From the Archives: The Pro-scenic Event

Cover of the December 1981 issue of Art in America, featuring Trisha Brown's Opal Loop (1980), danced in the midst of a steam "cloud sculpture" by Fujiko Nakaya; costumes by Judith Shea. Cover photo by Johan Elbers was taken during the first performance, which took place in a loft on Crosby Street.


Trisha Brown, an American choreographer and founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, died on March 18. Noted for early postmodern works that experimented with pedestrian movements and unusual performance venues, in the 1980s Brown returned to more conventional modes of theatrical presentation. To commemorate her legacy, we looked back in our archives to our December 1981 issue, whose cover features Brown and members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company performing Opal Loop. In the issue, Craig Owens responded critically to the new direction of Brown’s work in a review of a concert of three pieces at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “[T]he return to a traditional mode of theatrical presentation has introduced a new element of risk,” Owens writes, “namely, that conventions now treated critically may be so entrenched that they will ultimately subvert all work presented in their terms, whatever its intentions.” We present the article in full below. ––Eds.

Glacial Decoy (1979) was the first dance Trisha Brown made specifically for a proscenium stage, and it is danced mostly about the frame. Here is how she describes its structure: “The opening section presents the outside edges of the so-called dance; the middle, the center of the phrases, is missing. [. . .] Next you get the core of the dance. This second section is never seen again, except . . . every time I talk about dance, I think I’m lying. It’s too complex, but I’ll simplify. The second section is never seen again. The third section is a duet which gives you the center of the dance, and in the final section, all the parts appear at once.” 1

The main agent of the structural fragmentation Brown describes is the frame imposed upon the dance by the proscenium arch. In the opening sequence, for example, only the peripheries of the stage are used: one at a time, soloists emerge in mid-phrase from opposite sides of the stage, only to disappear back into the wings before the phrase can be completed. This alternating pattern of lateral movement, and the play of appearance and disappearance it inaugurates, suggests that the dance is not contained by the proscenium but continues off-stage or, rather, that it might continue were it not interrupted by the frame.

The same choreography is repeated at the conclusion of the dance, when it is augmented with two additional dancers who occupy the center of the stage, so that the opening sequence is re-presented as the outside edges of a quartet. Yet this quartet requires more space for its execution than is marked off by the proscenium; as dancers shift to the left, then to the right, always maintaining equal distance among themselves, one of them is invariably plunged into the wings. As a result, most of the time it is impossible to perceive this quartet as a quartet, but only as a trio.

Thus, part of Glacial Decoy always seems to be missing, obscured by the frame. By incorporating the proscenium in this way, Brown has successfully subverted its pictorializing function––its tendency to present what it frames as integral, complete; self-sufficient, but only by delimiting, restricting, confining it. Because the contours of the dance do not appear to coincide with those imposed by the proscenium or, rather, because the frame defines the dance only by truncating it, Brown has exposed the limitation implicit in any act of framing.

(Brown recently completed a half-hour videotape of her work for Public Television; scheduled for broadcast in January, it is called Dancing on the Edge––a title which could, of course, be applied to those sequences of Glacial Decoy described above. Working in collaboration with video artist and photographer Peter Campus, Brown has sought equivalents, within the medium of video itself, for the devices of fragmentation, interruption, splicing and overlay that characterize her recent choreography. Using extremely tight shots and multiple camera angles, she has pulled apart the continuous fabrics of Locus and Opal Loop, as if to acknowledge the limitations of the camera. Yet Brown’s choreography has been amplified, rather than reduced, by its mechanical inscription.)

Glacial Decoy marks not only Brown’s first use of a proscenium, but also the introduction into her work of sets and costumes––by Robert Rauschenberg––as if the frame itself demanded some scenographic supplement. What is so remarkable about Rauschenberg’s glacial decor––a constantly changing montage of black-and-white photographs––is the way it grasps and articulates, in its own terms, the terms of Brown’s choreography. Four rear-projected images––vertical in format, echoing the upright stance of the dancers––progress from left to right across the backdrop, the rhythmic sound of the slide carrousels providing the dance with its only aural accompaniment. Every four seconds, all four photographs shift to the right, the image on the extreme right disappearing as a new one appears on the left to begin its trajectory across the stage, miming the lateral moves of the dancers into and out of the frame. Is it merely accidental that Glacial Decoy should be a square dance––four dancers, four sections, four images, four-second intervals, all representing, perhaps, the four corners required to complete the frame?

Surrounded by the thick black borders which appear on all of his prints, Rauschenberg’s photographs represent random details isolated from their contexts­­­­––a cow’s head, a lightbulb, a piece of sky….Subject matter seems unimportant; nor are the juxtapositions of images particularly meaningful. Rather, it is the fragmentary nature of each photograph, the fact that it has been arbitrarily cropped from a larger continuum, that is emphasized. (Photography is, of course, that art form in which we experience most nakedly the act of framing as constitutive of the image.)

