On Performativity


Walker Living Collections Catalogue

If You Couldn’t See Me

The Drawings of Trisha Brown

If You Couldn’t See Me

The Drawings of Trisha Brown


While Trisha Brown is best known for her innovative choreographies, drawing has long featured prominently in her maverick practice, at once a tool for schematic composition and a component of her ongoing investigation into the limits of her own body. Written to accompany the artist’s 2008 Walker survey exhibition, this essay by curator Peter Eleey presents necessary historical and critical context for the artist’s signature work It’s a Draw – For Robert Rauschenberg (2008) and other works on paper in the Walker’s collection.

Eleey, Peter. “If You Couldn’t See Me: The Drawings of Trisha Brown.” In On Performativity, edited by Elizabeth Carpenter. Vol. 1 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2014. http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/performativity/drawings-of-trisha-brown. Originally published in Peter Eleey, ed., Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2008).
Walker Art Center ©2014
Trisha Brown performing If you couldn’t see me, 1994. Photo: Joanne Savio, Courtesy Joanne Savio and the Trisha Brown Dance Company.

“Since the painter has become an actor, the spectator has to think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.”

—Harold Rosenberg, 19521

“My relationship to dance is … directly responsible for my new interest in the spectator’s active role. I learned that a work of art—say, a painting or a piece of sculpture, is an elusive quantity—that is, the fact that it’s concrete makes it elusive. The dance, on the other hand—is really concrete, not elusive at all. At least, so it seems to me. You see, both parties are in a critical relationship in terms of immediacy and spontaneity. They combine to create a living, palpable force of contact.”

—Robert Rauschenberg, 19662

If art is, as Bruce Nauman once put it, whatever an artist does in his or her studio, then what do we call whatever it is that dancers do in theirs—especially when they are making drawings?3 In other words, are Trisha Brown’s drawings more art than dance, or more dance than art? Moreover, is it possible (or even helpful) to try to discern the difference? The challenges presented by her drawings, nevertheless, elaborate upon those posed by performative practices more generally within the history of postwar visual art, but with a slight change of emphasis. Art history, owing to its preference for enduring objects, has struggled to make sense of the contingency between such objects or images and the activities that produced them—particularly in its efforts to describe the 1960s and 1970s, when those activities often became as much a part of the art as the products that survived.4 Jackson Pollock is credited with inaugurating this historical thread in the late 1940s with his “allover” poured paintings, produced on the floor through an animated process of dripping that is easily, and often, described as dancing.5 A dancer making images to be considered as art, however, almost has to work against the ease of such readings. When we look at Brown’s early notational drawings, the envisioned action is a given; it is what we naturally privilege in our encounter with them. We try to make sense of the movements prescribed, figure how they would be performed from these instructions. But regarding Brown’s drawings from the past decade, we are well advised to guard against the prejudice toward the movement implied, for we risk moving too quickly into imagining the finished actions that produced them. We look beyond the surface, eliding the fact of the drawing in the space between the action and the image, truncating its presentness. In short, pretend for a moment that Trisha Brown is just an artist dancing in the studio.

Though all of Brown’s drawings are related to her dance, their full sweep might best be summarized in Max Kozloff’s description of postminimal sculpture as “symbol[s] of an action process, about to be commenced or already completed.”6 Having not yet entered the stage, or already left, Brown is neither here nor there. This ghostly, muddled location of her body and its movements vis-à-vis her drawings—proceeding from or preceding them—is crucial to their function as artworks. A similar kind of ambivalence is present in Brown’s solo piece If you couldn’t see me (1994) (fig. 1), a ten-minute dance performed with her back to the audience. The idea for it had been suggested to her by her friend, artist Robert Rauschenberg, with whom she had collaborated on Glacial Decoy, her first work for the stage, commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1979. This gesture of rejection was rooted in one of Rauschenberg’s own early works, First Time Painting (1961) (fig. 2), which he had created as an onstage performance, situating the back of the canvas toward the audience. At the American Embassy in Paris, for an event that celebrated the pianist and composer David Tudor, Rauschenberg executed the work at the edge of the stage accompanied by Tudor on piano. He faced the audience, though was at times mostly concealed by the canvas as he worked on it. When a timer embedded in the painting announced the conclusion of the work, the canvas was wrapped up and whisked offstage, without members of the audience ever getting even a glance at it. The lesson inherent in First Time Painting is applicable not just to Brown’s reversed solo, but also to the way we navigate the body of drawings she has produced over the past thirty-five years. Performance and art, it suggests, can conspire to obscure both action and image, and at times even conceal the artist.

