One means of establishing new forms of dance was the use of improvisation and chance methods to guide movement, allowing the choreographic process itself to be the focal point of a work. Another concept was the inclusion of “ordinary movement” and tasks, to explore an element of human motion like walking or running that was not a constructed, technical movement. The idea for “pedestrian” movement was not simply to rebel against established forms, but also to eliminate the barriers of performance that removes art from life, and separates performers from spectators. Collaborations among dancers, musicians, and visual artists undermined conventional choreographic hierarchies as well as rigid distinctions among the arts, giving Judson its reputation as a crucible of innovation.
The exhibition grew out of MoMA’s recently established Department of Media and Performance Art (2009), and its commitment to document, collect, and preserve performance and time-based art. In fact, the atrium includes a video installation of historical moving-image material by filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas, who had worked as a stage manager, lighting designer, and in-house filmmaker for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. By using historical footage, photographs, sculptures, musical scores, and oral histories, curators Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax trace what gave rise to this innovative movement in dance. Although the focus is on the artistic influences that led to this burst of experimentation at Judson, it is worth noting that this movement also occurred at a time when Judson Church itself was undergoing its own ecclesiastical revolution. Artists and ministers alike subverted the conventions within their respective domains, all within the revolutionary zeitgeist of the 60s. While partially addressed in the exhibition, and more fully explored in the exhibition catalog, this historical context brings even more depth to this New York story.
The room entitled “Workshops” explores the early influences on the Judson artists mentored by Anna Halprin, James Waring, and Robert and Judith Dunn. The exhibition addresses the profoundly interdisciplinary vision of these workshops and collaborations that opened up new processes of composition. For example, Halprin’s California based workshops encouraged dancers, musicians, poets, and visual artists to connect improvisation to their observations of the environment, including language, sound, and elements of nature. James Waring, choreographer, costume designer, theater director, playwright, poet, and visual artist, brought together artists working in various mediums in his composition classes held in the Living Theater. Among the visual highlights in the exhibition are the hand-made costumes that Waring designed for Aileen Passloff’s Strelitzi. Combining material not typically placed together, his collage styled costumes captured the interdisciplinary nature of his work that would influence many Judson artists in the years to come. John Cage’s musical scores, which appear like abstract drawings, were also used by Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton in Robert and Judith Dunn’s composition classes to structure improvisational dance through chance techniques.
One of Moody’s legacies was his effort to challenge widespread censorship. In 1961 he opened the sanctuary to more than 1500 demonstrators to protest the ban on singing in Washington Square Park and the following year he showed a banned film about heroin addiction. Although this could not have been fully anticipated, his agreeing to host experimental performances at this time became one of the major ways the church challenged state and police restrictions on free speech and liberated religion from parochialism. In 1965, when Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris performed nude in “Waterman Switch,” the performance prompted criticism and denunciation from conservative ecclesiastical groups who threatened to cut off support for the church. Years later Judson again defended artists when it hosted the People's Flag Show during the height of the anti-war protests in 1970. More than 200 works were put up in the sanctuary where artists used the flag, including Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Lincoln Scott, and Barbara Dilley who performed “Trio A” nude with five-foot American flags tied around their necks. When the organizers of the show, Faith Ringgold, Jon Hendricks, and Jean Toche, were arrested, Howard Moody and the ministry worked in solidarity with them through the legal proceedings.
The sanctuary — or as the church referred to it, the “Meeting Room” — provided both ministers and artists a safe haven to challenge mainstream art and politics, and, at times, censorship. Although this is not the goal or scope of this exhibition, knowing this social context might deepen one’s appreciation for this “sanctuary” that gave artists a space without limitations where they could come together, find community, and freely experiment, pushing the boundaries of what defines art. To quote Steve Paxton in the exhibition’s introductory text, “the work is never done, sanctuary always needed.” The absolute highlight of the exhibition is the fact that the artists continue to revisit, adapt, and reinterpret works that they have been developing throughout their careers. Before the exhibition closes on February 3, New Yorkers interested in having a memorable artistic experience should visit at a time when they can see the performances of Simone Forti’s work, the Trisha Brown Moving-Image Installation, or workshops by Movement Research. To view the schedule, see https://www.moma.org/calendar/groups/30