Moreover, because Rauschenberg’s multiple frames are not static, it is impossible to watch both performance and décor at the same time: if we concentrate on the pictures, we lose the thread of the dance; when we focus on the dancers, we receive only a vague impression of movement behind them. Thus, Rauschenberg’s continually dissolving frames offer a visual analogue for Brown’s choreography, in which each movement seems to be interrupted by the next, creating the impression, as Yvonne Rainer once observed of her own dancing, “that the body is constantly engaged in transitions.” 2

Similarly, Rauschenberg’s costumes––loose, transparent, ankle-length shifts­––never coalesce with the dancers’ bodies to form a static picture. As Rainer observed of Glacial Decoy, “Because the dress stands away from the body––Bob’s design kept it sculptural––the image is never totally integrated or unified…The translucency of the costumes at first seemed somewhat lascivious, but then I thought, ‘It works because the dancing doesn’t display the body statically and there are no moments of exhibitionist posturing.'” 3

Here, Rainer reiterates the fundamentally anti-theatrical posture of what has come to be known as postmodern dance 4 ––the new choreographic practice that emerged in the work of the dancers assembled in the mid-‘60s at the Judson Dance Theater: Rainer, Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay. Postmodern dance was initially defined through a systematic critique of the rhetoric, conventions and esthetic hierarchies imposed upon dance by what Rainer once stigmatized as an “obsolescent art form: theater.” 5 That critique resulted in a radical economy of movement and austerity of means that aligned the work of these dancers with that of the Minimal sculptors. Minimal dance and Minimal sculpture were, in fact, parallel manifestations of a single impulse: a questioning of an entrenched illusionism in both theater and painting––an illusionism that works to withdraw the art object or event from the spatial and temporal conditions of its viewing into a synthetic, purely pictorial space.

This illusionistic practice, valorized in the critical writings of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, was predicated upon an implicit belief in the absolute necessity of framing (in Fried’s essay on Stella, Olitski and Ron Davis, this belief was explicitly articulated). Framing is, in fact, what allows us to distinguish between a work of art and its context––neither of which can be said to exist as such without the frame. Separating the inside from the outside, and thus the intrinsic from extrinsic, the proper from the improper, the frame stands for our belief that these things can, in fact, be rigorously distinguished. This is one of the fundamental presuppositions upon which Western art theory is based; 6 Minimalism, however, set out to test and contest its validity.

Consider a Minimalist “work” like Robert Morris’s 1964 installation at the Green Gallery, where a triangular plywood wedge was placed in one corner of the gallery and painted the same color as the walls, so that it merged physically with the architecture. The formal properties of such “objects’ were not simply determined by their “contexts”; rather, such “works” challenged our belief that we can actually experience “work” and “context” as distinct. Standing outside the problematics of framing, Morris questioned it, substituting for our view of the work of art as a discrete “object” or “event” something we might call “esthetic intervention” into a preexisting situation.

The happenings, environments and installations that proliferated during the ‘60s were all the results of a similar questioning of framing; this rejection of the frame, anticipated by Duchamp’s paintings on glass, was transmitted via John Cage and Merce Cunningham to the dancers assembled at Judson, where it was reinforced by the experience of Minimal sculpture. All of these dancers abandoned the proscenium; while undoubtedly enforced by economic considerations, theirs was primarily an esthetic decision. Performed without décor in lofts and studios, galleries and museums, public plazas and gymnasiums, with the audience often surrounding the dance, or at least three sides of it, their works were understood to take place not in some illusory theatrical “elsewhere,” but in the very places where we encountered them. Thus, the architectural specifics of a given space were frequently incorporated into the performance, often as obstacles to be negotiated.

But now these same choreographers are returning, one by one, to the proscenium, and to the theatrical apparatus that accompanies it. This development is certainly not limited to Brown’s recent work; two years ago, Lucinda Childs collaborated with Sol LeWitt and Phillip Glass to produce Dance [see A.I.A., May ‘80], an ostentatious combine of movement, film and music seen in the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy; this month, she will present her second full-length work, Relative Calm, with décor by Robert Wilson and a score by Jon Gibson. Certainly an expanded audience and increased financial support have contributed to this development (although economic stability continues to elude most of these choreographers); still, the consequences have been primarily esthetic.

The return to the proscenium, and the introduction of musical and scenographic elements that has accompanied this return, is not in itself the sign of a new “theatricality,” as some critics have suggested. 7 A work like Glacial Decoy demonstrates that it is possible to use theatrical conventions against themselves, thus extending the minimalist critique of theater into the very precincts that it once seemed necessary to reject. Nor does this return suggest that these choreographers have capitulated to the historico-cultural inevitability of those conventions although it does suggest a certain complicity with them). However, the return to a traditional mode of theatrical presentation has introduced a new element of risk namely, that conventions now treated critically may be so entrenched that they will ultimately subvert all work presented in their terms, whatever its intentions.

