Richard Foreman’s psyche is open for viewing. His words spew ceaselessly from a video monitor atop an ungainly robot. Birthday-party squiggles of paint curlicue over walls and floor, where crumpled-up newspaper grows like fungus. You could be right in his mind, or on his stage. Yet you’re not in a theater at all, but in an art gallery.
The Foreman space is one of six clamorously contrasting installations in “Show People: Downtown Directors and the Play of Time,” at Exit Art through August 17. Foreman, Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, Peter Schumann, and Meredith Monk each created a “self-portrait” for the exhibit; the estate of the late Reza Abdoh worked with curator Norman Frisch and associate curator Jodi Hanel to compose one for him.
“We asked them to portray themselves as young artists first starting to make a career in New York,” explains Frisch, “and to trace how these early ideas are still present in their work—or not. To connect the dots. It’s important for young people to understand that even the most famous artists at 20 or 21 were just like them, arriving on the bus or the train or the plane, and having to figure out their mentors, their colleagues, where to work, how to work.”
The show is the brainchild of Exit Art co-founder Papo Colo—a passionate homage, he says, to these directors whose aesthetic is so strongly visual. The curators invited each director to participate and funded the project generously—which shows in the sumptuous mounting and scale of the exhibit.
Bouncing from one director’s area to the next, you’re assailed by how starkly these downtown iconoclasts differ from each other. Moving from Foreman’s bombardment of words and color, you relax into the spare tranquility of Bogart’s geometric space, which is divided by decades of rehearsal photos hung on wires. Her “Room,” enclosed within her exhibit, vibrates with white noise; large-type instructions prompt you on how to behave to maximize its sensory effects. “It’s a reinterpretation of what she does in a workshop with actors,” explains Exit Art co-founder Jeannette Ingberman. Robert Wilson places his series of modernistic chairs on industrial carpeting and serenades you with a music and dialogue collage from A Letter for Queen Victoria (1974); Abdoh’s area displays Annie Liebowitz’s bizarre cast photo from Tight, White, Right (1993) and streams videos of his performances. The homespun simplicity of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater figures contrasts startlingly with Meredith Monk’s high-tech “Fire and Ice.” In Monk’s installation, video flames blaze out, engulfing a female figure—elements from her 16 Millimeter Earrings (1966); on an opposite screen, from The Rally From the Quarry (1976), tiny figures in black and white creep over huge rocks while hypnotic chanting reverberates.
Throughout the gallery, video screens play tapes of the directors’ theater pieces, many shown for the first time. In the café, you can grab a java and watch any archival film you request—from Foreman’s Rhoda in Potatoland (1975) to Bogart’s History, an American Dream (1983). Many of these are videos transferred from 16mm films shot by a director’s pals to document the performance. “Most of the directors weren’t part of the theater world of their day,” Frisch explains. “They created an alternative world. Foreman’s friends, for example, were all filmmakers.”
So you can relive the downtown scene of those years. Or you can travel to that strange land for the first time. The kids coming in don’t find this stuff dated at all, says Colo. “They’re saying, ‘This is now.‘ “