Listen in for a new installment of Black Mountain College Radio, our new podcast dedicated to all things Black Mountain College and Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center! In this podcast, hear:
- An interview with Meg Foley, visiting improvisational performance artist behind “the undergird” / “action is primary #4”
- An immersive segment on the life and works of BMC educator and titan of Abstract Expressionism, Robert Motherwell. The exhibition Robert Motherwell: The Quiet + The Wild is on display June 2 – September 2, 2017 at 56 Broadway.
Can’t listen? Read a transcript of the podcast below and find Episode 1 here.
Check out our Soundcloud page for new episodes!
Episode 2 Transcript
by Carmelo Pampillonio
Interview with Meg Foley
CP: Thank you for joining us Meg, would you mind starting by talking a little about your background as an artist?
MF: Not at all, so I’ve danced most of my life and when I was a teenager I became quite interested in photography and sculpture and when I as in college I hung out with a lot of mutual artists and read what they read, and went to a lot of museums and really started to try and dialogue across forms, because the language and the theory that I was looking at in the dance context was different than what I was encountering in the visual arts context. I was always trying to translate those values because I didn’t quite understand why they weren’t being placed more closely I guess. And then as a young professional artist I just kept making dances, and as time went on I sort of started to dismantle my process and became interested in past work, and different ways to use improvisation, because I would use improvisation to generate movement, but not as something to remain open on stage. So I started to open up my process and that was around 2008-2010 and it was around that time where I felt a little bit like I was breaking up with myself, that I started chipping into solo research, which had not been my main focus at all. Even though i would make all the movement myself, and so was interested in authorship, I was interested in the performers giving me their perspective of the abstract narrative they were moving through so they their experience of performing would inform the subsequent choreographic choices. The piece I did right before I started researching “action is primary” has a construct where each of the dancers learned their own – there was a trio, and it was called “cookie,” or rather it started as a trio. But the performers learned their parts, or their series of movements, alone. And they only ever experienced the trio, like all three of them moving together, in performance showings. And I worked with a sound designer where the sound was a layering of three parts, and so they would only hear their sonic part and then when they would perform they would hear the entire thing. So I was really interested in what actually happens, that we don’t just make something and then people watch, that there’s an affect that comes into being and that shapes the movement while we’re being watched, and so I wanted to build that into the choreography. And that’s when I started to get into the taking apart of these different improvisational systems and approaches that could all be inside one container, and I just ended up working inside this practice for like 7 years.
Yeah, that’s the long and the short of it.
CP: You’ll be performing “the undergird” also known as “action is primary #4,” at the museum, and you described this as an improvised “speech that is a dance performance that is a speech.” You’ve said it’s about “mortality, birth, earth monuments, and the immediate, omnipresent body, alone, in congress, and all that it’s not.” This seems like a performative monologue of nested retranslations – could you elaborate a bit on how you explore and connect these themes?
MF: Yeah, nested retranslations, I like that. So it’s not a monologue, but you’re kinda right on in the sense that it comes from a single voice. But the piece is my attempt to give this speech, and then I’ve created all these tasks in order to give this speech. And as I’ve been working on it, it’s become really clear that the speech needs to be improvised, so I can’t write it, practice it, re-write it, practice the delivery, etc. There’s something about making decisions in the moment that is critical to the content. And that is a variable that I can’t determine before the performance. So Ive been trying to prepare myself to improvise this speech, I’ve created all these tasks or structures that are around it that specifically investigate talking, or considering my body as an earth monument, there is a part that there is writing that I have prepared that I offer and present to the audience. But actually a lot of the tasks have more to do with imagery and time. And so there’s this consideration of my body here and now, with the viewer, and maybe by altering or expanding our shared sense of time in this moment we can start to meditate on these concepts f being mortal, which to me after having a child relates very directly to birth and this question of where things begin and end, and in a very real present tense, where do i begin and end. If I’m imaging something that is bigger than me, can it possibly be big enough to include you, if you as a viewer are generous enough with your attention that you’re really giving it to me. I think there’s a phase where one of us ends and the other begins, and between us is a little less clear, and you get not always a finite relationship.
So there;s a lot of abstraction of this sense of “where is my end in this moment or time?” And I do talk, and I am always giving this speech, but the process of working in the Undergird has actually made me aware that I don’t even actually know what I want to say, I just know the feeling. The feeling and desire to communicate, and that perhaps if I were to work in tandem with you as a viewer, maybe I could expand the limitations of my own body or at least be more aware of them. And all of the tasks are me trying to get closer to giving the speech, and it hasn’t quite happened yet actually.
CP: What do you mean by “earth monuments”?
