Trisha Brown

Addison Gallery of American Art/Phillips Academy

Few, if any, exhibitions during the past year were so beautifully conceived and installed as the retrospective of Trisha Brown’s work at the Addison Gallery of American Art—an achievement all the more impressive when considering the sheer diversity of production the show navigates. A dancer and choreographer who met Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer in 1960 while studying in California, Brown heeded their encouragement to move to New York, where she would soon perform at Judson Church, engage the community around John Cage, and immerse herself in the collaborative culture of Happenings that was drawing freely from the techniques of dance, performance, and the plastic arts, making the borders between them permeable. And so “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001” (curated by Hendel Teicher, the show was co-organized by the Addison and Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery and is currently installed at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York) by necessity encompasses video and photographic documentation of performances; costumes and set designs; prints, paintings, and sculpture by artist collaborators like Nancy Graves, Donald Judd, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Whitman, and Terry Winters; and original dance scores penciled by Brown, which, in their minimal (and occasionally hieroglyphic) lyricism, qualify as significant works in themselves.

The most compelling quality of the Addison’s installation resided in its integral reflection of Brown’s own compositional style. If the choreographer developed the notion of “structured improvisation”—composing loose formal constructs from which performers could depart and extrapolate unique motions—then a similar ebb and flow of structural framework was discernible at the Addison in the interplay of images, objects, and the audiences moving in their midst. Among the first pieces encountered was a large construction originally designed by Brown for Floor of the Forest, 1970: a suspended grid of ropes laced with clothing that performers would attempt to don while hanging from the lattices by their hands and legs. Whether relic or mere remnant, this horizontal jungle gym dominated the gallery, so viewers moved around the space in unavoidable physical relation to it. Another gallery housed pieces designed by Rauschenberg for Astral Convertible, 1989—tall, erector set–like aluminum scaffolds affixed with naked bulbs that scatter intense white light across the room. During a performance, dancers were allowed to move these props freely onstage. And here, apparently arranged randomly throughout a large room, they created the unmistakable, if unusual, feeling that the viewer was engaged in a kind of dance through the gallery—indeed, art viewing could be usefully considered a type of ritualized motion—eliding, in effect, the distinction between sculptural and theatrical space. The most obvious (and intoxicating) instance of such an expanded conception of display occurred in the re-presentation of Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503, 1980, for which the artist Fujiko Nakaya used fog nozzles to create a thick vapor that enshrouded the dancers. The fog sculpture was here installed in a room by itself, filling the gallery with mist while a video of the original performance was projected through the haze—turning the recorded figures into dark, thin shadows that mingled with audience members standing in the gallery, the space assuming a strangely holographic quality.

This seductive, evocative sense of estrangement, of being somehow both inside and outside the frame, in a performance both unscripted and choreographed, is a key signature for any number of projects composed by Brown, especially those that move well off the stage. In 1971, for example, she assembled dancers on SoHo rooftops (Roof Piece), their synchronized movements on elevated planes making a whole vertiginous city seem choreographed (a large image of this performance was displayed in Andover). Similarly letting the stage spill out into the world, she once laid dancers on floating rafts so that they drifted with the rainy wind on a lake in Loring Park, Minneapolis, still performing in tandem (Primary Accumulation on Rafts, 1972). The experience of viewing such moments, while it cannot be duplicated within institutional and architectural confines, was nevertheless approached by pieces like the Rauschenberg-designed backdrops for Glacial Decoy, 1979, four floor-to-ceiling rear-projection screens on which such images as palm fronds, light filaments, and brickwork pulsed from one to the next. Setting a constant backdrop for one portion of the show, resited from stage to gallery, the screens provided the exhibition with a kind of spatial metronome—a background rhythm against which one inevitably took stock of one’s own movements, as if in a drama. And it was in this sense of paced, elemental sequences (words that could also describe Brown’s choreographic approach) that other visual contributions, by Donald Judd, for instance, reverberated most effectively. His ten woodcuts (Untitled, 1987) here resembled basic animations, with simple lines and geometries bifurcated and segmented—offering plain forms that, almost in spite of themselves, richly unfold, providing a visual beat.

The sense of being in time, in fact, aptly describes this show, which, even though a retrospective, hardly feels dated. When considering issues of performance and its reproduction, of stage sets and sculpture, it’s not difficult to recognize questions posed in other contemporary exhibitions, of work by multimedia artists like, say, Matthew Barney. (All mythical allusions aside, Brown’s engagement with feats of physical endurance only underscores the similarities and may even support the notion of a lineage, as her Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 1970, conjures images of the younger artist climbing walls and museum rotundas.) If ever there were a show to generate interest in an artist’s work, not only for its historical significance, but also for its common line with a trajectory that continues unabated to the present day, this is it.

Tim Griffin is editor of Artforum.