Los Angeles

Clockwise from top: Yvonne Rainer, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid, 2002, still from a color video, 30 minutes. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yvonne Rainer, Kristina Talking Pictures, 1976, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16mm, 90 minutes. Blondell Cummings. Yvonne Rainer, Privilege, 1990, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16mm, 100 minutes. Gabriella Farrar.

Clockwise from top: Yvonne Rainer, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid, 2002, still from a color video, 30 minutes. Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yvonne Rainer, Kristina Talking Pictures, 1976, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16mm, 90 minutes. Blondell Cummings. Yvonne Rainer, Privilege, 1990, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16mm, 100 minutes. Gabriella Farrar.

Yvonne Rainer

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions

In its Los Angeles incarnation, Yvonne Rainer’s traveling retrospective lived up to its name by virtue of its very location: Audiences experienced the “radical juxtaposition” of a nonprofit space situated on Hollywood Boulevard. Dimmed and functionally outfitted with video monitors playing footage of Rainer’s choreography and films, and interspersed with vitrines containing performance-related ephemera, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) seemed worlds apart from the hype and glare of the street outside. And yet the disjuncture fortuitously reminded us that mass culture vividly shaped the imaginative possibilities of Rainer’s practice. As art historian Carrie Lambert convincingly argues in a catalogue essay, the landscape of media is one that Rainer has both opposed and very fruitfully engaged. “No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe,” the artist once famously declared.

Organized by Sid Sachs for the Rosenwald-Wolf gallery at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the exhibition moves from Rainer’s work as a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater through her more recent films. This trajectory makes clear that Rainer takes seriously the question of communication, in its various social forms, because it profoundly impacts our everyday relationships and emotional lives. In her art, she strives to make private stories matter publicly, whether they were first told in unceremonious conversations between domestic partners or on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Conversely, she examines the personal impact of collective experiences of gender, race, poverty, and war. Such traversing of public and private experience is amplified by her affinity for nonlinear formal strategies, which encourage us to shift back and forth between different narrative levels.

In part, the exhibition underscored this complex negotiation by demonstrating that the artist’s early desire to expand the kinds of communication feasible in the public setting of the theater was shadowed by the often practical impulse to publicize, record, and otherwise supplement her work through text, photography, and film. To radicalize the encounter between the dancer and audience, Rainer renounced virtuoso performance in favor of ordinary, unembellished, and sometimes improvised movement, witnessed here in footage and vintage stills of dances such as Three Satie Spoons, 1961, and Continuous Project—Altered Daily, 1969. She countered the histrionics of traditional dance by performing in street clothes and refusing to look the audience in the eye. Given the reputed deadpan demeanor of Rainer’s dancing, we might expect it to appear tedious or commonplace. To the contrary, Trio A, 1966, danced by Rainer and captured on film in 1978, is strangely, earthily graceful.

If Rainer’s dance was intrinsically tied to the immediacy of the encounter with her audience, its reception relied equally on the documentation—posters, mimeographed flyers, programs, and magazine articles—that both preceded and preserved that encounter. This publicity material, framed on LACE's walls and crowded into vitrines, manifests a DIY quality and illuminates something of the radical intellectual milieu in which Rainer’s work was distributed via alternative publications and venues founded to democratize the elitist institutions of the art world. The materials also point to how language—scribbled, spoken, and even, in the case of Film About a Woman Who..., 1974, adhered directly onto the artist’s face—functions as a pivotal part of Rainer’s working process. Exemplary in this regard is “Kristina (For a . . . Opera),” a spread that Rainer published in the German magazine Interfunktionen in 1975. The thirty-page project, executed in collaboration with then-editor Benjamin Buchloh, illustrates how her paratactic experiments with typography and image were inspired by the conventions and materiality of the printed page. Part concrete poetry, part screenplay, and part photo-essay, the article manipulates such factors as margins, spacing, and justification to alternately enhance or disrupt the narrative flow. For Rainer, the page seems to have its own kinesthetics, its own tempo, its own repertory of movement and stillness.

In a 1972 interview in Avalanche, Rainer discussed her midcareer shift from dance to film. She attributed this conversion to the relative durability of the latter medium, explaining that while she loved the ephemerality of dance, such impermanence also entailed sadness and loss—feelings echoed in the inevitable experience of the dancer’s body growing older. However, if her films were more ontologically secure than her dances, they proved just as volatile semantically. For example, Journeys From Berlin/1971, 1980, consists of a fragmented interweaving of surrealistic scenes from prerevolutionary Russia, haunting allusions to the Baader-Meinhof gang, and monologues from an individual’s psychotherapy sessions (in which the patient is played by Annette Michelson). The effect is a highly unstable yet eloquent meditation on the connections between concrete experiences with violence and more abstract global, institutional ones.

Rainer learned to embrace indeterminacy early on, in Robert Dunn’s Cage-inspired workshops, which she attended at Merce Cunningham’s studio; and it is essential to Rainer’s understanding that an artwork cannot be assessed outside of the particular circumstances in which it is elaborated or witnessed, as when she performed Trio A as Convalescent Dance in 1967 while recovering from a serious illness, or Trio A with Flags, 1970, in protest of the Vietnam War. In these instances, dance does not give ultimate form to a choreographic notation but insists on its meaning as unfinished and ongoing, open to any number of subsequent interpretations and permutations. The notion of indeterminacy also seems key to Rainer’s well-known refusal to instrumentalize the political efficacy of her art—not because she doesn’t care about the social consequences of her work, but because the attempt to reach an audience is both undermined and enriched by the separation between the lived instant and the representational medium. It is in that distance, or rather, in the relay across it, that Rainer’s communication takes place. Finally, it is in this sense that the current exhibition succeeds, attesting to Rainer’s significance without providing a definitive reading of her work, ensuring that the pleasures of its deciphering will live on.

“Radical Juxtapositions” is on view at the Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, Milwaukee, through January 9.

Gwen Allen is visiting assistant professor of art history at Maine College of Art.