Dore Ashton, a prolific champion of the Abstract Expressionist movement, died on January 30 at age eighty-eight. Ashton was one of the most influential voices of the New York School, authoring over thirty books of art criticism. We looked back in our archives for this 1969 essay in which the art historian notes the emergence of a genre-bending class of artists working between art, film, theater, music, and dance. “Clearly, the apprehension of space and time as defined in the various arts has undergone a radical change,” she writes, “a change that is essential to view in its pattern in order to deal well with its most recent manifestations.” We present the full article below. —Eds.
Baudelaire envisioned a “coincidence of the arts,” a synthesis based on inherent kinships. Today, practitioners in the visual arts, in music, in film, theater and the dance, are consciously mingling elements from different domains.
Almost half a century ago the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse unsettled his American audiences by declaring that he conceived of his music as spatial. When he discussed his scores, he spoke in terms of the “planes” and “volumes” and, in general, borrowed the rhetoric of the visual arts. At the same time, painters were alluding to symphonic composition and, like Paul Klee, challenging the old conception of painting as a spatial art. Klee thought that painting was as temporal as music in conception. These long-standing incursions of the language of one art into another in the modern era have shaped the experience of the contemporary American artist. Born into a situation of mutation, extension and expansion, he is not laden with dogmatic strictures and moves freely among the arts.
Here, for instance, is a young American artist, Robert Israel. He is technically known as a sculptor since he deals at times with three-dimensional images in space. Yet his dream is to “dissolve the art object; to make it intangible” so that what counts “really isn’t the object but the feeling you get from it.” His intention is to supersede the boundaries—physical boundaries—hitherto considered indispensable for the sculptor, and to thrust himself into the grand spaces of virtual illusion.
This, however, is only one of Israel’s activities. Another important part of his creative life is the theater, which provides other possibilities for projecting the notion of an encompassing sensory experience. As artistic director for the Center Opera Company, and the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Israel has already accumulated a highly diversified experience of the extensions of his sculptor’s art. He speaks of “building” costumes and finding the “shapes” of period costumes as he did for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Like other young artists who have extended themselves to make “environments” or “happenings,” Israel finds the direct implication of the viewer a spur to his imagination. A thrust stage exposed on three sides brings both Antonin Artaud’s notion of “the danger of the situation” and Israel’s interest in “mock illusionism” into play. He can “build” his costumes and sets in his sculptor’s vision, and still have another dimension in their expression through the possibility of “the audience also acting on the situation as the situation acts on them.”
To take another example, here is the American dancer Marilyn Wood. She was a member of Merce Cunningham’s pioneer troupe and traveled with him, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage as they jaunted across America carrying their gospel of a new way in the dance. Their theory, as recorded by Cage in his book “Silence,” begins with the premise that music and dance could be treated independently and result finally in an experience of a “multiplicity of events in time and space.” Furthermore, in keeping with certain modern theories of the bankruptcy of individualism, Cage stresses the fact that the troupe had moved away from “simply private human concerns toward the world of nature and society of which all of us are a part. Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living.”
Like her mentor, Marilyn Wood believes that the function of art is to evoke emotion and that art is always a dialogue. But she goes one step further and projects the dance as an “environmental” experience in which the dialogue is no longer between audience and performer, but between the performer and his environment, which includes other people who are part of it. “The participation of the audience is a resource just being discovered,” she says. “I believe it can be used with the articulated structure of the dance.”
From here Marilyn Wood goes on to what she calls “visual areas” where architecture and even painting enter directly. “Many paintings can be seen as dance scores. I could envision dancing a painting.” She can also envision using the architecture and visual aspects of the urban environment, as she did in her performance of “Cityday,” a scored, all-day event in which some fifty people participated. The “performers” were sent to various parts of the city, told to behave in certain ways, observe the environment, and heed the score absolutely. For example, they were told to regard the Morton Street Pier as a stage: “Walk to the end, treating your walk as a processional exit from the city.” The private experiences of each individual sallying forth on this sensory environmental experiment were to be seen in the light of a performance, and as such could be considered a communal work of art.
For more and more artists, environment—natural or man-made—enters as a condition of an event. Spaces, structures within spaces, visual imagery, as well as gestures and human expressions are equally significant and usable. Many artists are concerned with ritual, with “experiencing an ordinary task in terms of community,” as Marilyn Wood puts it. It does not intimidate her to consider the entire city her performance area. She and Israel and many others meet in a space that can no longer be circumscribed with a physical description of the properties of their separate arts. Their demands are for untrammeled transit through all the conventional spaces and shapes into a much grander arena. The very diction of modern artists bespeaks this demand.
