“White, when posited as a color rather than as a colorless ground, is always forward. Among the whites here are deep mists and dry glares, finely shaded alabaster membranes and swansdown plumage, brimming creams, spumes, and the taffy-like laminates and florid glosses that result from loading tubing colors.”

Bill Berkson, “DeKooning With Attitude,” Critical Reflections, 2003, 150-51.


Matthew Barney: Philosophize WIth A Crowbar, Bleed Like A Blade of Grass (A Dialogue)



 [THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. It was inspired by Barney’s 2011 exhibition DJED at The Gladstone Gallery. I need to insert photos.]

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve


This little work is a grand declaration of warfare: and as regards the auscultation of idols, it is no temporary idols, but eternal idols which are here touched with a hammer as with a tuning fork…

—Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, [1]



 The Hysteric: Narrator

Testicular Hysteric: Matthew Barney

Black Cloud Named Representation

Cat Named Being: Houdini[2]

Spirit of Deleuze: himself.

Spirit of Nietzsche: himself

Spirit of Georges Bataille: himself

Fireman: Art historian

Pitbull With Scars: Neville Wakefield

Ipad: as itself, and sometimes as Avital Ronell.



Italicized text means it is a direct quote, sourced in the footnote.






Whoosh….splat. [3]


A hunk of what looks like semen is heaved into the corner of a room in which The Hysteric is lying on a bed made of grass, surrounded by books, pillows, a Cat Named Being and a Pitbull Covered With Scars.  The bed of grass is a well-kept grave connected to the Underworld of Matthew Barney’s current project-in-process inspired by Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. [4] The Hysteric is reading and watching various Barney videos and commentary on her Ipad. A Black Cloud Named Representation hangs over the bed.  Various ghosts of philosophers call out— appear and disappear—from gravestones laid out like books on the bookshelves.




Ipad: Matthew Barney’s work is vast, unfinished (he is only 45), and impossible to contain: From Delay of Game (1991), to the ever-iterating Drawing Restraints[5], Ottoshaft, The Cremaster Cycle and now Ancient Evenings, I’m so glad you’re reading it instead of just looking at it. People miss so much when they think it’s just about image instead of spit or task.


Spirit of Georges Bataille: You mean A Dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. It is this sense of the informe that can describe Barney’s work as always about and in process, but not necessarily just process art. Thus informe is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. [i.e. representation]. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit. [6]


IMAGE 1 Casting Reservoir, Djed Cast iron and graphite 8 ¼ x 370 x 248 inches WEIGHT: XXX


Cloud Named Representation: No, I mean formless! There’s no there there. Stewardesses in blimps playing with grapes (C1),blue and yellow cars circling endlessly around the Isle of Man (C4), a Giant with ribbon’d Jacobean pigeons tied to his scrotum (C5), and what is Gary Gilmore doing in here? [Matthew Barney as Gary Gilmore in Cremaster 2 suddenly appears on the screen.]  It’s just a lot of meaningless nonsense.


Hysteric: No, if anything, an excess of sense.


Ipad: BURPS, The logic of sense. [7]


The Cloud Named Representation: Yee gods, be quiet Ipad. It’s just Spectacle! This is not the time to let images wash over us as some of you have suggested was the upside to not understanding the complex symbolism in Cremaster. Rather than reading Cremaster, we are encouraged to consume it as high-end eye candy, whose symbolic system is available to us but is a hardly necessary component to the art production or reception. Left to its own devices –and it is all devices—[8][Starts snorting.] What about art?


Cat Named Being: [Jumps onto Ipad] Me ee ow.


Hysteric: Alas. Alack. I guess I’m just a consuming machine, you see even my being has been consumed and transformed. (Points to a tattoo on her arm.)


Cat Named Being: [Licking the tattoo] You’re just forceful with your affection, like the work itself. All the materials seem to have a will of their own, although [w]illing seems to me to be above all something complicated, …and it is precisely in this one word that the popular prejudice lurks…So let us be more cautious, let us be ‘unphilosophical’: let us say that in all willing there is, first, a plurality of sensations, namely the sensation of the state ‘ away from which,’ the sensation of the state’ towards which’, the sensation of this from and towards themselves, and then also an accompanying muscular sensation, which, even without putting into motion ‘arms and legs,’ begins its actions by force of habit as soon as we ‘will’ anything.[9]


Ipad: uh huh.


Ghost of Deleuze: If resemblance haunts the work of art, it is because sensation refers only to its material: it is a percept or affect of the material itself, the smile of oil, the gesture of fired clay, the thrust of metal.[10]


IMAGE 2 Djed performance pouring mold



Suddenly The Hysterical Testicle pops out of the Black Cloud of Representation. It is dangling like a spider from the ceiling. Naked except for a climbing harness, pieces of the various Cremasters hang from its belt—deflated blimps, Gary Gilmore’s head, a Chrysler building tchotchke, a crowbar, and white plastic handcuffs.  The whole mass has the effect not of a body but of a vibrating ribbon of affect and sensation, as if a memory was suspended in space trying to realize itself in time. Gobs of petroleum jelly spurt from a hole where a piercing had been. It looks like sperm.


Hysteric: So that’s where that came from [pointing to the wad in the corner] Careful, you’ll inseminate someone!


Testicular Hysteric: It’s just Vaseline™.


Hysteric: You mean petroleum jelly.


Testicular Hysteric: Whatever, thresholds of affect and substance—like the paraffin-like material forming on oil rigs in 1859 in Titusville , Pennsylvania that replaced the oil from the sperm whale who “was the main whale being sought for its oil when the petroleum industry opened in 1859.” [11]

Black Cloud of Representation: See, you make everything so complicated.  What has this to do with anything? [12]


The rope slips. Down falls the Hysterical Testicle splatting all over the bed, causing The Black Cloud of Representation to burst into flames, filling the room with smoke. The cats scatter except for the Cat Named Being. The Pitbull with scars wags its tail and tries to eat everything but he is interrupted when an art historian dressed as a fireman breaks into the room waving a hose attempting to clear the room of fire and smoke.


Testicular Hysteric: Take your hands off me!


The art historian is trying to wrap him in a frame and Bubble Wrap™.


Black Cloud of Representation to Fireman: Thank god you finally got here. I told you, everything is part of a system of eye-candy. These epic narratives can’t even be housed in one museum, and span huge gaps in time. It’s just empty sensational spectacle.


Hysteric: You dope. This sprawling, ever iterating, always becoming, aspect of the work is precisely what makes it interesting.


Cat Named Being: Yah, not even the sculptures just sit there like dumb objects, but are more like stilled moments of  ever-metamorphosing living beings.


IMAGE 3  Canopic Chest  Cast Bronze 731/2x165x23 inches [DJED Exhibition, Gladstone Gallery , 2011]



The Fireman looks at the cloud: Huh?


Black Cloud: Don’t ask.


Testicular Hysteric = shifts from an image into sensation and starts singing:

We paint, compose, and write with sensations. As percepts, sensations are not referring to an object (reference).[13]


Fireman: [still fumbling with Bubble Wrap ™ and frames.] No object?


Ghost of Deleuze: if they resemble something it is with a resemblance produced with its own methods —[14]


Pitbull Covered with Scars is barking: Hypertrophia. Restraint!


Hysteric: The brutalized and sacrificial bodies of the Cremaster, or the Drawing Restraints, or Ancient Evenings are all too big to fit in one space. They’re carcasses without a body – more a diagram. It’s not about fitting them together to make a whole—that’s why the Guggenheim show didn’t work. I’m not impatient, I don’t mind taking time. –I’m interested in another kind of temporality and extension.


Testicular Hysteric: I think about thresholds a lot, where potential is at its greatest [15]


Ghost of Nietzsche: But who has the will to concern himself with such dangerous maybes? [16]The fire out, the Fireman leaves the room shrugging his shoulders.


The Hysterical Testicle suddenly transforms into a crowbar.



“Pry, smash, Auscultation! I wanted to be a reconstructive surgeon but became an artist instead.” 


Ghost of Nietzsche: Nice.


Black Cloud of Representation: As I was saying, Barney’s work is too dependent on a bunch of nonsense.


Hysteric: I told you, it’s an excess of sense.


Ipad: Maybe, because you’re so stuck in your black cloud of representation, you’ve been looking at it the wrong way. It’s profoundly about the limits and extensions of the human; of states, thresholds, potential, movement beyond, even, as in the current work, into the Underworld—


Black Cloud of Representation: You mean ontology?


Ipad: Uh huh


Black Cloud of Representation: Isn’t that an awfully big word. You’re not trying to tell me the guy’s a philosopher. For god’s sake, he’s just a jock.


