Nick Mauss

Nick Mauss talks about Transmissions at the Whitney Museum of American Art

View of “Nick Mauss: Transmissions,” 2018. Left to right, front: George Platt Lynes, Tex Smutney, 1941; George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Jared French (artists), 1937; George Platt Lynes, Laurie Douglas Harvach (model), 1944; George Platt Lynes, Nicholas Magallanes (dancer), c. 1938; George Platt Lynes, Diana Adams (dancer), 1951. Left to right, back (dancers): Kristina Bermudez; Brandon Collwes; Matilda Sakamoto; Quenton Stuckey. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

For “Transmissions,” his first museum solo exhibition, New York–based artist Nick Mauss juxtaposes his own works with those from public and private collections to reinterpret New York modernism during the first half of the twentieth century. On view through May 14 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the show encompasses dance and visual art. Here, Mauss considers the connections to be found across artistic histories.

I CONCEIVED OF TRANSMISSIONS as a new work for the museum that is continually in process. I wanted a title that immediately signaled away from received ideas about ballet, to open the field to other art forms and social histories. Initially, it was the representation of the body as strangely glamourous and overtly sexual that drew me to the work of Carl Van Vechten, George Platt Lynes, and their contemporaries, and I wondered what it would mean to confront those images now.

The performance was made in collaboration with sixteen dancers based in New York, and its structure is quite porous. It leaves people wondering, sometimes perhaps frustrated, about what it is that they’re seeing or at which point of the performance they’ve come into the space, or how to relate the danced gestures to the artworks and traces of entwined lives that also comprise the exhibition. This interrelationship is purposefully oblique because I don’t believe that these histories can be reenacted, or recuperated. I think of the dancers as performing a discontinuity.

As an art student I remember seeing Natalia Goncharova and Marie Laurencin’s designs for the Ballets Russes and understanding that the unassailable version of modernism I had learned could be destabilized when seen from a different point of view in relation to performance, collaboration, and intersecting media. The sidelining of these aesthetics, the fact that we are left with something so incomplete, is the result of an ideological program, buttressed by a homophobia that supports the stream-lining of historical and aesthetic narratives.

In the studio, and at the dance division of the New York Public Library, the dancers and I reflected on the motivations behind the poses in these works, the play with gender, stylization, and expression—how the images were constructed. We spoke about camp and affect, but those terms seemed inadequate catch-phrases for what is going on in front of the camera. I think a more sophisticated analysis is required. The sensibility of the images produced by the interplay between ballet and avant-garde art carries this mix of pathos, wit, and irreverence. It’s hard to define, and totally ahead of its time. So it’s exciting when visitors to the exhibition make connections to downtown dance of the 1960s, or find that the lines between modern dance and modernist ballet are blurred. It was my hope that people would be able to see this work and to make diachronic associations.

One reason this work feels so present is that the proximity of different worlds in the New York of the 1930s and ’40s allowed for collaborative, hybrid approaches. In the early twentieth century, there was no context for ballet in America. It was taken up as an open concept, and often performed as a rupture with tradition. There was a lot of crossover among the ballet world, Broadway, and vaudeville, and of course with the visual arts at a moment when artists were urgently trying to define modern, authentically American idioms. But much of the art of this period was defined by artists who were not American, or relegated to second-class citizenship.

In some ways ballet is the subtext to this exhibition, where these various images reveal the lives of people straining against codified, socially inflicted notions of race and sexuality. Today the term queer is used so arbitrarily that it’s been nearly depleted. I think queerness as a concept only has potency if it’s constantly reinvented and eviscerated. I am interested in the questions around identity and identity construction thrown up by the artworks of this period that predates so many concepts that anchor us. How these artists, and the gestures they made, resonate, even though the transmission of these styles, and ways of being and being together were wiped out by the AIDS crisis.

Nick Mauss, Replace, 2017, nine panels with reverse glass painting, mirrored, 87 1/8 x 63 1/8".

Artworks open up differently when they are not framed by the omniscient institutional voice. I am not interested in fixing or reinscribing narratives, and I can use the museum as a space in which something new is made. Transmissions is a portrait of New York and a kind of evocation. When I choose to show certain works by Platt Lynes, they summon Hujar, Mapplethorpe, and Warhol, just as Ilse Bing’s photographs of birds in the sky bring to mind Felix Gonzalez-Torres by surprise. The transparent “Filling Station” costume floats in front of the view to the former Piers and the Berman folding screen alludes to a very private performance, or transformation. The maligned aesthetics that run through Transmissions—American surrealism, Neo-Romanticism, the heavy exoticism of many of the photographs—are intended to cut across our piety toward minimalism and to enlarge, or scramble, frames of reference.

There’s an exceptional statement by Van Vechten that followed me through the making of the show: “A great many people who are dead are more alive than a great many people who are alive.” I sense that with many of the portraits of dancers and choreographers, though even the artworks have this vivid quality of provocation. Because of their relationship to a specific body, or to events in time, dance artifacts feel vulnerable and poignant, which is different from the sense of the aura of an artwork. As I worked in various archives, I found the experience very emotional—sifting through thousands of photographs or slides and wanting to know, with each new image: Who is that person?