PRINT February 2020


Eileen Myles, The Trip, 2019, Super 8, color, sound, 17 minutes 9 seconds.

LAST FALL, at the New School in New York, poet Eileen Myles presented an essay they’d written on the acquisition of their archives by Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Having sold 108 linear feet of personal notebooks, drafts, computer files, and trinkets—what the archivists dryly called “mixed materials”—and aware that all would soon be available to the grubby hands of the public, Myles noted, “It was a little like being buried alive.”1 They also described an unexpected self-censorship that arose after they had relegated so much of their past to acid-free boxes. As Myles explained in a postscript called “My Secret,” they began “writing as if someone is reading” and consequently wanting to withhold their most intimate ideas, words, and experiences from the page. To be archived, as per Myles, is to enter into a space of death, even as “the rest [is] still alive and creating more fodder to be placed in folders.” The acknowledgment of posterity altered their act of creation by shattering their sense of linearity and consigning the future to the past.

Titian, Christ Carrying the Cross, ca. 1565, oil on canvas, 26 3⁄8 × 30 1⁄4".

Myles’s text offers a glimpse into a category of production one might call “late style,” to use that nebulous and often posthumous designation given to the work of older artists. The temporality that the poet sets forth resonates with Edward Said’s evocative description of late style as a slippery middle ground of both “ending and surviving together.”2 Death looms over such works, for when the fact of mortality cannot be cast aside, “the quality of time alters,” and we either return to the past or fast-forward into an “unimaginable time beyond time.”3 The change in the quality of time is not just relational (that is, not just about where we are in time, be it past or future) but durational (about how time itself passes). Certain things—the endless slog of new tasks, new texts, new tweets, what philosopher Peter Osborne calls “the ever-always-the-same”—lose their urgency and time slows to a crawl, while others (hours spent holding a loved one’s hand, for example) pass all too quickly, and that temporal shift sets one out of sync with the pace of everything around oneself. The lateness of late style demands a specific sense of “being out of time,” in terms of both being separate from the regular temporal flow and having less time in reserve.

These queer feminist artists are creating a particular strand of late work that harnesses the temporal disjunction inherent in an awareness of mortality, intentionally mobilizing the very notion of late style as a way to refract questions of endings into questions of agency.

If late style as a concept has been maligned as privileging notions of transcendence and genius, and for fostering what Shakespearean scholar Gordon McMullan has memorably called the “redemptive fantasy of rejuvenation,” the current works of Myles, as well as that of choreographer Yvonne Rainer, offer models for how lateness can function productively. Faced with death—be it of the self or of a world—these queer feminist artists are creating a particular strand of late work that harnesses the temporal disjunction inherent in an awareness of mortality, intentionally mobilizing the very notion of late style as a way to refract questions of endings into questions of agency.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019. Performance view, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, New York, November 2019. From Performa 19. From left: Brittany Engel-Adams, Patrick Gallagher, Rachel Berman, Nick Mauss, Shayla-Vie Jenkins. Photo: Paula Court.

ARTISTS’ LATE PRODUCTIONS have long been of interest to critics and historians who have thought about how advanced age and a rising awareness of mortality affect creativity. In the Renaissance, Giorgio Vasari noted how Titian’s “method of working” was radically different in his final paintings, “executed with such large and bold brush strokes and in such broad outlines that they cannot be seen from close up but appear perfect from a distance”; the historian suggested that it was a lack of dexterity and poor eyesight that led to these new forms.4 In the eighteenth century, art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann and his protégés often used metaphors of growth, maturity, and decay to describe the final works of artists. As scholar Karen Leeder notes, the sense of “corruption or exhaustion” that the biological metaphor loaned to art-historical periods was often imputed to individual artists as well.5 In the 1830s, last works were redeemed by the German Romantics, such as poet Heinrich Heine, as reflections on the ending not only of an individual’s life but also of a genre, garnering attributions of serenity and prolepsis.6 By this reading, the thick impasto sunsets and near-abstract seascapes of J. M. W. Turner’s final canvases, for example, aren’t the failures of an aging man, as some of the artist’s contemporaries assessed, but rather herald a new era of painting that presaged modernism.

