View of “Jill Johnston: The Disintegration of a Critic,” 2019.

View of “Jill Johnston: The Disintegration of a Critic,” 2019.

“Jill Johnston: The Disintegration of a Critic”

The word metamorphosis usually conjures the image of a caterpillar in its cocoon, converting itself into a moth or a butterfly. But a different image came to me when I visited this exhibition on the writer Jill Johnston’s transfiguration from an analytic dance critic into a radical, lyrical, mostly autobiographical essayist covering the avant-garde performance scene of the 1960s and ’70s, with a focus on lesbian separatism and its role in women’s liberation. Strange as it may seem, I pictured a childhood science experiment in which I immersed an egg in vinegar, which melted its shell, leaving a bouncy golden orb. This feeling of watching something, or someone, dissolve might be due to the show’s title, “Jill Johnston: The Disintegration of a Critic,” a line borrowed from a 1969 panel organized by Johnston to announce her break from traditional criticism. For that event, she invited the subjects of some of her reviews—Carolee Schneemann, Ultra Violet, Andy Warhol—along with the critics Gregory Battcock and David Bourdon, to discuss how her columns had changed from being reviews in the conventional sense to associative reveries on the changing art world and the evolving politics of the world itself.

Meticulously curated by the staff at the Bergen Kunsthall with Fiona McGovern and Megan Francis Sullivan, the exhibition centered on a table, a plinth, and a vitrine displaying documents of various sorts. A monitor played a 1964 film by Peter Moore documenting a Happening by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen as staged by Allan Kaprow at Judson Hall in New York. Johnston participated in this event alongside Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, artists she often wrote about. Also on view in the Bergen exhibition was a curious 1957 review by the dance critic Louis Horst, who simply left his entire column blank—a gesture cited in an article by Johnston titled “Critic’s Critics.” In it she argues that the elitist, judgmental nature of criticism could be replaced by a form of art writing that would be literature in its own right; thus she treats Horst’s “text” as a sort of sincere concrete poem reflecting his inability to comment on something he didn’t understand.

On the walls around these core “islands,” reproductions of Johnston’s own columns hung next to various historical performance posters and advertisements as well as further works by artists in the Johnstonian universe. The most notable of these was Sturtevant’s Relâche, 1967, a placard announcing the cancellation of a performance as the performance, itself an allusion to the eponymous 1924 “ballet” by Francis Picabia and Erik Satie, which shut on its opening night when the principal dancer fell ill. With characteristic directness, Johnston quipped that the Sturtevant revival “was a total success. A cancellation can’t go wrong.” Nearby, a tight grid of twenty-nine screen prints reproduced the pages of a 1970 broadsheet fanzine by Les Levine that was devoted to Johnston, featuring reflections on the writer by the likes of Warhol and Battcock as well as James Lee Byars, Yvonne Rainer, and others. Complementing all this was the exhibition catalogue, a paperback reader consisting primarily of Johnston’s own writing. Together, the exhibition and publication seemed to transform the author from observer to subject and back again, parsing her work against her biography, yet also submerging Johnston into some greater theoretical sea beyond individuality.

The show’s continuous movement between various subject positions recalled Hannah Arendt’s idea of representational thinking, in which “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting” other people’s beliefs—and, in this case, their practices as well. After all, humans are social animals, not butterflies, and unlike the latter, which metamorphose alone in the darkness of the cocoon, we change through the shared investment of other’s minds and bodies. Whether Johnston elevated criticism to an art form or not is beside the point; what counts is how her active integration within various communities advanced her writing and advocacy past the calcified hierarchies inherent in the so-called objectivity of critical distance.