Ipad: Thinking has been dissociated from exercise and physical force, and yet force is necessary to be a philosopher… Certain philosophers leap, others swim. [17]


IMAGE  4: Drawing Restraint 17 climbing



Hysterical Testicle: Falling is one of the few things I consider really funny. [18]


IMAGE 5: Drawing Restraint 17-falling


Ghost of Nietzsche: ha ha ha


Ipad: Nietzsche, you danced, and everyone walks. My hero is Mohammed Ali. [19]


Hysteric:  What about the car – cars are important to you, aren’t they?


Hysterical Testicle:  Vehicles are.[20] Watch me!


He transforms from a crowbar into the carcass of a car. 


IMAGE 6: DJED Cast Iron and graphite block Djed casting 20 ¼ x 167 x 87 inches  WEIGHT: xxx



Fireman: Looks like death.


Hysterical Testicle: It is about death. As death is about life. You can’t have one without the other. Well, is one human? Or merely alive? Like a blade of grass equal to all existence in the movement it is torn? Yes, if pain is fundament, then a blade of grass can know all there is. I am both blade of grass and fire, in other words living, becoming– shape shifter of sensations, affects and precepts–Vaseline, flesh, shit, graphite line, bronze, muscle, lead, body, iron, petroleum.


Ghost of Georges Bataille: spits across the room, it lands on the grass bed, which screams in pain. The Cat Named Being jumps on top of the Hysteric’s Head.


Pitbull with Scars: In ways more or less elaborate or brilliant, we are only ever preparing for death. [21]






[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Or How to Philosophize with a Hammer, 1888. Translated by Thomas Common, Kindle Book, (Kindle Book, 148 of 1731),

[2] One of the author’s cats is named Houdini.

[3] In Cremaster 2, Matthew Barney’s character Gary Gilmore throws a blob of  petroleum jelly against the interior of the car (body/prison) he is sitting in. He has been trying to build an erect form with Vaseline, but it keeps detumescing so he throws the glob in frustration and it splats against the corner of the interior of the car. This is a reference to Richard Serra’s Splash Pieces of 1968, which are of great influence on Barney. In Cremaster 3, Richard Serra plays the character of Hiram Abiff, the Architect. In the trial/game sequence filmed at the Guggenheim, Serra re-enacts the Splash pieces using “molten” petroleum jelly. He is at the top of the Guggenheim spiral. The liquid petroleum jelly is slapped down into a gutter with the force of lead, and then runs slowly down the spiral.

[4] “Ancient Evenings is inspired by American author Norman Mailer’s 1983 eponymous novel set in Ancient Egypt. Structured primarily as a site-specific opera, “Ancient Evenings,” is a multi-dimensional project that includes sculpture and drawing in addition to live performance….[it] is ordered by the seven stages of the soul’s departure from the deceased body as it passes from death to rebirth, according to Egyptian mythology.” DJED, catalogue/libretto, written and edited by Matthew Barney and Rosalie Benitez for the exhibition DJED, of sculptures and drawings at Gladstone Gallery, October 2011.

[5] I once asked Barney how long he planned to make the Drawing Restraint projects and he said, “I’ll keep doing them till I’m 80—wheelchair and ramp!” 

[6] Georges Bataille, “Informe, ”Visions of Excess, 31. Yves Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss created the exhibition and catalogue, “Informe: A User’s Manual” but do not include Barney’s work. Their interpretation of the term is used to provide a way “to find a form for formlessness, to show that the form has no form” [http://radicalart.info/informe/index.html] since the notion of “form” itself, is one of the great critical issues of 20th century art. I am interested in the notion of informe as task. In a note, they choose to regard this interpretation as of course possible but too limited: “[Note: that one may plausibly try to find the form of formlessness at the level of methods and procedures rather than at the level of individual objects. Then it gives rise to process art and chance art. Or one may give up altogether , and embrace nothing and destruction.]” They catalogue a number of formless forms such as “dangle,” “mess,” trash,” dirt,” “fat,” “mud,” tangle (etc….) all of which can be found in Barney’s work as interrogatory modes not just of the art object but, and here is where his work aligns with Deleuze radical reinterpretation of art, but of the nature of Being and existence of material (as a living form) and “human” existence itself.  It is why Barney’s work, and that of Michael Joaquin Grey’s, is not modern or postmodern but “overmodern” in the Nietzschean sense of overcoming these categories via a kind of eternal return of Pre-Socratic philosophy.

[7] The Logic of Sense is one of Deleuze most important yet difficult texts. What is important here is a) the idea of a “logic” of sense, and b) sense in French is sens, which refers both to sense as meaning, sensation, and orientation. Deleuze philosophical world (for it is a world) is one of vectors and forces (what Nietzsche called the will to power), which are not mere metaphors. Here is where links between his work and Barney’s as “wayward siblings” is particularly provocative.   

[8] Alexandra Keller and Frazer Ward , “Matthew Barney and the Paradox of the Neo-Avant-Garde Blockbuster,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 45, no. Winter, 2006, 2. This essay represents the generally negative attitude of  the critical theory art historian (e.g. the students of Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh and October Magazine in general for whom Barney is, safely to say, toxic. ) The article, and this critique, is not wrong, in fact in its thorough evaluation of Barney in relation to the history of minimalism and performance, it is illuminating but in the end, by remaining within the art historical field of the present, misses the deeper complexity of Barney’s work. For instance, to reduce Barney’s work to the commodified blockbuster (which it no doubt is) rather than see it as in relation to it, without a deeper analysis of his work in general, and the structures of the art market and capitalism today, misses too much complexity. The work, and the artist, are reified into an image of the work, rather than seen as working through and beyond the very spectacle. For instance, “The dissolution of sculpture has been enormously productive of and for performance; so while Barney’s claim to his films’ generative effects relies rhetorically on the instability of sculpture as a category, to claim performance-and film-as sculptural, and to see them as “a family of objects,” as Barney does, might be curiously retrograde.” (4) In other words, they characterize him as kind of clueless and out of date rather than as returning to this notion of sculpture in what is to me a pretty interesting context—post-the expanded field, post, postmodernism and post-spectacle culture itself . “Barney’s claim to the sculptural status of his films is not consistent with a by-now familiar postmodern hybridity (e.g., Tony Oursler, Stan Douglas, Douglas Gordon, and IsaacJulien); instead, it subsumes Cremaster’s hybridity in a hierarchy of sculpture over film, high over low.” (4) No, it is conversation with it. In this sense it is overmodernity (Übermodernity) not as “over” but as a working through and beyond, a transvaluation of the modern and postmodern.

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is philosophy? (New York, Columbia University, 1996 ©1991), 166.

[12] Drawing Restraint 9.

[13] Deleuze, op.cit.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “A Conversation: Matthew Barney and Adam Phillips,” in Matthew Barney:Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail,(Basil, Germany: Schwabe Verlag, Exhibition catalogue, June 12-October 3, 2010,  22. Curated  and edited by Neville Wakefield. 

[16] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: 2, p. 200.

[17] Avital Ronell, Fighting Theory : Avital Ronell in Conversation Anne Dufourmantelle (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 29

[18] Matthew Barney, “Conversation with Adam Phillips,” Op cit.

[19] Ronell, Op Cit.

[20] Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, “Travels in hypertrophia: An interview with Matthew Barney,” Artforum, 1995 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_n9_v33/ai_16967995/

[21] Neville Wakefield, “Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail,” in Matthew Barney: Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail, exhibition catalogue,15. 



Vaudeville Theory: Notes Towards A New Genre


Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

Presented as an Artist in Residence at Mildred’s Lane for the session on Alchemy, Summer 2012.  It is also available on Academia.edu.


Prologue: What is Theory?

“Gray is the color of theory,” Villem Flusser

Theory, is a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalizing thinking, or the results of such thinking…The Greek word , theoria, θεωρία, meant “a looking at, viewing, beholding,” but in more technical contexts it came to refer to contemplative or speculative understandings of natural things, such as those of natural philosophers, as opposed to more practical ways of knowing things, like that of skilled orators or artisans.The word has been in use in English since at least the late 16th century. ¾wikipedia


The mention of “theory” often leads to rumblings, especially in the art world. But what exactly is theory? Often it is described as a thing that has come in and out of fashion as though the writings of Derrida or Deleuze are mere fads only fit for a specific time and place. But David Foster Wallace found theory important to his writing because it is one of the languages of our time. As his mother described him David Foster Wallace hoovered everything that surrounded him. As a child of the 80s and 90s, theory, as well as avant-garde and experimental film, was one of those many things that touched his life. In this he was not alone.  While hardly an everyman, DFW could not be said to be anything but of his times.