This complicated relationship between movement and its representations is something that Brown has long explored, beginning in the early 1960s with the recognition that Labanotation, the compositional vocabulary she had learned in college, was insufficient to describe the kind of movement she wanted to make.7 When she arrived in New York in 1961, Brown enrolled in Robert Dunn’s workshop at Merce Cunningham’s studio, joining Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, and other dancers with whom she would shortly form the Judson Dance Theater. Significantly, Dunn saw in Laban’s notational system the dual purposes of documentation and generation, the space between recording movement and implying it. “Laban’s idea,” Dunn explained, “was very secondarily to make a Tanzschrift, a dance-writing, a way to record.” His primary goal, Dunn maintained, was to create a compositional tool, putting notation before movement. In other words, “to make a Schrifttanz, to use graphic—written—inscriptions and then to generate activities. Graphic notation is a way of inventing the dance.”8

Brown’s own approach to drawing internalized this fraught relationship between diagram, movement, and document that Dunn grasped within Laban’s approach to written notation. “I used drawings in the beginning as an extension of what I was doing in choreography,” she has said, and only rarely did she produce actual scores that she showed to her dancers.9 She instead used drawing more often as a form of focused mental exercise, or to depict a continuity or accrual of movement that she sought in her performers.10 Beginning in her 1973 notebooks, Brown tried to fashion a corporeal vocabulary, an alphabet out of simple shapes and lines (fig. 3). She ascribed gestures to letters, so that the resulting words could provide an entire phrase of movement. Similarly, her crisscrossing Xs and quartered boxes from that period were attempts to loosely imagine a body divided into primary units, in varying combinations of implied movement (figs. 4–5). The quandrants were meant to correlate to the body’s limbs, but as Brown notes, “since they had no head or torso info, they didn’t actually work” as compositions.11 Nevertheless, in her emphasis on these kinds of “primary structures,” she was squarely in step with the minimal pictorial and sculptural vocabularies of her peers in New York.12 She describes her method and predilection: “Merce [Cunningham] worked with chance; I worked with structure.”13 When curator Richard Armstrong discusses sculpture of the period as existing “between geometry and gesture,” he could be speaking just as easily of Brown’s early dances, works such as Structured Pieces (1973–1976), which, like much of the art of their time, reiterate the utter independence of sensuality from luxury.14 Her quadrant drawings bear comparison to a whole range of period pieces, most clearly those such as Sol LeWitt’s serialized geometric variations (fig. 6), which exhaustively played out every schematic possibility inherent in a given form.15

Rainer had sometimes used an apparently similar structure in certain early scores for her choreographies, such as that for Trio B (c. 1968) (fig. 7), but in a much more specific relationship to the performance space of the dances they depicted, showing the full stage in two-dimensional plan view.16 Brown, however, almost always tried to draw in three dimensions. When she diagrammed specific movement, as in the case of the notebook sheets that lay out Locus (1975) (figs. 8–15), she was most often imagining the body within a space defined by its farthest reach—itself a model that brings to mind Tom Marioni’s ongoing series Drawing a Line As Far As I Can Reach (begun 1972) (fig. 16), for which the artist repeatedly retraces the line of his arm’s extension. And yet, it would be some time before Brown began to consider the possibility that drawing could have the kind of directly evidentiary relationship to the body at full scale that Marioni pursued. For most of the 1970s, her drawings primarily functioned as correlative exercises to the way she pictured movement within the body or between a given group of bodies—few of her drawings serve to delineate trajectories of the body through the space of the performance.

