Philadelphia

Laurie Anderson

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

ICA director Janet Kardon, in the catalogue for this retrospective (it contains no new work), describes it as a “mid-career summary.” The exhibition was lavishly installed, with recreations of several of Laurie Anderson’s gallery installations of the ’70s—At The Shrink’s, 1975, Jukebox, 1977, and Dark Dogs, American Dreams, 1980; an audio room playing Anderson tapes, with her texts written on the walls; a video room playing a video version of Anderson’s film Dearreader, 1975, the MTV-type video for O Superman, 1981, and an interview with London Weekend Television; “sculptures” including the phone-booth piece Numbers Runners, 1978, and the Handphone Table (When You We’re Hear), 1978; an array of Anderson’s books; some of the instruments she plays; and wall pieces ranging from exquisitely detailed early etchings to documentation of the 1983 “solo opera” United States. A more complete coverage would hardly be possible; this traveling show (currently in Los Angeles and later visiting Houston and New York) is definitely the place to see a lot of Anderson’s work generously and sympathetically exhibited.

One feature of the oeuvre that is immediately apparent, however, is that it has more to do with modes of presentation than with stuff to be presented. The heart of Anderson’s work in recent years has been her texts; most of the works are simply different ways to present them—audiotape, audiotape with movie projection of speaker, audiotape inside telephone, audiotape in headphone, audiotape played by violin, recitation on videotape, book, wind-turned book, writing on wall, and so on. Over the years Anderson has recycled the same texts through these and other forms, and the exhibition followed her lead—I saw one language “bit” in five different places, the dates ranging from 1972 to 1983. The result is to make a slender body of work look fat. If the texts were deeper or sharper one would not mind their constant repackaging, and could be more appreciative of the cleverness of the packages, but they are, after all, just the rather lightweight, caught-in-a-loop hip posturing, familiar from United States (where many of the old texts resurfaced).

Anderson’s recent work is as indebted to the rock concert as to the multimedia happening. The transition to an entertainment mode has been seen by some as a solution to the economic problems of performance art, but this solution is only available to those whose work fits the mode to begin with. (Can one imagine James Lee Byars or Paul McCarthy accomplishing the crossover?) The degree of media attention that has surrounded Anderson’s work since her appearance on the Warner record label in 1981 has thrown perception of the work off center. Seen in an evening of performance pieces in a small space she would look superb; seen as a full-blown international-class master, she seems of questionable relevance. One wonders whether this likable artist can preserve her intentions undistorted in the midst of such attention. Unfortunately the catalogue of the present show is an egregious example of the problem, puffed up as it is to a stately size that unashamedly trumpets, “Major Artist!” Anderson’s young life, for example, is treated to a detailed scholarly chronology of 20 large pages; in contrast, two of the ICA’s large catalogues before this one devoted, respectively, one page to Richard Artschwager’s life, which began in 1923 (24 years before Anderson’s), and one paragraph to Agnes Martin’s, which began in 1916. One cannot help but think that this catalogue is premature. The oeuvre is yet too slender, and in a deep sense too disorganized, to bear such intense scrutiny; the critics who write in the catalogue (Ben Lifson, Craig Owens, John Rockwell), no matter how loquacious by nature, seem uneasy in this situation and find very little to say. The claim that this is “a mid-career summary” attempts to forestall the criticism of prematurity, but the numbers don’t add up. If this is the middle of Anderson’s career, then it will end when she is 50 and producing mature work.

Thomas McEvilley