J. M. W. Turner, Rough Sea, ca. 1840–45, oil on canvas, 36 × 48".

Another notion of late style held that it was a method by which the artist could transcend the world; this idea thrived well into the twentieth century, when Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann, in his 1954 essay “Art and Time,” wrote, “What speaks to us from a self-portrait of the aged Rembrandt, from the end of Faust, Part II, from Shakespeare’s last plays or Titian’s late paintings, from The Art of Fugue or a late Beethoven quartet, is a strange transfiguration, a break-through into the realm of essence. And this transfiguration is independent of content, form, matter, or style.”7 Theodor Adorno, in the 1937 essay “Late Style in Beethoven,” made the distinction between “old-age style” (Altersstil) and “late style” (Spätstil), freeing the latter term from its connection to biological age and thereby from the artist’s life span more generally.8 The philosopher’s account of the late style of the composer was a requiem for the passing of the bourgeois era into modernity, at once a lament and a recognition that failure was the only response to the new world. For Adorno, Beethoven’s interest in polyphony and conventional formats and his rejection of subjectivity were a repudiation of his previous accomplishments as well as a negation of the complacency of harmony. He located the power of late style in its negativity: “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.”9

When a new generation of postwar theorists like Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida called biography, grand narratives, and notions of individual genius into question, the concept of late style lingered in the shadows, mainly as a straw man to be railed against. As a concept, it had been well-theorized for decades as the modern condition—as the defining experience of modernity—conjuring up, according to Leeder, a “wider spectrum of anxieties: obsolescence, redundancy, anachronism, the sense of always coming after a legitimizing model,”and thereby enabling the shock of the new (not to mention kicking off the “post” of postmodernism).10

Yvonne Rainer, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, 2000. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, June 6, 2000. From left: Emmanuèle Phuon, Michael Lomenka, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Roselynde LeBlanc, Emily Coates. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

With the posthumous publication in 2006 of Said’s On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, the construct reemerged in critical thinking, having shed some of its pejorative connotations. Staunchly indebted to Adorno, Said’s distinctive, even idiosyncratic conception of late style is not coterminous with biography, but it does connect more directly to an artist’s increasing awareness of mortality.11 Interweaving social context and an individual’s response to the end of life, Said considered an eclectic group of musicians and writers he defined as having a late style—Beethoven, as to be expected, but also pianist Glenn Gould, poet Constantine Cavafy, and writer Jean Genet—marked by intransigence, difficulty, and a refusal of both serenity and complacency.

To be archived, as per Myles, is to enter into a space of death, even as “the rest [is] still alive and creating more fodder to be placed in folders.”

The late style I am investigating does not aim to be universal or transhistorical. But it is characterized by a similar sense of being both out of time and out of place. Myles and Rainer, along with other artists
I won’t discuss here, like Chantal Akerman and Catherine Lord, consciously deploy tropes of modernity—fragmentation, abstraction, juxtaposition—as a way to reflect (at times with irony, at times earnestly) on their position far beyond it.12

Yvonne Rainer, Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?, 2013. Rehearsal view, Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, New York, January 2013. From left: Pat Catterson, Emmanuèle Phuon, Keith Sabado, Emily Coates, Yvonne Rainer, Patricia Hoffbauer. Photo: Ian Douglas.