Though anomalous among her drawings from the 1970s, the score for Locus is the most important of Brown’s works on paper from that era. It can be read as an early indicator of her need to impose a limiting framework upon herself—in this case an imagined box—but the score also connects her choreographic work to concurrent visual arts practices.17 Locus’ gridded demarcation of the cube echoes any number of contemporary works, such as Robert Barry’s sketches for wire installations and Mel Bochner’s Measurement Room (1969), for which the vertical and horizontal dimensions of a room were inscribed directly onto the walls of the space, drawing attention to the physical characteristics of the gallery itself. Representing the cube—one of the central subjects of artists during the late 1960s and early 1970s—but inscribing the moving body inside it, Locus knits together the Minimalist boxes of Donald Judd and Robert Morris with the critical reassessment of the gallery’s qualities of containment that was implicit in the work of Bochner and many other artists at that time.18

One of the more performative instances of such reassessment was Barry Le Va’s Velocity: Impact Run (1969), for which the artist repeatedly ran as fast as possible into the walls at opposite ends of the gallery until he was exhausted. The work was presented in that same gallery only as ghostly residue: the sound track of Le Va’s sprinting laps and collisions, and the marks and traces (including blood) left by his body on the walls. Working sometimes with guns, cleavers, and seemingly disordered distributions of material such as shattered glass and torn fabric, Le Va exemplified what Ralph Rugoff has termed a “forensic” attitude in art-making, a shift that blossomed during the 1960s.19 It began, however, in Action Painting; when Harold Rosenberg famously theorized in 1952 a new conception of the image as a “result of the encounter” between artist and surface, he evoked a creative process that sounded more like accosting than painting.20 Velocity: Impact Run is the logical, if violent, conclusion of this aggressive performativity. Pollock’s flung drip and its implication of the artist’s choreographic gestures is replaced by the indexical imprint, directly onto the surface, of Le Va’s moving body.

That direct contact, that irrefutable physical evidence of the artist’s presence, finds what might be its earliest antecedent in the series of full-body photograms that Rauschenberg and his then-wife, Susan Weil, made of themselves on blueprint paper (1949–1951) (fig. 17). Produced by lying directly upon the paper, the photograms anticipate not simply Le Va’s collisions, but Yves Klein’s Anthropometries (1960–1961), Jasper Johns’ Skin drawings (1962) (fig. 19), David Hammons’ bodyprints (1969–1976), and Bruce Conner’s ANGEL self-portrait photograms (1973–1975) (fig. 18). Brown, nevertheless, continued to simply allude to the body in her drawings throughout the 1970s, rather than allowing it to assume representational form.

Beginning in the latter part of the decade, however, a major shift occurred in the way she made dances, which in turn affected her drawings. With Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981), she started to use video to compose her choreographies, recording the company’s rehearsals and editing together phrases of improvisation that could be studied and replicated by her dancers. Video provided a much more powerful combination of documentary and generative properties than drawing ever had been able to offer her. Drawing, thereby freed from the yoke of composition, was liberated to function differently.

Instead of thinking about her body from the inside or in the abstract, Brown could now look at it as an object, much as video allowed her to do. It does not seem accidental that a subtle but significant breakthrough that the artist made in 1980, when she drew each of her hands with the other, coincided with the commencement of her use of video. Overlapping on the page in a graphic duet reminiscent of the opening “thumb dance” of her classic Accumulation (1971), Left hand drawn by right hand #1 (1980) (fig. 21) was the first time she depicted herself through observation, and so specifically on the page. “I looked down the front of my body, and it was all that I could see,” Brown says.21 A seal had been cracked, yet she continued to draw abstractly throughout the decade. She mapped paragraphs of texts into their elemental parts according to various rule sets and structures, as if trying to establish or break some code (fig. 20). As such, these drawings feel related to Alighiero Boetti’s Biro pictures (1970–1988) (fig. 22), for which the artist deconstructed words and phrases along a letter-based alphabet register to one side, with the words spelled out in space like a musical score, demarcated by commas in their given alphabetic register. But it was fifteen years after that first hand drawing before Brown took the logical next step that it implied.

Sitting beside a piece of paper on the floor and holding a pen between her toes, she used each foot to draw the other (fig. 23).22 The difficulty of the method was exactly its allure. “I purposely take [the drawing] one step out of my control by using something other than my hand to draw it,” she explained, but the iconography of the feet remained somewhat too logical or expected, “too beautiful” for an artist who had always worked away from the recognizable, toward the abstract.23 In moving the paper from the notebook or desk down to the level of the dance floor, these foot drawings put the picture plane at the mercy of Brown’s entire body. With the paper on the floor, it was only a short skip and hop for her to realize the full gestural possibility of line, what Rosenberg meant when he described it as “the primary agency of physical motion … conceived not as the thinnest of planes, nor as edge, contour or connective but as stroke or figure (in the sense of ‘figure skating’).”24 The “action,” he deadpanned, “became its own representation”; extrapolating from the foot drawings, Brown realized that she could use her whole body to depict itself.25