Wherever one stands in the divide that academia has made of it, theory is part of the new flesh that makes up contemporary art and writing. For some this is a bad and terrible thing, for others, it has been liberating and bracing. Even using the word “theory” as though it is some heavy material is part of the problem. Is it really a thing or, like literature and philosophy, merely another way of thinking and writing?  If defined in the latter sense, it does not seem to be something that needs to be batted away like some persistent and merciless fly but rather another being as full of pitfalls and promise as literature and philosophy are. At its best theory is creative thinking, at its worst, suffocating jargon-inflected repetition of ideas better explored in more attentive writing.  And here lies the problem. The issue has long been one of writing: theory that inspires instead of deadens knows how to write. The best theory does not employ language as some absent-minded sign-system that interferes with comprehension. Instead, language is its very tool; a delicate and hypersensitive one at that.  It is no accident that Derrida’s theories of deconstruction are about language and writing in the deepest, most profound sense; nor that he is a poetic and effective writer of great humor and nuance. [See: Goodeve, “Prolixity and Art, The Brooklyn Rail, March, 2013: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2013/03/artseen/prolixity-and-art%5D

But this essay is neither a defense nor an indictment of theory’s place in our lives and classrooms. Instead it explores a specific kind of theory, one that travels the line between poetry, art, writing, and philosophy.  It is a form of critical theory but bred, jokingly, of vaudeville rather than the academy. It is about writing and performance and surrealist juxtaposition. It is not purely rational but shakes its belly like the monstrous UBU who might be one of the first vaudeville theorists.

Vaudeville theory is a way of writing essays as slapstick dialogues. It is also about using humor and performance for critical and theoretical effect. Some vaudeville theory is quite literally performative, other is discursive but delights in the use of metaphor and voice.

The term errupted as a joke, a quip I made in trying to explain my turn to dialogues instead of essays in my writing on Matthew Barney and Heide Hatry.  The phrase just fell out of my mouth,  «Well, it’s kind of vaudeville theory.»  I then realized there are others who do this:  Avital Ronell, Andrea Fraser, Donna Haraway, Yvonne Rainer, Pablo Helguera, and  the video artist Steve Fagin. And so, not sure if it can be given the name of an actual genre, I present it here within the context of alchemy: the transmutation of writing not into a stone but a chemical reaction.

We know theory’s roots are long, wide and complex. It goes back to the Greeks yet seems to be a discourse particular to the late twentieth century and after where it has become its own discipline. At its most basic, theory is the use of a systematic (or unsystematic) series of speculations, observations, suppositions, and abstractions to explore, define, or imagine ideas that extend beyond what has already been thought. In other words, theory must, by definition, set out something that is not yet known, otherwise why write it in the first place? Do we write theories of what we know? Not really. One assumes one is reading a new take when one turns to theory. It is why it is so disappointing when one reads theory that is merely retreading old ground. At it’s best one is drawing new conclusions based on research, experience, data. It takes imagination to write theory. Artists shouldn’t be made to feel hostile or alienated from it unless they include literature, philosophy and history in their hostility.

The scene:

There is a rear screen projection behind the audience. On it is an image of THEORY who is speaking at a conference on French Theory in America. She comes to the edge of the stage to greet some friends who have come to hear her speak. Suddenly she falls, in a complete pratfall, off the stage. She gets up only to sit back down in her seat and find the panel has begun. Her shoulders shake with invisible laughter but her face is composed. You see, THEORY was just blinded by the lights.

Vaudeville Theory

Vaudeville theory is steeped in slapstick, humor, and irreverence. Like vaudeville, it is a mongrel, although playful and beaten up (like the young Buster Keaton, so named by Harry Houdini because he was thrown about so much as a child). It is usually funny but does not always have to be (like Beckett). It is not straight-forward and can be a sermon, a juggling act, a dancehall burlesque, a magic show. It is the blasphemous myth of the cyborg that Donna Haraway writes in 1984, as well as the deeply moving, wide-ranging, brilliant, and hysterical (in all senses) work of Avital Ronell, especially her books Crack Wars, Fighting Theory, and the path-breaking Telephone Book. It is the stand up cerebral critical comedy of Yvonne Rainer and Andrea Fraser. Gertrude Stein is in a way on the path of vaudeville theory in her writings on herself (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) and literature, as is Nietzsche’s aphoristic voice and Beckett’s unprecedented (except by vaudeville) dialogues. At times it is conscious, at others, like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, almost unconscious in its relation to critical theory.

It’s true precedent is Alfred Jarry. What else is Ubu Roi, so much so, another word for vaudeville theory might be “ubu-theory.”

Act Three Scene I

The palace. Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu.

PA UBU: In the name of my green snot, here I am King of the castle. I’ve already caught myself in an ulcer and they’re bringing me my big sombrero.
MA UBU: What’s it made of, Pa Ubu? It’s no use being Kings if we don’t watch our pennies.
PA UBU: Madam, my female, it’s made of sheepskin with a buckle and straps of dogskin.
MA UBU: Now, that’s beautiful. But it’s even more beautiful to be Kings.
PA UBU: Yup, you are right, Ma Ubu.
MA UBU: We owe a great deal to the King of Lithuania.
PA UBU: Who’s he?
MA UBU: Hah? Captain Sexcrement.
PA UBU: Ma Ubu, please don’t mention that buffoon to me. Now that I don’t need him any more, let his stomach growl it’s worst, he’ll never get his dukedom.
MA UBU: That’s a bad mistake, Pa Ubu. He’ll rebel against you.
PA UBU: Oh I really pity the little man. I worry about him as much as I worry about Buggerlas.
MA UBU: Huh! You’d think you’ve heard the last of Buggerlas?
PA UBU: Saber of finance, of course! What could that fourteen year old creep do to me?

¾Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi

Often vaudeville theorists come off as both artists and theorists (Avital Ronell has been and is also a performance artist). They are writers above and beyond anything else. Language is not a transparent hoop they use to hop back and forth, but a trampoline from which to bounce, a sword to swallow, precisely what the fire-eater spits out at the audience. It is as serious as mundane theory – a term I use in Samuel Delany’s formulation of mundane fiction vs. science fiction. And at its most ethical, vaudeville theory traffics in an affirmative criticality best articulated by Nietzsche’s distinction in Beyond Good and Evil.

It’s boundaries as you see are not clear, distinct and without contradiction. It started as a quip, a jokey reaction.

THEORY is now alone on stage. Her quip that she writes “vaudeville theory” has been challenged by an academy of watchers.

ACADEMY: Why precisely is this vaudeville theory?

[Alfred Jarry, dressed as Ubu, rides by on his bicycle. ]

THEORY: Like surrealism, which is its aging parent, vaudeville theory is both easy to identify and difficult to describe. Like situationism, it is about creativity and enactment [burps] added to the flow of criticism and analysis, or, as Debord saw it, intervention in the belly of the beast via social gesture and experiment.

[Andrea Fraser appears on stage with Yvonne Rainer. Both are dressed as extreme sport wrestlers — Fraser in a gold lamé thong, Rainer, a tuxedo made from newspaper. They wrestle. It ends with Rainer wearing Fraser’s thong on her head, while Fraser has a paper hat recombined out of Rainer’s tuxedo that covers her from head to foot.

They then stand hand in hand, take a bow and then Rainer chases Fraser, tearing the body size hat into tatters as they leave the stage. ]

ACADEMY: [the entire audience starts tapping it’s foot] “Creativity”! We can’t believe you are using that word?

THEORY: Well I am. [stamps floor like a child] What do you associate with vaudeville?

ACADEMY: An outdated form featuring dwarves on bikes, guys with hats and big ties acting out pratfalls, basically poor comedians and gimmicky magicians.

THEORY: Well, old is right. VT seeks to shock via acknowledging its lineage: drama, poetry, and performance. Plato’s Socrates, when he is being canny and poetic as in Phaedo, or The Symposium crossed with Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifestos, are part of the origin story. Oddly, although surrealist chance and juxtaposition play a large role, Breton’s manifesto does not. It is much too didactic and self-serious. Imagine instead Bataille’s Story of the Eye acted out by Buster Keaton, Mae West and Charlie Chaplin, with Anna Karina (Godard) as Marcelle.

ACADEMY: [Is mute.]

THEORY:  Did you know vaudeville was not just entertainment but was a platform for those who had something to say? Not only were there dancers followed by performing dogs, and maybe a slight burlesque, but there were speeches and presentations of ideas as well. Helen Keller appeared with Annie Sullivan in vaudeville.

ACADEMY: I had no idea.

THEORY: Sometimes you don’t.

ACADEMY: [withholding silence]

THEORY: [Giggles nervously and does a backflip.] Okay, so off the top of my head (her head opens) here are some traits. Vaudeville theory performs its ideas, it doesn’t just recount them. But it does not always have to be performed. Like this very text is not meant to be performed but read, as are the dialogues featured at the end of Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars.

ACADEMY: That deranged, degenerate book.

A PARROT NAMED IRMA flies onto the stage, lands on THEORY’S shoulder and dips its head inside her open head. When it comes out it has a needle and syringe in its mouth. It flies off stage reciting Baudelaire.

