sarma Conversations in Vermont oralsite
Steve Paxton
Of Routes and Routines, Vermont, 2001

3: Visual Art Continued

The Japanese tea ceremony00:00

Steve Paxton Events that we know about sort of suggest this, and maybe the most formal one is the Japanese tea ceremony. Have you been to one?

Myriam Van Imschoot Seen one? Never.

Steve Paxton In which the act of making and serving a drink is turned into a ritual of extraordinary depth, I felt, anyway. And Magritte has something of that same quality. The act of looking out a window is subverted, or taken to a different pitch, or you're shown a different level of reality. All of these things give us evidence that we can inquire into the routine and find mystery. And find new stations in there to depart from in different ways than we do. The routine means that you leave from the same station and arrive at the next station, you know, as you always do. You kind of…the journey is considered not worth, not exciting, not worth examining, and the idea that we should examine, or that there's something valuable in examining the routine, has been a strong focus for me in dance and, as well, in those moments when I'm not dancing, you know, officially, but I'm still carrying around with me, the kind of eidetic imagery of the consciousness that sometimes arrives when I'm dancing. Certainly, working in the garden, working outdoors on the farm is filled with moments like that, where suddenly I'll become aware, in a technical way of how I'm handling the tools, or where my mind is at or how my body is reflecting my state. So, all of the people that I've mentioned as influences I think carry that message… The Muybridge, the Johns and Rauschenberg, the New York investigation in the early 60s, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Liechtenstein. A host of painters seemed to be referring to this kind of…the Duchamp, you know, that the routine is not discredited. That, in fact, it's terribly important and, in fact, it's sort of the foundation. Our habits are sort of the foundation on which we move through life, and we need these, but at the same time, we can examine them and see them as a revelation in themselves that can take us to a different pitch of awareness.

Myriam Van Imschoot How does that work for Rauschenberg’s work? Now, you say that all these painters…

Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [two panel], 1951, House paint on canvas, 72 x 96 x 1 1/2 inches; overall (182.9 x 243.8 x 3.8 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

Steve Paxton Well, I mean, we talked about the White Paintings. Now, what is this but an appeal to awareness? Okay. Here's the situation that you bring your awareness to a gallery. Here is an object on the wall, which is called a painting. As we noted yesterday, he paints it, he puts white paint on this, probably already white canvas, and expects us to interpret what we see on this surface that we call blank. You know, if you call this a blank canvas because it doesn't have a cow on it, or it doesn't have an apple on it or something. It doesn't have a, you know, it doesn't do anything. It’s as neutral as possible. Even in that neutrality though, he's suggesting that we make, or we have the ability to make and to see an imagistic world in the same way that when we look at Leonardo's quite ordinary woman, not quite smiling, we construct something, you know. It's a reduction to a kind of simplicity, which, when we examine it, we find completely not simple. We find it completely complex in its implications, and all of this is dealing with mental stuff. You know, the brain and how it works, finally, which is one of the great frontiers that we will forever be exploring.

Myriam Van Imschoot That’s for Rauschenberg. How would it apply for Duchamp?

Steve Paxton Well, I mean…

Myriam Van Imschoot The same?

Steve Paxton Somebody…it’s a little bit the question of performance, you know. For a painter, the gallery, the museum is the performance, you know. That's the presentation and the statement. So, the state of performance means something is being said. If Duchamp puts his urinal into that situation of “this is a statement, but this is a statement, which is not a statement, but by putting it here, I've made this non-statement into a statement,” one is forced into a system of interpreting, which I think has a little bit that characteristic that you talked about yesterday…in discussing Magritte, Suzi Gablik’s observation that he could construct a trap for the observation. This trap, this ambivalence between interpretation — and, what would you say…ignoring the existence of something that's right in front of you? — is a place where one achieves a new attitude, and in that new attitude, you are separated from yourself, and at the same time, integrated in a new way. And so, this is brain stuff as far as I'm concerned. You know, this is like basic sensorial and mental interactions that they're pointing out and that let us see how we are. This wonderful phrase that’s current nowadays, “What are you like?”