STEEPED AS WE ARE in a culture that encourages the constant and consistent branding of the self, adopting a late style might seem to be both liberating and onerous, and Yvonne Rainer’s “return to dance” suggests it is exactly that. Having retired from performance in the early 1970s to make films, and subsequently having become fed up with the fundraising that required, Rainer unexpectedly received a call in 2000 from Mikhail Baryshnikov asking her to choreograph a piece for his White Oak Dance Project. In 2002, Rainer presented After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid, the title of which is taken from Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel about Hollywood decadence, which, as Rainer described it, “contains, along with a variety of movement configurations, spoken lines derived from famous and unknown people’s death-bed utterances.”13 Over the following decade, Rainer’s work directly addressed issues of the aging body in pieces like Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?, 2013, and The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. She created these by “raiding her icebox,” incorporating parts of her dances from the 1960s, albeit with newly charged emotional contexts.14

Yvonne Rainer, The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. Performance view, Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 2015. From left: Emmanuèle Phuon, Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, David Thomson. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

When The Concept of Dust was presented in the summer of 2015 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it was performed by five dancers and Rainer in front of Henri Rousseau’s painting Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, for three-quarters of an hour. Set to Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic, 1969, The Concept of Dust refers to Rainer’s own mortality, but also to dust as a residue of history—as the remains of the once living that dirty our surfaces. The dancers executed a series of movements, and Rainer’s notes outline the first eleven: “(1) Pat lies down (2) K laughs, facing front (3) E (David) aspires to the heavens . . . (6) M – Nadal on the ground (7) K bows with back to PC, who kicks back left leg while R arm shoots back . . . (11) David bends over. PH does ‘sloth’ on his back.” As the troupe executed these sequences, Rainer, her voice tired but clear, read a script mainly composed of texts taken from wall labels from the Islamic-art collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; at times, she shoved her microphone and script into one of her dancers’ faces and asked him or her to read instead.15 Rainer’s frequent digressions and deadpan asides (“It is better to have loved and lost than to have put linoleum on your living-room floor,” she reflects after Amiri Baraka) disrupted the serious ecological and cultural issues she had woven throughout. As in some of Rainer’s early works, like Continuous Project—Altered Daily, 1970, performers were able to choose whether or not to participate in movements initiated by one another. But, as dancer Pat Catterson has explained, if no one joins in the sequence, it must be abandoned.16 These failures, like fissures, are laid bare in the piece, and at MoMA, Rainer declined to smooth them over. In a similar manner, she did not instruct the dancers as to the pronunciation of the foreign places they had to read from her script; onstage, they frequently stumbled over words, setting up a moment of stutter that sometimes transferred to the movement itself.

Yvonne Rainer, The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?, 2015. Performance view, Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Lobby Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 2015. Foreground, from left: Yvonne Rainer, Patricia Hoffbauer, Keith Sabado. Background: Pat Catterson. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

In November 2019, Yvonne Rainer re-presented Parts of Some Sextets, 1965, as part of Performa 19. The new version was, as Rainer wrote in the program notes, “a reconstruction and reconfiguration” of the original piece. The dance, conceived for ten people and twelve mattresses, consisted of thirty-one movements, including everyday actions (“bent-over walk,” “sitting figure”), interactions with various props (“crawl through below the top mattress,” “rope movements”), and more formal dance phrases (“corridor solo” or “quartet”). These were plotted in thirty-second intervals. No sooner would the dancers begin a sequence than the time would be up and they would have to begin a new one.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019. Performance view, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, New York, November 2019. From Performa 19. From left: Jon Kinzel, David Thomson, Timothy Ward, Emily Coates. Photos: Paula Court.

Parts of Some Sextets was a watershed moment in Rainer’s practice. She hadn’t previously re-performed it, in part because she didn’t have her original notations. The score had been given to Robert Rauschenberg, who was one of the dancers in the original performance at New York’s Judson Church, and some images and notes had gone to the Getty Center in Los Angeles as part of Rainer’s archive. She unearthed the “mattress monster,” as she calls it, only once Emily Coates, a dancer and professor at Yale University in New Haven who has been a part of Rainer’s informal troupe, the “Raindears,” for more than a decade, persuaded her to exhume it. At the Rauschenberg Foundation, Coates found the reel-to-reel recording of the dance’s audio accompaniment that had been presumed lost. In it, Rainer reads entries from the diary of William Bentley—an eighteenth-century Episcopalian minister who lived in Salem, Massachusetts—describing village life, reporting on the deaths of friends and neighbors, and cataloguing the weather.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019. Performance view, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, New York, November 2019. From Performa 19. From left: Rachel Berman, Mary Kate Sheehan, Nick Mauss, Shayla-Vie Jenkins. Photos: Paula Court.