Beginning in 1999, Brown allowed her movements to speak for themselves on paper, in the process creating a kind of full-body self-portrait. She once noted admiringly that Rauschenberg “arrives fresh at the scene of the accident he’s about to create"—the forensic attitude again rears its head—and the attendant metaphors of messes, collisions, mishaps, and skid marks are exactly right for describing the results of Brown’s entrance onto the paper.26 Using a sheet large enough to encompass her whole body, she began to treat the frame of the paper as a stage (fig. 24).27 Moving across it with pastels or graphite in her toes, rolling over, pivoting, sitting back, pushing, skidding, pulling, swooping, breaking her materials, skipping and stuttering them over the surface (or across the gap between sheets), thrusting, rubbing up the texture of the floor beneath, sweating, scooting, fidgeting, smearing, X-marking-the-spot, lying in wait: Brown creates a mystery novel in two dimensions. In places we can discern actual footprints and handprints rendered painterly, like those of Johns and Hammons, in the mingling of charcoal dust, oil, and sweat. But these drawings are mostly composed of the residual markings of movement, not static prints. Brown thereby recalls a whole range of artists, from Klein to Marioni, in whose surfaces the moving figure is present at full scale. Carolee Schneemann, who was part of the Judson circle, produced a work in the early 1970s that most directly anticipated Brown’s large drawings (despite its marked differences—its relationship to gravity being among the most significant). Using a rope attached to the ceiling of a train car, Schneemann "held a chalk in one hand extended, so that changes in weight, position, and movement were charted by the free motion of the hand on the perimeter of the walls and floor it touched.”28 This performance, which Schneemann called Tracking (1973) (fig. 25), itself recalls the earlier works of Shiraga Kazuo, who, similarly suspended, paints with his feet on floor-based canvases, and who once wrestled mud as a public performance. Calling her series It’s a Draw, Brown evokes the futility of Shiraga’s early action work, punning on the state of exhaustion that marks the conclusion of these pieces, the détente she achieves against the imposing emptiness of the paper-cum-stage.29

The legibility of what precisely happened in any of these works cannot be easily assumed. “I may perform an everyday gesture,” Brown once warned, “so that the audience does not know whether I have stopped dancing or not and, carrying that irony further, I seek to disrupt their expectations by setting up an action to travel left and then cut right at the last moment unless I imagine they have caught on to me, in which case I might stand still.”30 To read these images, we can’t forget about those periods, however brief or drawn out, of alert waiting. We must become “connoisseur[s] of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked,” learning to think in the terms left over from the Action Painters of “inception, duration, direction,” right down to the “concentration and relaxation of the will.”31 Once in a while, we find notes Brown made to herself along the way, directional arrows or maybe some text, as if the movements could somehow be recovered, unwound, played back. The drawings, we find, sit perched as temporal fulcrums, Janus-like hybrids looking both backward and forward, part clue, part instruction.

Folding together the residue of the having done with the invitation to do, Brown circles back by way of Warhol’s Dance Diagram paintings of 1962 (fig. 26) to the tensions inherent in her early drawings. Equal portions Schrifttanz and Tanzschrift, the works that comprise It’s a Draw evince an optimistic ambivalence accrued through years of tension between improvising and recording.32 They collapse four dimensions down onto the paper—the three dimensions of Brown’s movement in the field above, plus the time spent doing it—achieving a superimposition and power that the Italian Futurists would have envied.33 Such a comparison, however, reveals how far we’ve come from the Futurist proto-cinematic fantasy of picturing the continuity of movement. “I do not build up to something,” Brown has said.34 A century ago, the Futurists venerated the forward thrust of speed; that linear obsession has shifted to a decentered progression of activities performed at varying speeds and intensities—what Brown describes as “a traveling phrase” that unfurls itself in multiple directions.35

Let us now admit the famous dancer back into the room—or rather, admit that she never left. The studio, after all, is as much a stage as it is a workshop where objects and images get made. Take Nauman’s studio, for example. Struggling to make sense of art production amidst the 1960s’ reevaluations of the object-based definitions of art, the artist fell back upon the protected space of his studio, and the variety of often banal activities he performed there, defining them as art. Walking around the room in an exaggerated manner or bouncing in one of its corners, Nauman conceived a series of task-based movements that privately spectacularized the mundane. Though they weren’t dances per se, these pieces—including works such as Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance) (1967–1968), whose title makes the connection explicit—were nevertheless structured activities within a defined space, for a specified period of time.36 When Nauman made these works, they were closer to dance than to art.

