Since the early 1960's, Yvonne Rainer has been a name associated with modern or post-modern dance, performance art, minimalism, feminism, conceptual art, experimental film and more. You could fill a small library with the dense texts written about her impact in all of those categories and yet, can you readily think of an image? Not so much. Now, the Getty Research Institute's curator, Glenn Phillips, has mounted a small show based on the archive of her work that they purchased in 2006. Yvonne Rainer: Dances and Films is on view to October 12. It is revealing of both the artist and the person. The show includes black and white photographs of the dances that she choreographed yet also includes her hand-written notations of certain movements like "leg shimmy, cheesecake, hip whack." Certain dances were based on colorful abstract drawings that represented her structured choreography. Intense control and the appearance of its opposite were her essentials.
Such control appears to be evident even in the journals that she kept as a teenager growing up in the Bay Area. Tidy, tiny handwriting recording her dreams or key passages from her adolescent reading of Huxley or Plato show her to have been a young woman of intense focus. (Using headphones, you can hear Rainer reading certain passages.)
She found her true medium after moving to Manhattan with painter Al Held. In dance classes there, she pursued ballet, even studying with Martha Graham, but was unable to completely achieve the classical ballet poses. She would turn that liability into an asset in her own work as one of the organizers of Judson Dance Theater. The exhibition includes photographs of her dances at Judson Church in the 60's, as well as her written notes, narratives that were read or recorded, programs and posters designed by fellow artists of the time, Robert Rauschenberg or Robert Morris. By then, she and Morris were living together and a number of photographs document their performances together. As Morris and other minimalists erased the traditions of sculpture, Rainer applied similar strictures to dance. No eye contact, no to theatrical antics, no to spectacle.
By the early 70's, early feminist ideas were appearing in her work: narrative impulse, autobiography, questions about identity and the body. By 1975, she had abandoned choreography and her life with Morris to pursue film, which she felt better accommodated her growing interest in politics and society. She went on to make seven feature films, influenced by Jean Luc Goddard, and a number of shorts. They are being shown in a screening room at GRI and include a 2002 biographical study by Charles Atlas, Rainer Variations, that is shown daily in the morning and late afternoon. Kristina Talking Pictures (1976) and Film about a Woman Who… (1974) are considered classics of the time while MURDER and murder (1996) address the trauma of breast cancer and a lesbian love story. Around that time, Rainer became intimate with Martha Gever and they remain partners.
It was none other than Mikhail Barishnikov who returned Rainer to dance by asking her to create a piece for his White Oaks Dance Foundation in 2000. After Many a Summer Dies the Swan was a great success and she found new satisfaction. She has since choreographed or re-staged other works including 2008 Spiraling Down commissioned jointly by the Getty and the World Performance Project at Yale.
Yvonne Rainer and John Erdman in "This is the story of a woman who...,"
performed at Theater for the New City, New York, 1973
Gelatin silver print
The Getty Research Institute
Photo by Babette Mangolte
Excerpts from a number of her dances are shown in the exhibition including Trio a Flags (1970) with dancers entirely nude apart from the American flags draped from their necks, a protest against the Vietnam War. Especially fascinating is the performance of Varda's Solo that is re-performed by Barishnikov wearing an evening gown as well as a pair of trousers as he interprets the earlier dance. I watched the entire dance series and found it so engaging, I lost track of time and wound up sitting there for well over an hour.
By the way, Rainer is 79 and still working. With Helen Pashgian, 80, and her light installation at LACMA, (recently added to their permanent collection) and Eleanor Antin, 79, having a selective survey at Diane Rosenstein Fine Arts (for which I wrote an essay, full disclosure), is this not a testament to the endurance and vision of a generation of brave women artists? For more information, go to getty.edu.
Banner image: Yvonne Rainer, Terrain: Yvonne Rainer in 'Bach' section, performed at Judson Memorial Church, New York," 1963. (detail)