MF: What I mean by earth monuments are generally pieces of human-made land art, so that could be something interventionist, like “Spiral Jetty” or Stonehenge. But I’m also interest in things that are perhaps created in order to change, so earth monuments for me, the category also extends to naturally made monuments, like arches, national parks, something like that. Which is different because it’s not coming from the hands of a person but it is created over time to find this form. So I’m thinking in both of those categories.
CP: So it seems the piece is largely focused around personal process, your process. How has your improvisational approach changed since you first started performing it?
MF: Well it’s become more and more refined, so when I first performed it I had a pretty loose score, and one of the ways that I work now that improvisation is my primary research that I often develop things through the process of performing them. So I’m actually now at a point where I’m taking the pieces apart and separating tasks from one another, and trying to get really specific about what this speech is that I actually want to give, or what the feeling is that I’m trying to communicate. I’ve gone back to the studio with a collaborator, Annie Wilson, and she and I are working and doing the score, performing for one another, and isolating the tasks.
CP: Have the works of any Black Mountain College dancers such as Merce Cunningham, Katherine Litz, or Elizabeth Schmitt Jennerjahn influenced your work?
MF: Yeah, I was quite influenced by Merce Cunningham as a young choreographer and still am incredibly inspired by his work, and John Cage’s work and writing. Definitely the principle of when I’m dancing, what I’m thinking about, is what I’m doing, was really transformative for me in terms of identifying value and meaning within the work itself as opposed to the idea or narrative frame of the choreographic work. So I’ve been largely influenced by that and also so inspired by the persistence of research and persistent research into the present and present-tense work. So in terms with my relationship with BMC, I’ve never been there and I’m super excited to perform at the museum and to get to dive a little bit deeper into the history. But I just feel I’m in the lineage of some of those collaborations and I’m honored to get to be near it, really.
CP: Yeah, we’re excited to have you there! Thank you so much for your time, Meg, and I’m looking forward to your performance on July 8th.
MF: Yeah, thank you! I’m looking forward to it, too.
Robert Motherwell Segment
Robert Motherwell was born in Aberdeen, Washington on January 24, 1915.
He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Stanford University in 1937, and continued his study of Philosophy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After his time at Harvard, Motherwell traveled around Europe and befriended many Surrealist painters — including Kurt Seligmann, Roberto Matta, and William Baziotes — and started writing about art for magazines such as Partisan Review and New Republic.
His first solo show was presented at the Raymond Duncan Gallery in Paris in 1939.
In 1940 he moved to New York and studied Art History at Columbia University in New York. It was here at Columbia that Robert Motherwell studied with Meyer Schapiro, a well-known Marxist Art Historian, who convinced Motherwell to devote himself more to painting than scholarship.
Schapiro arranged for Motherwell to study with Surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann, and also introduced him to a group of exiled Parisian Surrealists, the lot of which included Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and André Masson.
Motherwell’s time with the Surrealists influenced his artistic approach, but it was his time with the Chilean painter Roberto Matta that had a significant and long-lasting effect.
In 1941, Motherwell travelled to Mexico with Roberto Matta for six months. Matta introduced Motherwell to the concept of automatism, which, in brief, is the process of creating art without conscious thought or intention. Automatism uses psychoanalytic theory as a point of departure, and attempts to tap into the unconscious cerebrations of the mind, as opposed to the conscious, surface-level processes that we’re familiar with on a daily basis.
Oddly enough it’s a conceptual approach with a process based on feeling, and can manifest through various praxes such as free association, stream of consciousness, doodling, chance, and acting upon impulse. Automatism, also known as gestural painting or free association, would become a central tenet to mid-century Abstract Expressionism. Thus Abstract Expressionism was a painterly movement, one that was largely focused on the subjectivity and self-expression of the individual artist.
So, going back to the late 1930s, on a train ride across Europe, a young Robert Motherwell discovered James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, a Modernist work of fiction which became his most admired literary source. For years Motherwell had been fascinated by the freedom and plasticity of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness’ style of writing, which now dovetailed seamlessly with the automatism introduced by Matta. Motherwell drew many rich parallels between Joyce’s technique to his own automatist style, as they both attempt to relinquish conscious control in the act of expression.
His use of automatism can be found throughout the rest of his career, in works such as his Lyric Suite, Ulysses Suite, Elegies, and his Joyce Sketchbook.
And with all this, Motherwell became a potent link between psychoanalysis, automatism, and postwar Abstract Expressionism.
