PRINT September 2018

Deborah Jowitt

Al Giese’s contact sheet of Jill Johnson and Robert Morris, New York, March 3, 1965.

JILL JOHNSTON was one of my most influential teachers, but I never told her that. In 1959, she began to write a radical, erudite, slangy column called Dance Journal for the Village Voice, four years after it was founded by Ed Fancher, Dan Wolf, and Norman Mailer. She embarked on a career as a critic at a time when, in her words, “the entire art world was entering a convulsion of dissolving boundaries.” Happenings and other interdisciplinary events erupted onto the scene. The zeitgeist of the 1960s was one of rebellion. The question that permeated the air was, “Why not?” When exuberant and fearless choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, and Trisha Brown came together in 1962 to present their work at Judson Memorial Church, they redefined what dance could be. Robert Rauschenberg became a choreographer. So did fellow visual artists Alex Hay and Robert Morris. Their work radicalized Johnston, who had hitherto been writing perceptively about Martha Graham, José Limón, and other titans of modern dance, and she soon became the de facto chronicler of Judson Dance Theater.

In 1965, she defined her role in a piece for the Voice titled “Critics’ Critics”: “Criticism wears me out—it’s like riding a bike up and down the country hills in a race against a phantom judge. I’ll take a plot of level territory and stake out a claim to lie down on it and criticize the constellations if that’s what I happen to be looking at.” In 1967, by which time Johnston’s column was less about dance and more about visual art and her life in the city, a series of coincidences landed me at the paper’s cramped offices, where they invited me to write dance reviews at thirty-five dollars per submission. As a novice critic, I admired her power to create literary structures analogous to the movement structures she was dealing with. Today, rereading the reviews collected in her 1971 book, Marmalade Me, I marvel still at her ability to evoke a work. Of Morris’s Waterman Switch (1965) she wrote:

The romantic beauty of Waterman Switch is absurdly simple. Have two nudes locked in an embrace walk very slowly the twenty-foot length of wooden tracks running from center stage into the wings and have the walk accompanied by an aria from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra sung by the soprano Victoria de los Angeles, and you have a sound-image combo that knocks you out.

Her insights into a work’s history and significance subtly conveyed how it should be perceived. Considering Rainer’s Trio A (1966), she pointed out that “the shift is most emphatically toward neutrality: toward the matter-of-fact ‘doing’ of a thing, rather than the ‘performing’ of a thing, toward a ‘work-like’ rather than an ‘exhibition-like’ presentation.”

Johnston often began a review casually, as she did in “Paxton’s People,” 1968: “One day I was rounding a corner with Paxton and Robert Rauschenberg. Paxton spied a truck rumbling off a bridge.” Yet she ended that piece with a description of Paxton’s Satisfying Lover that continues to astonish me:

And here they all were . . . thirty-two any old wonderful people in Satisfying Lover walking one after the other across the gymnasium in their any old clothes. The fat, the skinny, the medium, the slouched and slumped, the straight and tall, the bowlegged and knock-kneed, the awkward, the elegant, the coarse, the delicate, the pregnant, the virginal, the you name it, by implication every postural possibility in the postural spectrum, that’s you and me in all our ordinary everyday who cares postural splendor. Like the famous ordinary people who are certain they will see and be seen whether they fall down or keep walking in a forest with or without other famous ordinary people there is a way of looking at things that renders them performance. Let us now praise famous ordinary people.

Over the years, Johnston’s writing got wilder, more adventurous—and more personal. At one point, she experimented with doing away with punctuation, only allowing for a period now and then. After leaving the Voice in 1981, she tamed herself a bit, writing more than twenty brilliant essays for Art in America and many books. Art, biography, autobiography, travel, politics: She dived into them all. I like to think of her literary life as one rich and daring dance.

Deborah Jowitt wrote for the Village Voice from 1967 to 2011 and taught at NYU/Tisch until 2016. She lectures and conducts workshops worldwide and currently writes for