Myriam Van Imschoot “What are you…?”

Steve Paxton “What are you like?”

Myriam Van Imschoot Oh, I didn’t know that was a current.

Steve Paxton Oh, it's very strong. It's around. “What are you like?”, you say to somebody who says something so typical of the themselves that you just have to laugh, you know. Or, you know, when they reveal an attitude unconsciously, and you want to point out that they have just revealed something. “What are you like?” Yeah, it's an affectionate kind of put down or observation by somebody. But it's the basic question. What are we like? And, and when we use the word like, we're suggesting, a kind of analog. What analog is there for what you've just done? We're asking. It's a question. What are you like? As though there were no firm personal reality. As though everything is analogous to something. As though, by this means, you know, metaphorical process, we figure out relationships, which is what we do as far as I can see. And so, when you ask somebody “What are you like?”, you're asking them about their whole being, and what is it analogous to? And so, we've slipped into analog and metaphor, that kind of simile, you know, that kind of world, as opposed to a kind of more blunt, one-to-one relationship with whatever has just happened.

Myriam Van Imschoot When you said about Duchamp…that the gallery is the performance situation, so whatever you bring into it will say something, and it will require awareness, attention, it struck me, when I read descriptions of Proxy, and when I saw Flat, that somehow, even though it already happens on the stage, that sometimes there's like a stage within the stage, as if you, for the displacement of everyday movement really look for…like a pedestal, of Duchamp, causes even more attention. Or signals even more, that we should pay attention to just an ordinary object on it. It seems as if spatially, you've done something similar with the everyday found movements that you bring in. And in Proxy, I was thinking of the use of the ordinary actions, eating and drinking, confined within a small rectangle…

Steve Paxton Square, yeah, the small…

Myriam Van Imschoot …taped to the floor, somehow magnifies and formalizes these actions.

Steve Paxton performing solo piece Flat (1964). Photograph Collection. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York. Photo: Unattributed, 1964.

Steve Paxton In a way, I'm not pointing out the actions, I'm pointing out the square.

Myriam Van Imschoot The frame.

Steve Paxton I’m putting something inside a frame. Yes, exactly. I'm pointing out the framing. The framing points out the actions, the actions point out the frame.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yes, yeah. And like in Flat, the circle, the clear pattern of the circle, is like a frame to me.

Steve Paxton Gosh, if we just look at the framing, because also there are, often, you know, lately, Flat has been done not in open spaces, but you know, with the audience and the performer on the same floor, but in theaters. So, you have the frame of the proscenium, and then, the frame of the constructs, you know, the frame of the chair, for instance, or the chair being able to be seen as a frame, as opposed to a support.

Myriam Van Imschoot And one of the things that I think is so intelligent about that, is that you construct platforms or frames to even more highlight the ordinary. I mean, the ordinary requires attention. Someone saying like, you should watch this now, and of course, the stage in itself will be that frame or will be that pedestal, but it's as if you've been adding, like…

Steve Paxton Yeah, the first time the circle occurs, it's just somebody walking in a circle, which is not very usual, actually. We don't walk in circles that usually, unless it's for exercise or something. But the second time it occurs, it is…

Myriam Van Imschoot …it carves space.

Steve Paxton Yeah, it's a pattern that has been established. And, and then the third and fourth and fifth and sixth time it occurs, you know, it's like, “Oh my God, can’t this person do anything but walk in a circle?” Or, “What is a circle? Why is this statement being made?” Yeah, so, you ask questions. It provokes inquiry.

I think it would be useful to say that to really investigate the ordinary requires the utmost concentration, because you start saying, “Oh, yeah, sitting down is ordinary,” and then, you start going into the moments of the sitting down, which is what's happened to me in performing Flat. There are various aspects of the movement, you know, that I see as important fractions of that movement, and then within those fractions, there’re yet smaller fractions, and so, you're going into…you're examining the units, what you consider a unit. Like walking in a circle, right, is a unit as you first see it. Okay, that construct arrives at a kind of unity, but within that, there are all the steps and the shifts of gaze and the little fractional turns of the torso and the swinging of the arms, and so each unit then breaks down into a number of other units, which break down into even further units.