In an interview with Paul Cummins, Motherwell said:
“What I realized was that Americans potentially could paint like angels but there was no creative principle around, so that everybody who liked modern art was copying it. Gorky was copying Picasso. Pollock was copying Picasso. De Kooning was copying Picasso. I mean I say this unqualifiedly. I was painting French intimate pictures or whatever. And all we needed was a creative principle, I mean something that would mobilize this capacity to paint in a creative way, and that’s what Europe had that we hadn’t had; we had always followed in their wake. And I thought of all the possibilities of free association—because I also had a psychoanalytic background and I understood the implications. It might be the best chance to really make something entirely new which everybody agreed was the thing to do.”
Later on in the interview Motherwell states:
“Matta wanted to start a revolution, a movement, within Surrealism. He asked me to find some other American artists that would help start a new movement. It was then that Baziotes and I went to see Pollock and de Kooning and Hofmann and Kamrowski and Busa and several other people. And if we could come with something. Peggy Guggenheim, who liked us, said that she would put on a show of this new business. And so I went around explaining the theory of automatism to everybody because the only way that you could have a movement was that it had some common principle. It sort of all began that way.”
(soft Lake Eden field recordings)
In the summer of 1945, at age 30, Motherwell came to Black Mountain College to teach painting and art criticism at Josef Albers’ invitation. He returned to Black Mountain College in the summer of 1951, where he taught alongside Ben Shahn, an outspoken proponent of the politically-motivated art movement known as Social Realism. Motherwell and Shahn had very different aesthetics and philosophies, and even though their time only overlapped for a few days, their opinions sparked many vehement debates over whether abstraction or realism was the superior art form.
In fact, in 1949 the Museum of Modern Art held a conference titled “Art Education 1949 – Focus for World Unity,” where Ben Shahn and Motherwell argued their positions.
Shahn claimed that Motherwell was the bourgeois scourge of all the left-wing artists, while Motherwell red-baited Shahn as a communist, his work being agitprop propaganda.
This debate remains complex, especially considering the historical circumstances.
The Cold War was in its infancy, and the International Organization Division, as part of the CIA, funded modern American artists — such as Motherwell — during the Cold War in an effort to counter the Soviet Union’s rigid advocacy of Social Realism.
However one perceives this debate, Motherwell had a fruitful stint at Black Mountain College, teaching and influencing a plethora of notable artists including Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Kenneth Noland.
(soft Lake Eden field recordings)
In the early 50s Motherwell returned to New York and was active in the Abstract Expressionist group known as The New York School, a moniker that he came up with.
He continued to push the boundaries of Abstract Expressionism well into the latter half of the 20th century, when the verdures of Pop Art and Minimalism began to dominate the fertile postwar landscape.
Motherwell is best known for his gestural series Elegies to the Spanish Republic, which he referred to as a “lamentation or funeral song” after the Spanish Civil War. The series consists of over 100 paintings made between 1948 and 1967, characterized by patternized rough black ovals and bold rectangular swaths which jut across coarse, neutral-colored backgrounds. The series is an allusion to human mortality, the dialectic of life and death expressed through white and black. Many have speculated that his struggle with severe asthma and his consequent fear of an untimely death played a role in this rumination on impermanence. Motherwell also related the dark ovular shapes that frequented his Elegies to the display of the testicles of dead bulls at Spanish bullfights, and one could connect this phallic reference back to his interest Freudian psychoanalysis.
Another series of his, titled Open, was displayed at MoMA in 1965 by Frank O’Hara.
It consists of various fragmented rectangles representing doors and windows, and has been described as offering an “intense conceptual engagement with dualities of interior and exterior,” as well as painting and frame. The series playfully challenges notions of spatiality and boundaries, and how we can accept responsibility for their construction. Motherwell is also known for his Lyric Suite, a series of over 600 ink paintings on Japanese rice paper he made in 1965. In his own words, Motherwell would produce “anywhere between 10 to 50 [paintings] a day, on the floor, sweat dimming my spectacles on hot days.”
As the ink spread, he said that each picture would change before his eyes after he had finished working it. Motherwell compared the spectacle of spreading ink to time-lapse footage of blooming flowers, saying the images “grew themselves.” He’s also known for his 1988 Ulysses Suite, a series of 22 automatist illustrations on Johannot paper, plus a book of 40 additional etchings. The series recounts the tale within James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, utilizing the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique of Joyce himself.
Motherwell’s interest in the unison of the conscious and unconscious suggests that he believed art was beyond the interpretive power of any analyst. He claimed to trust thought and automatism more than words about them, and in his own words: “Art is no longer understood as consciousness expressing and therefore, implicitly, affirming itself. Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within consciousness itself.”
Motherwell died on July 16, 1961. In his work we see the confluence of unrestrained artistic ambitions and a disciplined intellectual background, where although he had a scholarly upbringing he had an artistic process based more on feeling, intuition, and instinct.