THEORY: Vaudeville theory is not always concerned with logic and an argument, or the narrative flow of the essay. Like vaudeville, it speaks in multiple voices — sometimes sober, often intoxicated, it is inattentive to disciplinary boundaries. It features dialogues that mix humor with ideas and at its most effective, cutting critical analysis. Take Yvonne Rainer for instance. While her dance already had the signs of slapstick aesthetic [RAINER comes onto the stage dressed in lyotard and Fraser’s thong vacuuming] THEORY has to shout over the noise of the vacuumher films really began to evolve into a combination of surrealist juxtapositions of a profound and humorous kind, aided by the anti-Oedipal power of her film editing.

Rainer finishes vacuuming and then pulls a couch out from backstage. She grabs THEORY’s arm and takes her to the couch then walks off-stage.

[THEORY lies down as though on a psychoanalyst’s couch.]

ACADEMY: Must vaudeville always be funny?

THEORY: As I said, no, for it is full of grit and thought. Just as vaudeville was laced with the pathos of the immigrant struggling to make it in a new America, so is vaudeville theory driven at times with anger, melancholy and the pain of the outsider.


[A mirror drops from the ceiling and the ACADEMY OF WATCHERS look at themselves. Yvonne Rainer’s The Man Who Envied Women starts to play on the rear screen projection until the end.]

THEORY: [Just talking in a free associative way] Maybe outsider is too strong. You know, different, or unconventional. A bit of a tweak on the powers that be? I don’t want to come off precious or pretentious. [Throws a pillow over her face.] I never know just what I am. [Her words are muted by the pillow.] Sometimes ideas just appear and aren’t relayed in a systematic way. Sometimes I am fragmented. Sometimes I am just an artist trafficking in irony, humor and modular structures.


THEORY: As opposed to expository or narrative. It’s the structure of the vaudeville routine. Blocks of acts that are not set in any thematic order.

ACADEMY: Clichés.

CAT NAMED ART appears onstage, clawing at the mirror. It breaks.

THEORY: [A bit taken aback] What are you doing here? Trying to upstage me?

THE CAT NAMED ART [coughs.] Not always and not enough.

THEORY: I mean I’m always trying to ride along with you. Nietzsche danced, Rousseau composed. They are artists as well as philosophes.

CAT NAMED ART: Where does philosophy end and theory begin, or theory begin and philosophy end?

THEORY: They cross, as we know from Derrida, who is referred to both as a theorist and a philosopher. It’s been over fifty years since the explosion of French continental theory. I grew up as a writer and intellectual during the theory-soaked 80s, and have been made quite wary of the bad deployment of theory in academia and the art world.

[A PITBULL jumps on the couch, cuddles on her lap and nuzzles. THE CAT NAMED ART joins them on the couch.]

ACADEMY: Is it a genre?

THEORY: No. Let us not call it a genre or a movement, but, like film noir and Paul Shrader’s famous depiction, it is neither genre nor movement but more a tone, a force that recalls the convulsive beauty of Breton’s surrealism as well as Bataille’s transgressive philosophy.

CAT NAMED ART: But they hated one another.

THEORY: The juxtaposition of just such enemies is precisely what vaudeville theory is about. It has no traffic with hierarchies of power and command. It likes to laugh at itself and others but is also deadly serious —to cop a phrase from another vaudeville theorist: Donna Haraway in her «Manifesto for Cyborgs.» So it cries just as much as it shouts. It is playful without being frivolous and creative to its core. Hugo Ball would like it as a form of what he called “creative unlearning.” Its enemy is thought that forgets to thank and think itself, that forgets writing is the one place where art and theory merge and coalesce.

CAT NAMED ART : Give me some specifics. You are being too general.

THEORY: 64 Any of Andrea Fraser’s talks and performances It performs its ideas, not just recounts them. Language is its material, ideas its fuel. It is not always concerned with argument but seeks to raise questions as well as draw unlikely things together. The best example, as I said, is the dialogue that ends Avital Ronell’s Crack Wars, but the whole book is an example of theory as other, which in a way is what vaudeville is: the other of the America Dream, the other of cinema, the other of the slick, the mainstream, the triumphant. In Fighting Theory Ronell discusses her life’s work as concerned with the left-over, the marginal, the waste of philosophy.

ACADEMY: Stupidity!

[THE CAT NAMED ART and PITBULL transform into Cheshire cat grins. ]

In unison: Precisely!

Vaudeville theory is also rooted in the marginalized discourse of the different, the alternative, the not-always heard. It is why so many women seems to be vaudeville theorists. Steve Fagin jumps out «Or a Jew.» followed by Pablo Helguera «or a Mexican!»

Cries arise from the audience, «Good god!» as red clouds of embarassment emit from the crowd to engulf the stage. Oout of the red mist the PITBULL’s body returns, as does THE CAT NAMED ART. The PITBULL grows a second head. One licks THEORY, the other THE CAT NAMED ART. Helgera and Fagin dance in circles.

CAT NAMED ART:  [Giggles]

THEORY. At its most effective it is cutting critical analysis allergic to repetition without difference. In other words, it has a tingle of that word I myself do not ever use: originality –

ACADEMY: There you go again. [Helgera and Fagin run off stage.]

THEORY: I know I’m supposed to be embarassed to use such a word but what I mean is singularity. It is somehow primal and primary in that paraphrasing is enemy number one. Vaudeville theory is better quoted then summed up and is itself full of quotes. It cannot be other than itself. It is an occasion. An event.

Yvonne Rainer comes out with Avital Ronell and set up two blackboards facing one another. They push the couch where THEORY, THE CAT NAMED ART, and the TWO-HEADED PITBULL are sitting on off-stage. Andrea Fraser steps out from the wings arm in arm with Pablo Helgera and Steve Fagin. The three begin to fight over the blackboards. Fraser cracks them on the head, they fall. Ronell, Fraser, and Rainer lie down next to them. Out comes THEORY, THE CAT NAMED ART, and the TWO-HEADED PITBULL.

All rest in a pile as operatic music fills the theater. The curtain comes down.

No applause is heard from the audience.


Man Ray and Mildred’s Lane

Art, Anarchism and Utopic Communities.From Ridgefield, New Jersey to Mildred’s Lane

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

PLEASE NOTE: This Word Press version is just a pasted in document and does not include footnotes (not sure why) and photographs. For the version including these go to Academia.edu and search Thyrza Nichols Goodeve.


A Sort of Song

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

William Carlos Williams

“My theme tonight is conversation.” Bill Berkson

Simply put, art is the transformation of ideas into things. It is also the work of education and conversation. In the language of William Carlos Williams, both things “Invent!” This essay is about the nature of the local and the concrete action, about the urban and the rural in American art, about friendship, and the evolution of modernisms across the larger context of utopia communities. Man Ray is our ruse, as he is what brought me to Mildred’s Lane to give a talk during the “Country and the City” session; Man Ray before he went to Paris. “Man Ray in New Jersey” also places Mildred’s Lane in a broader context of American 20th and 21st century modernisms, suggesting a lineage for contemporary social practice which, as Morgan Puett reminds us, is something, “We’ve always had.” It is not new. (i.e., born in 1998 with Bouriarrd’s Relational Aesthetics).
To wit, this essay is a product of chance and conversation. It’s about the memory of a tidbit of information and a conversation at a dinner at Cabinet Magazine in Brooklyn a few years ago, where I saw Morgan Puett for the first time in years. While stuffing ourselves with conversation, wine, and food, she invited me down to hers and Mark Dion’s beehive of activity, their home turned “community of entanglement” as Morgan would put it, to give a talk. I said to her, “But what would I do?” She said, look at the website.” I did. I saw the topic: “The Country and The City” and I emailed her. “Well I only have this thought, this little curiosity, something I know nothing about. But, I saw this documentary by Mel Stuart (who also happened to have directed the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) on Man Ray and in it there is a moment when it talks about an artists’ colony in Ridgefield New Jersey where Man Ray spent some time. This is all I know but I’d like the opportunity to see what I could come up with.” “Fantastic, ” came back the reply. So with simple notebook scribbled with penciled notes in hand—no formal talk— I headed to Mildred’s Lane.
Man Ray in New Jersey
Legendary Photography,(sic) painter, and maker of objects and films. Man Ray was on (sic) the most versatile and inventive artists of this century. Born in Philadelphia in 1890, he knew the worlds of Greenwich Village in the avant garde era following the 1913 Armory Show; Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, where he played a key role in the Dada and Surrealist movements; The Hollywood of the 1940s, where he joined others chased by war from their homes in Europe; and finally, Paris again until his death in 1976.