Trisha Brown, meanwhile, had come during the 1960s to understand the value of everyday gestures in dance, not as a radical redefinition of her discipline, but rather as a way to use the vernacular to challenge dance’s reification of virtuosity.37 She spent the early part of the decade visiting Anna Halprin’s outdoor dance workshops in San Francisco, where, alongside future collaborators that included Paxton and Simone Forti, she learned to incorporate generic “found” gestures through task-based movement studies such as sweeping the floor for hours with a broom. Brown’s insistence that she “make[s] radical changes in a mundane way” could be taken to refer as much to the ordinariness of her movement vocabulary as to the understated modesty of her attitude.38

In large part, however, Brown’s achievement lies not in the vernacularization of movement, but in her reorientation of its relationship to our bodies and, in turn, our relationship to the environment around us. Those reorientations are rooted in her decentered approach to corporeal movement itself, and her notion that it can originate anywhere in the dancer’s body—rather than, for example, very specifically in the torso and solar plexus, as advocated by modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan.39 This innovation helped provoke a way of looking at the body as a roiling field of activity, but also at the discipline itself as an element within a much broader range of practices and possible venues. Brown’s various works created in public spaces cemented this expanded notion of dance, broadening the physical field in which dance could occur.

As part of her decentered improvisational methodology, Brown also toyed with her dancers’ and audiences’ assumptions about gravity. Infused with equal parts bravery and permissiveness, Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970) (fig. 27) was only one of a number of works that she created in the early part of her career in which disorientation figured prominently. For Trillium (1962), her first performed solo, Brown turned herself upside down in a series of handstands. For Planes (1968) (fig. 28), three dancers climb among a grid of handholds and footholds on a slightly canted false wall, as a film by Jud Yalkut projects aerial footage of New York upon them. The performers appear in places to be skydiving, “turn[ing] continually, spiral[ing] down and climb[ing] all over the place in slow-motion to suggest free fall.”40 Gravity is flipped up on its side, such that the dancers are falling horizontally through the space, rather than down through the floor. “The backdrop became the theater floor,” Brown explains. “The audience’s way of seeing was changed.”41 She could never bring herself to choreograph for the ceiling, however, seeing it as a kind of last frontier. “All that remained was the ceiling. I did it with my voice.”42 The year after Planes, she devised Skymap (1969), an audio work for which she instructed the audience to imagine a geography on the ceiling. With only her voice—no movement—Brown walked her audience through a loosely improvised map of the United States. Skymap created a framework of a space where Brown’s audience or dancers could not physically go, but it did so without concern for a particular spatial or graphic form resulting in the mind of her audience. And so Man Walking Down the Side of a Building simply amplified Brown’s already-present interest in upending space. She said it “was like doing Planes but purifying the image. It had no rationale.”43 Importantly, Brown noted, “It was completely art.”44 Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, she instructed dancers to walk, run, and pause on the walls of the Whitney Museum of American Art the following year (Walking on the Wall, 1971) (fig. 29).

We can understand Brown’s eventual choice to put the paper on the floor—but exhibit the finished drawing on the wall—within the context of this early interest in swapping systems of spatial hierarchy.45 Redirection and disorientation come to characterize her approach to drawing. Brown consistently tries to complicate or confuse her own perception when working on paper—whether by closing her eyes in the repetitive “butterfly” drawings she made during the 1990s (figs. 30–31) while listening to Bach, or when she actually lies down on the paper during It’s a Draw so that she is too close to the surface to discern the entire image.46 Her need to destabilize visual knowledge in order to free her body likely comes from the lessons of Halprin’s task-based exercises. “I couldn’t draw it with my eyes open because I would make it too orderly,” Brown says, explaining her periodic insistence on not looking. “I would know too well what I’m doing.”47 Her visual faculties, like her muscles, are handicapped by training and cultural habit.

