When the elevator door opens to the Whitney’s Hurst Family Galleries, current home to Nick Mauss’s premiere U.S. solo exhibition, “Transmissions” (lead-curated by Scott Rothkopf and Elisabeth Sussman), the first thing you see are several photographs hanging from a translucent white partition. Images of ballet dancers in classical poses are interspersed with erotic photographs of intertwining legs and nude male bodies. Through the partition, live dancers can be seen claiming space on the gallery floor in white or black unitards, transmitting their embodied knowledge of the artwork around them.
Mauss has taken on several roles in conceiving “Transmissions”: curator, scholar, writer, designer, choreographer (in collaboration with sixteen dancers, performing in groups of four at a time). His aim, according to a release, is to reveal connections “between modernist ballet and the avant-garde visual arts in New York” from the Thirties to the Fifties. Mauss has carefully arranged paintings, photographs, sketches, sculptures, costumes, and films in the gallery to create a sort of collage-experience, prompting the viewer to find links between visual arts and ballet in an individual manner, dependent entirely on how one walks through the space. Owing to the use of partitions and other structures — like free-floating steps on which the dancers occasionally sit — some pieces are cloaked in narrow corners. In the case of Eugene Berman’s 1941 original set model for choreographer George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, viewers must wedge themselves between two white walls to get a proper look. This placement is purposeful: Hidden histories, or those that remain outside dominant narratives, are paramount to Mauss’s research and practice.
Serving Mauss’s themes, works by George Platt Lynes, Pavel Tchelitchew, Paul Cadmus, and Dorothea Tanning depict dance and evoke the tastes of Lincoln Kirstein (art connoisseur and co-founder of the New York City Ballet), a key presence in the show. A selection of Carl Van Vechten’s photography runs on a long loop of slides projected in the middle of the gallery; this collection was initially widely published in black-and-white, but here showcases ballet stars like Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova in vibrant color. Somehow, this shift offers a sort of behind-the-scenes energy, as if the dancers were posing for a Polaroid instead of a portrait. The photographs also remind us of the lineage of dance knowledge, its transferences through the ages and through the personal histories and identities of individual artists.
Mauss incorporates several works of his own that question the presence of memories and knowledge in practiced art forms like ballet. Images in Mind (2018) features a large mirror in front of which enamel-painted bodies block a perfect reflection. The piece includes a small-tube TV on a folding chair, facing the mirror and frequently playing rehearsal footage showing Balanchine at the head of a studio. Surely dancers will immediately relate to this piece, as their alter egos exist in the mirror of the studio. Such was probably the case in Mauss’s studio work for “Transmissions,” too, but, unlike most ballet rehearsals, his dancers had the rare opportunity to interact with and study the artwork in the exhibit prior to its opening last month. These ensembles’ rotating casts, combined with the infinite possibilities in walking the gallery space, make no two visits to “Transmissions” alike.