“The Work Is Never Done:” Judson Dance Theater Transforms MoMA
By Joanna Steinberg
In 1968, Village Voice critic Jill Johnston proclaimed that between 1962 and 1964 a “revolution” had occurred at Judson Memorial Church. With its exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, MoMA brings visitors into this seminal moment when a collective of choreographers and downtown artists across disciplines came together to create and show new works in non-commercial spaces, works that transformed the definitions of art and how we experience it. MoMA pushes the boundaries and conventions of the museum space as well, beginning the exhibition in the Atrium, where a video installation and a series of live performances take place daily, showing the work of preeminent choreographers from Judson Dance Theater: Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, and Tricia Brown. As the subtitle suggests, “the work is never done.” The performances embody the idea that experimentation is ongoing, as is the interpretation by both artists and audiences who come together in the present moment.
To engage with the exhibition, one must appreciate the landmark artistic moment it documents. Judson Dance Theater (JDT) constituted a loose collective of choreographers who met weekly at Judson Church, and consistently showed new work in approximately 200 dances in 20 concerts. The founding members of JDT first met in Robert Dunn’s choreography classes at Merce Cunningham’s studio, where they learned methods that helped them break away from the traditional forms of their early training in ballet or modern dance. Dancers in Dunn’s workshop, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and Ruth Emerson sought a public venue to perform the pieces they were developing, and came to Judson Church after hearing about the Judson Poets’ Theater. Although there was no codified artistic movement or style at Judson, many of the dances became known for challenging the audience’s expectations of the very nature of a performance.
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.
The next gallery, entitled “Downtown: Sites of Collaboration” displays a map showing the geographical proximity of these workshops and the unconventional downtown spaces where these artists showed their work, including the Judson Gallery, the Judson Poets’ Theater, the Reuben Gallery, Chambers Street Loft, Five Spot Café, and the Floating Bear. While viewing photographs of happenings at the Reuben Gallery, I found myself observing a live performance of Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions by contemporary artists, which was originally performed at the Reuben Gallery and Yoko Ono’s loft on 112 Chambers Street. The genesis for this was a collaboration between Forti, Danspace Project, and MoMA after the museum acquired this work in 2015.As the curators point out, these works simultaneously functioned as sculptures and performances as the viewers could move around them from all sides, and served as inspiration for minimalist artists for decades. This was especially striking when one dancer stood on a dangling rope looking past the viewers. Although they were never performed at Judson, they seemed to me the most Judson-esque of anything in the exhibition because they made me re-examine my surroundings and my own interaction with the space. The dancers wore ordinary clothes and sneakers and there were many moments when it was impossible to identify who was performing and who was watching. The pace of the performances slowed down to the speed at which visitors move through museums as they stop and look, making me hyperaware of my environment and that stillness constitutes movement. Suddenly all rules were broken when one performer grabbed an object off the mantel on the wall and shook it like a percussive instrument while another loudly sang over it. Forti’s Dance Constructions are shown on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. throughout the duration of the exhibition.
The shift in design in the final room entitled “Sanctuary” indicates that the emergence of Judson Dance Theater from the workshops and downtown scene was a critical moment for artistic invention. This room is more spacious than the others and dense with material, including projected videos of performances that seem larger than life; photographs of renowned choreographers, including Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, along with such visual artists as Carolee Schneemann, Robert Rauschenberg, and Robert Morris who also choreographed works. The density of the display suggests the impossible task of representing Judson Dance Theater when there were countless artists involved and no unified style of movement. The curators organize the material into themes such as ordinary gestures, improvisation, and environments to help visitors make connections between the galleries to trace the direct and indirect influences on the artists.
The room is entitled “Sanctuary,” signifying the church space where many of these performances happened. However, the exhibition does not fully unpack the significance of this word and what it meant in relation to the arts. Artists gravitated to Judson because they were in need of a space that would not censor or charge them for rehearsal time or make their access dependent on ticket receipts. But what made Judson distinctive from other downtown spaces? While this was not the goal of the exhibition, this question leads us to a fascinating New York story that deepens this concept of sanctuary and why Judson became a major site for this artistic movement.
Founded in 1890, Judson Church had served as a bridge between the upper classes on 5th Avenue and the impoverished Italian neighborhood below Washington Square. As many Italian families eventually moved to the suburbs, the congregation declined to fewer than 25 people by the 1950s. The church sought social relevance and hired ministers who were also artists to connect with the growing creative and intellectual communities in the Village. The idea was to open the sanctuary to bear witness rather than proselytize, and to embrace the “free church” belief that the space of worship is not holy and need not be confined to traditional religious practices. The exhibition acknowledges Associate Minister Bud Scott‘s role in founding the Judson Gallery and Associate Minister Al Carmines’ vision for the Poets’ Theater. The theater was founded on two conditions: there would be no censorship and no requirement to produce religious dramas. However, the work of Reverend Howard Moody was also critical since he integrated activism into the church’s liturgy and mission and took up many of the social issues that the exhibition referenced, such as opening one of the first drug treatment facilities in the Village and an abortion referral service.
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.
Joanna Steinberg curated the exhibition A Sanctuary for the Arts: Judson Memorial Church and the Avant-Garde, 1954-1977 (Fales Library at NYU, 2010). She is the Senior Education Manager at the Museum of the City of New York.