While Marilyn Wood speaks of “paths” for the dance, a Greek composer, Anestis Logothetis, describes his “Odysseus” ballet score as a composition built of two elements of motion, one continuous and forming a “path” and the other running in vertical and horizontal segments. The performers are in three groups with one playing the “path” and the other two “performing the fields to the left and right of the path.” Clearly, the apprehension of space and time as defined in the various arts has undergone a radical change, a change that is essential to view in its pattern in order to deal well with its most recent manifestations.
Anywhere we touch down in the early modern era we can find evidence of a conscious rebellion against the segregation of the arts. To certain key figures since the mid-nineteenth century, the old containers and fixed forms no longer served the artist adequately. The impetus toward fusion is as old as the concept of modernism. One of the major adventurers was, as Baudelaire quickly recognized, Richard Wagner. Baudelaire wrote in 1861 that Wagner considered dramatic art, “which is the marriage, the coincidence of several arts, as the art par excellence, the most synthetic and the most perfect.” He quoted from a letter of Wagner’s to Berlioz, written in 1860: “We have every right to be amazed today that thirty thousand Greeks were capable of following performances of the tragedies of Aeschylus with undiminished interest. But if we ask how results like this were obtained, we will find that it was by an alliance of all the arts uniting in a common goal, which was the creation of the most perfect, the only true work of art.”
Wagner’s own belief in the shifting intensity of sense perceptions was similar to Baudelaire’s conviction, expressed in “Correspondances,” that “scents, colors and sounds respond to one another.” His espousal of Wagner’s notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk certainly helped to prepare the climate for the symbolist poets who were later to write in La Revue Wagnerienne (1885-88) of their experience with “abstract” lines and forms and of musicality in painting as the hallmarks of the modern spirit. The emphasis on the senses as the direct source of meaningful experience led many artists to seek the Dionysiac liberties Wagner’s erstwhile admirer Friedrich Nietzsche advocated. André Gide’s first important book, “Les Nourritures Terrestres,” came out of this climate with its message of emotional liberty and sensory freedom. The importance of this tendency in modern art can be gauged by the fact that Gide’s book, published at the end of the nineteenth century, continued to find ecstatically enthusiastic advocates throughout the first three decades of the twentieth.
Wagner’s idea of the total art work remained alive when artists in our own century confronted various crises, not only esthetic but social and political. From the turn of the century onward, plastic artists have been eager collaborators with performing artists. Many of the visual artists dreamed of public events on an enormous scale. The Russians were particularly daring in the espousal of the coincidence of the arts. In his book “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” Pontus Huitén discusses El Lissitzky’s 1920-21 designs for a mechanical theater and quotes Lissitzky’s explanation: “The magnificent spectacles of our cities are not noticed by anyone, for ‘anyone’ is himself a participant. Each energy is applied solely to its own purpose. The whole remains amorphous. All energies must be organized as a unity, crystallized, and put on display. Thus there comes into being a WORK––if you wish, call it a work of ART . . . . This idea of the opera is woven together in a simultaneity of happenings.”
The revolutionary Russian artists felt a need to reach a large public and to mobilize emotions, and many were involved with a theory of “synthetic” theater even during the years before the revolution. Aleksandr Tairov spoke of the universal artist, and sought to fuse music, dance, Yoga and architecture in a total work. His interest in acrobatic acting made possible the remarkable set designs in which all the spaces could be activated by means of scaffolds.
The symbolist Pavel Ivanov theorized that theater needed to be brought back to the intensity of its religious origins (shades of Nietzsche) and proposed “a choral art of congregate action.” He suggested a union of spectators, actors, dancers and choruses in a common ecstasy, and, in his less extravagant proposals, came close to the views of Vsevolod Meyerhold, who early advocated “pictorial effects” and “spatial symbolism.” Meyerhold’s rich esthetic in turn fed the Proletcult Theater, in which the nonprofessional actors participated in the experience of letting the play shape itself. The environmental aspect of Proletcult theater was epitomized when Sergei Eisenstein produced a play in a factory and made use of workers at their machines.
Comparable movements away from the formal proscenium tradition in theater appeared in Germany where Ernst Toller in his 1920 production of “Masses and Men” used the diction of a pictorial artist in his synopsis: first picture, a tavern; second picture, “a dream picture”; third picture, chorus of the masses chanting “machines can never be undone”; and so on to the strange sixth picture, “Boundless space. In its kernel a cage on which a ball of light plays. A Prisoner crouching in the cage. . . . Beside the Cage the Guide in the form of a warder.”