[phone rings]

And we are soon lost in the fractions, and…

[phone rings]

…that’s where the attention needs to be finessed, and I think that's the tea ceremony situation.

[tape is stopped for Steve to pick up the phone]

Breaking down in components14:43

Myriam Van Imschoot I was amazed to hear that, actually, in the beginning, you were in Flat breaking down the sitting…

Steve Paxton I did a little bit. I did. There were fewer of them. I saw fewer units within the units, as it were. But one of the first things I wrote is, “What is a unit of movement?” You know, looking at exercises and classroom stuff, I was trying to figure that out years and years ago. So, now, I, one still wonders how to imagine movement. How does one create an image of movement, and what is happening in these tiny little fractions? There seems to be a level of consciousness, which is fairly wholesale, you know, large units of that, but it's possible to use consciousness to go into the…

Myriam Van Imschoot …fiber…

Steve Paxton …the fiber.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah.

Steve Paxton And, yet, none of that tells us anything objective about what a unit is. It's more something that arrives in consciousness, and you accept. You know, a trip to the store is a unit, you know, even though it obviously involves hundreds of thousands of decisions and sensings, you know, to do it. You ignore all of those things, so it's interesting to look at all those subparts of every action.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, in fact, the advent of optical instruments - and photography is one invention within a line of invention — has helped us in decomposing.

Steve Paxton Yes, and seeing the…well, not decomposing but de-unifying. Oh, how do you say it? Because decomposing sounds like rotting. It sounds like a process. “Un-composing” maybe, would be better, a better image, anyway.

Myriam Van Imschoot Well, people would say “deconstruct,” but I think that’s a word you have to be careful with anyway…

Steve Paxton It’s a much better word, but it's overused these days, and it has…

Myriam Van Imschoot Well, deconstruction could be like taking it apart and…

Steve Paxton Yes because we're now photographing atoms as opposed to photographing objects. Or, the atom has become an object, instead of a component of an object, you know. This kind of shift in consciousness.

Myriam Van Imschoot And that's what Muybridge was doing. He was atomizing.

Steve Paxton Yes, going in that direction, breaking down the unit.

Myriam Van Imschoot In general, I think photography has been so influential in how we look at a thing, at a unit, at reality. Maybe even “the ordinary” as a concept has emerged along with the photographic gaze, I mean, the more mobile the cameras became, and the more instant the way of shooting, you didn't have to wait for a long, long time before you could shoot something. That meant you could take it out into the world and you have a mobile frame that whatever it was framing would be composing attention. So, the ordinary is something that somehow became visible through this process, through the photographic gaze, and I think that's a very important thing, actually, that maybe we need sometimes technical utensils to refine perception. You can drop the camera now. Now we don't need the camera to maybe do that, but it helped us realize. It helped us.

Steve Paxton But doesn't it just reaffirm the tea ceremony?

Myriam Van Imschoot How do you mean, like, in what sense?

Steve Paxton Well, the tea ceremony is a tool, a cultural tool for refining the perception, and comes from a tradition in which refining the perception is…has been taken to a very high state. Refining it as far as we know, to its highest level. And it suggests, as well, that there has always been a question about what was perceived, you know. So that any one could say that any technical, technological development of any kind, from fire on through like — what do you call it — electro micrography, or whatever it's called, point the mind to new levels. In other words, the mind is being directed by the memes and cultural accumulations of one sort or another. There is behind you on that window ledge, some pottery.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah?

Steve Paxton arranging pieces of Hohokam pottery. Photo: Tom Engels, 2019.

