Rashaad Newsome, Untitled (New Way), 2009, still from a color video, 6 minutes 48 seconds.

Rashaad Newsome, Untitled (New Way), 2009, still from a color video, 6 minutes 48 seconds.

“Dance/Draw”

Rashaad Newsome, Untitled (New Way), 2009, still from a color video, 6 minutes 48 seconds.

DANCE AND DRAWING each pose unique challenges for curators. If drawing can be difficult to exhibit, that is because of its relation to reading and to the page—it can be unspectacular in the extreme. Dance, on the other hand, can be played up as participatory spectacle (as it was in last year’s disappointing “Move: Choreographing You” at London’s Hayward Gallery) or shown as video, robbing spectators of its most essential elements—actual bodies in space. To the great credit of curator Helen Molesworth, “Dance/Draw” skirted these problems. The show elucidated the relationship between the titular mediums from the 1960s to the present, bringing together work by nearly fifty artists while highlighting recent developments that promise to pluralize art’s audiences in the best possible way.

One of the great strengths of the exhibition was the balance it struck between documentation and live dance. Molesworth programmed a vigorous series of events ranging from Jérôme Bel’s brilliant Cédric Andrieux, 2009 (in which a former member of Merce Cunningham’s company describes aloud his own relation to dance, to performance, and to Cunningham’s remarkable legacy), to Liz Collins’s Knitting Nation Phase 7 and 8, both 2011 (in which knitters, human and machine alike, explode the craft’s quiet isolation and perform it as the sine qua non of global labor). When it came to performance on video, Molesworth paid particular attention to artists whose approaches to dance critically configure the medium’s relation to the screen—as does, for instance, Joan Jonas’s gorgeous Songdelay, 1973, filmed from a downtown New York rooftop in Manhattan. Just as Jonas created Songdelay on the heels of the live performance Delay Delay, carefully filming from loft rooftops using a variety of lenses and viewing angles, Rashaad Newsome has made video an integral part of his choreography. For his digital video Untitled (New Way), 2009, he recorded a dancer’s improvised vogueing, edited the footage, and then had the dancer perform the new, spliced-together movements. The mesmerizing videotaped performance that results incorporates these abrupt cuts as Newsome uses the white gridded box that encloses the dancer like an eroticized cage—an analogue for the traditional stage if not the runways of competitive vogueing. All the while, the dancer barely averts his stare from the camera, answering the hypnotic effect of his dance on us by reminding us of the camera’s instrumentalization in games of seduction as well as in contemporary performance.

Works like Newsome’s construct a new type of darkened space for dance, as Molesworth’s installation underscored: not that of the theater, but that of the projected image. Beautifully acting as foils for these black-box dances were pieces like Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest, 1970, which was performed three days each week, three times per day in the galleries. As Brown’s pairs of dancers tugged themselves into and out of a knotted grid of shirtsleeves and pant legs suspended a few feet off the ground, one of the show’s most productive aspects—its exploration of the ways in which dance and drawing altered modernism’s grid and indeed participated in all the generative warpings of established modes of practice that followed—came alive. Surrounding Floor in iterations from Howardena Pindell’s to Fred Sandback’s to Louise Fishman’s, the grid drooped or vibrated with its own tensility, showing off the interdependence and autonomy of its segments. Turning the tables on Euclidean space as Floor does, these works (as did “Dance/Draw” generally) suggest how such geometric idealizations suppress the body’s mass, resistance, and inborn system of counterweights. They also push the links between cognitive and sensory modes of apprehension, not simply negating spectacle only to leave a spatial vacuum in its wake but establishing (as Floor does) an alternative to spectacle in which the body remains present.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Molesworth’s vision transposed the notion of “drawing in space,” a term famously coined by Alexander Calder in reference to sculpture, to dance, whose real bodies and real subjects refute the phrase’s Greenbergian repressions. Drawing was posited in turn as an action performed by subjects in social space, a valence absent from Calder’s formulation. Several works in the exhibition situated movement, dance, or drawing, or their combination, in this public space. For example, Igor Grubić’s East Side Story, 2008, includes raw footage and reenactments of gestures made by Gay Pride marchers and by neo-Nazis in Zagreb and Belgrade. Ulrike Müller and Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s Friends of the Fine Arts’ Life Drawing Circle, 2008–11, presented here via documentation, gathered participants for “drawing sessions,” while in the video component of Senam Okudzeto’s multimedia The Dialectic of Jubilation; Afro Funk Lessons, 2002–2005, the artist teaches a group of white Europeans how to dance to the music of Fela Kuti. Friends of the Fine Arts and Okudzeto each draw on a sense of historical resonance to clarify the terms of their post-“participatory” art. Both projects recall precedents (in the former, the trope of the life-drawing classroom or salon; in the latter, Adrian Piper’s 1983 Funk Lessons) and are reflexively concerned with what it would mean to rehabilitate a tradition or convey it across cultural-geographic lines. In this manner, the works not only offset naive assumptions about participation but demonstrate the ways in which both dance and drawing can, in the most embodied and social ways, meaningfully shift hierarchies. If part of art’s history has depended on the rarefication of its audiences, then “Dance/Draw” provides us with a vantage point to see, at last, those audiences’ multiplication in the most interesting and promising ways. By integrating the performing arts and its audiences—via subterranean yet immediate connections—with disciplines like drawing, art might still get over its irreducible relation to spectacle.

“Dance/Draw” travels to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, July 14–Dec. 30.

Rachel Haidu is an associate professor of art history at the University of Rochester, NY.