New York


Hunter College Art Gallery

This modest but provocative exhibition, subtitled “Strategies of Postmodernist Performance,” brought together typical works by three artists (Robert Morris, Laurie Anderson, and Robert Longo) of three generations (the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s) as evidence for a three-part argument about post-Modern sensibility. Curator Maurice Berger’s trinitarian thesis claims first that the “ strategies” displayed deny “the mythologies of artistic expression and temperament”; second, that they use theater to introduce time into artmaking; and third, that they focus on endgames—death, doom, disaster. Following up on Michael Fried’s charge in “Art and Objecthood” (1968) that the theatricality inherent in Minimalism was “at war with art,” Berger announces the eventual outcome in emphatic terms: “The offensive waged by Minimal art has resulted in the death of the static art object and the triumph of temporal experience.”

Well, yes, but. . . . Endgame was the kind of parlor-game-puzzle exhibition that invites endless claims and counterclaims. Its statements were less provable theorems than starting points for debate. Various retorts were obvious: for example, hasn’t the “expression of personality” in these artists’ works simply opened new channels of mythology about art rather than denying the whole idea of it? Are the relationships between performance artists and their audiences really so radical if we think of them in terms of theater, in the largest sense of the word, rather than only of static art objects? And hasn’t theater played with the subjects of death and disaster since, say, the classical Greeks?

The familiar works in the show, while necessarily limited in size and number to accommodate the compact exhibition space, were a well-chosen sampling of the artists’ positions and supported Berger’s points, but also lent themselves almost equally well to opposing arguments. Morris’ conceptual, visceral, and subversive materials and subjects, Anderson’s cartoonish characterizations, and Longo’s powerful statements about power lined up neatly with Berger’s party line of impersonality, theatricality, and gloomy attitudinizing. At the same time, the exhibits testified to at least one large loophole: while Berger’s essay bristles with references to Samuel Beckett, Stéphane Mallarmé, and such, and with apercus from philosophy, his thesis scants the sheer playfulness of the performance works displayed. Berger’s post-Modern performance arena is a theater of thought—sure, this is smart stuff—but there’s a lot left unsaid about the role-playing, the humor, and the all-around dramatic flair these artists flaunt as part of their performance-oriented sensibility. And the single-minded attention to sensibility as “strategy” means that more elusive yet important qualities are left unexplored. The most tantalizing possibility—only hinted at by Berger—would be to analyze the theatrical tone of the respective approaches, from Morris’ rigorous mind games through Anderson’s quizzical monologues to Longo’s go-for-broke body blows. That this small-scale exhibition provoked such issues, though it by no means resolved them, is a measure of its success as a debating premise.

John Howell