What do we learn from this short bio of Man Ray found on the Man Ray Trust’s website? (A website that also includes a Man Ray Boutique)? We read a series of clichés, partly but notably, not the full story (Armory Show, Greenwich Village, Paris). We think we all know who Man Ray is from such abbreviated introductions. He is that elevated figure of high modernism: cosmopolitan, elegant, best friend and collaborator with Marcel Duchamp (absent in the Man Ray Trust’s description), an urban figure more European than American. The name “Man Ray” is the perfect moniker for such a scion of modernism, an aesthetic self-fashioning like Comte de Lautréamont was for Isidore Ducasse.
But much is left out in this website’s depiction. For instance the home he grew up in was one that members of the Mildred’s Lane would value for its emphasis on none other than domestic creativity. His father, Melach, was not only a factory worker, but worked as a tailor at home in the evenings. His mother, Manya, was a talented and innovative seamstress. In one story: In 1890 when she was pregnant with him, she labored, cross-stitch by cross-stitch, on a baby-carriage coverlet for her first child; so that when Emmanuel was born, on August 27, the tapestry was ready. When the whole multicolored work was unfurled, it looked like a crazy quilt from some unknown country. It was fashioned of silk fragments Manya had collected from the workroom floor in her modest frame house at 418 Carpenter Street on Philadelphia’s South Side, where her husband, Melach, worked extra hours to make ends meet as a tailor after his shift at the factory nearby. Each bright scrap was attached by meticulously networked black thread to a soft cotton backing.

He lived within a home of making and production. Emmanuel even won his mother’s respect (and wrath) early on by making a locomotive out of a soapbox fit with a smokestack plume of absorbent cotton that was so successful she hacked it apart one day with an axe for fear he would take it out and use it in the street. There was also some question as to where he had gotten the materials. He never forgave her for the destruction but he did notice that afterwards, “ She nevertheless showed a certain respect for me in matters of art and taste.” In particular she turned to him for advice on fabrics and choices of furniture. (How perfect a child to come to one of Mildred’s Lane’s summer programs for kids.) One day a lampshade fell apart and he decided to replace it with one made out of a piece of flexible brass from the hardware store. What did he use as the model form? The original paper-shade, undone. He traced it and drew an elaborate pattern on it using his mother’s sewing machine. He then poked out the design on the brass as if it were embroidery. “I never explained my technique and my Mother had trouble with her sewing machine when she tried to use it.” Unknowingly, the chance encounter of a sewing machine with a hardware store and an undone lampshade in a Brooklyn tenement, could be seen as his nascent foreshadowing of his future affinity with both dada and surrealism, not to mention the domestic experimentalism of the future Mildred’s Lane.
Although born in South Philly, the family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn when he was seven. So, Man Ray can be seen as the first Williamsburg artist. He was a quintessentially urban child, as Brooklyn as he could be, Jewish, and subject to “his times,” in other words anti-Semitism. He never spoke about his Jewish background. It was not a part of his persona. In alias Man Ray, Mason Klein does an excellent job of situating Man Ray within the context of his historical moment as a Jew. (The book was produced for the show of Man Ray’s work at The Jewish Museum in 2006.) Instead of being the example of aesthetic high modernism, Klein states,

” Had his Jewish identity been known, would all the indicators of his life and work, invoked critically—his ‘inveterate        eclecticism,’ ‘complete absorption,’ ‘assimilating himself completely’ have been infected with new meaning? Would the idiosyncratic diversity of Man Ray’s work, his habituated behavior, obsessions, and aesthetic strategies have suggested the possibility of an alienation so profound that it dictated his life’s work?”
What would our approach be to this key period of high modernism had we all along been talking of Manny Ray and Marcel (or Mark or Michael) Duchamp. In fact, if you watch the Mel Stuart PBS documentary, you will also hear what may be a surprise if you’ve never heard Man Ray speak. It surprised me and has most of those I have told. Did it ever occur to you what Man Ray, photographer and lover of Paris in its high modernist ecstatic elegance (Kiki!, Lee Miller!) sounded like? In one of the first sound bites, there he is with mustache, beenie beret, and cigar, a bohemian Groucho Marx, going on about his “woiks.”
In 1908 he graduated from high school. He had been awarded a scholarship in architecture at NYU but told his parents he was refusing it in order to paint. He also wanted to find a job “of his own choosing”; work was a kind of freedom for him. His mother was dismayed but his father, remarkably, set up a studio space for him in their house. It was during this period that he would take the train to the end of the line—Coney Island— and set up his canvas on the beach to paint from nature.
On sunny days, with my paint-box, I took the elevated train to the end of the line and found myself at once in the outskirts of Brooklyn—open country, barns, horses and cows grazing in the fields. Here in solitude I thought of myself as a Thoreau breaking free of all ties and duties to society, and as I painted, it seemed to me that my thoughts and feelings flowed through my arm onto the canvas.

Remember, this essay is also the story of an informal talk given out in the country in the Barn at Mildred’s Lane. The cohort of students and visiting artist’s I was speaking to were the very ones planning the Thoreau exhibition. Who would have ever wrapped Man Ray’s urban body in the cloak of Thoreau? Mark Dion and his Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and It’s Legacy, that’s who!
Emmanuel began to frequent Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 in 1910. What he found there was the guiding spirit of Stieglitz who took an interest in the young man. Stieglitz himself must be integrated into this legacy of radical pedagogy and art for, “He denied that the function of his gallery was as a showcase for art; he preferred to see it as ‘a place of contact,’ where people/s ideas naturally and spontaneously mixed. Occasionally he even made prospective buyers fill out a detailed questionnaire, asking them, ‘”How much is the picture worth to you in emotions? … before he allowed any money to change hands.” Man Ray found him fascinating but said, “He talked at length about modern art to anyone willing to listen to him. I listened fascinated, but at times it seemed a bit long-winded.”
From a tip he heard at 291, he attended Robert Henri’s famous Exhibition of Independents (1910), the first non-juried show in America, which, like the famous Expositions des Independents in Paris of1863, was a protest against a conservative institution, here The National Academy of Design, who had refused Henri’s work. Henri’s counter-show was held at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. It included the work of his students and other artists, established in 1908 as “The Eight,” (Maurice Prendergast, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, and William Glackens), later called The Ashcan School. The gritty, confrontational realism of immigrant New York was pilloried by the press as “vulgar.” The Eight was first formed as The Four in Philadelphia (William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan). Their meetings went by the name of The Charcoal Club. They drew but also read from the works of Emerson, Whitman, and significantly, Thoreau.
Man Ray’s encounter with the exhibition was an event. Described by biographer Neil Baldwin:

“A wide-eyed Emmanuel Radnitsky, who had already begun weekend forways into the museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, was at the Macbeth show stunned by the audaciousness of the ‘Ashcan School …. And he was particularly drawn to the works of Robert Henri….”
In 1910 he was still Emmanuel Radnitzky. In 1911 he would change his name not because of an artistic affectation but because as he said, he was “of his times,” which for Jewish immigrants was not very welcoming. His brother Samuel and he shortened Radnitzky to Ray, in order to find work. The name “Radnitsky” was too “ethnic.” For a time he was Manny Ray but eventually he chose the more sparse and almost impersonal Man Ray.
1911 was not only important to the young Emmanuel because it is when he and his brother changed their last name, but it is also the year he participated in a bit of creative domesticity of his own, producing perhaps the first in a legacy of what Puett calls “conceptual textiles.” He called it Tapestry. It was a wall-hanging, hanging a full five by three and a half feet made of 110 samples swatches, borrowed from his father’s inventory.

