Unit 7

Performance is by nature slippery—the work exists only in the moment of its enactment; later, as something remembered or recounted in stories, it’s filtered through someone’s lens. What’s more, performed work itself is inherently fickle. The congeniality of the venue and its relation to the set design, the mood of the performers, the vibe and composition of the audience, and even the weather outside that day are variables that affect the tenor and character of a given show, rendering each iteration of even the same piece as unique and ephemeral as a proverbial snowflake.

So, if you’re a museum that “collects” performing arts—and there are many that have made it a practice to do so in the past half-century—where does this leave you?

In early November, the Walker flew in various experts from around the country to discuss this very question. The timing coincides with the institution’s work on the development of new, open-source cataloguing software for performing arts, and on the occasion of its acquisition of a vast collection of sets, costumes, and props from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, some of which are on view now in the exhibitions Dance Works I: Robert Rauschenberg/Merce Cunningham and Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto.

The assembled group for a daylong workshop on issues raised by cataloguing and collecting performance consisted of independent scholars and writers, web developers and software wonks, videographers, performers, presenters, archivists, and curators representing the Andy Warhol Museum, the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the New York Public Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society, and the University of Minnesota. Participants quickly got down to brass tacks: What does it even mean to collect performance? Given its intrinsically fleeting nature, what, precisely, is an institution to tag and catalogue? Who owns this material? If you’re dealing with recordings, where does the notion of authorship, of creative control, and profit sharing come into play?

The works gathered in this wing capture making as gesture, the trace of an action.

The physical make-up of Rothko’s Seagram murals, found at the heart of this wing, is bound up with their attraction as the subject of contemplation. They show, and conceal, a complex process of making with thin veils of paint controlled and imposed on canvases that fill our entire field of vision.

The physical reach of the artist, and the ways in which bodily limitations are challenged and extended are also found here. This is seen in the texture of mark making as well as an expansive reach. The realm of engagement may also be extended by the ways in which artists exploit new imagery in extending their vision of the world.


Nay was the leading figure in the generation of German painters who reinvented expressionism in the climate of post-war abstraction. White Spring shows his ability to maintain an immensely subtle and individual use of colour in the midst of apparent speed and concentrated energy. It is one of the last in his Disks series (1955-63), which are predominantly composed of circles which loosen, grow and fragment under the control of linear elements. For Nay, the disks possessed a fundamental and universal significance, free of personal connotations, in spite of the clear presence of the mark-making of the artist.

Polke’s work may be understood as an analysis of the mark-making central to two-dimensional representation. From his earliest practice, he emphasised a dynamic tension between expressive gesture, often humorously subverting its traditional subjectivity, and mechanical reproduction. His paintings combine found printed images with more organically-made painterly marks. He uses half-tone photography from newspapers and magazines, enlarging and reproducing it on canvas, often corrupting the original beyond recognition. From 1964 he began overlaying imagery on printed fabrics, creating a double layer of patterning and undermining the traditional relationship between subject and background. More recently he has been painting on transparent fabric, through which the structural support of the wooden stretchers is clearly visible. 

Richter’s monumental Cage paintings were completed in 2006 and first exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Like his earlier squeegee abstractions, they are the outcome of several layers of painting and erasure. Their surfaces are animated by lines where the squeegee has paused, by brushstrokes, other scrapings, and areas where the skin of oil paint has dried and rippled. Cage 1 with its soft lateral striations evokes the surface of a gently running river; in Cage 2 a veil of grey covers autumnal yellows like a thin mist; in Cage 3 grey paint seems much more material recalling the coarse surface of a concrete wall. Deep reds dominate the upper and lower section of Cage 4 and are more concealed in Cage 5Cage 6 has the greatest chromatic range but there is still a sense of understatement and muted light.

Richter was listening to the music of John Cage while he worked on these paintings and titled them after the composer. He has long been interested in Cage’s ideas about ambient sound and silence, and has approvingly quoted his statement ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it’. Richter is also drawn to Cage’s rejection of intuition as well as total randomness, planning his compositions through structures and chance procedures. While there are no direct links between any particular work in this series and any composition by Cage, some critics have suggested affinities between the two figures’ approaches and between the constant flux in Cage’s music and the space created by Richter’s paintings.

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Born in Nice, (French, 1928–1962) did not begin practicing art until he was 19, but was enormously productive before his early death. His initial efforts of monochrome canvases in different colors were abandoned for solely blue works in 1957, with his show Proposition Monochrome; Blue Epoch. Klein later patented his personally-developed blue pigment as “International Klein Blue” (IKB); this, along with his use of sponges, the human body, fire, and gold in his paintings, demonstrated his fascination with the media and method of art. Perhaps most famous for these works, Klein''s scandalous Anthropometries featured the bodily imprints of nude models coated in IKB against large sheets of canvas. 

He staged some Anthropometries as public events, inviting a small audience to watch the models at work to the musical accompaniment of Klein''s Monotone Symphony (a single twenty minute chord followed by twenty minutes of silence). Klein''s personal philosophies regarding space and the elements (wind, air, water, fire) also strongly influenced his work. His brief life ended during a third heart attack.


Klein employed female models as "living paintbrushes" to make this work and others in his Anthropometry series, named after the study of human body measurements. "In this way," the artist said, "I stayed clean. I no longer dirtied myself with color, not even the tips of my fingers." Klein directed the models, covered in International Klein Blue—his patented blue paint—to make imprints of their bodies on large sheets of paper. He staged the making of Anthropometries as elaborate performances for an audience, complete with blue cocktails and a performance of his Monotone Symphony—a single note played for twenty minutes, followed by twenty minutes of silence.

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