postmodern

Interview with Judith Linhares

By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2014

 
Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

 

Judith Linhares is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York.  Born in Pasadena, California in 1940, she earned both her BFA and MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  Her work has been included in 53 solo exhibitions and more than 175 group exhibitions.  Her awards include the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Adeline Kent Award, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, Anonymous Was A Woman grant, a Pollock Krasner grant and an Adolph Gottleib grant.  Her work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution of American Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of American Art, San Francisco, CA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Berkley Museum of Art, CA, and the Frederick Weisman Collection, Los Angeles, CA.  Linhares is represented in New York by PPOW and in Los Angeles, California by Various Small Fires.

Special thanks to Brian Wood for his assistance with this interview.

Before we get to the questions I had a thought from seeing this vase of flowers—do you paint from life?

I do not make my work form life. I like to have a vase of fresh flowers in the house and I have cultivated a large flower garden in our farmhouse upstate to get ideas about color and form.  I’ve thought about this process of painting from life a lot when I started painting flowers I thought I’d just set up some flowers and paint them. That worked for a while, but then I just started making them up. The paintings made from inventing and constructing the flowers have much more intensity. Now I know every flower by heart.

 
Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen.

Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen.

 

I actually find that’s the case too, there’s some kind of real magic in remembering or imagining.  And then you have the complete freedom to make up your own world and you’re not attached to the real world in front of you.

Yes, absolutely. There’s something about internalizing the form and repeating it that’s good.  I miss that my students used to really like to work from the model, and now you can’t force them to do it. I would work along with them in this atmosphere of concentration. I guess I’ll have to hire my own model and do it on my own time.

They’re not doing it as much in school?

In the foundation class I have them paint from the model because it’s just required, and they’re willing to accept that idea as freshmen, but after that they’re really not interested.

So it’s the students that don’t want to do it?

Yeah. There were always at least a few people who would give me an excuse to have a model in the classroom and then I could sneak in a few little gouaches or something, but that just is not happening.  I don’t think you can apply it generally to all schools, I think it’s particular to SVA.  I mean, there will always be somebody who’s really interested in pursuing representational painting, but even those people now will get their own models or work from internet photographs.

Which class do you prefer teaching, Foundation or Third year?

I like them for different reasons.  Directing people through a process and getting to know them is critical in the first year.   I just really like the process, believe in working, and it’s a good way to spend your day.  I don’t think these students at this time are really interested in working like that, they don’t see working in your studio and making discoveries in the physical process as a way to develop their work. Perhaps they will feel differently when they graduate and have their own studios.

Most of my second year class at SVA was based around the model, and the rest of the class was still life—particularly painting the skull. 

I get so much guff from the freshmen who think art is all about the subject.  I think it’s good for your character to have to paint from life —you learn a kind of discipline by sitting still and struggling in a gap between what you see and what you can actually make.  It’s good for you; everybody should have to do it!

How did you know or discover that you were an artist?  What was your first encounter with painting?

My grandmother raised me and she had this painting of a bucolic scene with cows by a lake.  I still remember it, as it was the only painting in the house. We were quite poor, so we didn’t have a lot of paintings or books—we did not have a television in the house until my teens. Books with pictures really impressed me like Currier and Ives 19th century popular prints; they’re very kitschy.  There are couples kissing in the forest and going for sleigh rides, as well as their political cartoons.  The other book that we had with pictures was an illustrated Bible and some connection between the stories and the pictures was resonating within me.  As far as discovering I was an artist, basically, I knew that I really couldn’t do anything else, ever.  I was fairly athletic but nothing extraordinary.  In the fifth grade, I was the only one who could draw a Conestoga wagon and I received some attention for this skill.  I was constantly trying to improve my drawing skills by drawing the desert yucca plants or coping scenes from Wonder Woman in grade school composition books. The desert landscape is very deeply embedded in my roots.

I’ve heard that from other artists—that they were singled out to draw things in an early childhood class environment, and they decided that that’s their identity.

That’s right and my family was not in any manner traditional types.  My grandmother was a musician. She went to a music conservatory and later in life enjoyed playing the organ in a retro movie theater to epic Hollywood Westerns shot on the neighboring rancheros turned film sets. My grandfather also fancied himself a writer—he would go camping with his dog Poncho in the High Sierras sometimes for six months typing these long letters about his experience. As they all had artistic ambitions of sorts, my discovered talent for drawing made sense to them.

So they were happy to hear that you were becoming a painter?

Well, mother had my life figured out for me—being a painter was just fine because I could become a high school art teacher and have the summers off, which would be really good, as I would be able to spend time going to the beach, because that’s what SHE liked to do!

Where in California did you grow up? Were you or your mother into surfing at all?

Southern California. First, raised by my grandmother in the High Desert town of Newhall where my great-grandfather arrived in 1900 as a blacksmith, then Manhattan Beach near Venice Beach when my mother remarried.  My mother was involved in physical culture.  Her boyfriends were body builders and she took me with her to Santa Monica where they lifted weights. My uncle was into flexing his muscles on the beach lifting me up into pretzel-like show-off poses.  It’s funny–I’m hearing about all my friends  going back to the Middle West for the holidays and remembering how repressive their childhoods where, my childhood was not repressed at all!  There’s a goofy sense of freedom that goes on in California that’s about the enjoyment of nature. It is our birthright.

 
Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen.

Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen.

 

How did growing up in California inform your work?

Hugely, in all kinds of ways.  I was a mature artist when I moved to New York and my roots show.  Growing up in California has so much to do with my attitude on so many levels.  One of them has to do with the fantasy of being a survivor in nature that every Californian entertains. People move to California to enjoy outdoors like swimming in the Pacific, camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and all of that.  I think people in the east presume that if you’re an artist you’re just dying to move to New York, but actually Californians think very highly of themselves.  Especially in L.A. where they do take care of their artists very well.  It’s a different kind of environment and it isn’t the trading post the way New York is.  There isn’t as much opportunity. L.A. is vast but there aren’t as many galleries and there isn’t this incredible commercial scene.  Dealers often truck paintings to Hollywood homes for clients to live with before purchasing. Paintings compete with the views out the window. But people have been developing their work living outside of New York, remaining free from the hierarchy of the East Coast.

Living in Los Angles as an adult really wasn’t a possibility for me because my family lived there and I just wasn’t going to live in the same town.  But as my parents were declining I spent a lot of time there, in the last six years I was there a lot, four or five times a year at least and all holidays. I really got to like it and how it sees itself, with the Modernist architecture and the ideal of living inside and outside at the same time.  I grew up there in the 50’s when Modernism was just beginning to be entrenched in America.   Design was a big interest in California, and I realized that the Eameses lived just up the hill from my parents.  Modern design as a way of imagining the future and moving away from the comfort of tradition. In the big picture, I couldn’t imagine myself living there and having to get into my car every day, that part I don’t like but there is a lot to like.  There’s something about the vast yellow hillside fields and twisted black oak trees, and, of course, my desert landscape, that enters you forever, so it’s always going to feel like home.