As his biographer Neil Baldwin describes it:

“In its subtle gradations of color areas, moving from dark to light and back again, it represents abstraction united with function. It is both an exercise in cubist form and a quilt, at the same moment. The materials of Tapestry reflect the domestic environment Emmanuel was forced by constraints to inhabit. Instead of representing the need to share space with his family when he yearned for emancipation, he made good use of what was at hand, placing his stamp of individuality onto otherwise mundane squares of wool—pinstripe, tattersall, plaid charcoal-gray flannels—oddments of current fashion. This signal effort was pinned to a sheet of canvas ….And the canvas was signed, ‘Man Ray, 1911.”
On one of his visits to 291 the following year, he heard about a place where he could take drawing lessons with live nudes. He was already looking for something to do in the evenings because by now he was working and living at home. That “something” ended up being a “social center” uptown where Man Ray and modernism would now take a turn into anarchism, pedagogy, the arts, the labor movement, and eventually to Marcel Duchamp by way of the fresh country air of New Jersey.
What he discovered was The Ferrer Center, which at the point Man Ray started to attend, was in Harlem but had earlier incarnations rooted in the downtown culture of St. Mark’s Place and West 12th Street. The Ferrer School or the more widely known, Modern School — a utopic, alternate pedagogical community and social experiments, like Man Ray’s heavy Brooklyn accent—has been lost to the blinding mythology and aesthetic experimentalism of Paris.
The Ferrer Center
It’s a sort of alchemist’s laboratory where the philosopher’s stone of education is being evolved. It is the great pedagogic experimental station of the new society…It invites investigation and criticism….”
—Adolf Wolf on The Ferrer School

In the summer of 2012, Mildred’s Lane offered a session called “Alchemy.” The above quote by Adolph Wolf is from a magazine article put out by the Ferrer Center. This Adolph Wolf (not to be mistaken for the outsider artist Adolf Wolffi) was a close friend of Man Ray’s.
What exactly was the Ferrer Center? It was an anarchist school founded by Emma Goldman and others anarchists, in memory of the execution of Francisco Ferrer, a Spanish freethinker and anti-cleric. Ferrer founded the Modern School in 1901 in Spain. As described by El Diluvio, a newspaper of the era: “This school is not a commercial enterprise, like most scholastic institutions, but a pedagogical experiment…” It was based on “an education in the natural sciences” (Ferrer). As Ferrer puts it,
‘We shall develop living brains, capable of reacting on our instruction. We shall take care that the minds of our pupils will sustain, when they leave the control of their teachers, a stern hostility to prejudice; that they will be solid minds, capable of forming their own radical convictions on every subject.”
Ferrer was accused of plotting to assassinate the King (a total fabrication). After a mock trial he was executed by the Spanish government and Catholic Church in 1909 for the assassination plot and for running “Godless” Schools. His death affected the international radical, anarchist communities of the time. Emma Goldman decided to found a Modern School in his memory and called it The Ferrer Center. The school was only for the children and adults of the working class.
Man Ray would have a brief brush with anarchism via his classes at The Ferrer Center, but he was never very political nor an anarchist himself. His appearance at Ferrer was purely motivated by his desire for drawing classes with live nudes. In his iconoclastic and eccentric Self-Portrait, he does not talk so much about the politics of the school as much as its power as a social center.
” I continued my trips to the Ferrer School….There were always new faces, people dropping in and out of curiosity or in sympathy with liberal ideas I met new writers and painters; we sat in the café and talked.”

Extraordinary people taught there, among them young William Durant. In fact it was here Durant met a 13 year old girl Ariel who would become his wife and life long collaborator (Man Ray knew her as one of the volunteer nudes in his drawing class). They left the school after they married and would eventually write the 11 Volume, History of Civilization for which they received the Pulitzer in 1968. More extraordinary is that one of his art teachers was none other than Robert Henri. How interesting to think of the French avant-gardist Man Ray learning the fundamentals of drawing from the founder of the first 20th century American art movement. Of Henri Man Ray says,
“He was considered a rebel in art circles and among the critics, but regarded with respect, probably because of his pronouncements in the school that he ran under his name. Passing around from drawing to drawing, he made gentle, encouraging remarks, but never touched the drawings nor criticized adversely. Stopping in front of my work, he put his hand to his chin and was silent for a few moments. Then he spoke: This was the sort of thing most people would understand and like; however, we should try to assert our individuality even at the risk of being misunderstood.”

Another one of his teachers was George Bellows. One day Bellows took one of Man Ray’s drawings and placed it in front of the class. As Man Ray describes it, “He spoke at length about initiative and imagination; everyone looked and listened attentively, including the model standing nude amongst us. What a picture, I thought; it would need a Manet to paint it.”
In 1912 one of the first people he met at the Center was the painter Stephen Halpert. Halpert had just returned from studying with Matisse in Paris. One of the first things he said to Man Ray was that he should “break away from academic influences if he wanted to become a significant painter.” He also suggested that Man Ray come visit an art colony in New Jersey with him.
New Jersey

As early as the mid 1800s, artists began to come to New Jersey. The first being an illustrator, portraitist, and genre painter named James E. Maxfield. He actually built a house on the corner of Studio Road and Art Lane that is still there. William Glackens, Alfred H. Mauer apparently participated. The Country Sketch Club was founded and housed there in 1897. So these roads were already well established when Man Ray arrived. Coincidently the Country Sketch Club folded in 1912, the year before Man Ray arrived.

Hoboken is not the original artists enclave just beyond the boundaries of arty Manhattan. In fact it is a very late incarnation of a tradition of utopic colonies situated around the Pallisades of New Jersey where radical artists, intellectuals and utopic-minded community builders sought to break free of the urban and the conventional. Perdita Buchan in her book, Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden tells a tale of quite remarkable places like the Helicon Home Colony started in 1906 founded by Upton Sinclair from the proceeds of The Jungle. It was based on a model put forth by the feminist writer and author of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. A life long socialist, he invited artists, writers, editors, teachers and professionals of all kinds to come out to Helicon, ironically considering the topic of this essay, to “avoid the drudgeries of domestic life.” It did not last long because it burned down in the spring of 1907 under suspicion of arson. But while running, Will Durant visited, as did John Dewey and William James who was apparently quite taken with one residents’ use of the Ouija Board (14). John Coryell, originator of the Nick Carter detective series, and his wife left the center to become two of the first teachers at the Ferrer School.
There was also “Free Acres: A Single Tax colony” founded by Bolton Hall (a follower of Tolstory) and Ami Mali Hicks in 1910 in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey based on the principles of Henry George proponent of the single text movement (between 1895-1927 there were ten single-tax colonies in the United States). Ami Malu Hicks was a famous designer, who had worked with Max Reinhardt and Norman Bell Geddes. She was influenced by William Morris and the arts and crafts movement. Free Acres exists to this day. James Cagney and his wife was one of the early residents.
The most substantial New Jersey community was called The Modern School of Stelton, New Jersey and was a direct outgrowth of the Ferrer Modern Schools. It sought to teach Hand, Heart, Head rather than the three R’s. Devoted to working class children, one of the participants who taught there dreamed of a Worker’s College, in which the children and their elders alike might be trained to bring about a world set free from the ugliness of injustice and the ugliness of greed…For then it may succeed, perhaps, in bringing about the two types we need most—the dreamer –artists to depict a better world. And creator-artists to make a better world!” (Dr. H.T. Schnittkind)

“The artist was fundamental to the dream of a more just society. The buildings of the original school still stand and represent “a landmark in the history of both the free education movement, and, and the anarchist movement in early 20th c America.”
But even before Helicon Home Colony and the Stelton Modern School, there was an artist’s community founded in the Pallisades called The Country Sketch Club (1898-1912). “The club’s objectives were defined as the encouragement ‘of individual work among members and the fostering of an art native to this country.” Its membership grew rapidly, and in 1898 its first exhibition was held.” Today there is no Wikipedia entry for The Country Sketch Club in New Jersey, just a mention of it in a little known but essential essay by Francis Naumann and Gail Stavitsky about Ridgefield, New Jersey and an essay about its founder, “Van Deering Perrine and The Country Sketch Club,” by Arlene Pancza. Rooted in the rural and artistic experience of the American experience, it took a turn towards American modernism in 1901 when Emmanuel Radnitzky was 11 years old:
“A turning point in the history of the Country Sketch Club … with the presentation of a large show of 139 paintings and sketches by twenty-four artists at the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the exhibitors was William Glackens, whose participation has been traced to a visit made by his teacher and colleague Robert Henri (1865-1929) to Ridgefield in 1900.”
Here we have Henri’s visit to Ridgefield a decade before his Ferrer student, Man Ray would turn to it as a source of freedom. In 1910 Emma Goldman is said to have visited Ridgefield. Ironically by 1912 The Country Sketch Club itself ceased to exist, the very same year Sam Halpert took Man Ray to Ridgefield and Duchamp, off in Paris, was painting his Nude Descending the Staircase and placing a bicycle rim on a stool for distraction and amusement.

There were no shops, the nearest village being a mile away. My landlord supplied me with milk, bread, and eggs, which I could fry on a small kerosene stove. His wife offered to kill and roast a small chicken, all for a profit of course. Cold, clear water came from a well nearby. This and the ten minute walk through the woods were to me symbols of my escape from the sordidness of the city.”