Steve Paxton These are pieces that come from my state of Arizona, from the Hohokam people, and they're about, oh, I don't know, a couple of thousand years old, so they were made before America was invented by Europeans, and they have stripes on them. They have glazes and stripes. Well, glazes make sense to me because they, you know, keep the clay from absorbing unwanted materials, but the design…why did they put design on it? What are they…? Of what use was that? Why does design, why does painting essentially arise in a culture which was, as far as we currently understand, uninfluenced by our own design fixations. And it seems to me that there lies a clue to our investigation into the ordinary, and how the ordinary is useful. And I would say that this clue suggests that one of the basic things that's happening, is sorting and assessing. So that you would want one design on one pot to tell you. It's like a label. If you didn't have writing, design would serve as a label to tell you that that's where the beans are and not where the corn is, you know. So, if you want beans, you know where to go. Or, that's the one that's used for water, and we don't use it, you know, for other things. That one of the things we're trying to do is just sort things out, and it goes right back to hunting and gathering and is a kind of basic element of the mind.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. I would agree.

Steve Paxton Yeah, and that if you have the habitual, you know, if you are stuck in a rut, as they say, you know, and your life for long periods consists of just following a schedule, in which you notice small differences like new headlines every morning or something like that, but that, again, is still part of the newness, even, is part of the habit that they’re…that you aren't sorting and assessing your day in that way because it has already…it comes pre-sorted, and then, in a way, the brain goes to sleep, and it's, you know, the tea ceremony seems to address that, and other kinds of things that we do, which wake us up, which includes theater, or TV even, if TV were doing a better job.

Everyday life and critique23:50

Myriam Van Imschoot Still, if I take Suzi Gablik’s observation, she compares a way that surrealists and pop artists deal with the every day, she thinks that a big difference between those two approaches is that the surrealists really try to critique a bourgeois culture. They want to critique a culture that — my English is bad today — redefined…or, in the routine that…fossilized, or whatever, in the patterns and the routines. So, it's a critique. If there's something that they don't want to settle in, it's that; while the pop artists would be more ambivalent in that sense. Whether it is a critique or not, it's hard to tell. They much more take an everyday object, or icon, and use patterns without necessarily criticizing any of that and just presenting it.

Steve Paxton But isn't that one of the traps? I mean, couldn’t we see the pop art, particularly Warhol, because of the kind of rough quality of the images, the silkscreened ones. You take the Campbell's soup can. Isn't there a kind of perceptual trap there where you're stuck between whether this is serious or not, whether this is critique or not, whether this is…you don't know where he's at, and the mind’s…a vibration is set up in the mind there, between possible alternative interpretations. So, you can't say that it's critique, and there does seem to be more of a critique in earlier surreal work, but…or pointing out, maybe not a critique, even, but just a pointing out of other possibilities or ambiguities within what we think of as normal or ordinary. And Andy's thing seems to build on that, knowing that the ordinary is critique-able, you know, when you are then presented with another example of something ordinary but without the obvious mystery that Magritte built into his work, for instance. You still suspect that there's mystery there somehow.

Myriam Van Imschoot  Yeah, that's right, because it's beautiful, Andy Warhol’s…

Steve Paxton It's not so beautiful. There's nothing…

Myriam Van Imschoot It’s very aesthetical. No? Don’t you think so?

Steve Paxton Oh, man, that's a big question, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot The flowers…

Steve Paxton There are many people who disagree. The flowers were ugly flowers. They were, they were just simple flower shapes. They couldn't have been less intent on telling you that flowers are beautiful. In fact, if anything, they tell you that flowers are stupid, you know, that these are dumb flowers.

Myriam Van Imschoot Sentimental, or…

Steve Paxton Sentimental to the max, you know? Yeah, Walt Disney flowers of the, you know, cheapest reproduction of Walt Disney cartoons in comic books.

