Embodiment Abstracted: The Influence of Yvonne Rainer

Curated by Elise Archias

Exhibition Essay

"For an Art of Bodies in History"
Elise Archias

“No to spectacle,” Yvonne Rainer wrote more than fifty years ago, and we will say it again today.1 But the artworks in this exhibition suggest the list that follows that initial negation in Rainer’s format, might look something like this now:

No to spectacle,
to stylish formulations of the new,
to cool fugitivity and escapes into defensive vagueness,
to macho staring into the abyss of social death,
to retraumatizing the audience,
to manic proliferation of signs that mimic a day of clicking,
to dwarfing sublimity, to entropic spinning out into clouds of particles, to networks that think mere extension is enough.

Yes to bodies in history,
to relationships that take work,
to making sure the audience feels something that they will want to put into words,
to the poetic labor of an old body that has encountered new tasks before,
to living with disease, and together demanding better care,
to significant gestures, to breaking them down until they are less and then more significant, to making them signify differently with a different physicality and psyche,
to taking control of one’s own distortion,
to the reinterpretation of old stories, to the repurposing of old spaces,
to the formation of a collective voice built of particular suffering and particular desire,
to artists who want us to understand what has allowed them to flourish in this unjust world.


Yvonne Rainer’s (b. 1934) influence stems both from her dance work of the 1960s and her film work produced in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In the 1960s Rainer was a central member of Judson Dance Theater, a loose collective of dancers and visual artists in New York who were part of a global shift away from forms of art seen as complicit with the excesses and false claims to mastery of mid-twentieth-century spectacular, market-oriented culture. They instead favored art that embraced more accessible, often more awkward, forms of beauty and meaning found in everyday life. Jogging, walking, small hand gestures, and standing around began to appear in dances thanks to Rainer and her community, but so did more abstract qualities of ordinariness—shapes and postures that were not directly recognizable but which seemed to offer their audiences new means of appreciating and understanding what they knew to be real in the midst of consumer culture’s many clichéd expressions. We Shall Run (1963), included in the exhibition, is an example of work from this period. Such performance art insisted on the nuanced bodily dimension of everyday life alongside Pop Art’s brightly colored surfaces and minimalist sculpture’s cool objecthood.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Rainer made experimental feature films that utilize complex theoretical thinking to criticize notions of power, privilege, and inequality. She returned to dance in 2000 through a commission from Mikhail Baryshnikov, producing a series of dances that appropriate movement, text, and sound from a wide range of sources—for example, historical diaries and sports footage—always carefully chosen and charged with physical ingenuity and/or devastating political significance. Dancers diverse in age, body type, race, and gender expression learn segments of her choreography that they insert into a larger fixed structure in an improvised fashion. Thus each performance is different, somewhat like a soccer or basketball game, but instead of passes and layups, the players assert themselves and respond to each other through strings of movement quotations, resulting in dances as humorous and playful as they are politically sharp. Spiraling Down (2008), included in the exhibition, is an example from this recent episode of her career. Rainer’s latest dance, The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project Altered Annually (2014–present), is an ongoing, evolving work that centers on aging and mortality while it considers larger questions of value and spectatorship.

Natalie Bookchin (b. 1962) reworks the contemporary technology of surveillance and digital connectivity to create art that focuses on how identity is shaped by “participatory culture” and the dissolution of the line between private and public space. Since the 1990s Bookchin has made internet based art interventions and multi-channel video installations that collect and re-present the repetitions of language, pose, and movement that have become the tropes of modern self-presentation.

Gregg Bordowitz (b. 1964) is an artist, writer, poet, and AIDS activist. He studied with Rainer at the Whitney Independent Study Program, where they formed a lifelong friendship. Bordowitz’ videos interweave autobiographical footage of the mundane repetitions of his everyday life as an HIV positive person with protest documentation and news footage from the global AIDS crisis. His recent work in performance and poetry continues to be informed by insights into the political implications of art’s ongoing ties to bodily vulnerability.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (b. 1952) is a Belgian choreographer who with her dance company Rosas creates dance pieces that draw on geometry, numerical patterns, the natural world, and social structures to expand perspectives on how the body moves through space and in time. Her early work combined feminist concerns with an interest in the repetitive, complex sequencing in the music of Steve Reich. Her work continues to make the relationship between dance and music (or other sound) central and intense.

Ralph Lemon (b. 1952) is a writer, performer, visual artist, and choreographer. He has been part of the New York dance community with Rainer for many years, and in 2015 she participated in the Graphic Reading Room readings, part of Lemon’s work, Scaffold Room. Originally fitting firmly into the category of dance, his works since the mid-1990s have become elaborate, interdisciplinary performances that incorporate various media and are shown in both art and dance contexts. As politically resonant as they are personal and emotional, his recent works ask questions about value, the trauma of modernity, heritage, spectatorship, memory, and racial archetypes.

Simon Leung (b. 1965) studied with Rainer at the Whitney Independent Study Program where they began a longterm friendship. Centered on questions of ethics, Leung’s work explores history, institutions, politics, activism, and cultural production. His most recently completed work was ACTIONS!/ADJUNCTS!, an “art workers’ theater” project presented at the Hammer Museum in December 2016 by twenty participants connected to art education in Los Angeles. Leung staged a version of Rainer’s Trio A, titled Trio A Pressured (with flag), at UC Irvine in March 2016.

Meg Stuart (b. 1965) is an American choreographer and dancer who lives and works in Berlin and Brussels where she founded her company Damaged Goods. Her early dance Disfigure Study (1991) used lighting to present a body as a set of disconnected limbs in flux. Later works continued to explore deconstruction, disfigurement, and distortion, as well as performative identities and intimacy through solos, large scale choreographies, improvisation, and site specific installations. Stuart’s work shifts as she searches for new ways of “stating things that are not explicit and easily readable.”

1What has come to be known as Rainer’s “No Manifesto” is a paragraph on page 178 of the following text: Yvonne Rainer, “Some retrospective notes on a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,’ performed at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut, and the Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965,” The Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965): 168-178.
Elise Archias is author of The Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneeman, Vito Acconci and Assistant Professor of Art History at University of Illinois at Chicago