What marks the new version of Parts of Some Sextets as a work of late style are the various interruptions to the already fragmented dance. First, and most noticeably, there was the insertion of Rainer’s contemporary voice into her original voice-over. (At the performance I attended, the audience laughed at Rainer’s outbursts of “fucking moron” and “unhinged dipshit”—direct references to President Trump.) The piece carried with it the absurd pathos of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), although, unlike Krapp’s confrontation with his younger self, Rainer’s struggle with her own is mediated by a male New Englander who died centuries ago. If a diary serves as a document of personal retrospection and introspection—a way to tally events, emotions, and ideas so that one can return to them—Rainer’s episodic dance suggests the interminable forms of labor that keep one moving without allowing that movement to progress.

What marks the new version of Parts of Some Sextets as a work of late style are the various interruptions to the already fragmented dance.

That Rainer no longer dances in Parts of Some Sextets was addressed, indirectly, through the addition of an eleventh performer, Brittany Engel-Adams, to the erstwhile group of ten. She sat next to Rainer in the front row, occasionally stepping onstage to execute a few sequences. Most poignant were the uncanny overlaps between the eighteenth-century minister’s narrative and the dancers’ movements. For example, the recitation from Bentley’s diary entry dated September 11 happened to coincide with the action of Coates being held aloft by two male dancers, as though she had been caught mid-fall. These unexpected moments were tender and devastating because they insisted that tragedy is accrued over the inexorable passage of time.

Still from Eileen Myles’s The Trip, 2019, Super 8, color, sound, 17 minutes 9 seconds.

MYLES, TOO, opens a dialogue with their younger self in their recent film The Trip (2019), a Super 8 road movie made with filmmaker David Fenster. The Trip stars five puppets made by Myles as a child, which they unearthed from a wicker basket a few months after the Beinecke sale. With crude papier-mâché heads and clothes made of fabric scraps, the puppets—Bedilia (“the diva”), Oscar (“the man of the house, kind of my Dad”), Casper (“the ghost”), gay Montgomery, and the loose-toothed Crocky—accompany Eileen and their dog on a drive through West Texas. The dolls express their excitement over their newfound freedom from over sixty years of entombment in both earnest and kitschy ways. Oscar marvels at a passing train, and Montgomery blows kisses at a cowboy from the truck window.

Two stills from Eileen Myles’s The Trip, 2019, Super 8, color, sound, 17 minutes 9 seconds.

Myles has said they were inspired by Jack Kerouac’s twenty-eight-minute voice-over for Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy (1959), made around the same time as the puppets. Kerouac’s narration, which is frequently described as “improvised” despite the fact that it was spliced together from three separate recordings and based on a script written by the poet, slides between “aligning itself with the ‘now’ of the image and giving voice to a recognition of its pastness,” as critic George Kouvaros has noted.17 In The Trip, Myles mostly forgoes the cinematic clichés for shaping time—flash-forward, slow motion, freeze-frame—in favor of the long take, providing the audience with a less-mediated experience, but their voice-over still splinters the film’s temporal movement. When, near the end of the film, Myles-as-narrator asks, “Can we wrap up?” and then proceeds to recount what we just saw, they deepen the work’s sense of self-reference.

Casper gets the last word, however. On the steps of Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, the puppet whispers a hoarse lament: “A puppet, a ghost, truth be told, is a zombie, the undead. Near born, never dying, never arriving. I make common cause now with . . . children, women, and men in cages and jails, not far from here. A multitude, less visible than a ghost.” In putting these powerful words in the mouth of a crude puppet, Myles risks seeming insincere or flippant, but the jarring inclusion—like the obscenities Rainer shouts in the middle of Parts of Some Sextets—highlights the inhumanity of the detention camps at the US-Mexico border by giving a childhood toy the insight to call out such cruelty.