The horizontality of the drawing during its making (as distinct from Warhol’s Dance Diagrams, which, while exhibited on the floor, were likely painted upright) etches gravity into the image; her choice to exhibit them on the wall allows its weight to become visible.48 Furthermore, it connects drawing to the street, allowing the surface to read as a catalogue of movements that seem pedestrian in both senses of the word. In so doing, It’s a Draw recalls works that Yoko Ono created in the early 1960s by placing canvases in the street, or in the case of Painting to Be Stepped On (1960), left underfoot more generally. Warhol, too, describes having left paintings in the street (though none survive), and Stanley Brouwn made works by placing paper on the pavement to be completed with the footsteps of passersby, exemplifying John Cage’s common interests in randomness and participation. Indeed, many of the It’s a Draw works read as accidental and random, as the happenstance result of some great force being driven over the paper or visited upon it.49

But however accidental they may be, it is impossible to see these marks as simple accidents once we realize who made them. Learning that a dancer—and not just any dancer—made these drawings makes it hard, suddenly, not to want to pick apart the strata of marks and reconstruct the dance that occurred over this terrain. (When It’s a Draw is paired with its video documentation—as it is in this exhibition—we can cheat, watching the topological shifts of Brown’s body and the corresponding vocabulary with which they register.) We understand them as the corporeal autographs of a celebrated body, in which the drawing serves as a sign for her absent figure.

Though Schneemann’s Tracking seems to prefigure Brown’s It’s a Draw, that work, along with her later, better-known version entitled Up to and Including Her Limits (1973–1976), present distinct contrasts to the relationship between the artist’s moving body and its traces implied in Brown’s drawings. For Schneemann, the body is central to the work, to a degree that the resulting drawing becomes secondary. Directly citing Pollock’s influence upon these pieces, she stated, “My entire body becomes the agency of visual traces, vestige [sic] of the body’s energy in motion.”50 Tracking and Up to and Including Her Limits each consist of a performance and the environments they demarcate; the line Schneemann produces is only sometimes specific to a given movement, and secondary to the event itself. While she is clearly interested in movement and its potential legibility in drawing, the spectacular nature of the performance (done publicly and in the case of Up to and Including Her Limits, naked) seems to be the true subject of her project.

Nevertheless, Schneemann described Tracking as a “seismograph or Ouija Board,” which is an interesting metaphor.51 Similarly, Alan Saret’s series of Gang Drawings, begun in 1967 as studies for sculpture and made with fistfuls of pencils, has been described as “neurological seismograph[s] recording the tremors of intent.”52 There is something apt in thinking of dance—especially Brown's—as a kind of geologic space under the influence of magic.53 In geology, stratigraphy is the subdiscipline concerned with the sequence of deposition at an archaeological site; it seems reasonable, if not desirable, to apply our own version of the geologist’s “law of superposition” to the field of her drawings, as scientists have done with Pollock’s layers of drips, trying to distinguish the temporal sequence of events.54 As Brown herself notes, “The mind comes along and wants to organize things,” and what we want to organize are the tracks on the paper back into a dance.55

The archaeology of movement—the obsession with understanding its constituent parts, how it happens, and what, exactly, is happening—is an early fixation of modernism that finds echoes in Brown’s work at large. Eadweard Muybridge took up the challenge of dissecting movement through photography, separating the fluid movement of a horse into frozen successive units (fig. 32). Soon enough, however, Futurist photography collapsed movement back into a single image, more interested in its continuity than its constituent parts (fig. 33); it was not until the 1930s that stop-action flashes captured both an action and its elemental progression in one image.56 Created a century after Muybridge, Brown’s seminal systemized dance Accumulation, in which a series of simple gestures accrue successively, augurs the end of this modernist project. The piece prescribes a dance that gets one unit closer to completion with each repetition, ending up as an archive of its own construction.57 It is choreography as reverse stratigraphy, snowballing into a single expression such that by its conclusion, the individual movements are no longer identifiable.