You’ve said that you’re interested in fairy tales and mythology in your work–depicting those figures in domestic situations, such as napping or cooking, often in an environment bathed with strange light.  What is your attraction to the context of the domestic life?

One of my struggles has been—how do I make something that’s narrative or suggests a story so the viewer can enter it with their own ideas of what’s going on?  So, I do not  like to start with  known fairytales in mind , my first interest was psychology. Carl Jung was interested in the original source of narratives and his ideas about the collective unconscious led to my interest in fairytales. I realized, with the help of Marina Warner, Anne Sexton, and Maria Tatar, who write about fairytales, that mythology is like the grand narrative and fairytales are oral reinterpretations after the myths, a lot of them are very parallel.  But the difference is they’re not taking place ‘on high,’ they’re taking place ‘on Earth’ in these very humble circumstances.  So I think it’s the humbleness of domesticity that I’m interested in—it’s sort of anti-heroic.

I used to paint a lot of narratives with skeletons. Everybody understands that the skeleton is a figure with a certain kind of meaning. I would see other work with skeletons and I would think, “Did I make that?”  The skeleton was so general and anonymous; I realized that I had to get away from it, to paint the figure more particular, more sexy with flesh.

 
Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen

Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen

 

Can you talk a little bit about your process, do you add and subtract on the canvas?  How do you know when a painting is finished?

I’m laughing because I hope they look like they were made with great ease, but they were not!  I work a lot on paper and have literally thousands of small gouaches.  Some of them start completely abstract and then I read into the painting and pull the figure or the subject matter out of something that’s just a few different shaped rectangles.  So they definitely develop—that’s part of my issue with illustration, if it comes full-blown as an idea then you’re just illustrating something out of your head.  It’s really important to me to have it come to life before my very eyes and surprise me.  I guess I’m not really that ambivalent about the process but sometimes I wonder how I arrived at this process. Working from the general to the specific and then getting it more defined … a little more defined … a little more defined, and that’s just my process. My paintings evolve over a pretty long period of time.  I had an epiphany around the work of the German painter Gunter Forg. His work is done mentally as he sets the stage with the plan in his head of what he is going to do and what he is not going do, then he just makes the work. It is what it is. I love that. I just love it! However, I want a picture … I want an illusion … I want specificity … and it’s just never going to happen that way in my studio.

I’m such an admirer of Hopper. I’m interested in the mythology around what it is to be American, and he’s so emblematic in so many ways. It’s interesting that he was influenced by the movies. This makes perfect sense the way every frame is really constructed and thought out as far as relationships of parts to the whole and what emotional effect those big empty spaces might have.  At a certain point, I just realized I’m not Edward Hopper!

 
Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen

Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen

 

You’ve been in many group painting exhibitions recently, including cross-generational shows where young painters are seen in context with well-respected and accomplished painters such as yourself.  How do you see this dialogue developing and do you think it’s important for different generations of painters to speak to each other both through their work and in a social context?  What do you think we can share with each other? 

Well first of all, I like young people. I really enjoy teaching—it gives me access to people I’d never have access to if I weren’t teaching them.  And I like the teaching context because I find it very moving to see people and their struggles to make meaning in their lives.  It’s very life-affirming.  I think that every generation has a different take, because you’re coming in to consciousness at different points in history.  I’m interested in the shifts that happen in response to economics and social awareness. I’m interested how people feel about their lives at this moment in time and what is art for and who is it for.

I feel like the art world is really changing, especially over the past five years. There is a new idealism in younger people with a multigenerational effect as part of the desire to be inclusive. We live in a community of artists, and one of the great things we have is the ability to talk to each other. That’s got to be a good thing! I see the phenomenon of curators putting different generations together as part of the promotion of a dialogue.  Some time last year I read Louis Hyde—he had a big article in the Times called “Who is Art For?” and I think especially in view of economic inequality this is the question to be asking. I came of age in the civil rights era and we were very idealistic. It was about seeing the future as non-hierarchical and people being really equal. I think art might be seen as captured by the elite in some way.  Who is art for? is not a subject that gets much attention. These questions are now beginning to be asked and implemented by younger generations.  I really get a kick out of this new job description for an artist—being both the community activist and the gallerist, I mean that’s pretty amazing. It reminds me of the alternatives that went on in California the 60’s then again in Lower Manhattan in the early 80’s where there was a lot of dialogue because the money issue was put aside.

You were included in the seminal 1978 New Museum exhibition “Bad” Painting curated by Marcia Tucker, who was saying that “bad” painting might mean freedom, ie:

“The freedom with which these artists mix classical and popular art-historical sources, kitsch and traditional images, archetypal and personal fantasies, constitutes a rejection of the concept of progress . . . By passing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want. In part, this is one of the most appealing aspects of “bad” painting – that the ideas of “good” and “bad” are flexible and subject to both the immediate and the larger context in which the work is seen.” 

What do you think of the term “bad painting” today? Do you think it still has currency or potential today? 

Yeah, I think it was a really interesting moment.  Marcia was definitely of the same generation I’m from and she and her parents were active in Civil Rights and feminism.

I think that her vision was to see the New York scene open up to changing forces—to invite in these artists from all over the country to decentralizing New York in terms of the generational flow of Modernist painting. Abstract Expressionism is fantastic, it’s still way up there in my mind as the greatest art ever made, but there was a kind of tyranny around it, where so many possibilities had to be repressed in order to execute the party line. And I think that everybody felt that. I was coming from California, the land of total permission, so I didn’t exactly know; I didn’t have a real feel of where she was coming from.  I hadn’t experienced first hand the tyranny of this kind of Old New York School, but I think that’s what she was pushing against, or she could see the artists were pushing against it.  That we could open the door and let in these other possibilities—it would challenge and topple the old authority. She started a wave of interest not only in painting but a dialogue with the individual artists. This morphed into the bad-boy styles of “Neo-Expressionism” and continues to re-merge in the work of young artists.

Do you think there’s something else that’s like “bad painting” that’s going on today?

There’s a lot of interest in ‘outsider’ work, and certainly that was going on in California fifty years ago! I was collecting, teaching at community centers with Vietnam Vets and at The Creative Growth Center, as well as participating in the 1967 San Francisco Museum of Art “Dia De Los Muertos (Souls and Spirits)” 1979 exhibition. Nobody had a problem with that.  It’s great that there’s more people invited to the party.  I think outsider work represents work that’s done spontaneously, it’s done with a certain compulsive urgency, and it’s mostly done with a pure heart because of the needs of the maker.   This is a wonderful thing to keep in mind.  I’m not sure that it’s important to aspire to, but it’s a nice kind of marker to keep in mind. When I see a lot of work made by outsiders, it makes me long to see a Matisse, it will make me long to see somebody who’s intellectually engaged.

