Leigh Markopoulos, 2014. Photo: Nathaniel Lui.


AFTER LEIGH MARKOPOULOS DIED it became common among her friends and acquaintances to remark on what a private person she was, and how she would have disliked the fuss and attention being paid her memory. Reflections like this one would have made her uncomfortable—so the wisdom went—and would have exposed her in a way that she would have deplored. I have my doubts about the accuracy of this. Leigh was territorial, perhaps even secretive, but not exactly private. She was the consummate diplomat’s daughter (her father, Dimitri, had worked for Greece’s foreign service): flexible, multilingual, and especially capable of making her interlocutors feel that she was revealing to them secret thoughts reserved for them alone.

Indeed, Leigh was constantly revealing herself, especially through the work that she admired most. Like any curator, she made meaning through the arrangement of artworks. She could be shockingly candid in this regard. There was, above all, the rigor of Bridget Riley: careful, repetitive, and controlled. But the ambit of Leigh’s interests just as soon included other forces that unraveled a sense of surface calm: the gabbling publicity of Fluxus, the ritual violence of Viennese Actionism, the gender games of Ulay and David Bowie. She was a private person with a surprising appetite for exhibitionism, a formalist with a sense of the absurd. Leigh was also fascinated by works like Giovanni Anselmo’s 1971 Entract nell’opera (Entering the Work), a version of which hung in her one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. It depicts a single figure, back turned to the viewer. But what meaning can we ascribe to his turning away?

Giovanni Anselmo, Entrare nell’opera (Entering the work), 1971. Courtesy Archivio Anselmo and Tucci Russo Studio per l’Arte Contemporanea, Italy.


I am only too aware of the limits of such reading and thinking. Nevertheless, in my grief, I cast around fragments of memories, trying to assemble a narrative to make sense of Leigh’s sudden absence. Here she is, soon after she arrived in San Francisco to work at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, sitting in the back seat of someone’s car, with me on one side and Fred Wilson on the other—a bemused smile on her face as Wilson chattered on about his partner, recent projects, and god knows what else. Here we are drinking at the Connecticut Yankee with Hans Haacke and his son Paul as the 2004 election results roll in—a fug settling over us as we understand that it will be another four years of W. and war. And here is her first email to me in 2005, when I was commissioned to write a gallery text for Tariq Alvi’s Wattis exhibition, and she was my editor. She is explaining with great candor why my first draft is a disaster, and advising how I might change course. Then, in the next email, Leigh calls my revisions “virtuoso,” a kindness that makes me glow with pride for a month.

Why do I circle back to these half memories? What is it that I think they will reveal? Leigh and I barely knew each other then, and in some ways that moment feels like ancient history, recollections of an exciting time just before it began to dissipate, as exciting times in San Francisco usually do. Our real story began later, in 2007, when Kate Fowle decided to leave her position as chair of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts, and Leigh took her place. Leigh and I did not choose to work together; it was more like we inherited each other. But what evolved out of that chance inheritance was a rare sort of partnership. Our collaboration came to involve generations of students from all over the globe, and several coedited publications and co-advised exhibitions on artists like Martin Wong, Etel Adnan, the Angels of Light, and Survival Research Laboratories. We both organized our lives around the project and community of the program, and therefore organized our lives together.

It is hard to account for one’s relationship with colleagues. Leigh and I were not exactly boss and employee. Neither were we mom and dad, as certain students described us. We weren’t good cop and bad cop, or Batman and Robin, as I jokingly called us (she Batman and I Robin). Maybe we were siblings, with the complex currents of trust, support, testing, and mostly playful antagonism that entails? Leigh and I were not each other’s confidantes, we did not share our deepest secrets, we didn’t talk about romantic relationships. We did come to know each other’s intellectual reflexes extremely well—in a way that felt special, rare, and intimate.

Leigh died in late February after she was struck by a truck while crossing Wilshire Avenue in Los Angeles. This happened outside the ninety-nine-cent store made famous by Andreas Gursky’s 1999 diptych 99 Cent—a weird and bleak context for someone with Leigh’s innate aristocratic mien. But maybe there is no context that would not seem surreal. Losing her was a terrible shock followed by the endless bureaucratic grind of hospitals and coroners and memorials, devoted to sorting out the ruins of a life lived with no expectation it would end when it did.