Myriam Van Imschoot But there was Duchamp’s, for example, rejection, a little bit, of pop art. He said: when we pulled in a found object, we were doing this to a whole bourgeois culture while… [Myriam puts up her middle finger]

Steve Paxton She…that was a finger! The word “this” means a middle finger was extended there in that remark. [laughing]

Myriam Van ImschootSo, he reproaches pop art for its…he also says that the found object wasn't about being “aesthetically pleasing,” or there's no aesthetization of that object. There's nothing to think “it's beautiful or not” or whatever, and he thinks that pop art is very, really, I don’t know…

Steve Paxton…aestheticized.

Myriam Van ImschootAestheticized, and…

Steve Paxton Well, de-aestheticized in a way, you know, the Campbell’s soup cans are blotchy, badly reproduced, you know. The aestheticization happened in the commercial project product in a way. This careful design element to make it pleasing for the eye and make you buy the product, you know. Then, when he reproduces it, it's not nearly so perfectly done. We can clearly critique it negatively in a lot of ways, but he does set up this ambivalence about what he's doing, which he maintained with his silence and his mysterious aura that he projected around him. His sunglasses and his wigs and his, yeah, this falseness, false front that he gave us. Anyway, I don't know how to deal with Duchamp's criticism of pop art, but my own sense of pop art was that it made us see ourselves, and especially if there were multiple artists doing it, you know, that you had not only Warhol doing it, but Liechtenstein and Rosenquist, and a number of other people.

Myriam Van Imschoot Fahlström.

Steve Paxton Yeah, and the ways that Johns' beer cans and Rauschenberg’s use of the whole graphic world as his palette made us see things anew, or see them from a different position. Maybe we didn't see the things anew, but we, ourselves were changed by the position that they presented. We could obtain a new relationship. You could go to the gallery and obtain a new relationship. You didn't even have to buy the painting. You could see it for free and get this new relationship.

Attentional phenomena30:10

Myriam Van Imschoot Well, art always is about drawing attention to an object, or to something. It seemed as if the art in the 60s more and more drew attention to perception, and to the relation with something that's not necessarily the object of that attention.

Steve Paxton But it was all prefigured. I mean, with Duchamp and Albers and, well, some of the earliest of the minimalists, people who were kind of not paid attention to, until enough artists started following them that they had to be acknowledged, but I mean, Rothko was there, and much paid attention to. People who seem to be working with phenomena rather than subject matter, and some of that phenomena was mental or attentional phenomena.

Myriam Van Imschoot That's beautiful as a category, “attentional phenomena.”

Steve Paxton Well, I mean, it’s what the improvisation is all leading to, as far as I understand it, you know. What is possible? I mean, as a performer of improvisation, what is possible for me to perform? And it has all to do with where my attention is, and how refined that attention is. So, it's the tea ceremony, you know [laughing], only I'm not doing it in this calm, ritualistic way. I'm doing it in the more frantic, full-bodied dance around way, but it does open up to my, or as a possibility, virtually any kind of movement at this point, as something that can become material in an improvisation, and that I figure will have an effect. That I can't do anything in this laboratory, under the microscope of the eyes of the audience, I can't do anything that won't be both material or “un-causative.”

Myriam Van Imschoot I’m sorry. “Un-causative?”

Steve Paxton I don’t know. “Un-causative.” It's not a word. It's a word I need to invent right now. “Causative” would mean, I could say that everything I do will be seen to have been caused, or will cause the next thing, you know, cause and effect. But what I'm saying now is the opposite. I'm saying that I can't do something which doesn't do that. I don't know why I'm putting it in the negative, but I'm putting in the negative. I'm saying that it looks like everything is causative, but that isn't enough to say. I have to say there's nothing we can do now, which can be seen as outside the spectrum of both material and phenomena that are being observed. It is about attention. It is about focus of the mind, it is about how these elements in the brain connect physically with the senses, and physically with a body. And so, yeah, we're just looking at that, overall attentional phenomena.

Myriam Van Imschoot Attention is something different than concentration, for example, or…

Steve Paxton Oh God. Oh God. Do we want to go into this? Because it’s…

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah. Maybe later. Maybe we should stick to the visual art, but…I feel clearly, and I haven't been able to point my finger to it, that there's more and more of an interest in attentional phenomena in art. And not that it has never been there, but it’s…

Steve Paxton It was always there.