Many of your paintings are of or have female figures in them.  Do you consider yourself a feminist?  What is your interest in the female figure?  What does it mean to be a female painter right now?

I think I was born a feminist!  I come from a long line of Amazons and the revival of feminism in the nineteen seventies was a very revelatory moment for my work—it gave a framework for my thinking. And it gave a context for my previous experiences, which were pretty horrendous.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, I can’t wait for Hillary Clinton to run for president and see everybody go nuts!

The women in my work are just going about their business; they are really not posing. A young painter mentioned recently that my women look like they escaped from the Demoisselles d’Avignon or a Cezanne painting and are now on leave pursuing they’re own futures.  I think about their body language and what their appearance might signify in hedonistic reverie and how their presence is different than the presence of the female figure in premodern painting where it was presumed that the male gaze owned the women. In my paintings, the women own the real estate. Jennifer Riley described this idea about women and real estate in a review of my work, and I love that.

 I LOVE the HBO show Girls! I think that show is revolutionary! The character Hannah [Lena Dunham], is always seen au natural and often scantily clothed, she is not trying to be an ideal beauty. I think she is making a case for “this is the way women actually look you deal with it” and one does not have to live up to impossible ideals off beauty.   The territory of the idealized female form brings to mind the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage. Now that I think about it, Lisa is combining the idealized (the smooth skin conveyed by the wonderfully crafted surface that represents the women’s skin) and the poses that are less than flattering and idealizing.

There has been a conversation about postmodern or ironic painting versus an emerging desire for emotionally honest painting, sincere painting. Thoughts? What do you think about the role of postmodernism and irony in painting?

There’s a lot of art I like that is ironic. I think it’s fine to strategize ahead of time but it’s just not for me and I don’t know if I can make any blanket statements about irony. I will say being overly earnest and naive is not a good option either.

Seeing Christopher Wool’s show this fall was food for thought.   He has a certain distance in his work that could be seen as ironic and it reminds me that a paint stroke doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in 1955.  I quite like the results and the show at the Guggenheim. You see a mind working through thirty years of painting.

I like really risky work, work that’s embarrassing and makes you uncomfortable.  And certainly his work isn’t embarrassing, it’s incredibly elegant I think one of the particular things that painting offers—is that it is visual and physical.  I see the danger –if you’re a painter and you’re painting on a rectangle you have thousands of years of history to contend with.  Your work will submerge in that history if you don’t do something to distinguish it. I don’t know how you address that. Certainly one way would be strategy.

Personally I like the confines of traditional painting.  I think Poussin’s paintings are like miracles.  I can get so many ideas and be so stimulated from this simple rectangle—it gives me hope that I could make something that good, or that significant.

I am not sure I know what emotionally honest painting is but there is an idea of working through the process little by little and not looking for short cuts. Developing your relationship with the work over time is present in all good art be it Sigmar Polke or Fairfield Porter or Leonor Fini or Frida Kahlo.

I remember getting a letter in 1972 asking for my comments on the death of painting.  This notion has been around forever, that painting is done and let’s move on and it’s not a possibility.

But here we are and you’re still making still lifes!  What do you think are the possibilities in figurative painting with “traditional” elements and structures such as the still-life and the nude?

I guess I’m just really confident that I bring something unique to it!  Because it isn’t really just a still-life and I paint naked figures in action, not academic nudes.

I find the patronage aspect a little troublesome…the idea that the really wealthy get the first access to buy good paintings unless you’re really smart with a good eye!  That is problematic.  It’s so easy to commodify.

There was a big article in The New Yorker about Theaster Gates who has a Community Art Center in Chicago that is really brilliant. The artist’s work is actually changing his rust belt neighborhood into a new Eden, and bringing more voices into the conversation as an activist.  I mean it’s amazing and really something to aspire to.  He will not need to be alone for eight hours a day!

Do you feel the same way about Bushwick?

Oh yeah, it’s definitely an amazing phenomenon and it’s so great!  All of these things are fabulous and I am pleased to be included in new gallery shows at Elgin Gallery, Heliopolis, and Fred Valentine’s gallery.  I mean I actually thought about this when I was getting out of art school, because it was the time of civil rights, and I was teaching in Oakland public schools.  I really felt like art could save people’s lives and wouldn’t it be great to just go around and give people art materials and show their work in Oakland, and how would you begin to do that?  So I think it’s fantastic that there are these artist-run galleries that give their fellow artists an opportunity to show their work because it’s what is needed to make good work—it’s part of the process.  And there were real forerunners like Pierogi.  I mean there was a strong history in the New York 70’s and 80’s alternative art worlds operating with the ghost of money and the enthusiasm has spread with the Artists’ Space and White Columns philosophy to other venues like Zurcher Studio, Brian Morris Gallery, and Lesley Heller Workspace. It’s great to see artist-selected groupings.  So there are these Gowanus, Bushwick, and Ridgewood galleries with a community-oriented “y’all come” kind of thing.  And the fact that these artists’ run galleries are so numerous gives it a certain credibility.

 
Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen

Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen

 

What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

Well, I guess I’m not big on giving advice!  You should do what you personally can do.

For me it’s important to make a mess every day. That’s kind of at the core of my involvement, as a process of working through poverty and single motherhood, everything is to make sure that I’m working, that I never stop working.

I have always relied on community, as the first line of being visible and finding encouragement. This started with the informal women’s groups in San Francisco. The move to the more intensely verbal and overtly competitive New York art world has helped me develop my work and clarify my ideas. To be in an environment where every one believes in the importance of art really puts wind in my sails.

Published in Figure/Ground April 14th, 2014

Interview with Lori Ellison

By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2014

Lori Ellison was a nationally exhibiting artist and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.  She received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1981 and her MFA from Tyler School of Art in 1996. She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1993.  Ellison worked with notebook paper and pen in addition to gouache on panels, and she has also worked with egg tempera, enamels, and glitter.  Ellison was also a poet and aphorist.  Recent group exhibitions include The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, Philip Slein Gallery in St Louis, MO, and the UB Art Gallery at SUNY Buffalo.  Her work has been reviewed in The New York TimesNew York MagazineArtcriticalHyperallergic, and numerous other publications.  Ellison’s drawings are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Her paintings and drawings are now on view in a solo exhibition entitled “Lori Ellison” at McKenzie Fine Art in New York through February 16th, 2014.

I first encountered Lori Ellison’s work and writings on Facebook. Special thanks to painter Ben Pritchard for introducing me to Ellison during Ellison’s opening reception at McKenzie Fine Art on January 10th, 2014. Thanks also to Brian Wood for his help in the development of the interview questions and to Valerie McKenzie of McKenzie Fine Art in New York for her help with this project.

Can you talk a little about your background and upbringing? How did you become an artist?  What is your first memory of acknowledging/discovering art and finding your place in it?

I drew all the time when I was a child and the womenfolk in my family said I would be an artist when I grew up and I tended to believe them.  I grew up in the DC area so my parents took us constantly to the museums there so I had a lot of early exposure to art.

