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Accumulated Vision: Trisha Brown and the Visual Arts

By Susan Rosenberg

In the 1970s, Trisha Brown’s investigation of the question “what is choreography?” paradoxically brought her work into intimate conversation with the visual art practices of her time. Enamored of the ideas of John Cage, she strove to invent methods of dance making that did not appear to be merely the result of subjective criteria of composing. If, in retrospect, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) bears close affiliation to site-specific practices in contemporary sculpture, Brown was not emulating visual artists’ work. Rather, she considered a dancer’s promenade down the façade of a seven-story building to answer essential choreographic problems: where to start, what to do, and where to end. The objective conditions of architecture and gravity caused movement, instilling it with an internal and inevitable motor of intention. Brown’s search for the “perfect dance machine,” a phrase echoing with Sol LeWitt’s definition of conceptual art, where the idea serves as the machine for the work’s making, inspired her further investigation into structural imperatives of composition in the “Accumulations.” She worked out of the fiction of the body’s mapping by a kinesthetic score, whose mechanical logic—bend, stretch, and rotate—merely exists to be excavated. Movement, in her Accumulation (1971) solo, unfolds increment by increment—from thumb to wrist, wrist to elbow, elbow to shoulder, shoulder to neck, hip to knee—accruing according to a simple accumulating sequence (1, 1+2, 1+2+3, etc.) that parallels artist Donald Judd’s identification of mathematics as a rationale for arbitrary, non-relational modular systems in his “specific objects.”

Accumulation (1971) exposes the cognitive challenge of performing, showing the dancer and the body in the course of thinking, not merely gesturing in space, and offers the satisfaction of watching a composition materialize according to an indissoluble unity of intent and action: the body’s vocabulary as a movement language. Less than five minutes long, Accumulation’s extreme brevity—a characteristic common to many of Brown’s works of this period—implies an inverse relationship between the conceptual effort informing her works’ making and its duration, also reinforcing the dance’s holistic object-like quality, which is readily retained in the mind and memory.

Adamant to make a new work for each performance opportunity, rather than producing and maintaining an unchanging repertory, Brown repurposed her abstract lexicon of “pure movement” specifically for programs presented in art galleries, museums, and international exhibitions. Introducing de-accumulation to accumulation, varying each gesture’s forms or number of repetitions, repositioning the body on the floor, or locating her dances in changing contexts that included outdoor plazas and parks, she discovered serial productivity as a means to originality in which structural repetition announced that each new dance was stamped with the “Trisha Brown” signature.

Brown’s approach to presenting her work reflects what can only be called a curatorial sensibility. First honed in site-specific programs—such as “Dances in and Around 80 Wooster Street” (1970), where performances took place on a building façade, an interior loft space, and street-side, and in “Another Fearless Dance Concert” (1971) at the Whitney Museum, where Brown activated two adjacent wall surfaces, the gallery’s floor, and its ceiling—she devised her 1974 appearance at the Walker Art Center (which she called a ‘retrospective’) to include performances in the museum’s galleries, its auditorium, and in Minneapolis’ Loring Park, the most extensive museum presentation of her work to date. Probably no one but Brown herself recognized that when she showed Structured Pieces (1965-1974) at the Walker—the first iteration of a composite of pre-existing dances that proved to be a prelude to Line Up (1977)—she used the conceit of accumulation to order a suite of falling dances—a solo, a duet, and a trio—followed by a quartet and the quintet Spanish Dance (1973).

This penchant for systematicity inspired critics to designate Brown a minimal and conceptual choreographer whose work held special appeal to one audience in particular: visual artists. The label took hold at the time of Locus (1975), when she showed her private notebooks to critics, revealing how the imaginative process of drawing informed its score. Plotting a six-sided square volume with numbers correlated to the letters of the alphabet, and to sentences, she created a diagram for moving through three-dimensional space. With the gestalt of the cube she guided audiences to recognize a connection between her dance’s documentation and its spatial format. Similar to sculptors’ fabrication drawings, or conceptual artists’ textual and graphic notations for artworks that might or might not be actualized, Locus’ scores assumed an independent life of their own, circulating in exhibitions and reinforcing the affiliation between Brown’s choreography and conventions of contemporary visual art.

