paper that imparted musings such as:

Fatigued by the painting.
Art strives towards its abolishment.

After Gorgona broke up, the members went their own ways. Some emigrated; others continued with their work; one became religious and disavowed his prior artistic practice. Vaništa kept the archive of the group, guarded the secret. The first exhibition of Gorgona took place in 1977, over a decade after the group dissolved, and the rumor became history. By that time, he had already begun painting again: floral still lifes in the tradition of Fantin-Latour that would disabuse many later artists and art historians of Vaništa’s esteem, as they felt he had betrayed the purity of Gorgona. The truth, it seems, is that painting provided a different sentiment for Vaništa; if Gorgona was the expression of a belief in the ability to abolish meaning and matter and instead to imagine a conviviality of the mind, painting served as a reminder of the unfulfilled desire to return to a different kind of Romanticism: “To paint is to reconcile oneself with misfortune,” reads another one of Vaništa’s “Thoughts for the Month.”

In 2011, I visited Josip Vaništa at his home and studio in Zagreb to learn more about Gorgona and his role in it. I found a gentle and kind man, fluent in French and German, who retold the story of the group as he undoubtedly had many times before. His archive had been sold a few years before, and only a few scattered works remained with him of the Gorgona time. He expressed regret at not having been able to have Marcel Duchamp produce an issue of Gorgona magazine, his request coinciding with Duchamp’s death in 1968. His painting studio, next door to the living room, remained strictly off limits.

After my visit, he sent me some “Thoughts for the Month,” transcriptions of older ones, made new for the current times, which I meant to find a way to publish but never did. Vaništa’s passing, in turn, leaves me with an unfulfilled promise to distribute some of his Thoughts. As Gorgona has become an essential part of recent art history, it is Vaništa who has become a rumor.

Christian Rattemeyer is the Harvey S. Shipley Miller Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Helen Mayer Harrison. Image from the The Time of The Force Majeure, After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon, Prestel (2015).


HELEN MAYER AND NEWTON HARRISON, often referred to simply as “the Harrisons,” became known for their ecological systems art, which first emerged in the early ’70s. Helen is no more on this earth she loved, but we can imagine her serenity at contributing to its energies on another level. In her own words in a recent catalogue, she relates how her art career began: “I, Helen, began to invest myself in the earth that Newton had made.” But we are not obliged to take such a modest statement literally; we can leverage it by listening to the sharp wit and lively voice in scores of online interviews addressing the Harrison Studio’s complex research-based practice, or we can recall how, as early as 1962, she was the first New York coordinator for the Women’s Strike for Peace—which was simultaneous with her life-changing reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

How to disentangle authorship in any collaboration? Architectural studios are miserable when it comes to attributional politics; artistic studios usually deny collaboration altogether. As feminists know well, the challenge is even more vexed for the female half of a partnership, particularly when that collaboration is nested in a marriage. In the case of Helen Mayer Harrison, once she left her first career as a teacher and administrator to become an artist, there was no going back. Her participation as a full collaborator, which became “official” around 1972, began with parallel play. An early work for the Los Angeles Women’s Building, Making Jam (installed at the Grandview Gallery of the Women’s Building in 1974), is now historicized by the Harrison Studio as Making Earth, Then Making Strawberry Jam (1969–70), connecting her “Jam” performance to Newton’s earlier solo project of producing humus-rich soil from disparate ingredients. This yoking together of the two durational performance-actions revealed how the collaboration consistently reconsidered, rethought, and reinterpreted its joint work. Helen’s “investment” in Newton’s earth-making activity brought strawberries, then jam, into being—and this would introduce a crucial cyclical and negentropic component to the collaboration that would come to distinguish this work from the entropic inclinations of Smithson et al., and become characteristic of the Harrisons’ expansive urban-agricultural and multispecies imaginary.

Thanks to the official website for the Harrison Studio, and the alpha order of their publications, the dominant phrasing (at least per Google’s algorithm) is “Helen and Newton,” not the other way around. The sense from the literature and lecture circuit was that Newton was the “alchemist” and builder; Helen the scholar and theorist who also brought photography and text to the practice; this is rhetorically embraced in an early scripting of their collaboration that casts Newton as “Lagoonmaker,” her as “Witness.” (But this was not to render her passive—in The Fifth Lagoon, 1975, the Witness holds the Lagoonmaker in check when he wants to take over the Salton Sea). Together, their activist interventions (including the notable “Lagoon Cycle,” fifty installments beginning in 1972; Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1, back-credited to include Helen, from 1970–71; Portable Orchard, 1972–73; and the most recent Force Majeure, 1993–2011) have become legendary, their importance only increasing with our reluctant acknowledgment of the Anthropocene.

Sea Grant, The Second Lagoon from the “Book of the Lagoons,” subtitle Can You Put a Lagoon in a Tank, 1982, photography, drawing, oil color, ink on archivally processed photopaper. Photo: Harrison Studio.


Newton Harrison, the surviving partner and the oft-interviewed “voice” of the practice, has always been remarkably open about the gifts Helen brought to their fifty years of art-making together. He also recalls the struggles it took to win that desired equality. (Negotiating a fifty-fifty split in his full-time-equivalent faculty position with Helen at the University of California, San Diego, proved the devil to negotiate with the Cal system. But doing so allowed her to teach, and confirmed her full access to the system’s crucial research libraries.) Newton celebrated Helen as “the brains” who brought the science of climate change into their thinking as early as 1974; she was “a genius at research” who could find the most amazing things in public records; her readings of scientific papers informed their position as “transdisciplinary” artists; and finally, her productive arguments with him defined the dialectical nature of their collaboration. Helen said simply, “he has the first word, and I mostly have the last word.”1 Historians can observe the incremental effect of Helen on the partnership. Ebbing away are earlier characterizations of Newton as a “techno-artist” (as Max Kozloff described him in a 1971 Artforum review of the “Art & Technology” show) or as a solo earth-systems artist in colloquy with Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson, and Robert Morris. Gradually, the partnership with Helen led the Harrison Studio into a class by itself. By the 1980s, the collaboration had forged a unique model of commissioned engagement with municipalities, nations, NGOs, and local ecosystems that went way beyond “site-specific” think pieces, aiming at providing sustainable interventions in urban form and/or on a geographic scale. If Newton was the sculptor who aspired to “terraforming” (a sci-fi term once reserved for shaping other planets, it is now imagined for rescuing our own), Helen was the biotheorist and planner who envisioned the essential step between science and policy as the “creation of empathy for a place,” as William Fox put it.2

In the magisterial recent publication from the Harrison Studio, The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years, Counterforce is on the Horizon (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016), there is a rousing call for a new species of hominid: the “inspired generalist” seeding a “new species genetically tuned to maintaining the well-being of the polycultures from which we have evolved.” Helen did her best to be that new hominid, sensing and being the biome and the ecotone. Believing in poetic condensation, she put everything she had into their art. Mobilizing what John Berger referred to as the “undefeated despair”3 of our relations to extraction, geopolitics, ecoterrorism, and turbocapitalism, Helen Mayer Harrison gave us hope and a recipe for how to evolve as anthropogenic agents of our own precarious future.

Caroline A. Jones is director of the history, theory, and criticism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NOTES

1. Helen Mayer Harrison, with Newton Harrison, in Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, “Interview with the Harrisons,” Total Art Journal 1:1 (Summer 2011): 7.

2. The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon​, (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016).

3. John Berger, “Undefeated Despair,” Critical Inquiry, 32:4 (Summer 2006): 602–609.