When the time came in my senior year to apply for college, my father and I decided going into commercial art would be practical and so I applied to Virginia Commonwealth University and got in to the Communication Arts and Design department.  What I learned about design I use intuitively with the work I do in abstraction.

 
Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

What effect did moving to New York City have on your work?

The first summer I was here, in 1996, (right after graduating from my MFA at Tyler School of Art) I was subletting a space without a studio or an air conditioner.  I had discovered myself doodling motifs from my paintings in my notebook during lectures and artist’s talks.  I had a college ruled notebook and started making serious drawings with a Papermate ballpoint pen in cafes and diners for the air conditioning.  I took my work to Pierogi and met so many artists in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, and some collectors and artists bought my work.

Kasia’s was a Polish restaurant I went to frequently for lunch and coffee and an artist named Greg Stone pointed me out to art critic Sarah Schmerler and she wrote an article called “Working in Brooklyn” for Art on Paper Magazine including my work and four others who worked in what has often been termed an obsessive style.  Due to this article my work was purchased by the Rothschild Foundation for a works on paper sweep donated to the Museum of Modern Art.

New York was hard on me in the early years though, I was getting hourly wage jobs that didn’t last very long and my art was selling for very low prices.  Through sheer determination I kept making my work on weekends and in the morning before I went to work and was included in group shows here and there, enough to keep my hopes up.

The turning point was in 2008 when I had a two-person show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg and Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith came and both wrote about me for New York Magazine and the New York Times respectively.

Why do you choose to make your drawings on notebook paper? There is a shared public history with most everyone understanding the meaning of lined paper—as doodles or notes or related in some way to language, a shared intimacy of writing, both public and private.  Do you see the materials as a bridge between your visual work and your writing and aphorisms? 

I started with notebook paper and have resisted change.  I like the blue lines showing and everyone can relate to doodling in a notebook while stuck in classes all those years of schooling.  I write poems and aphorisms and think of them as quite separate from my drawing and painting life.  I did do a series of ballpoint pen drawings of my aphorisms with a goth girl lettering I came up with and combined the two that once.

 
Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?   

To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard – I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind – we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone – I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic – that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet – not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

 
Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

That, that is what I am looking for.

In looking at and reading about your work, I don’t feel it’s about repetition or obsession or even meditation (as understood in the more casual sense of reverie) at all.  To my eye it is an extreme, razor-sharp precision of seeing, of knowing another space physically and deeply, a little like in your poem Tondo of a Goose Chase: “selfdeaf and selfblind.”  Can you talk a little bit about your process?  Do you work and write in tandem or does one feed the other?

First, I would like to thank you for not finding my work obsessive.  This has been the knee jerk reaction to it for many years now.  Recently James Kalm posted his video of my show on Facebook and called my work obsessive.  Two people defended my work saying it was not obsessive.  I was grateful to both of them.

My process varies from drawing to drawing or painting to painting – sometimes I work from the center outwards, sometimes from the edges inwards, and sometimes up and down or left to right.

I write from one area of my mind and make visual art from another area of my mind.  I have never come up with what to write while working on a drawing or painting.  They are quite separate operations.

 
Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

You’ve used Facebook a great deal as a way to both create dialogue with others and to share writings about your work as well as your poetry and aphorisms.  When did you join Facebook and what effect did that have on your work?  How do you see the development of the social network and communicating about your work and dialogue the way you do as an important part of your practice?  What kind of dialogue are you looking for?

I joined Facebook in 2010 after making a drawing entitled “Facetime Not Facebook.”  I was resisting before I joined up but liked it right away when I did join.  It has been very important to me – the first time I came out as a poet.  (I had never told anyone in the art world that I also wrote poetry.)  I had not written many aphorisms since my original burst of over 100 in the year 2000 but found Facebook a perfect platform for them.  I only post my artwork, my aphorisms, my poems and share political things on my newsfeed normally.  No updates of microchanges in my emotional temperature or chat about the weather.  My husband says I have a cult following on Facebook.

I came across your work in that same way—by noticing the conversation that other artists were having with you when you said “Formalism is not without content.” It’s very interesting, because a lot of people jump in to just agree with you, or show their own biases or thought processes, and then it breaks open when someone asks what the word ‘formalism’ means in the first place.  I think it was George Rodart who was trying to pin down a definition and said that no one knows what it really means.  What is formalism to you and what is the content that emerges from it? 

I went to Wikipedia because though I know what formalism is through practice and discussion, I couldn’t form it into a brief definition.  Here is the first paragraph:

In art history, formalism is the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. In painting formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than iconography or the historical and social context. At its extreme, formalism in art history posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance.

 
Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

I often write aphorisms and poetry over my head so to speak, although I do know what they mean, I share them to see what others make of them.  I find myself resisting explaining them unless it has come across unclear in a specifically addressable way.

I loved this aphorism of yours:

“I love works that are so simple yet no one has done before. There is a sense of recognition as if the idea had been waiting for the right artist.”

It made me wonder what your take on postmodernism is? Can you talk a little bit about making art that’s of your own voice in this particular moment, one of prevalent postmodern ironic art? As you said recently on FB—Formalism ends where postmodernism begins. What did you mean by that?

Postmodernism was something we read about in graduate school, although our instructors were mainly abstract artists and chose not to speak in that language.  Kierkegaard said “Earnestness is acquired originality” and I hold on to that in making and looking at work that I respect.  Irony is needed in life, especially when one is younger, but it doesn’t need to go into the work.

I had to explain the aphorism Formalism ends where postmodernism begins: I mean in individual practice formalism ends when one starts making things from a postmodern point of view.  Several people thought I meant it historically whereas I meant it in an individual’s practice. It led to a good discussion on Facebook.  It came out of the discussion started when I posted Formalism is not without content.

Published in Figure/Ground Jan. 27th, 2014.

Interview with choreographer Molissa Fenley

By ASHLEY GARRETT, OCTOBER 2013

Choreographer and performer Molissa Fenley has created more than 75 dance works in her ongoing career.  Her work has been presented throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Born in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1954, she earned her BA in 1975 at Mills College in Oakland, California, and in 1977 she formed the Molissa Fenley Company in New York City.

Molissa Fenley performing 9 4 Feathers , 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Molissa Fenley performing 94 Feathers, 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Fenley has collaborated with many visual artists throughout her career, including Kiki Smith, Richard Long, Francesco Clemente, Merrill Wagner, Keith Haring, and Roy Fowler; and she has also incorporated the musical compositions of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and John Cage. Her work has been commissioned by the American Dance Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, the Joyce Theater, DIA Art Foundation, Jacob’s Pillow, Lincoln Center, the New National Theater of Tokyo, the National Institute of Performing Arts in Seoul, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop and many others.