This danger was exposed in Brown’s recent concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music [Oct. 16, 17 and 18, ‘81], where the black-and-white restraint of Glacial Decoy was immediately followed by the coloristic exuberance of Brown’s most recent work, Son of Gone Fishin’, with a set by Donald Judd, costumes by Judith Shea and, in what is perhaps the most significant departure from Brown’s previous practice, a musical score by Robert Ashley.

Son of Gone Fishin’ marks Judd’s debut as a theatrical designer, and for this occasion he has chosen to work exclusively with color, producing a set that works in purely painterly terms. (Judd’s work has, of course, frequently treated the issue of color, but never, as here, as a pure, disembodied thing in itself.) At the opening of the dance, a light blue backdrop is suspended roughly six feet above the stage, revealing a narrow strip of darker blue a few feet behind. The first curtain eventually disappears upward to expose the full expanse of the second drop, which in its turn is raised six feet to reveal a bright emerald green cloth. Once the full expanse of this third cloth has been exposed, the entire process is repeated in reverse.

The changing relationships among Judd’s three color fields introduced a temporal dimension into the décor, each shift producing a corresponding alteration in our perception of the proportions of the stage and thus of the dance’s relationship to it. Yet because each scenery change was accompanied by a change in illumination (a fact that was revealed only when lightning cues were sloppily executed), it became impossible to determine whether those perceptual shifts were created by Judd’s shifting color fields or by his recourse to the mechanisms of theatrical illusionism.

Judd also insisted that Shea’s costumes be executed in the same three colors as his backdrops, thus betraying a desire to create a perfectly unified visual ensemble. This impulse towards synthesis worked to withdraw the entire performance into an illusionistic, purely pictorial space. It should be remembered that Judd once stigmatized illusionism as one of the “most objectionable relics of European art,” claiming that “actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface” 8 ; his décor, however, seems to represent a repudiation of this position. If Glacial Decoy,  by acknowledging the frame, made contact with the specific conditions of its performance, Son of Gone Fishin’, entirely contained within the frame, ignores those conditions.

Nor is the choreography for this dance immune to charges of pictorialism. Here, Brown has employed more dancers (seven) than in any of her previous works, deploying them in shifting clusters that continually present the viewer with a sometimes bewildering set of visual choices. Yet despite––or perhaps because of––the wealth of incident thus created, this is also the most formal of her dances to date. The curtain rises to reveal a static tableau of dancers. Brown then dances past them, distributing to each dancer that portion of the core phrase which his or her choreography will develop. The core phrase is repeated several times throughout the course of the dance, in various combinations and recombinations transmitted through the ensemble like a shock wave or tremor. While this effect is both visually and kinesthetically striking, it also tends to establish the core phrase as a fixed image that the dance continually works to reconstitute. Brown returns to the stage only at the conclusion, to literally wrap things up, thus perfectly framing the dance.


If Son of Gone Fishin’ strikes me as a problematic work, this is because its creators seem to accept, rather than contest, the conventions of traditional theatrical presentation. This tendency was also demonstrated in the restaging of Brown’s Opal Loop with which her Brooklyn concert concluded. Originally choreographed for the more informal studio setting in which her dances were usually presented, Opal Loop was performed in the midst of a stream “cloud sculpture” engineered by Fujiko Nakaya, with Judith Shea providing costumes. [See cover photo for original performance.] Clouds, of course, elude definition, limitation; they have no fixed boundaries, no determinable contours. When presented in a loft on Crosby Street, Nakaya’s cloud––produced by a formidable array of steam pipes and valves––was not contained within space allotted to the performance, but spilled over into the audience, thus obscuring whatever implicit limit exists between performance and audience, denying the very possibility of framing.

At Brooklyn, however, with the equipment required to generate the cloud exposed in a brutalist pictorial image, the cloud tended to hover at the back of the stage, remaining decorously within its frame. Its point subverted, its critical potential denied, it became merely a decorative backdrop to the performance.

The new pictorialism that emerged during the 1970s to displace the anti-pictorial concerns of the previous decade––manifested in art primarily in a return to the conventions of easel painting and in performance in the emergence of a “theater of images,” exemplified in the work of Robert Wilson––has now begun to manifest itself precisely in those esthetic precincts that had once declared their hostility to pictorialism. This development is not, of course, peculiar to Brown’s concert; the evidence is everywhere: Judd’s recent wall-hugging installation at Castelli Greene Street; Sol LeWitt’s geometric Project, equally at home on the walls of the Paula Cooper Gallery and the pages of Artforum; the recourse to illusionism in Richard Serra’s attempts at monumental public sculpture. Yet given the new wave of pictorialism that has inundated us, Minimalism’s critical vigilance against received esthetic ideas seems more urgent than ever––that is, if it has not permanently hardened around the edges.