PRINT Summer 2007

Mike Kelley

THOUGH GUY DE COINTET was still alive when I moved to Los Angeles in 1976, I never met him, nor did I see any of his theatrical productions until after his death. These works were not performed often, so it’s not so surprising that I missed them even though I was living in the same city. Yet I was a fan of his work based on the little I did come across, like the script for his play Tell Me, 1979, which appeared in an arts journal accompanied by photographs of its recent production. Much of my own performance work at the time was made in response to such written accounts of live events, rather than to personal experience. The same could be said of my appreciation for the early work of Robert Wilson and the plays of Richard Foreman, both of which were unavailable to me (and which, I would argue, share some characteristics with the work of Cointet).

I did see some of Cointet’s drawings in person, however. These consisted of combinations of letter and number forms, sometimes with an accompanying phrase that cast the arrangement in a theatrical light. Here’s an example from his 1975 book A Few Drawings: “I stand dumbfounded and stare at her in amazement.” It was this theatrical, and somewhat romantic, quality that gave his work its uniqueness and differentiated it from the history of concrete poetry and the Constructivist play—with its abstract use of letter forms—that I was familiar with.

His stage sets had a similar quality. Abstract shapes and forms, furniture, and charts were arranged into tableaux that intimated domestic interiors. These were extremely beautiful and could easily have functioned as stand-alone sculptures. But they were not sculptures; they were arrangements of objects designed to be performed within.

After Cointet’s death, his friends mounted a number of his plays at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, with many of the original cast members. I saw the entire series and was incredibly impressed. They were unlike anything I had seen before. The dialogue was generally abstract, yet the staging was quite dramatic—sometimes melodramatic. This combination of abstract form and language, paired with the performative tropes of melodrama, was very powerful and original. Actor and object had equal weight: The symbolic ambiguity of the set pieces inflected the performances, and the emotional intensity of the performers charged the set pieces. This was, truly, a kind of sculptor’s theater.

What was particularly unusual, especially for the era, was the focus on beauty and elegance. With the exception of Espahor ledet ko uluner!, 1973—an abstract “lecture” performed by famed little-person actor Billy Barty, which was overtly comedic—Cointet’s plays for the most part featured beautiful women of extreme poise. Though this evocation of the aesthetics of the fashion world is standard fare in today’s art world, it was extremely uncommon in the late ’70s. And it was particularly strange in the context of the day’s performance-art scene, which in Los Angeles was dominated by politically oriented feminist works and body art. Unlike New York, Los Angeles—probably because of the omnipresence of the film industry—had almost no history of avant-garde theater. In fact, its performance art (or action art, or body art, or whatever else you want to call it) has often been defined in direct opposition to theatrical traditions. Allan Kaprow’s call for the merger of art and life was a very strong local politic. Cointet was definitely the odd man out in this artistic milieu.

I have heard Cointet defined as a Surrealist. I suppose this stems from the surface absurdity of his work, and from the incommensurable play between clarity of form and ambiguity of meaning that is at the core of it. But I don’t think this label is accurate. “Psychology” doesn’t have much of a place in his work, except for the outward manifestations of it. I would be more inclined to describe Cointet as a structuralist. His works are incredibly refined formally, and he had a great understanding of the visual tropes of acting style. The “theatricality” of his work caused many viewers to get lost in issues of narrativity, which I believe were a smoke screen. Cointet was an abstract artist who could equally appreciate the formal beauty of pure geometric form and the histrionic gestures of melodrama.

Mike Kelley is an artist who lives in Los Angeles.