She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and a Master Artist of the Atlantic Center of the Arts. Recent awards include the NEA American Masterpieces Initiative for the reconstruction of Regions. Fenley received a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Choreography for Cenotaph (1985) and State of Darkness (1988).  She is Professor of Dance at Mills College, in residence each spring semester, and often teaches choreography at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University and repertory workshops at other universities, most recently at Bennington College.

Recent works include The Vessel Stories, with music by Philip Glass, Credo in US, with music by John Cage and Cross Bridge: a collaboration with Holley Farmer, John Jesurun, David Moodey and Rosemary Quinn. I sat down with Molissa at her loft in Tribeca, New York on October 8th.

I’d like to start by responding to your recent performance for New York Live Arts. Program B began with a re-staging of Witches’ Float, the collaboration you did with sculptures by Kiki Smith, which originally debuted in 1993.  There was a reddish-brown body paint on the torso, arms, neck and face of the dancer. The contrast between the texture of the skin of the dancer and the sculptures was really interesting—the sculptures had a desaturated quality or lack of color.  As the dancer sweated the body paint texture changed and it melted off, it seemed to be an expression of bleeding. I’m really interested to hear about your thinking and decision making that went into that piece.

Body paint is really its own sort of business.  It’s really hard to know what it’s going to do on a body. When I danced Witches’ Float years ago, the body paint that we used was either another type or my skin is of a very different texture than Holley’s and also I’m not a big sweater, so it pretty much stayed intact through the duration of the dance, which is about an 18 minute-long piece. Holley sweats a lot more, and I think this is also a very different type of body paint - we actually sprayed it with a fixative.  For the performance on Friday night we did the fixative first which was not how you’re supposed to do it—haha!  We learned over the night. The fixative first on her skin made it actually hard to apply the body paint, so we figured out that it’s the other way around. And of course the instructions are tiny and we didn’t have a magnifying glass and we just said, well, it must go on first!  So it turns out for this particular brand you spray it on after you have the body paint intact and then it acts as a seal. The night you were there, it was running, and one point in time it probably looked like blood—so she actually looked bloody…

 
Holley Farmer in Fenley’s  Witches’ Float , 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Holley Farmer in Fenley’s Witches’ Float, 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

 

Yeah, that’s what we were thinking!

The idea of that piece was really interesting. Kiki and I were talking about how everyone’s outer skin is of a particular color, whatever their race or heritage, but if you were to flay that, the inside of everybody is bright red.  It was a means of getting to an idea of the “every body.” This shamanic figure could really be anybody—male, female, and the idea of the costume suggests that too.  The dancer is bare-breasted but covered in body paint, which is kind of like a costume in and of itself. And on the bottom she was wearing pants that look both masculine and feminine, the top is feminine and the bottom is masculine—the pants are a kind of dhoti, designed by Gabriel Berry. It’s like a human form of both female and male being presented. And it’s of any race, because it’s flayed, a very raw idea.

Where does the ‘witch’ element come into that?

Kiki and I had been discussing the women (witches) tried during the Salem Witch Trials. Women were tied to chairs and thrown into the river—if they floated they were a witch, and if they sank they were not a witch, but they were dead.  Well of course everyone dies! If you notice in the title, ‘witches’ is possessive, so it’s like the float of the witch—well now, what would that be? We started thinking about a kind of shamanic transformation that might take place during a possession, being immersed in something in a very deep way. The practitioner starts underneath the floating witch, whom is a sort of overseer; this is where it all begins.  And then once some kind of transference has taken place, the practitioner travels into the middle of the space to where two halves of a sculpture lay side by side—one upside up, the other upside down. It’s as if two halves of the same person, but it also a kind of mold.  And in essence, it is: it’s the mold that the floater came out of.  The dancer then continues to stand in front of the sculpture as a standing witness, which is actually a plaster cast of me.  Kiki and I made the original work in ’93.

It has a slight angle forward, right?

Yes, she’s really staring in and watching.

It has an aggressive feeling to it.

There’s a confrontational feeling to it, yeah. There’s sort of like a “you’re being watched” feeling, and then at one point the practitioner comes very close and puts her arm around the witness, leans in and listens to what the witness is “saying”, a very intense moment, I love that moment!

I loved the way it was lit, the viewer’s frame of reference was so molded around it, shaping the way we see the sculptures and the dancer.

My lighting designer David Moodey has been working with me since 1986. He has a really uncannily completely clear idea of how to light my work. And I explained that this dance is really in three parts—around the floater zone, then it’s around the cocoon zone, and then it’s around the witness. The witness is ultimately sort of ‘all-seeing,’ perhaps, and then at the end of the dance the floater sculpture lowers to just hovering above the stage floor. I’m not sure what the significance of that is for me but certainly the practitioner takes on the authority of the space. There’s nothing over her anymore.

I’m really interested in the way you’re describing the dancer as a practitioner. Can you explain your choice of language?

For that piece in particular, when you think of shamanic rites, you think of a subject that goes through the practice. And so the practitioner is the person who is undergoing this journey, this rite of passage, or this rite of entrance into another world. So practitioner makes sense to me in terms of that piece. I wouldn’t use that term for the other dances.

Witches’ Float, 1993, Molissa Fenley. Music by Alvin Lucier, “Music on a Long Thin Wire.” Sculpture by Kiki Smith. Commissioned by the Krannert Art Center, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

I can see what you’re saying about the transformation in the movements in Witches’ Float, the movements start out really slow and intense and they build up to these rapid, jagged movements—

It’s interesting, I made that piece right after I’d been in India for two weeks and in India everyone’s going around like this—and I’m shaking my head in the way that the practitioner does in Witches’ Float.  Everyone’s doing it all the time! And if you ask someone a question, it’s just like—well, are you saying yes or no, or—what are you saying! I can’t understand what it is exactly, but it’s an Indian trait that I noticed when I was there and so I wanted to use that because I found it to be so reverberate.  And the music is very beautiful, by Alvin Lucier, “Music On a Long Thin Wire,” and it’s built on the idea of vibration. And so this idea of a vibration inside the body really manifesting in the neck and head, I thought was just fascinating.  And that whole thing of the stirring hands, again very kind of spell-like. Not necessarily casting a spell because I don’t think of the dancer as a ‘witch’ as such, but she is inside of some other kind of worldly presence or other worldly state of being. And then her movements—you called them jagged, that’s right. There are a lot of very staccato actions, meaning very abrupt and percussive. There are two very different actions that are going on, two different types of movements. The legato versus a very tight gesture.

It seems to come out of nowhere, it breaks the space in this really gestural way even though it doesn’t feel gestural. It’s sort of severe, and very intense.

A lot of that is taken from my idea of a kind of Hindu dance. I’ve also really been interested in Asian art for a very long time, and in Indian art the dancers are always like “this,” they call it tribanga, it’s three bends—there’s a bend at the hip, a bend at the torso and a bend at the neck, so I really like that idea that the body is seen almost like a river—as a serpentine form. In Hindu dance the positions of the hands are called ‘mudras.’ If you think of Hawaiian dance, the hands are saying some kind of communicative message or telling a story and I wanted to really abstract that but to have an other-worldly thing going on in the hands and the upper body that is eluding to something coming from a whole other ethnography.

