New York

Robert Whitman

512 West 19th Street

Like his early-’60s Happenings, Robert Whitman’s new performance, Raincover, is a magic theater of ordinary objects gone strange. This is a contemporary mystery play in which the “story” emerges from mixed media imagery laid out in a dream-time and a dream-space of distorted dimensions. In Whitman’s theater, things are players which enforce their “thingness”; they are displayed, manipulated, and often animated as if they had autonomous life. Unlike Alain Robbe-Grillet’s sterile landscape of things (his Notes for a New Novel was a widely circulated antimetaphorical manifesto in early-’60s art circles), Whitman’s universe of objects is richly resonant with metaphors. Finally almost hallucinatory, they are more on the order of Baudelaire’s animistic correspondences than the rigidly blank surfaces of most object/action performance. Raincover’s subjects are the primal elements fire and water, and Whitman deliberately evokes their essential mystery both as basic entities and as deeply significant metaphors for actual events, dream states, free-associative logic—take your pick. This open-endedness—deployed in a tightly structured, carefully executed framework—makes Raincover as provocative, elusive, and meaningful as the thoughts that race through your head just before sleep.

Raincover takes place in a huge black box of space in a West Side warehouse. Whitman immediately twists the usual viewing arrangement by showing most of the action only through its reflection in large Mylar panels above the stage; the actual events are hidden from view by a curtain, though a narrow strip is left downstage for directly visible action. What unfolds is a series of discrete events involving fire and water, interwoven in a cross-referenced pattern of visual and aural associations. A woman in white sets fire to a rectangular frame. Liquid from a drum pours into the rectangular space reflected above; it becomes a pool. A giant cloth ball slowly lowers while film close-ups of lips, a finger, an eye are projected on it. Settling onstage, the ball opens to show another film image: a man in a business suit standing motionless in the rain. This man then appears live, and real water showers down on him. He holds out a glass and a yellow, glowing stream of liquid pours down into it while he repeatedly looks at a cloth bundle which also glows. Still standing in place, the man is pulled by invisible wires across the stage to a chair; once seated he lights a sort of wick set into the wall. Above, the pool fills with fiery ships and the curtain becomes a screen for a film projection of more fire.

For a finale, the curtain is removed revealing a screen on which is projected the Manhattan skyline. Live, a jump-suited worker places glowing lumber in a garbage can before bringing on a large cardboard crate and hoisting it into the air. A rectangle of red fabric is slowly pulled out of it and unfurled. A recorded thunderstorm rumbles, the city skyline turns to flame, and the red cloth becomes a screen for a projected image of another flaming frame.

All this fiery material is presented coolly, at a distanced remove, and with matter-of-fact timing. In Whitman’s 1976 retrospective this attitude made revivals of older work come off as plodding collages with isolated images merely following each other, but Raincover’s events accumulate a palpable emotional force through their cross-references and multiplied associations. The oppositions—fire/water, up/down, frame/flame, film/live action, blackness/ glowing light, cloth as fabric/cloth as screen—create a dialectical drama of metaphorical forces, a neo-Manichean struggle played out at the level of the “ordinary” rather than that of the cosmic. Raincover taps the primordial in contemporary terms—a realistic dream play.

John Howell