At the same time, Georg Kaiser carefully described his settings in purely plastic terms: “Light falls in dusty beams from arc lamp. From misty height of dome dense wires horizontally to iron platform, thence diagonally distributed to small iron tables, three right, three left. Red wires to the left, green to the right.”
Artists involved as designers in such productions shared the fervent will of writer and director to go beyond forms of naturalistic bourgeois theater, and to stir the audience to its depths. George Grosz’s costume designs for Ivan Goll’s “Methusalem” were outrageous assemblages of junk materials and reflected Goll’s belief that the encasing mask would project a state of mind. The furniture-like costumes would have to be “built” as a sculptor builds. “The new drama,” Goll wrote, “must have recourse to all the technological props which are contemporary equivalents of the ancient mask. Such props are, for instance, the phonograph which masks the voice, the denatured masks and other accouterments which proclaim the character in a crudely typifying manner.”
Even more extreme in advocating a technologically oriented theater was the Bauhaus movement, where Oskar Schlemmer brilliantly designed his notably visual theater events to illuminate “the most basic nature of the stage: make-believe, mummery, metamorphosis”; and where László Moholy-Nagy forcefully advocated a “total theater” in which lights, sounds, film, human motions and machines would share the expressive burden. He referred respectfully to August Stramm (1874-1915), whose drama developed away from verbal context, from propaganda and from character delineation to what Moholy called “explosive activism.” (Stramm, by the way, wrote a play called “Geschehen,” which has been translated into English as “Happening.”)
The straining away from the confines of the proscenium stage, from verbal contexts, from fixed spaces and segregated art forms often found explanation when seen as the expression of new social needs. Dozens of artists in all the arts turned to the circus or cabaret as the ideal art form (from Kandinsky to Picasso, from Max Jacob to Fellini) since, as Adolf Loos wrote in 1926, “for the mass, comprising all sorts and conditions of men, the circus is the thing . . . it provides such a succession of nervous impressions as will prepare the ground for the growth of the roots of creative minds.” Loos’s friend Frederick Kiesler had early concluded that traditional theater no longer met society’s needs. In 1924 he was already proclaiming that it was necessary to “descend from the futurist, expressionist, cubist and constructivist pedestals; from the naturalist or abstractionist mystique. Art has been demobilized. What’s to be done? LIVE.”
By 1926, when Kiesler was busily disrupting the New York theater world with his avant-garde convictions, he could declare publicly that “the theater is dead,” and that “the contemporary theater calls for the vitality of life itself. . . . The new spirit burst the stage, resolving it into space to meet the demands of action.” He called for a new “space stage.” Kiesler’s small but consistent influence in New York from 1926 onward––as architect, sculptor and philosopher––may well have helped to innovate the hybrid theatrical event called the happening.
The notion of the total theater and the movement away from the stage finds its contemporary champions in several categories. Husband and wife Julian Beck and Judith Malina in their Living Theater had begun where Tairov and Meyerhold had left off. (They all favored a bared stage, architectonic sets, acrobatic acting––and political commitment.) As in the expressionist German drama, the Living Theater de-emphasized verbal connections and evolved a balletic mode of presentation. Gradually it also incorporated the Proletcult idea of community creation, where the play becomes the corporate product of actors and directors. The last of what Beck called his “representational” theater pieces, which “represent, states of being,” was probably “The Brig,” after which Beck and Malina, considered not the representation of states of being but states of being themselves as the essence of their art.
Beck’s production of “Frankenstein,” with its opening Yoga ritual followed by a suite of dramatic tableaux, still showed signs of conventional containment (a scaffolded stage recalling the Russians, and choreographed athletic movements) and placed considerable emphasis on visual composition. In one scene the acrobatic actors form a gigantic crucifixion tableau with their bodies. After “Frankenstein” the Living Theater abandoned the confines of the theater and engaged in the kind of communal pageantry that probably inspired medieval parades––and the psychotic mass movements recorded as St. Vitus’ dances, or the early nineteenth-century raucous balls during the death year of cholera when people danced marathon versions of the Galop Infernal.
The Becks’ example has been taken into account by Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, one of whose members, Samuel Blazer, characterizes its attitude: “It is simply no longer a question of content and style, but of intuition of form in a context of ambiguity, multiplicity, in which interaction between and among performer and audience intensifies the essential inevitable madness of art.”