Alert to discrepancies between the score and its performance, Brown grew interested in permutations to choreography resulting from the gap between drawn, written, or verbal instructions, and a dance movement’s execution. For a period in the mid-1970s, she obsessively typed written descriptions of dances and distributed them to company members, eager to see what variations might arise from an individual’s approach to the problem of translation. While these text-based experiments were short-lived, their outcome in Brown’s work is reflected in devices she developed to enable a multiplicity of intentions—not merely the choreographer’s—to enter into the compositional process. In Solo Olos (1976), she empowers a dancer to assume the role of composer, who calls out abbreviated instructions requiring performers’ on-the-spot decision-making, offering audiences microscopic insight into the collective dimensions of a creative process that “pooled” from her dancers’ ideas and choices.

Given the open-ended task of “lining up,” for example, her dancers were invited to mine this simple idea in every conceivable fashion—using sticks, body parts, a room’s walls and corners—producing a work based on group improvisation that embraced every act occurring in the “white box” of the studio as fodder for precise memorization and repetition. Line Up (1977) looks spontaneous and impromptu but is precisely choreographed, a conceit that Brown reapplied in her next solo, Water Motor (1978). No longer defined by the project of clearly targeting the eye and mind with apprehensible movement concepts, Brown’s subsequent dances, made for presentation in theaters (beginning the next year), are extraordinarily layered, detailed, and challenging to watch and see. Her fascination with the orchestration of interacting and competing intentions, through eliciting her dancers’ improvisational contributions, extended to and informed her approach to artistic collaboration, in which choreography and set retain a measure of independence from one another—deliberately deflecting vision to activate viewers’ changing focus of attention.

In the 1980s when she invited Robert Rauschenberg, Fujiko Nakaya, Donald Judd, and Nancy Graves to contribute sets and costumes to her stage, Brown seeded their ideas by offering kernels of her latest thinking on dance, as well as a vision for how the set and choreography would together interact with the theatrical apparatus, including the stage’s rectangular spatial floor plan and the proscenium arch’s pictorial elevation. In balancing artistic coordination and artistic autonomy, Brown challenged artists to expand beyond their conventional ways of working in reply to her choreographic ideas.

For Glacial Decoy (1979) and Set and Reset (1983), Robert Rauschenberg revisited photography and film, mediums that he had left behind in the 1960s. The colored stage drops that Donald Judd created for Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) and Newark (Niweweorce) (1987) followed from explorations of the relationship between color, architecture, sculpture, and painting in a fashion that was unique in his career. Before working with Brown, Fujiko Nakaya had created cloud sculptures solely for outdoor sites, so her contribution to Opal Loop’s presentation in a loft space in SoHo, and subsequently in theaters, propelled new technological innovations. Nancy Graves’s longstanding interest in motion, previously explored most extensively in the film medium, was materialized in a sculptural set of weighted moving parts for Lateral Pass (1985), devised to interact with the bodies of Brown’s dancers.

Having unearthed and revealed choreography’s visual and conceptual dimensions as an independent abstract art form over the previous two decades, Brown remained uncompromising in her belief in the mutually influential outcomes of collaboration, in which, as she put it, “One entity makes an incursion into the possibilities/plans of the other—the choreographic into the visual… or vice versa.”

Susan Rosenberg’s recent writings on Trisha Brown have appeared in TDR, October, and in the Ludwig Forum für International Kunst’s catalogue Nancy Graves Project & Special Friends. She is associate professor of art history at St. John’s University, New York, and director of the MA program in museum administration.

Trisha Brown, Floor Drawing/Performance, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown, Accumulation, Walker Art Center, 1978

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Spiral, Loring Park, Minneapolis, 2008

Photo: Gene Pittman

Trisha Brown, Group Primary Accumulation, Loring Park, Minneapolis, 1974

Photo: Boyd Hagen

Trisha Brown, Line Up (Trisha Brown, far left), Walker Art Center gallery, 1974

Photo: Walker Art Center Archives

Trisha Brown, Water Motor, 1978

Photo: Lois Greenfield

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Opal Loop, 1980

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Trisha Brown with Robert Rauschenberg

Photo: Jack Mitchell

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Set and Reset, 1983

Photo: Stephanie Berger