Critics’ Picks

Theodora Skipitares, The Venus Café, 1977. Performance view, Byrd Hoffman Studio, June 1977. Photo: Richard A. Heinrich.

New York

“Rituals of Rented Island”

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Gansevoort Street
December 31–February 2

On one small screen in this concise and revelatory survey of performance art in Manhattan in the 1970s, Laurie Anderson is standing on a street corner, dressed in white. Although the scene speaks of summer, she is perched on an incongruous pair of ice skates. The blades of those skates are plunged into blocks of ice, which are melting away as she plays the violin. On another screen, Jill Kroesen is describing a phenomenon known as “abnormal love,” impossible and unrequited, while sitting on the floor among white pyramids, tugging on the front of an elegant black evening gown. On another screen still, Julia Heyward is playing a drum, speaking in tongues, and emulating the fire-and-brimstone style of a southern preacher.

“Rituals of Rented Island” relies heavily, perhaps inevitably, on videos, props, and sets. Named for Jack Smith’s wild adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, 1881, and described by curator Jay Sanders as “a crisscross of secret histories,” the exhibition features twenty artists and collectives whose works prove surprisingly conducive to curatorial salvage and museological display. Subtitled “Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama,” the show is an amalgamation of traces, a flash of insight, and a surge of the nervous and fitful energies that define a lost decade of experimental theater.

Sanders’s articulation of that era is most brilliant in the restaging of Theodora Skipitares’s Skysaver from 1980, a performance about the lives and works of the insane, which here consists of the original set, animated to follow an archival video in real time. The exhibition fires the imagination—the only critical faculty that could possibly call upon and recreate a rambunctious set of performances that few viewers will have experienced firsthand. With its emphasis on the alchemy of private drama and public ritual, the show conjures up a number of totally forgotten figures and at the same time acknowledges a slew of contradictions. Some of the most radical works on view were supported by government subsidies and feted by uptown institutions, including, not coincidentally, the Whitney, back in 1976. But some of the artists never wholly trusted the art world and defected; others were always more interested in music, dance, stand-up comedy, and the promise of fame held out by television. Clearly, the history of performance has a lot of knots to untangle. This one is nicely done.