Myriam Van Imschoot It was always there, but it’s…

Steve Paxton The readers of the art didn’t necessarily know that the artists thought that, or could think it, or were feeling it, or, you know.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, and that the prominence of attentional phenomena has an immediate link to improvisation…

Steve Paxton You don't think it was in abstract expressionism to go back to its influence on the early days of Judson and all that? I mean, or its prominence during those days?

Myriam Van Imschoot What do you mean, like…?

Steve Paxton Attentional phenomena in de Kooning, for instance. What was he attending? What was he thinking? How free was he being with his prejudices, perceptions, assumptions, and all that, as he quickly generated these canvases? How critical was he of what he had generated the day before? How much did he change? You know, this kind of thing. But don't you think, you know, just for one incredible moment there, there was a lot of attention being paid to what we would now call, or what I am now calling “attentional phenomena.”

Myriam Van Imschoot Maybe then we have to be a bit more clear about…

Steve Paxton How about Albers?

Myriam Van Imschoot Joseph Albers.

Steve Paxton Joseph Albers. What about Joseph Albers?

Myriam Van Imschoot Into color composition and his whole color theory and his quest for materials. He was very much into materials.

Steve Paxton What do you mean by “materials?” You mean, the quality of…

Myriam Van Imschoot That he had assignments. That students would go out and collect materials, maybe like a rock or a piece of wood or…and compose something with that.

Steve Paxton But I mean, in the work of his which remains strongest in my mind, it's squares within squares within squares. Each had their slightly different color, and he seems to be saying that color is quite relative, depending on its circumstances. Is this not…and color is certainly one of the critical elements of seeing…

Myriam Van Imschoot Sure.

Steve Paxton …of our vision. So, is he not just calling attention to this element? How relative, something that we say…we say the red car, but it's going to be a different red if it's in the garage than it is if it's in the sunlight. These are attentional phenomena as far as I can say. In other words, it's maybe an attempt to get the mind to see relationships in time on a lot of different levels. So, it's the old problem of time: how do we conceive of it? How do we know it? The mind seems to have a difficult experience of “the moment” which it is in. It seems not to be able to objectify it, at the same time that it's having it in a way. You know, we objectify it afterwards, in memory, even if it's what happened a few minutes ago.

Myriam Van Imschoot First level observation, second level observation, you observe your own observation.

Steve Paxton Yeah, yeah. So, maybe he's suggesting something about that problem as perhaps Duchamp's Bride Descending a Staircase was, you know, in which he chose a kind of photographic presentation of time, like multiple exposure of one element, and so we didn't have, we didn't have a Nude Descending a Staircase in the way that we would have with Rembrandt, you know? We had a Nude Descending a Staircase the way that we might have with Eakins or Muybridge.

Myriam Van Imschoot I mean, many works of art see our way of looking as nearly transparent, you know, you just look in order to assess something, while there’s works of art that throw you back on that action; they kind of make you question that looking.

Steve Paxton Like Zero Through Nine.

Myriam Van Imschoot Yeah, Zero Through Nine. So, attentional phenomena will always like recast attention on, you know, the process of paying attention. I see.

Steve Paxton Zero Through Nine, to see Zero Through Nine, or, one way to see Zero Through Nine is to say, “Okay, I can see the zero. Okay, now, with a little shift of focus, with the image of one in my mind, I can make out how the one is constructed. Yes, I can see the two. I can also see, yes, I can see a three and a four and a five and a six and a seven and an eight and a nine.”

Myriam Van ImschootYeah, infinity.

Steve Paxton Each one of them is preceded by having the image in your mind, and constructing it on this quite complex canvas, but I think we should maybe for a second leave the art world, and say that when…that in the world of dance, we don't have anything like the assumption of a moment, of a frozen moment. We don't have the assumption of a moment stopped the way we do in photography and painting or sculpture.