Another memory, a recent one, surges in among the others: Sue Ellen Stone, Leigh’s friend and the former program manager in curatorial practice, calls me at 1 AM the night after Leigh’s accident. Sue Ellen was part of the perfect machine that was Leigh’s early years chairing the program; Leigh was visiting Los Angeles in part to celebrate Sue Ellen’s birthday. Sue Ellen is the first to arrive at Cedars-Sinai and the first to understand the scope of Leigh’s injuries. “This is where her story ends?” Sue Ellen repeats, incredulous. The truth, though, is that there is no story and no end. Her life ended raggedly and imperfectly. That is what is so unbearable about it. As a lover of Bridget Riley and good detective novels, Leigh would have found this lack of a neat resolution bothersome indeed.

Julian Myers-Szupinska is an associate professor of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts and is senior editor of the Exhibitionist.

Leigh Markopoulos, 2017. Photo: California College of the Arts.


  • Ulay, S’he, 1973. Courtesy the artist and MB Art Agency, Amsterdam.
     
    Leigh loved Ulay as a friend and an artist.

  • Leigh Markopoulos, Furkablick Hotel, Furkapass, Shutters by Daniel Buren, c.1987, 2015. Courtesy Jessica Silverman.
     
    Leigh adored this quirky museum. She took her curatorial practice MA students on pilgrimages to meet its curator Janis Osolin.

  • Bridget Riley, Untitled (towards ‘Fleeting Moment’), 1986. Courtesy Karsten Schubert, London, UK.
     
    If Leigh could have owned a room full of Bridget Riley pieces, she would have.

  • Franz Erhard Walther Work Drawing:10 x Place Distance Place, 1975. Courtesy the artist and Artists Rights Society, NY/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany. Photo credit, Richard S. Zeisler Bequest (by exchange).
     
    Leigh was going to curate a group show including Walther’s work in my back room.

  • Ana Roldán, Pyramid (yellow), 2011. Courtesy the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco, CA.
     
    Leigh saw this Roldan piece as a neon Fred Sandback. When she stood under it, she joked that it was her kind of halo.

  • René Daniëls, Zachte strepen (Soft stripes), 1986 Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, NY.
     
    Daniëls balanced complexity with affected naiveté. We talked about how his paintings referenced drawing and had a fun sense of perspective.

  • Suzanne Blank Redstone, Portal 1, 1967. Courtesy the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco, CA.
     
    Last year, Leigh wrote a terrific essay about Blank Redstone’s work. This 1967 composition was a particular favorite.

  • Ron Veasey, Untitled, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Creative Growth, Oakland, CA.
     
    In 2010, Leigh curated “Love is a Stranger” at Creative Growth in Oakland, CA. She was a Creative Growth board member.

  • Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen Notebook Page: Strawberry, on Stock Pages, 1987. Copyright Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, NY.
     
    Leigh had an acerbic wit and a strong sense of the absurd. She loved to cook.

  • Elisheva Biernoff, Selections from the Reading Room, 2013. Photo: Artists & Editions, RITE Editions, San Francisco, CA.
     
    Steven Leiber, Leigh’s late husband, had this sign in his bathroom. Artist Elisheva Biernoff created a drawing of the sign as part of a memorial edition curated by Robin Wright. Leigh hung this Biernoff work in her own bathroom.

  • Richard Artschwager, Question Mark, 2001. Courtesy Jessica Silverman.
     
    Inquisitive and ever thoughtful, Leigh acquired this edition when she worked at the Serpentine.

  • Giovanni Anselmo, Entrare nell’opera (Entering the work), 1971. Courtesy Archivio Anselmo and Tucci Russo Studio per l’Arte Contemporanea, Italy.
     
    This Giovanni Anselmo photograph hung next to Leigh’s dining table.

Curator, art writer, and professor Leigh Markopoulos had expansive but erudite interests in art. She loved rigorously conceptual work but also whimsical ephemera. She was drawn to both the poignant and the funny. Some of the works in the slideshow above come from her personal collection; others are things she much admired.

Jessica Silverman is the owner and director of Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco.

Trisha Brown, date unknown. Photo: Lois Greenfield.


AT AGE SIXTEEN, I glimpsed Trisha Brown in rehearsal at Bennington College. She was making Opal Loop, 1980, and being filmed by WGBH-TV Boston. What I saw indelibly touched me. I became an ardent, unrelenting fan of her choreography. I never imagined we would meet. That privilege came in 1999 when, as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I invited Trisha to create her first new work for a museum since the 1970s (a decade when the art world provided her abstract dances their most important venues). After our project, It’s a Draw/Live Feed, 2003, premiered at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, she asked me to write about her drawings, an invitation that turned out to be a kind of audition for me to author a book on her work.