In Found Object which debuted at New York Live Arts, you were responding to other artists’ instructions while also responding to dance notes of your own as a kind of instruction?

It started with a piece I did in 2012 called Cross Bridge which started from looking back at one of my choreographic journals in my archive at Mills College. I found a series of phrases that had been written out in language but had never been made into a dance. I’ll show you some of the language—not necessarily of those pieces but just in general:

Arabesque out to the right and tilt back.

Place, reach left arm, end in plie, extend legs and torso,

Arm twist, lunge forward on the right and elbow forearm twisting.

This is the language I use to write down my phrases. That’s how I memorize them—I sit on the subway and read, almost like memorizing lines. And once the piece is performed a video is made, and that’s how the piece is documented, between the notes and the video. For those particular phrases that formed the source of Cross Bridge there was no video made to actually show exactly what the language meant. The phrases were written around the year 2000, and I was looking at them in 2012, so it’s twelve years later and I have no idea exactly what it means.  I found that very interesting because it was like finding some instructions that I knew had been made by me at some point but their meaning was not clear anymore. I made a new translation interpreting what the language described to me.  I thought that was really interesting following instructions, and so enjoying that, I decided that for this new piece I would ask for instructions from others and I wanted to work with writers for this found object. I wrote to each writer, Joy Harjo, John Guare and Rudy Wurlitzer and asked if they would send instructions that my working on or solving would come up to about five minutes of stage time. Also in asking for instructions, I made the stipulation to myself that whatever they give me I accept, so that it really becomes in essence a found object. If you find these instructions buried somewhere and just use them, then you don’t really have a judgment about them. I really like that.

I like the idea of the piece’s title. That it’s a found object, but it’s not an object at all. It’s abstract instructions that can be interpreted and even though they’re specific, it’s still completely up to you how you do it—that’s sort of the opposite of a real object.

Right. And in John Guare’s found object instruction, there were the two instructions—one about drying flowers, and one about your rights as a POW under the Geneva Convention. In part of the language of drying flowers, when he says what you need—you need scissors, you need string, you need a ruler, you need newspaper, and you need two small vases. I was memorizing my lines one day and I just thought it would be hilarious if all of a sudden two GIGANTIC vases arrive on stage! So I asked painter Roy Fowler to paint a backdrop of some vases and he almost immediately got into that idea of the Rubin vases which is the trompe l’oeil thing–if you look at it one way, it’s a profile, if you look at it another way, it’s a vase. So there are two of them, one is Rosemary’s profile, the actress I was working with, and one is mine. And then at the end, the last statement is “place arrangements in small vases, display or give as a gift,” and we place ourselves in front of the canvases. I love that!

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

In the fourth part—those two things, flowers and POWs are objects, they’re things to be acted upon, they don’t have their own wills, really. So that’s sort of another interesting interpretation of it.

Yeah. And in the very beginning of the dance were the hand props made by Jene Highstein who made them for me for a piece in 2010, called Pieces of Land, which was one of five of the Prop Dances, and the idea was that when you look down from an airplane, and see the topography of the land – there’s a square there of farmland, there’s a diamond over here of forest, you see things in geometric forms. That was the idea—that these were pieces of land that we’re carrying on our bodies. And they’ve just been sitting in my closet, so they were another found object for me. I just found them in my closet and Jene had just recently died of an illness and so it was a nice remembrance of him to wear them.

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

I loved Energizer. I loved the repetition in the piece, the music was fabulous, and I read that it was recovered from your archive and the sound recording had to be baked in the oven in order to recover the quality.  Can you talk a little about that?

Yes, the tape is one of those big reel-to-reels, and when Maggi Payne, who is a professor out at Mills—she’s a wonderful conservator of music as well as a music professor and composer—she put it on to listen to it and there was nothing there. The music was composed in 1980 and this is 2013, over the years what had happened was that the music cells embedded themselves inside the tape, into the inner workings of the tape, the cells get “lost.” It’s hard to explain but they are not apparent anymore, they’re not at the surface so you can’t record them anymore.  She baked them at 110 degrees for twelve hours.  The heat coaxes the cells of the music up to the surface of the tape so that you can re-record it. She did such an incredible job and the music sounds like it was made yesterday. That was the really fun thing about bringing a piece back like Energizer, choreographed in 1980, not danced since 1982, so 33 years old. And not having been even thought about for 31 years. That’s just like one of my pieces that’s just been sitting in the video can all these many years and so to bring it out I wanted to do a pure reconstruction of it—the costumes, the movement, the music, all but the lighting was new—the lighting was by David Moodey. The original lighting had been by Phil Standstrom. It was just amazing to do.

I was wondering that—what is it like for you to see your work from when you were first beginning and now restaged?

Well it’s just fascinating! And I wanted to do it so that it was a true translation, I didn’t monkey with it, make it so-called “better” or come at it with a more mature choreographic eye or anything.  I thought that the mathematical construction of it was really interesting and there are these different variations of things—I mean, it’s a very dense piece. Very complex—there’s a lot of vocabulary in there that’s minutely different each time it’s danced and then phrases were cut up so that sometimes you get part of phrase A and ended it with phrase B and then sometimes you’d get one measure of phrase C on top of that.  I mean, it was really complex!

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing  Energizer , reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing Energizer, reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Really ambitious, just so packed.

Yeah, and I was just 25.

The layeringthe movement and the energy, it kept unfolding and coming and coming, I really enjoyed it.

The thing that was funny was that when it was made Anna Kisselgoff really loved it and gave it a big boom, but everybody else just derided it. Saying it was like marathon dance, and a flash in the pan, and all this stuff, it was just so confrontational.

The new lighting was really interesting, the projection in the back had a landscape quality, almost twig-like but at the same time abstract, and it had a strange visual interference to it. It wasn’t a straight projection, it had sort of a weird pixelated feel to it.

Yeah, that was on a scrim. And then the pattern on the floor was really interesting. We all worked on that dance really hard all summer. Peiling and Becky and I started working on it last March when I was at Mills. Peiling got her MFA at Mills in 2010 and she lives in Oakland, and Becky is at Stanford working on her doctorate in performance studies. And so we would get together once or twice a week and just pour over the video and put it on slo-mo and try to figure out what the steps were. Then I got back here in the summer and I started with Cassy and then Chris came in about halfway through the summer, and it’s just painstaking to reconstruct it. It was so much fun, it was so rewarding when we finally found a phrase and then we’d do it and then we’d look at the video one more time and correct ourselves and then figuring out who went where, it was just really great.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of  Energizer  in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of Energizer in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

That’s what I was wondering, as a visual artist myself, wondering about the differences between that and what you do. How do you make work? What’s your working process? How do you self-edit?

