Jill Johnston died on September 18, following a stroke nine days earlier. The shock waves are reverberating. Perhaps we thought she was indestructible. Jill began to write about dance for The Village Voice in 1959, four years after Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher, and Norman Mailer founded the small, feisty downtown weekly. She’d danced briefly, but became fascinated with the history and criticism of the field while working in the New York Public Library’s Dance Collection. By the mid 1950s, she was contributing articles to Dance Observer and Art News.
Almost from the beginning of her approximately 15 years of contributing a column to the Voice, Johnston matched her tone to that of a paper dedicated to producing shrewd, brainy, and obstreperous commentary on art, politics, and the Greenwich Village scene. At first, she was respectfully and trenchantly analytical of her heroes so far — Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and José Limón, although she soon “deposed” Limón — preferring Merce Cunningham’s level gaze (“He didn’t have his head in the clouds and he wasn’t hanging it between his legs either,” she wrote in the Voice in February of 1968). “I mean you didn’t have to feel sorry for him on one hand or hope for redemption from the powers above on the other.”
Johnston was viewing Yvonne Rainer with interest well before the historical 1962 debut of Judson Dance Theater, and her own background in art history, coupled with her iconoclastic bent, fit brilliantly into the zeitgeist of those rambunctious and rebellious choreographers, as well as of the ’60s in general. The composition classes that John Cage taught at the New School between 1956 and 1960 attracted writers and painters as well as musicians and helped prompt adventurous artists to blur the distinctions between their respective fields and between art and life. Jill could bring depth to a discussion of Robert Morris or Robert Rauschenberg when they were identifying themselves as Judson choreographers. She could invoke Kurt Schwitters when writing about Jim Dine’s 1968 Car Crash.
Above all, by writing vividly, with slangy erudition, about the Judson choreographers, she helped a wide readership to accept and, through her eyes, to see into radical works by choreographers such as Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, and Lucinda Childs — works that said readers might otherwise be prone to dismiss as “not dance.”
At a time when painters, composers, choreographers, and vanguard theater directors were using techniques of collage, assemblage, and chance procedures to defy traditional ideas about art, Johnston took her writing further into structural analogies with the work she was discussing. In one 1968 Voice column, entitled “Dancescrabble,” she collaged found phrases, including some from her own writings. It opened with, “The dancer stops short in her initial flight track, a full open run of high expectation, steps back slowly, a hand at the chest. Look down first, Madam, before stepping up, your hat is slipping. You’re not supposed to smile when I enter the room. But I thought…you thought…All my trains left ages ago.”
During the late ’60s and early ’70s — a time of mental disturbances for her — she also became more interested in writing about herself; her Voice column was still called “Dance Journal,” but the “dances” she saw (and participated in) ranged over road trips, foreign cities, art-world parties, political disasters, meetings with friends, and sudden revelations. Her prose became increasingly wilder and woollier and syntactically daring — and often uncannily poetic. At one point, she abandoned all punctuation except for the occasional period.
In 1969, she organized a panel to discuss her writings; it was called “The Disintegration of a Critic.” And that same year, in the course of a long rant, “Ergo Sum,” about everything in the world, she wrote, “As a dance critic I’m even falling apart, I’m too good to be true. I know I’m ideally suited to the work I’m not doing.” But whatever she chose to call her columns or herself, many of us (by then, I was writing for the Voice too) could hardly wait to read what she’d write next. We might have been maddened; we were also enthralled. Revisiting her articles in the revised and expanded edition of her early collection, Marmalade Me, I’m excited all over again.
Toward the end of the ’70s, Jill cleaned up and tamed down her style a bit. As she notes, in the bio on her elegantly comprehensive website, “With the world becoming increasingly conservative, it seemed unlikely I would even survive without writing to reach a larger public.” She came out as a lesbian feminist with Lesbian Nation in 1973 — and revisited the topic in 1998 with Admission Accomplished: The “Lesbian Nation” Years (1970-1975). She investigated her own background and life in Mother Bound (1983) and Paper Daughter (1985), and her father’s life and work in England’s Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells (2008). Her Secret Lives in Art (1994) — a selection of essays published from Art in America, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications between 1984 and 1994 — attests to her renewed interest in critical writing about painting, literature, and performance, and in 1996, she produced the controversial Jasper John’s: Privileged Information, in which she found — and made a case for — hidden personal iconography in work deemed contentless by the artists and his public.
In her preface to At Sea on Land (2005), Johnston reveals her constant delight in her own literary practice itself and how it evolves to meet the day: “By playing writing off against the nuttiness of government as many of us see the present state of the union, I intend to show the latter up, and/or throw my craft into relief.” Years earlier, in a 1965 Voice piece titled “Critics’ Critic,” she had staked out a position: “Criticism wears me out — it’s like riding a bike up and down the country hills in a race against a phantom judge. I’ll take a plot of level territory and stake out a claim to lie down on it and criticize the constellations, if that’s what I happen to be looking at. I also stake out a claim to be an artist, a writer, if that’s what I’m doing when I get to the typewriter and decide that I liked something well enough to say what I think it’s all about.”
Jill Johnston is mourned by her spouse and colleague of 30 years, Ingrid Nyeboeg, by her son, Richard Lanham; her daughter, Winnie Lanham; and four grandchildren. And many, many friends and admirers. A memorial will be announced later.
PS: In my sadness, I couldn’t help laughing when my computer screen interacted rebelliously with an ad for At Sea on Land on jilljohnston.com. The left margin cut off one letter, so that the helpful command said: “lick Here To Buy.” I know you’d laugh, too, Jill. Oh, for those vanished, irreverent days you charted so brilliantly!