While these groups respond to what they feel to be a crisis in community relations with a theater that spills out into life, other groups specializing in spectacle and hybrid events set up a cool distance. With their emphasis on the stylized movement of ritual, such artists as Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris enter the spaces of the spectator with calm disdain for his viewing habits. Rainer perpetuates Mary Wigman’s tradition of the dance without music, and Morris, being a visual artist, makes broad use of props which he moves about in slow patterns; he baffles the spectator who has fixed preconceptions about the nature of the dance.
If audiences are perturbed by the language of the new dancer, they are often outraged by comparable mergers of the arts in what are billed as concert performances. John Cage’s central theory of the interpenetration of the arts led him to punctuate his “Concert for Piano and Orchestra” with improvised props, sounds and behavior by the performers. In the performance I saw they included sirens, cuckoo calls, pistol shots, belly laughs and the battering of glass bottles, as well as the opening and shutting of an umbrella.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose experiments with markedly visual scores are of prime importance in his esthetic, put on a happening in New York in which his music was almost a pretext for a series of spectacles that included television screens, light projections, a performance on the cello by Charlotte Moorman astride a balcony rail, and slapstick clowning by Nam June Paik.
Stockhausen’s notes on some of his pieces are revealing. His straining away from conventional notation is seen in his description of “Zyklus,” which “literally depends on the ‘Augenblick,’ the instantaneous glance of the eye which has been combined with the idea of dynamic closed forms, resulting in a circular curved form. Sixteen pages of notation have been spiral bound to one another, side by side.” Of “Refrain” he writes: “The final Gestalt of a Refrain depends on the context in which the performers put it in; in the same time each Refrain influences the whole music text that follows.” This is a clear expression of a new spatial conception, new visualization of time and new notion of the importance of environment which conditions all the arts.
It has long been noticed that since Varèse many composers have dealt intimately with the visual arts. Leaving behind conventional notation, they have consciously designed visually interesting scores that sometimes look more like paintings than music scores. The number of American composers who have declared their indebtedness to visual artists is legion. Earle Brown has paid his respects to Alexander Calder, whose works gave him the idea of mobility of musical elements, and he has related his experience as composer to Pollock’s experience as painter. Morton Feldman has bowed to Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning and Philip Guston, and has spoken of the “plastic quality” he desires in his own work. He has stated that sound in itself can be a totally plastic phenomenon suggesting its own shape, design and poetic metaphor.
Feldman’s path through the new metaphors for space and time has been singular. Its latest turning brings him into direct relationship with artists in other fields. Having always pitched his shaped sounds in rather low keys, Feldman now seeks information through technological research into the possibility that music could be altogether inaudible. lf, through using sound in decibels below natural human reception, certain sensory responses can be obtained, then Feldman will have opened the way for a true synesthesia, for the establishment of a large sensorium in which the deepest reaches of the nervous system would be alerted, and in which the definition of music would incontrovertibly have to be altered. Voyaging toward the subliminal, he joins unlikely partners who, for other reasons, seek to deal with non-verbal, non-aural, kinesthetic or psychic responses.
Cage, Cunningham, Feldman, Stockhausen and their younger acolytes have pursued a course of stylized randomness in the hope of reflecting their philosophical vision of existence. The paradox of stylizing randomness is, again, peculiar to the modern era. Collectivization, with the necessary systematization it requires and its fixed categories of existence (the millions of Main Streets functioning so efficiently in their identical patterns), has called forth homeopathic exaggerations––stylizations that take place in random fashion in the coinciding arts. Expansions occur not only in the so-called high arts, but at the popular level also. The remarkable figure of Sun Ra, who has spoken of his “twelve notes infinitely expansible” and who makes liberal use of film, painted screens, banners and costumes in his performances, speaks for the realm of popular arts being transformed.
In the visual arts, expansion becomes very obvious. Many artists now seek entire rooms, buildings or parks to make their ensembles or “environments.” Robert Whitman’s very successful Pond, with its light, sound and visual projections within an enormous darkened room––at the Jewish Museum recently––typifies the aspirations of many younger artists who consider themselves visual artists. Some are extremely ambitious, as in the case of the young architect John Lobell, who together with Michael Steiner set up an environment that he hoped would actually alter basic structures of perception. He set up a series of L-shaped columns on a floor grid, monitored the motion of the spectator with an electric eye which governed light and sound, in order, he said, “to prevent conventional perspective orientation” and to have “a direct effect on orientation and communication through a particular kind of spatial partition.”
Many visual artists now claim the active participation of the spectator as a working material. When Rauschenberg showed his Soundings at the Museum of Modern Art, he darkened a room, transforming it automatically into a theater, and then commanded his audience to stamp, clap or hoot in order to set off the electronic circuit that illuminated his composition of chairs. Although the role the spectator plays is really very limited and does not involve him in a creative collaboration, he is nevertheless drawn closer to acceptance by his enforced action on the work of art.
