Robert Morris

JUDSON AT 50: Robert Morris

Simone Forti, Platforms, 1961. Performance view, Loeb Student Center, New York University, 1961. Foreground: Robert Rauschenberg. (Photo: Peter Moore)

In this coda to’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Judson Dance Theater, Robert Morris reflects on the group’s influence on twentieth-century art history as we know it (or perhaps as we don’t). Morris was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1931 and moved to New York in 1961. You can read his initial entry for the series here.


Looking back half a century to the days of Judson Dance, it is difficult not to historicize a little. After all, the work that emerged from that time and place did not come out of nothing. In the larger sense it continued the project launched half a century before, when Marcel Duchamp christened that hulking hull of modernism with the fizzy champagne bottle of the readymade. John Cage’s subsequent explorations of chance and indeterminacy were well known by the early 1960s. The awe of 4'33" was part of the conversation. But perhaps the more significant precedent for the new dance seen at Judson was the work of Simone Forti. As part of a series of performances and events organized by La Monte Young at a loft on Chambers Street in 1961, Forti presented an evening of radical dance works that attacked the notion of dance as a format that required the trained body of the dancer. “Ordinary movement,” she called it. She presented large objects for the bodies of the performers to negotiate and taxing “rule games” for them to follow. The efforts required negated any possible presentation of the pulled-up, narcissistic dance persona. Athletic workers were required to crawl over her inclined boards while hanging on to ropes, or to climb over one another in an ever-renewing “huddle” of bodies scrambling up bodies. Forti did not participate in the later events at the Judson, but her work was quickly known and the changed premises she claimed for dance were influential.

A number of dancers who presented works at Judson had previously or were currently studying with Merce Cunningham. Here was a choreographer who utilized Cagean methods of chance to assemble his dances. Yet the classically trained ballet dancer was Cunningham’s instrument. Forti’s work challenged and rejected this classical requirement for dance. Though neither Cunningham nor Forti presented works at the Judson, their shadows hung over the works seen there. Some were influenced by Cunningham’s traditional methods; others exhibited the influence of Forti’s more radical premises; some combined the two.

A thread runs from Duchamp to Cage to Forti and is part of the larger story of modernism. All share a common strategy I can only name as “agency reduction.” It has to do with finding methods and procedures that either eliminate previously assumed premises or automate the process of artmaking by reflexive systems found within the medium itself. An early example is Cubism’s rejection of salience, which opened up a new type of space for two dimensions. The readymade’s substitution of choice for labor is so familiar as to go unnoticed today. And for the performative: The tactics of indeterminacy, chance, rule games, the interposition of barriers (objects), which redefine movement, all follow in the overarching strategy of agency reduction endemic to modernism. The poet Elizabeth Bishop called the twentieth century the “worst so far.” Dada celebrated the insane irrationality of the first Great War. Sixty million perished in the Second World War. Finally, in the widest sense, I think the strategy of agency reduction extends beyond aesthetic issues. Underlying it are ethical doubts about legitimacy itself, which poses the question: In the face of the nightmare that was the twentieth century, how is the agent to act, and what can justify and authorize his or her actions? It should come as no surprise that this skepticism of authority should reverberate in aesthetic practices.

I do not recall having seen at Judson any performers who were obese, lame, or old, and there were few nonwhite performers. Was there a slight sheen of forgivable narcissism glowing on those young, white, energetic types? Did the self-critical have much weight among the enthusiastic participants? Has a certain mythical ethos come to color those innocent evenings? Well, it was before careers were made, dance companies formed, professions assumed, individual styles patented, iconic images fixed, histories sorted out and laid claim to. But all things considered, a good time seems to have been had by all.