One of Trisha’s dancers had a different explanation for my being the beneficiary of this honor. During a studio visit, Trisha climbed a ladder to pin up the corner of a large drawing, which I was there to study. She lost her footing. I instinctually reached out to catch her. Given her preoccupations with gravity, with falling, and with trust—beginning with “Equipment Dances,” such as Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970—our body-to-body connection impressed her. I had passed a test of which I had been unaware.

The Trisha Brown I initially encountered had been a celebrity since her collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg and Laurie Anderson on Set and Reset, 1983, attracted international acclaim. Paralleling her ceaseless production of new choreographies for the stage (often produced in collaboration with visual artists and contemporary composers), she toured with her company twenty weeks per year to far-flung destinations, such as Beijing (1985) and Moscow (1989), but especially to France (beginning 1973), where she is a beloved cultural icon.

Trisha moved through the world as if enveloped by a rarified aura. It was impossible to envision a woman of such delicate glamour living as a young mother in the mid-1960s in a raw SoHo loft without plumbing. Her elegant composure belied a person of fierce ambition. She made heroic sacrifices for her art, commensurate with the uncompromising conceptual and aesthetic rigor of works such as Accumulation, 1971: The dance’s accompaniment by a countercultural anthem—the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band”—aligned its formal austerity with a contestation of establishment values.

Humble to the point self-effacement, Trisha insisted that she was not a rebel but an experimentalist constantly searching for the next new perfect choreography. In interviews, she inevitably stood up to perform the dance she was describing—just as she often recalled her upbringing in rural Aberdeen, Washington, climbing trees, racing down gullies, and clamming before sunrise. The loft at 541 Broadway, where she lived since 1974, hosted a trophy from those years: a stuffed pheasant shot while hunting with her father. Physical memories from her youth were the basis for her dance Homemade, 1966.

Trisha’s body was its own world: insatiably flexible, animal, and incapable of domestication by existing techniques. She only excavated her inimitable movement language sixteen years into her career as a choreographer, in Watermotor, 1978: she was forty-one years old. Until 2008, she danced with abandon, sensuality, wit, and unpredictability, as if every follicle of her body were on fire. Company members who shared her stage compared the experience to being in the presence of a wild gazelle.

Extensive research, both empirical and scholarly, informed her choreography. Her 1970s dances visualized intention and process. In a favorite artistic strategy of the 1980s, she sent two dancers running directly at each other. Observing their negotiation of this planned crash of bodies, Trisha yelped with joy when they delivered the unexpected mix of danger and beauty she was seeking. Then she had them repeat this extemporaneous event, fixing it as choreography. Asked how company members improvised in Trisha’s “style,” the dancer who put it best explained, “Trisha had to be in our bodies, and we had to be in her mind.”

Trisha loved language and had a distinctive way of speaking and writing—poetic and indirect, similar to her movement, which sent impulses throughout multiple pathways of the body simultaneously. Her erudition had deep roots: Two great aunts earned Ph.D.s from Yale University in the 1920s, becoming renowned historians of American–Native American relations. To conjure dances Trisha coined remarkable image-filled phrases. While making M.O., 1995, set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Musical Offering (1747), she invoked faceted jewels and orbiting satellites. To direct Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) in 1998, Trisha visited the site of its original performance in Mantua, Italy, and learned to read music.

Trisha Brown, Set and Reset, 1996. Photo: Chris Callis.


For most of her life, her work was 90 percent of what she did—though Trisha lived with humor and esprit. She will forever be known for her meticulously conceptual working process and her invention of singular movement languages; for her unique approach to orchestrating improvisation and artistic collaboration; for directing operas in which singers substituted abstract movement for naturalistic illustration of narrative and character; and as a visual artist who created a body of drawings that have been exhibited in, and collected by, numerous international museums.

I will always remember Trisha as an artist who used her body as an instrument of thought.

I am fortunate to have come close to a woman of such wide-ranging genius, exquisite taste, and personal courage. Her artistic contributions remain so pervasively influential as to have become imperceptible: part of the air that will be breathed for generations.

Susan Rosenberg, a writer and art historian, directs the M.A. program in museum administration at St. John’s University, New York. Resident scholar at the Trisha Brown Dance Company, she is the author of Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2016.

For more Passages, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.