If the recent works by Myles and Rainer do not seem to break from the artists’ earlier practices as radically as the late-style works of Beethoven or Turner, it is because Myles and Rainer use the tropes of lateness as conceptual frameworks. Both satirize the idea of transcendence without quite letting go of the ambition of making art for posterity, and they directly address the shift in how an artist creates once they and their audiences are aware of their mortality. Through their revision of the past and their simultaneous submission to and disruption of memorialization, Myles and Rainer reject the security of conclusions and embrace the dual temporalities of ending and surviving together. 

Rachel Churner is a New York–based art critic and a founder of No Place Press. 


1. This and subsequent quotations by Eileen Myles are from the essay “A Talk About Poetry,” presented at the GIDEST Seminar, New School, New York, September 27, 2019.

2. Edward Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Vintage, 2006), 136.

3. Both quotes by Michael Wood, “Introduction,” in Said, On Late Style, xi.

4. Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists (1568), quoted in Gordon McMullan, Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 137.

5. Karen Leeder, “Figuring Lateness in Modern German Culture,” New German Critique, no. 125 (Summer 2015): 4.

6. I draw here on Karen Painter’s indispensable introduction to Late Thoughts: Reflections on Artists and Composers at Work, ed. Karen Painter and Thomas Crow (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2006), 1–11. Gordon McMullan is an essential source for his repudiation of the idea of late style in Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing.

7. Erich Neumann, “Art and Time,” in Art and the Creative Unconscious: Four Essays, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 103.

8. Theodor Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven” (1937) and “Late Work Without Late Style: The Missa Solemnis” (1959), in Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). Adorno wrote on late style with regard to Beethoven in numerous aphorisms collected by Rolf Tiedemann in Adorno, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015).

9. Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven,” 567.

10. Leeder, “Figuring Lateness,” 2.

11. Said takes Adorno’s position but with a certain misprision, inflecting it with the personal a bit more than Adorno intended. As Benita Parry has phrased it, “Where Adorno held that the degradations of the social world compel artists to inscribe disappointment in the very form of their late work, Said attributed the characteristics of late style to the imprint of existential experience.” Parry, “Countercurrents and Tensions in Said’s Critical Practice,” in Edward Said: A Legacy of Emancipation and Representation, ed. Adel Iskandar and Hakem Rustom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 505.

12. This is not to suggest that late works need be explicitly about death, though they are precipitated by a confrontation with it, nor need they be created after a certain age; impetus is not the same as subject matter.

13. Yvonne Rainer, “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid,” in Radical Juxtapositions 1961–2002, ed. Sid Sachs, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: University of the Arts, 2003).

14. Douglas Crimp, “Dance Mom: Yvonne Rainer,” Interview, December 18, 2012,

15. Soyoung Yoon has written persuasively on the question of value and the body with regard to The Concept of Dust, specifically on the connection between the “invisibility of the performers’ work . . . [and] the hyper-visibility of the performer’s body.” Yoon describes fatigue as one result of this labor, and she argues that in Rainer’s dance the “arrest of movement gives form—and time and space—to the fatigue of the dancer’s body.” The notion of fatigue seems particularly apt given that Rainer appears to suggest in the piece that when a body is pushed to its breaking point, rather than snapping violently, it disintegrates, erodes, and fades away, reduced to dust. See Yoon, “Where Is That Music Coming From? On Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move?,” in Yvonne Rainer: Moving and Being Moved (Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 2017). Yoon also notes, critically, that parts of the text are largely drawn from writings on environmental disaster, on the aids crisis, on the Holocaust (in particular, The Diary of Johann Paul Kremer and the poems of Nelly Sachs), and on memory and the problem of “blind spots” (especially Christa Wolf’s City of Angels: Or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud).

16. Catterson speaking after the performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, June 13, 2015.

17. George Kouvaros makes this characterization in “‘Time and How to Note It Down’: The Lessons of Pull My Daisy,” Screen 53, no. 1 (2012): 14.