Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

The Memory of the Dance: Trisha Brown at Sikkema Jenkins

Trisha Brown, Works at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

December 9, 2011 – January 25, 2012
530 West 22 Street at 10th avenue
New York, (212) 929 2262

Trisha Brown, Untitled (London), 2003. Charcoal and oil pastel on paper, 107 x 126 inches. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Trisha Brown, Untitled (London), 2003. Charcoal and oil pastel on paper, 107 x 126 inches. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Trisha Brown’s long, illustrious career as a choreographer and dancer has won her many awards and much recognition. Now age 75, her early work was colored by friendships with Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Rauschenberg, the later artist with whom she collaborated. Her choreography, featured in a video in the gallery shot by Brown herself, is athletic and gently humorous, gaining her an international reputation as an artist of supreme skill and subtlety. She is perhaps not so well known for her performative drawings—works on paper, placed on the floor, that are accomplished while Brown dances with pastels or charcoal in hands or feet, recording her movements on stage. The exhibition consists of these large sheets of paper, shown vertically on the gallery walls, recording Brown’s motions and appearing, rather oddly, like the traces of atomic movement. Relating to the abstract expressionist movement, the works on paper, part of the “It’s a Draw” series, are easily compared to the abstract, richly evocative spectrum of marks and scribbles achieved by Cy Twombly.

It is important to remember, however, that Brown’s drawings reflect a physical activity: the dance performance. While there is a direct correlation between Brown’s dances and the marks she makes on paper, the relations between the two are resolutely abstract—we cannot reconstruct the dance from the marks alone. This uncertainty actually becomes an advantage in Brown’s hands, in large part because the drawings belong to the idiom of the New York School, which gives the artist a context in addition to the defining but invisible circumstances to which the marks refer. The result is a marvelous tension between the drawings’ origins and the way they are actually seen: the works quite literally mark actions occurring over time, so that there is a fourth dimension to what Brown is doing. Like many successful ideas in art, the concept of registering motion is simple but generates an esthetic of considerable complexity. The drawings therefore may be said to possess two lives—one as a record of dancing, a different artistic activity; and another as a sequence of independent drawings belonging to the tradition of the New York School.

Most of the drawings in the show are remarkably large, with their squiggles, smudges, and blotches pinning down the memory of actual movement occurring in real time. Oddly, but beautifully, there is a moment when the memory of the dance performance and the performance of the drawing merge in an action-based insight of which the visionary John Cage would have entirely approved. Viewers must remember that Brown’s career as a dancer spans more than just one generation and argues for a tradition of alternative art; this small but genuine history gives Brown the context she needs, while the drawings themselves build whimsical structures that actually refer to the dancer’s body and its expressiveness. In the first work of the suite Untitled (London), 2003, most of the linear activity is occurring in the lower half of the composition, with the scrawls building some sort of structure.

The intelligence of the work is not to be denied and can even suggest a certain curiousness, in the sense that Brown was not thinking at all when she made her marks. But even so, it can be acknowledged that the body has its own perceptions, sometimes of acute insight. Untitled (Montpellier), 2002 consists of a suite of the large drawings and there is little stylistic difference between the two groups of works. Despite the visual muttering evident in Brown’s art, the drawings’ integrity wins out because their origins belong to another field. Brown is thus triumphant not in one but in two modes of expression, leading us toward the understanding that complexity can be both personal and publicly compelling when handled intelligently.

Trisha Brown, Untitled (Montpelier), 2002. Charcoal on paper, 130.25 x 106.75 inches. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
click to enlarge
Trisha Brown, Untitled (Montpelier), 2002. Charcoal on paper, 130 x 106.75 inches. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
click to enlarge