Despite the self-awareness embedded in Accumulation, what may be most thrilling in Brown’s work is its seeming lack of consciousness, its almost primordial wildness.58 Her dances exemplify the breathtaking nature of great improvisation, in which we are able to catch effervescent glimpses of daylight between the dancer’s awareness of his or her moving body and its very motion—where, almost like the tip of a cracking whip, consciousness floats free for one extra instant until the movement catches it and yanks it forward. “The body solves problems before the mind knows you had one,” Brown says.59 Her best drawings, like her dances, allow us to witness the mind and the body playing catch-up with each other, “investigating,” as she puts it, “the disparity between the two simultaneous experiences, what the artist [makes] and what the audience [sees].”60 But something gets lost or concealed in that lag time, and the out-of-body experience it provokes. “I surprise myself thinking ‘Who is this person who is making these movements in this dance?’ It’s a person with a suspended identity.”61 Speaking of Twelve Ton Rose (1996), Brown described the dance as “moving in the negative space of the music,” and that perpetual habitation of the space between is one of her defining traits.62 She says that early in her studies, she learned how to “fly” or “levitate,” and that sense of being aloft might be best understood as a permanent condition, hovering between states: between the ground and the air, the inside and outside of oneself, the improvised and repeated gesture, the action that has happened and the one yet to come, “between geometry and the gesture,” and symbolically, between the disciplines of art and dance.63

That essential contingency between her drawings and dances is echoed in various younger artists, in whose works action and its traces are crucially codependent, with neither taking precedence over the other—Matthew Barney, for example, whose ongoing Drawing Restraint series investigates the relationship between resistance and creativity (fig. 34), or the urban walking performances of Francis Alÿs, in which the artist leaves behind a trail of paint, evaporating water, or an unraveling thread from his sweater.64 And yet, actions are shaking off the mantle of codependency. Over the course of the decade, since the advent of major art-historical reassessments of the legacy of performance within the visual arts, the recognition of actions as sites of meaning on a par with art objects has reached its logical conclusion, evolving to a condition in which we are now increasingly comfortable with its pure commodification. The need for residue—for objects, images, or other documents—no longer seems as pressing. The idea of owning an action is possible, thereby opening it to repetition over time.65 No longer something to be re-performed, it is simply performed. Action, at long last, is good enough by itself.

This is, of course, a remedial notion in the world of dance, where the absolute sufficiency of the action is self-evident; this, surely, is what gives Brown’s It’s a Draw series its faint whiff of the superfluous. The pieces reinforce the obvious. Oddly, that unnecessary quality is also what gives the drawings a kind of retroactive authority—though to empower that authority we must, finally, see them properly as the drawings of a dancer.

The It’s a Draw pieces perfectly and precariously balance the “concrete” and “elusive” qualities that Rauschenberg found, albeit in opposite proportions, in dance and art. In this tenuous concordance, Brown ironically holds out the possibility of breaking it all back apart: expanding the “history” in history painting (and putting the lie to Walter Benjamin, who saw history as a compressed stratum piled upon itself); ungluing the simultaneity of the Futurist legacy; and excavating the gestural layers of Action Painting. In short, Brown proposes restoring the primacy of the moving body that is the absent or obscured subject of all of these things, working back toward Muybridge and against the vacuously instantaneous image we’ve ended up with. What Brown’s drawings represent, then, is a chance to repatriate a piece of what dance—not music or theater, nor performance more generally—bequeathed to the modern image, and in particular to the fated gesture that came to loom over the past half-century. The terms of Action Painting, naturally, are the terms of dance, and Brown has no need to borrow them back.

Should it surprise us that dance has so much to tell the picture? Writing in 1944, two years before Pollock first started dancing around his canvases, critic Clement Greenberg closed his obituary for Piet Mondrian by noting that the Dutch painter’s “one great diversion, surprisingly or not, was dancing, and I am told that he liked it so much that he often danced by himself in the studio.”66 Too bad. If you ask Rauschenberg, who insists that he dances only with Trisha, she makes a great partner.67

Originally published in Trisha Brown: So that the Audience Does Not Know Whether I have Stopped Dancing, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2008).

Peter Eleey is the associate director of exhibitions and programs at MoMA PS1. From 2007 to 2010, prior to his move to MoMA PS1, he was a curator of visual arts at the Walker Art Center, where he organized the exhibitions Goshka Macuga: It Broke From Within (2011; catalogue; with Bartholomew Ryan), The Talent Show (2010), The Quick and the Dead (2009; catalogue), and Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing (2008; catalogue). From 2002 to 2007, he was a curator and producer at Creative Time in New York. Eleey’s writings on multidisciplinary contemporary artists such as Matt Connors, Mark Manders, Sturtevant, and others have been widely published.