Well it’s really different for each piece. It’s hard to know exactly what the working process for that piece was because it was so many years ago.  But I doubt it would be too much different from now. The way I work now and have for as long as I’ve been aware of how I’m working is that I start making phrases of movement, and they get written down. And they get memorized and uncannily enough I almost always work chronologically, it starts at the beginning and just goes. I rarely start with music, music comes often quite a bit later. I start with my own forms of rhythmic structuring. In Energizer, it’s just a real solid base of 4/4 all the way through. Dances made after that would be rhythmically all over the place, you know, a measure of 5, a measure of 7, like the piece I did in 1983 called Hemispheres with Anthony Davis was really polymetric, so that formatting changed. I’m pretty sure at that time, in 1980, I would have dancers come in probably maybe an hour or two after I’d been working by myself and then I’d teach them what I’d made, and then I would set it spatially. For Energizer I was really interested in a circle, and then within that there’s the square of the axis, so there’s this sort of pie thing going on—there’s the top axis, the horizontal axis, the vertical axis and then the diagonal axes, and there’s a sense that a rotational idea is going on, and then there’s also a big square around the whole thing, so there’s an outer perimeter square and then an inner circle. It gets cut up and re-seen over and over—a dancer will do something and then another dancer comes immediately and does the same pathway but then maybe has a different ending and goes off and does something else, and then that might be echoed by another dancer. So it’s very intricate, moment by moment. And then as I said, I work very intuitively. I’m sure that in Energizer, once I would get something done—and we didn’t have video back then! —you just did stuff, and you either remembered it or you didn’t. Of course the piece was video taped, because that’s how I was able to reconstruct it. The piece that was playing out in the lobby (at New York Live Arts on October 2nd-5th) was the original, that’s the tape that we reconstructed from, so you could see it was really fuzzy, but we managed. As far as daily doings or daily remembering of what we’ve made, it’s all just memorization. It’s writing it down and memorizing, and then the dancers will do the same thing, come in day after day, and you just drill over and over and over and over until it gets completely intact and completely known.

What is it like to work with other dancers? Do you see their bodies and their energies as yours? How do you form other people to make the spatial expressions that you want?

Well I work with people who are really well trained; they have a lot of physical ability. I don’t want them to look exactly like me necessarily, I don’t teach my dancers class every day or something like that. People come to me already warmed up, and either they’re from a ballet background or a Cunningham background—whatever their dance background is, what I take into consideration is the means of how they will translate. And everybody tries very hard to do exactly what I’m doing—I’ll put my hands like that and they do it. But it looks different on everybody because it’s a different body. I really love that. I’m not interested in having everyone look the same, I’m interested in there being a vocabulary that’s translated from person to person in their own idiosyncratic way. In terms of a commonality, we’re all working towards this very particular vocabulary and how to present it in its most clear form from person to person.

What was your first memory of wanting to move through space to express yourself?

Well when I was a little girl I used to make dances for my dog and me. I had a dog named Shadow and I used to dance around the living room with Shadow all the time. I grew up in Nigeria and was always outside, and I saw a lot of Nigerian dance. I just felt really at home in moving my body.

The Energizer piece seemed to really express some of that rawness, that sort of grounded excitement about learning how to work as a dancer. Is that right?

Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s a total exhilaration there. And also you have to understand, I graduated from Mills College in 1975. I was 20, I got on a bus and came  here to New York, and my first major piece was in ’77, and then in ’79 The Kitchen commissioned a work. So it was very quick, I just jumped in and started being a choreographer right away. I came from a training that was modern dance—we studied Graham technique, Cunningham technique, and Limon technique. I had one semester of ballet, from a woman named Paulette Sears, who was one of the MFA graduate students. I’m not from a ballet background whatsoever. The movement is coming from my interest in the upper body being a very translational mechanism of communication. I guess you could say it started off referencing Egyptian hieroglyphics that I then I twisted into three dimensions. I started forging this vocabulary on my own.

Can you talk more about growing up in Nigeria and attending high school in Spain? What was that like and what made you decide to come back to the states to go to college?

Well I went to high school in Spain because I wanted to go to an American college and the high schools in Nigeria were not accredited. All the American embassy kids—my Dad worked with USAID— kids from North and West Africa went to high schools in Spain at American air force bases. The first year I was there I was in Sevilla, which is in the south and the second year which was my senior year I was in Zaragosa in the north. On an air force base, which is so-called “American soil” in Spain, we would take weekend trips into the city. I saw a lot of flamenco dance, which I was very influenced by, and although I didn’t study it, I really loved the whole extension of the back and the hands behind the head. There’s a lot of that in my work, particularly in my early work. I really loved the extreme verticality with really flamboyant arms. You know when you’re a kid, you just grow up where you grow up, and you don’t really have an opinion about it. When I got older I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Nigeria. We were in Ibadan, which is about 90 miles inland of Lagos when we first got there, and then later we moved to Lagos on the coast. Our house in Ibadan was right up next to the bush; my brother and I were always on the bush paths. It was a really magical life, and I think about that now, I just think I was so lucky to have had that kind of nature around me, that deep, dark rainforest. Deep and complex and thick rainforest, beautiful—it was absolutely beautiful.

The earlier work that was restaged for the performance felt like that—it felt really grounded in real stuff, the landscape.

The landscape, there’s also a lot of social dance, dancers coming together a lot in these circles.

You’ve done a lot with props and projections and live feeds, and that’s all in addition to working with other creative people. What was the first inanimate object you put into one of your pieces and why did you decide to go in that direction?

I guess the first one—well you saw in the lobby the video of the piece I made with Keith Haring, that was my first piece. That was 1979, I think. The first object though was by the artist Steve Keister for a piece called Boca Raton at The Kitchen for an event called Dance Day. The piece was a small sculpture attached to the ceiling, that was probably the first object. I didn’t relate to it, except that we were underneath it.

He was a substitute for one of my sculpture classes at SVA, he’s really nice and an interesting artist.

Yeah, I actually know him now; he’s a very good friend of Roy’s. But as far as an object that I dealt with—in 1983 there was a project called Hemispheres and it had a series of drawings by Francesco Clemente. The drawings came in packages of ten and when the audience came in they were handed a package of ten —there were four different sets, so the idea was that you got package A and your friend got B, then the next person got C, and D and so on. So the person sitting next to you if you came in as a pair would get another set. Francesco liked this idea of possible commerce; it was the idea of the set design being actually in your hand rather than on the stage. That was very interesting.

Molissa performing a re-staging of  Hemispheres  in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

Molissa performing a re-staging of Hemispheres in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

And an audience participation which doesn’t overshadow the performance.

Yeah. So the drawings were there for that kind of intimate feel of looking at something that’s small. And actually I unfortunately don’t even have one package left. Somebody walked off with my last one. Francesco probably has a package somewhere.

