On Saturday, July 25, 2015 writer Alexander Keefe presented A Conversation With Alexander about Viola Farber (1931-1998) and her connection to the art scene of the 1950s and 1960s. The press release sent out by Curator Lauren Mackler explains that its series This Sentence is “an exhibition of nine artists that will accumulate, weekly, over the course of the summer paired with a program of performances and screenings, contemporary and historical ‘citations,’ giving context to the ideas in the show.” Alexander Keefe’s conversation was the 7th in this series and the second involving a film of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The first was a film of Cunningham’s 1986 work Points In Space. Viola Farber met Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College in 1952 and a year later became a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In full disclosure, I performed with both the Cunningham and the Farber dance companies, and I was married to Viola Farber from 1971 to 1980.
Alexander Keefe is a freelance writer based in Claremont CA, writes about art, media, aesthetics and Indology for Bidoun, East of Borneo, ArtForum.com and others. Keefe studied Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard University and was an assistant professor at Ohio University. In 2010 he was the recipient of the Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant.
Before Keefe began his talk, we were given the opportunity to see a wonderful film of Cunningham’s 1960 dance Crises filmed at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College in 1961 by Helen Priest Rogers. Rogers was the co-founder of the Dance Notation Bureau and “a compelling figure important to any discussion of dance on film.” Crises included Cunningham Company members Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Judith Dunn, Viola Farber, and Marilyn Wood. The score was by the very controversial composer Conlon Nancarrow who was best known for “his studies for player piano, being one of the first composers to use auto-playing musical instruments, realizing their potential to play far beyond human performance ability” (WikipediA). I say controversial because Nancarrow was self-exiled to Mexico City because his political views of the 1950s were causing him problems in the US.
Costumes for Crises were designed by the renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg. The film is in black and white, but the costumes were different shades of red. Viola Farber told me that she had been excited to be wearing red, but that when Rauschenberg handed her the costume, it was yellow. After she voiced her disappointment, Rauschenberg, who adored Viola, said that yellow was at the extreme end of the red color spectrum and meant that she was therefore very special. Viola related to me that this did not help, because Rauschenberg was always putting her in either yellow or orange.
Merce Cunningham wrote about his work Crises saying that “An adventure in togetherness…..I decided to allow for the dancers contacting each other, not only through holding or being held, but also by outside means. I used elastic bands around a wrist, an arm, a waist or a leg. By one dancer inserting a hand under the band on another they were attached but also at the same instant free.” He went on to write, “….by random selection, the possibility of two dancers bending and turning together, then again, by random selection, whether they are attached, if so how, by holding each other, or by elastic, then if elastic, where it might go.” (Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years by David Vaughan, Aperture, 2005) Indeed Cunningham wore a wide elastic band around his waist and a smaller one on his wrist which the other dancers would attach themselves to him at different times during the performance. Seeming somewhat tame now, when Crises was premiered in 1960, it was received with very mixed reviews by critics and audiences alike. Some of this was due to its sometimes violent movements and by the very loud, stark and somewhat irritating music score by Nancarrow.
Very importantly too, between the year 1960 and 1961, the now world famous painter Jasper Johns produced a painting titled Portrait – Viola Farber. Keefe has been helping me organize Viola Farber’s archival materials and during one of his visits I showed him a framed copy that I now own of the artist’s original sketch of that painting. Keefe noticed that on the bottom of this sketch Johns had written a somewhat different title of the painting, Crises – Viola Farber Portrait. He got very excited as this tied Viola Farber, not only to Cunningham’s dance Crises but also to the art scene of that era.
After the viewing of Crises, Keefe gave us a thorough and beautiful history of Viola Farber, the artists who influenced her life and work, and her connections to other artists. Those artists included the great ballet teacher of the Cecchetti Ballet Technique Margaret Craske, painters Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Charles deKooning, musicians/composers Nick Cernovich, David Tudor and of course, John Cage. Farber also studied and worked with Katherine (Katie) Litz and was in the first performance of what became the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Most of this information I knew because I had self-published a book titled The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber (2006 – Authorhouse Publishing), but I did learn several important new pieces of information; for which I am extremely grateful. Included in this was a painting by James Bishop that was titled For Viola Farber. Bishop had met Farber at Black Mountain College and was, we think, inspired to paint this work after seeing her perform in Paris while on the Cunningham Company’s World Tour in 1964.
Keefe’s conversation included wonderful images of some of these artists and writings from Jasper Johns’ notebooks. He also included a story of how Johns had given Farber the sketch of the portrait out of his sketchbook just before it was lost in a fire that also destroyed his home; another story that I had not heard. An important connection that Keefe pointed out to us was the one between the rubber bands used in Cunningham’s Crises and the one that is literally stretched between a fork and a spoon on Johns’ Viola Farber – Portrait. He pointed out that the portrait of Viola Farber was probably the first of portraits by Johns; of which there are very few. This is why researchers like Alexander Keefe and others are so necessary to helping the rest of us understand the connections between the different art forms.
Although there was a nice audience for This Sentence: A Conversation With Alexander Keefe, it was small; perhaps 25. The information Keefe provided us with and the beautiful 1961 film of Cunningham’s Crises should be seen by dancers and artists around the country. It is an amazing history of a dynamic era in the art scene in New York City during the ’50, ‘60s and ‘70s. The artists that met at Black Mountain College in the 1950s went on to become some our most cherished talents. We must remember them and I thank Alexander Keefe and the China Art Objects Galleries’ Curator Lauren Mackler for helping to preserve this history.
Feature photo: Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham in Cunningham’s Crises (1960). Photographer: James Klosty
Photo of Alexander Keefe by Tarrah Krajnak.
Scans of artwork by Alexander Keefe.
Information about Jeff Slayton available at www.jeffslayton.org.