There is much that happened to Man Ray during the three years he and Ridgefield were connected but what is important for this essay is it all happened because of his friendships at Ferrer, which all happened because of his wandering into 291. As naïve and unmodern as the newly fashioned Man Ray was in his early 20s, it was at Ridgefield he would begin to find himself a modern artist even before the 1913 Armory show. Seeing Cézanne and Picasso at 291 in March and April of 1912, certainly began the journey but it is at Ridgefield, after painting directly from nature for a good amount of time, that Man Ray returned from what I gather was an arduous hiking trip, only to swear he’d never paint from nature again; he would paint from memory. In other words, his work took on the experimentalism of his time not just because of his visits to 291 nor the 1913 Armory show where he saw Marcel Duchamp’s much maligned Nude Descending a Staircase, (1912) but also because of his experience with nature in Ridgefield before 1913. Apparently, after the Armory Show he made a cubist portrait of Alfred Stieglitz.
In Ridgefield Man Ray also met the Belgian poet Adon Lacroix.She would be at first just a room-mate but soon they fell in love and eventually marry in 1914. She would be the first of an amazing string of marriages and loves in Man Ray’s life such as with Kiki of Montparnasse or the formidable Lee Miller. Adon introduced him to French writers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Lautréamont and Apollinaire. Together they published a small project based on her poems and Man Ray’s drawings. They were even written up in the local newspaper as bohemian celebrities of sorts.
So from 291 to Ferrer to Ridgefield and the 1913 Armory Show, Man Ray’s formation as a modern artist did not sprout whole from the forehead of Paris, nor with his association with New York Dada, nor as the Man Ray Trust infers, from his connections in Greenwich Village (?!), but was based in his participation in a series of indigenous America experimental communities of his time.
Ridgefield was a hotspot of modernist crossings not just in the visual arts, but remarkably, through Man Ray’s roommate the poet, playwright, author Arthur Kreymborg, with the beginnings of American literary modernism as well. As Man Ray remembers it:
“We got an old kitchen table and a chair from the landlord; Kreymborg laid out some books and papers. I was very pleased. We might develop into something more than merely an artist’s colony: Ridgefield, New Jersey —our colony was within its boundaries—could become an advanced cultural center embracing all the arts. We put our chairs out in the sun, talked, smoked and got acquainted.”

Can’t you see it as a scene from Mildred’s Lane?

In 1915, Kreymborg with the help of Walter Arensburg started to publish the important literary journal, The Others, “and the social scene became increasingly lively as pioneering poets affiliated with The Others mingled with anarchists, self-styled nature lovers, and artists taking a break from the city.’” Among them were Mina Loy and Marianne Moore. One of the first contributors to the journal was none other than William Carlos Williams who frequented Kreymborg’s home “to help with the magazine which had saved my life as a writer.” In his memoirs, Williams recalled having ‘arguments over cubism, which would fill an afternoon. It seemed daring to omit capitals at the head of each poetic line. Rhyme went by the board. We were, in short, ‘rebels.’”[38] Williams, along with Malcolm Cowley “… was part of the magazine’s revolving editorship.”[39]
But, in 1915, when Arensberg first arrived, he also brought with him something that would lead to one of the greatest creative friendships of the 20thc —that something was the tall, quiet French artist who had started to create dada four years before formal Dada was founded in Zurich. Duchamp had begun to make a name for himself in Paris before arriving in New York, and had of course scandalized New York critics at the 1913 Armory Show with Descending The Staircase. Man Ray had had one solo show at the Daniel gallery in Chicago by this time. In other words, Man Ray was just forming, while Duchamp was already well-formed. He would give up art for chess in three years. But there they stood, in the cross hairs of New Jersey, shaking hands. Because of the language barrier, their friendship began quite intuitively not with words but with a spontaneous bit of play. Man Ray pulled out a pair of tennis rackets and he began lobbying an imaginary tennis ball to Duchamp. Not missing a beat, Duchamp proceeded to volley over their invisible net, responding upon each hit, merely by Oui Oui/Yes,Yes.
Man Ray would leave Ridgefield in 1915 and move back to New York, eventually leaving for Paris in 1921. From 1915 to 1921 he had three solo shows, became a regular at Arensberg’s soirees, helped found the Societé Anonyme (which means corporation by the way) with Duchamp and Katherine Drier before taking off to Paris. By then he and Duchamp would “try” dada out in New York only to find “New York is Dada,” as he famously proclaimed. In the year before he moved to Paris, Man Ray took a photo of an artwork in Duchamp’s studio. That photograph, Dust Breeding (1920), is the transitional object that will take us to Mildred’s Lane some century later.
Mildred’s Lane
After I gave this slight talk among the Thoreau fellows at Mildred’s Lane, Morgan responded enthusiastically, so much so I decided to write it up. As I did I began to realize, Man Ray’s pre-Paris life was actually a premonition, or an early example of, the precise kind of American community of friendship and art that are the foundations of Mildred’s Lane. In other words, friendship and affective bonds, spontaneous communities inflected with what artists do when they are together, all staged within a context of radical pedagogy and domestic environments. (e.g., Arensberg’s home, and remember—for three years Ridgefield was Man Ray’s home.)
Mildred’s Lane is not a school but a social experiment in pedagogy and art. It is not for the working class in Ferrer’s sense but it is for the working class of the artist, particularly ones interested in labor (like “fooding” and “dwelling” and making shacks). In our time, artistic labor is exploited and abused making the artistic class both one of the most privileged as well as materially deprived. Mildred’s Lane is as much about education and the sharing of information as it is a place where artists gather informally to present work. It is a kind of anarchist (in the lose sense) post, post Modern School where Puett and Dion accidently, like Man Ray, Adon Lacroix, Alfred Kreymborg and even William Carlos Williams before them, founded a singular venue for the production of social art, in their home.
Here is an important statement by Morgan from The Grafter’s Shack, an installation on beekeeping that took place at Wave Hill in 2002. In it she emphasizes the desire to bring forth the working life of, as she puts it, “the people who made history but didn’t make the history books,”and to explore and make visible their contributions to the social fabric. I continue to focus more rigorously on the cultural contributions of those people derided as folk, outsider and the untrained by creating conceptual textiles that tell these stories; also through my clothes, site and project-oriented installations, and most particularly my long term project for preservation and adaptive reuse of vernacular outbuildings. I continue to interject these voices into the public discourse, not through a method, which turns ideas and things into artifacts, but rather in a way which elucidates the relevance of past innovation in a contemporary culture. ” [emphasis added]
Could Man Ray’s early brass lampshade and 1911 Tapestry be considered “conceptual textiles” avant le lettre? And might we see the history of Ferrer and Ridgefield as somewhat hidden histories in the story of high modernism? Certainly they are according the description from The Man Ray Estate where they do not even appear.
There are many differences between Man Ray’s time and our own but learning this history, one sees a kind of vernacular American modernism emerge in the visual arts and poetry through affective bonds rather than self-conscious dogmas. There really wasn’t such a thing as an art world at that time, more many communities of artists. According to Arthur Danto, the art world didn’t exist until 1964 – an invention of circuits of galleries, museums and the discourse of art produced in art magazines. Fittingly that art world is precisely what social practice and Mildred’s Lane in particular seeks to confront and turn inside out as seen by the living installation put up at MOMA. As Morgan said, she isn’t interested in method so much as the ways past innovation is part of contemporary culture. Perhaps there needs to be a Man Ray in New Jersey Shack built among the Grafter’s Shack, The Alchemy Shack, or the Bird Blind at Mildred’s Lane.
So one is out in the country at Mildred’s Lane. The Barn is the workspace. It is here, with bats sleeping or circling over-head, that all lectures, seminars, and workshops take place. The main house is where participants eat, some sleep, and where everyone may peruse the library. It is also where Salty the Turtle lives, with his friends Sam and Fran. Salty is integral to Mildred’s Lane, so much so he traveled to MOMA for the exhibition. Salty is a fresh water turtle discovered by Mark Dion and his son, Grey Rabbit along a salty beach where he was most likely abandoned by some well-meaning yet clueless owner. Salty is different from most turtles. If you pass by he comes at you with what appears to be passionate curiosity (but he is of course looking for food). Feeding Salty, as eating at Mildred’s Lane, is one of the great events and pleasures. If you look at Salty, he looks back. He follows you. He is an engaged participant as is anyone who comes to Mildred’s Lane. This is a place for those with the curiosity and passion to connect that Salty embodies.
Mildred’s Lane has now moved beyond the circle of friends into a wider social community. Fellows come from colleges around the country to participate, while artists are invited to create classes, give talks, and explore projects for periods of three weeks at a time, such as The Country and The City, which produced this paper. It is not described as a colony or residency but “a home, an experiment in living that has developed according to a rigorous pedagogical strategy, a working-living –researching environment that fosters engagement with every aspect of life. The entire site has become a living museum —or rather, a new contemporary art complex(ity).” It has emerged organically, out of the relationship and practice of two artists and their community, much like Man Ray’s involvement in Ridgefield grew out of his friendship with Samuel Halpert. Like Mildred’s Lane, Ridgefield is a place rooted in home and affective bonds. But unlike Ridgefield, Mildred’s Lane is sprinkled with lived theoretical relations such as comportment, workstyles, or hooshing .
As Man Ray was part of his zeitgeist so is Mildred’s Lane emblematic of our own. It is an artist’s community driven by a creative practice based on theoretical complexity. Theory wasn’t around in Man Ray’s day, and one assumes he wouldn’t necessarily have been interested in it, although Duchamp more or less invented conceptual art. But theory is part of our world today. A product of the late 20th century; in the 21st c, theory is now embedded in art practice. By this I do not mean one applies theory to art, but art derives from the conversations of our times which are driven by people like Deleuze, Bourriard, Rancière, Zizek, and Gayatri Spivak’s (whose most recent book suggests it is the aesthetic that is the way out of the crises we are in.) This is important because Mildred’s Lane’s is built from an abundance of creative theories such as workstyles, hooshing, and comportment. It is about living thinking. It is also one of the few moments where the ideas of Deleuze about “becoming,” about art as affect and sensation rather than representation, have true relevance as guiding principles. This is not just my egghead point but is embedded in the very literature Mildred’s Lane has produced about itself. In one of the broadsides produced for Renovating Walden they list a number of concepts with definitions. The Lyceum begins with: “affect: concept theorized by philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. According to Spinoza’s Ethics III, 3 Definition 3, an affect is an empowerment, and not a simple change or modification. Affects according to Deleuze, are not simple affections, as they are independent from their subject. Artists create affects and percepts, ‘blocks of spacetime,’ whereas science works with functions, according to Deleuze, and philosophy creates concepts.”