I read that you’re referred to as a “postmodern” dancer. What does that term mean as it relates to dance?

Yes, it’s a very unclear term. Modern dance would be the so-called pioneers. Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, Pauline Koner, Doris Humphrey—Isadora Duncan is the mother of them and Balanchine is sort of in there, but he’s in the ballet world. It’s an era. And you would think of that era as spanning the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and then the era of the Judson Church people started—Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Valda Setterfield and Steve Paxton. They were called postmodern because they were after modern. Then you have people like me who aren’t really postmodern because I am not of that group. The original postmoderns were dealing with the idea of a much more ‘pedestrian’ movement, less trained movement. They’re dealing with task-oriented things, coming out of Happenings a little bit, they would have these events and experiments—so that’s a particular type of investigation. And my investigation was once again going back to a more virtuosic physical technically trained expression, but not modern dance, so not coming out of Taylor, not coming out of Graham. I’ve always found it to be a very confusing term and prefer to use the term ‘contemporary,’ but then that’s gotten commandeered. That now can mean hip hop, “So You Think You Can Dance,” all this stuff is now floating around with categories, it’s really hard to say. So when I’m called a postmodernist it doesn’t make sense to me either.2-d,

It’s very interesting in the art world for that word; it becomes so open that it means everything, so it then has no meaning at all.

Yeah, I think it’s the same in dance. Now it’s sort of like a catch-all, not sure what to call it—it’s not modern, it’s not ballet, those are two distinct forms. So then uh, what is it?

What drew you to work with visual artists—in dealing with a static two-dimensional or three-dimensional work, paintings or sculptures, what attracted you to that in your work?

Well I just I really love the idea of the stage space being a volume, I’m talking about the ‘true stage’ in the sense that the theater stage space is there and the audience is out here. Not site-specific work, rather thinking about the volume of the stage area itself as a thing to be filled—you can fill it with light, you can fill it with movement, you can fill it with sound. And I really like the idea of objects or other ideas coming in—like for instance the Richard Long setting for the circle of stones, of where the actual space itself is completely shifted. And that I as a choreographer then not only deal with whatever choreographic concepts I have going on in my own experiments in phrasing or movement vocabulary, to being placed inside this space that’s changed, it’s not empty space anymore. I love empty space, but I also really like the idea of being challenged by either responding or not responding or working in tandem with a thing, of having another flavor in the space. How that space is now different because of this thing that’s inside it. What I do I as a choreographer to make either a larger picture or a smaller picture. It moves me along choreographically, it’s a challenge, it’s like using a piece of music—it has a flavor, it has a sense of structure. It asks: do you use that structure, do you make something in parallel to that structure? It’s like that. I find it as a great soundboard that I can hit off of and get ideas from.

Before I came over I was watching some clips of 94 Feathers, and I was wondering about the props used in that piece. It’s so beautifully integrated and the objects don’t seem to have any natural weight.

I love that piece. 94 Feathers was part of the Prop Dances, which also had the Jene Highstein objects with feathered props made by Merrill Wagner. For the Prop Dances I asked five visual artists to give me something I could either carry or wear. And whatever they gave me, again, I said okay to. Merrill has a huge table in her living room with a big bowl with glass top, in the bowl are all these feathers of birds she’s had over the years—parakeets, turkeys, hawks—feathers she’s either found or they’re from pets. She was interested in using those feathers and she had these metal trays that she had found in a steel foundry near where she lives in Pennsylvania that had holes in them, they were some kind of leftovers. She put the feathers into the holes and made these beautiful forms, they were just extraordinary. I was dancing at that time with Cassie Mey and Katie McGreevy, two dancers that I’d worked with for quite a while and they’re not in the company anymore. ?They moved on in their lives—that’s the other thing, dancers come and go—Cassie worked with me for ten years, and Katie for two or three, so you know it’s a solid group—and we made these pieces. When 94 Feathers was made, it was probably my first instruction piece. Where I made a dance and wrote it down, I was at Mills teaching and they were here in New York. The premiere was going to be here in New York in March during Mills’ spring break. And so I sent them the language of the phrases and asked them to make up what they thought the language was. It was really wonderful. That was the first idea of the method of following instructions and I have just continued further along with that.

Yeah, I really liked that piece—when you were lying down with the feathered object on top of you–

Oh I know, beautiful.

Part 2 of the Prop Dances Joyce Soho, New York city November 14, 2010 Choreography by Molissa Fenley Music by Cenk Ergün Set by Merrill Wagner Performed by Molissa Fenley, Katie McGreevy, Cassie Mey Commissioned by the 92nd Street Y Video by Mark Robision

When you’re co-choreographing with other dancers how is it different for you?

Well for instance, in the third part of Found Object is the poem by Joy Harjo. The poem had instructions written within it, and those instructions I gave to Peiling and Becky and myself to interpret. We each came up with movement for those instructions and then we put it all together. They showed me what their phrases were, what they’d come up with, I’d asked them to make something that’s within the stylistic body of what I might do. Not that I wanted them to make what I would make, but to make something that’s within-the-family-of—

Right, stay in the language.

Right. So they both did and then I thought okay, as one more unifying thing, there were two phrases that I taught of mine that they could do at any time during their rendition of what they were doing. We set it, they dance their phrases, and they insert my phrase 1 somewhere, and then later on insert phrase 2. Then I wanted to add the instruction of where you could replace somebody, or might echo someone for a second. There’s a part where Peiling is standing like this, and I come up and put my hand under hers, I replace her hand and she goes off and I stay there for a second. I really enjoy this method of working, which started with 94 Feathers—to trust. These dancers are all so lovely and they all work so hard and they make really good decisions. They’re very responsible. I can trust the art in them is what I’m saying. I can trust that they will carry the art feeling—my art feeling through their bodies, and that they will make the right choreographic decisions. I found that really interesting to allow that, to have another way of working.

Do you plan on continuing to work with other artists in different mediums in the future?

Oh yeah, always!

So what’s next for you?

I’m going on a really nice residency at the Bogliasco Center in Genoa. I’ll be there from November 18th through December 20th. As a sort of clearing zone, I always find when I’m starting to make a new work I have no idea what it will be, but I know that I will almost always start with a vocabulary. One big source of vocabulary for me is Greek and Roman sculpture of the body. I’ll get a bunch of books and mimic whatever the sculptures are doing, and I’ll find that suddenly I’ve got some phrases—that’s always been a big source material.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

How long does it typically take you to start something, finish something, work with it, or is just all completely different from piece to piece?

It’s different. For instance I was at the American Academy in Rome in 2008 for six months and I made a pretty major work there called Cosmati Variations. It premiered there in June. I made four parts there but only performed three, towards the end of July I made another part. I worked with Italian dancers, I had an audition and people came in. So it varies. I know that in Bogliasco being there a month I will not necessarily come back with a completed pice but certainly with material.

Thanks Molissa!

I think we cooked it!

Published in Figure/Ground December 6th, 2013.