More traditional sculptors such as George Segal and Ed Kienholz nevertheless come close to theatricality in their tableaux. Segal has in mind a diminution of the significance of an isolated art object and the attainment of some indeterminate plane of artistic existence in which art and real life can cohabit. Kienholz’ objective is more “archeological” in the sense that he presents an atmosphere complete with period-piece symbols recalling specific times and places. His “sets,” mockeries of naturalistic theater, nevertheless depend on the viewer’s concept of theater for their impact.
Many abstract sculptors enter the spaces of environmental art through their forays into the realm of the architect. It is commonplace nowadays to enter a gallery in which boxes, columns or bricks delineate architectural spaces within the given space of the room. John McCracken, for instance, offered an exhibition at the Elkon Gallery in which white squared columns punctuated the gallery space, and for which the catalogue was a proper architect’s blueprint.
Painters have also found the means to challenge the limits of their art. Some have acquired the forms of the sculptor, building out low-to-high relief forms from their canvases, as in the case of Richard Smith. Others have affixed three-dimensional objects to their paintings, beginning with Rauschenberg and Johns, and continuing into the pop phase where even kitchen sinks were included in what were still called paintings. Still others borrow from other arts in the manner of presenting their images. Ronald Kitaj, for example, doesn’t hesitate to write literary messages on his canvases and to combine them with both figurative and abstract painting elements. Others have since contented themselves with merely printing a written message on the canvas in lieu of a visual image. And others, still calling themselves visual artists, have produced only a catalogue description of a work of art never to be materialized.
In all of these extensions, expansions, invasions, evasions and implosions of the arts, several motifs keep recurring. One of the most persistent is interest in archaic forms, in myth and ritual; for moderns since Wagner believe that these have a superior ability to communicate immediate feeling. Wagner held that in myth, “human relations strip themselves almost entirely of their conventional form which is intelligible only to abstract reason . . . To whatever epoch or nation it may belong, legend has the advantage of exclusively comprising the purely human elements of that epoch and nation . . .”
Dependence on the mythical or archaic can be seen in the extensive use of spectacle, pageantry and processions (sometimes equivalent to religious ceremonies such as the processions of the Flagellantes) by contemporary artists who wish to reclaim the lost communion of the tribally shared experience.
Another recurring preoccupation is with the definition of social and esthetic values and their interrelations. Many of the artists discussed here see the modern Western world as pernicious, destructive or decadent. The hated bourgeois stands as a pillar of this civilization. These artists pit their powers against his acquisitiveness and his sanctification of the art object as property. They create happenings which, as Kaprow has said, are ephemeral and cannot be possessed by rich men.
Still another notable goal is to counter the blunting of discrimination that noisy urban life brings about. Many contemporary artists administer homeopathic remedies by bombarding the senses still more, as in the discothèque type of “art.” Or they try to salvage meaning from the bits of waste in city life, as did Kurt Schwitters and Rauschenberg. Or they use the metropolis as a structured art situation as Lissitzky suggested. Much of the activity in the sensory realm reflects a loss of confidence in the efficacy of symbolic art––painting and sculpture on the one hand, conventional poetry and drama on the other. Specifically, artists attempt to refine and make meaningful the sensory stimuli endemic to urbanized life, and they often cross the lines of all the arts––painting, sculpture, photography, films, prints, architecture and dance––in order to find the summum of this technological human condition. Light shows on a vast scale have been envisioned by many, and several have dreamed of a whole city cybernetically controlled to produce sounds and sights designed by artists working collaboratively. In France both Nicolas Schöffer and Victor Vasarely have worked along these lines for years, while in the United States “environmental designers” have lately suggested similar schemes depending on the fusion of the arts. These artists extend the art-for-arts-sake purism to art-for-life’s-sake social doctrine, attempting a difficult and possibly hopelessly Utopian reconciliation of values.
Finally, it must be noted that in the breaking down of the traditional systems of definition in the various art forms, there is, on the part of some artists, a pessimistic, almost nihilistic drive. Once the material or substantial forms of an art are abandoned, the danger of total dissolution and chaos is always present. Sartre wrote of Genet, “He hates Matter,” and added, “If he could make a form appear by itself, without content a form that emerged ‘like a proud, looming emptiness,’ then something of which he could say he was the sole creator would be born in the universe.” Sartre’s image of the prisoner Genet deprived of matter and hating it in order to be the sole creator of form is a possible image of certain artists who today seek to dematerialize or annul the traditional characters of their arts.