New York

Trisha Brown

This past spring, in celebration of a presentation of the last forty years of the eminent choreographer’s dance works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as well as of her first solo gallery show ever, a selection of drawings at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., Trisha Brown was invited for a conversation on the Leonard Lopate radio show. With the discussion ranging from Brown’s collaborations with Robert Rauschenberg to continued gender discrimination when it comes to fame and funding in the arts, the twenty-minute interview—as the format dictates—presented a radically uneven set of information: introductory clues for those hearing of Brown perhaps for the first time but also some pithy lures for those listeners deeply and lengthily engaged in following her career.

Indeed, although perhaps stepping unwittingly into an over-determined role, Lopate came at one moment to rehearse what he took to be received wisdom about one driving force of Brown’s work over forty years. “You must have been thinking about ballet all those years that you were doing the opposite of ballet,” he says; Brown is quiet for a moment and then replies, “Um, well no, I wasn’t, but I can’t explain that to you.” The idea that Brown’s work—and that of many of her cohorts from the 1960s on—enumerated a kind of reaction formation to classical forms such as ballet or to “expressive” modes of contemporary dance like Martha Graham’s is one with, of course, some small kernel of truth. Yet to limit the understanding of figures such as Brown (to say nothing of Yvonne Rainer, for instance, one of the dancers with whom Brown cofounded Judson Dance Theater) to the realm of this kind of simple negation—or, really, to the realm only of dance—is to do them a disservice. For while such individuals and the groups they participated in radically altered the terrain and contexts we make use of when thinking about dance, they participated equally in altering the terrain and contexts of art.

That Brown is all too rarely discussed in relationship to, say, the trajectory of conceptual art is remarkable. Her experiments in calling attention to the body in space—as both material object and site of representation—contribute forcefully to that history and also call into question certain beliefs about its limits. That it is so rare to encounter Brown as a driving figure in narratives of visual art of the 1960s and ’70s has much to do with a still-present desire to separate certain kinds of conceptual practices (the systemic, philosophical, and ostensibly disembodied sort of LeWitt and Bochner, for instance) from others (these ostensibly more “base,” pragmatic, and vernacular).

It is more interesting—and more accurate—to consider the utter entanglement of these projects. Such entanglement became vividly clear in the drawings on view at Sikkema Jenkins: The show signalized one of the first times (along with excellent recent exhibitions at Phillips Academy’s Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis) that Brown’s long-standing dedication to mark making has been set alongside her better-known oeuvre in/as movement. The exhibition afforded a generous look at works on paper from the last three decades that can’t strictly be regarded as either fully separate from or embedded within her dance operations. In some of the earliest untitled pieces here, made at the beginning of the ’70s, abstract shapes appear as variations on a theme: At once coolly geometric and pointedly schematic, they feel like both steps and math problems. Brown’s early preoccupation with cubes and their myriad configurations offers a wonderful, and unexpected, comparison to the human body itself. That body finds form in later drawings, from the ’80s onward, in which Brown’s shapes become pointedly corporeal as she works to describe her own body and its movements—for instance as she indexically inscribes what she calls “incidents” across the paper. Here, Brown elegantly disrupts assumptions not only about the categorization of the dance history she helped create but also about her own place within it.

Johanna Burton