In other places Mildred’s Lane is defined as a community of affects. The very living installation created at Moma is called Common Senses. Most prominent is the idea that Mildred’s Lane is in a constant state of becoming: “Mildred’s Lane as a place is a future preserve becoming.” Or is interested in “the emerging event.” Witness Morgan traveling with Grey Rabbit around the world to engage in “moving the area of the commons.” She calls it “whole schooling.” Where-ever they travel they exchange products of labor and community in “creative innovative domestication.” “When you visit, you are in a life, not in a studio.” Another phrase used is “situated engagement” which echoes Donna Haraway’s “situated knowledges.” Buried in the final essays in the book of Essays produced by the Renovating Walden project, is the connection with Thoreau as a thinker who believed in how “words can…have a transformative effect that motivates people as activists in the service of social justice.” Mildred’s Lane is practical thinking and mindful doing.
Also within these essays one learns the origins of the word economy, one of the early chapters in Thoreau’s famous book. The word “economy” comes from the greek, oikonomia , meaning “ household management, thrift.” Puett has resisted making her home into a non-profit economy because “the minute money comes into it, everything changes.” Instead she has set up the Complex(ity) in downtown Narrowsberg, a full floor building where Puitt has set up a workspace. In it she and her fellows make Morgan Puett Designs (from her fashion line in the 80s and 90s) to raise money for Mildred’s Lane. It is one of the workstyles Mildred’s Lane hopes to use to sustain itself outside of bureaucratic, institutional, corporate funding.
Workstyles is one of the wonderful words Mildred’s Lane uses to reinvent labor, here the domestic labor of everyday life. Workstyles is related to hooshing. Hooshing is basically mindful house keeping, or really mindful living where at every moment one establishes a relationship to the world capable of aesthetic intervention. I imagine Man Ray’s mother Manya was good at hooshing! And just to maintain its avant garde origins, here is Alfred Jarry rnacting a hoosh six years after Man Ray’s birth, while serving in the army!
It is no mere gesture toward the rhetorical that this object, which in the civilian world is commonly known as a broom, is here referred to as a “brush.” This is because it is only suited, at best, for sketching out decorative motifs in the dirt, and for roughly outlining the design of some future sweeping project, one which is likely to remain in the realms of the improbable.

As the Modern School was interested in the laboring classes, there is a tradition of art that is concerned with ideas around work and labor. One of the most thorough contemporary exhibitions on the topic of work is Helen Molesworth’s Work Ethic, held at The Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2003-January 2004. In her catalogue essay “Work Ethic,” she writes on Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintence Work, an artistic legacy critical to Mildred’s Lane. Here is her description:

“In the seventies Ukeles did a series of performances entitled Maintenance Art, in which she cleaned spaces ranging from her home to museums to public sidewalks. These performances posited an equivalence between “public” and “private” institutions of art-galleries, museums, and private homes-by suggesting that domestic labor is not exclusively “private.” Instead, her work argues that maintenance work is a continuum that connects usually unseen/unpaid domestic labor to the same maintenance work that occurs in “public” institutions.”

Ukeles is obviously a guiding spirit of a place like Mildred’s Lane. Her Maintenance Art brings the domestic into the public sphere. She is involved in a kind of urban hoosh. But aside from Jarry’s broom as design tool demonstrating his usual prescience within the history of modernism, Man Ray’s Dust Breeding, 1920 is surely one of the great speciman’s of a pre-Mildred involuntary hooshing

Think of Dust Breeding as the result of Man Ray’s intuitive sense of the hoosh. Hoosh does not mean to clean and order and make nice like Martha Stewart but to construct, discover, and make aesthetic interventions. What else is Dust Breeding than the recognition of the remarkable aesthetics of dust. To have wiped it clean wouldn’t have been a hoosh but a basic house cleaning intervention—a way to clean off the art. Here we are thankful Duchamp was not a tidy house- keeper and that Man Ray realized the dust had basically hooshed itself into a pattern. Dust Breeding’s brilliance is Man Ray’s humorous and yes, dada, manner of turning art inside out: don’t photograph The Large Glass but it’s dust. This is an attention to the invisible and unrecognized everyday life that is here before us. Think of Man Ray as Salty the turtle zoning in on his environment at hand.
In one of the Renovating Walden essays, Erik Benjamin defines hooshing as:
“The hoosh insists on the collective and communal, inherent within a domestic model that warrants a comfortable informality, forming and molding relationships in the kitchen, garden, or parlor. The domestic validates the local: you can and should peep over the fence into the neighbor’s backyard with an invitation for coffee….A hoosh gloriously affirms the active energy inherent in a domestic model that rigorously plays with locality and comfort as tools to imbue a space and setting with a dialogue, joke, critique, drama, lecture, or toast. …Whether dinner or lecture, bedroom or garden, a hoosh does not discriminate. A proper hoosh demands a space or event with bodies that live and breathe, please and woo, and perhaps, most importantly, jumpstart an idea that’s always been there, just often swept off sidewalks into cities we have become so accustomed to.”
On November 4th 2012, in the Common Senses exhibition at MOMA, Kristnya and Marek Milde, held a Do It Yourself workshop called, “The Color of The Home. ” What they did was produce colored wall paint, and a color chart, from pigment made from ordinary household dust. “Special call: If you can, bring a handful of dust sweepings from your apartment for the workshop with you. Just sweep it into a plastic bag before you go!” It is not only Man Ray who knew how to make art out of dust but the extended limbs of Mildred’s Lane. Last summer the artist Eve Andrée Laramée, gave a talk during the Mildred’s Lane Alchemy session. In the 1990s Laramée made work transforming other artists work into foods and medicines. She decided to collect dust from Duchamp’s The Large Glass on view in Philadelphia. She wrote to the Curator of Contemporary Art and asked if he could save the dust that fell off The Large Glass the next time the custodial crew cleaned it. Here is her description:
“Several months later, I received a small padded envelope in the mail addressed from the Philadelphia Museum. I eagerly opened the envelope and out fell a small pile of finely broken glass. My heart sank. I thought they considered my request a joke, and sent broken glass in response to the Large Glass having been broken in transit many years before.”
Upon unfolding the letter within, the letter a tiny dust ball wafted out, about three eighths of an inch in diameter, and a small black plastic screw cap. The letter stated that the museum purchased a brand new Windsor & Newton Series-Seven red sable brush to gather the dust from the metal bar that separates the upper “bride” portion of the Glass from the lower “bachelors” portion. They then placed this miniscule dust ball into a tiny glass vial. The vial broke in transit in the mail.
She calls the piece: Duchamp’s Dustball.
Further connections between Duchamp and Mildred’s Lane are reiterated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox, in their essay “Being (T)here” As they say, “It is Duchamp’s positioning of the everyday as central with his Ready Mades that urges us to begin our journey here.” By here they mean Mildred’s Lane.
Helen Molesworth elegantly ties it all together in her essay on Duchamp’s “Work Avoidance” from Art Journal in 1997:
“A hat rack and coat rack to hang things on, a comb to straighten one’s hair, a cover to protect a typewriter from dust, a urinal for peeing in, a rack to dry bottles, a shovel to remove snow. Almost all of Duchamp’s readymades could have been found in an average home or store; they are mundane objects of everyday life. Sharing the attribute quotidian, the readymades are also bound together by the processes of maintenance. They are objects for cleaning, hanging, storing, drying, preening, and peeing: objects whose purpose is to aid in self-presentation, objects that allow homes and offices to function. They are the unsung aids that allow us to do the work of maintaining house and body, so that we are better prepared to do our other work, like making art, for instance. “Workstyles is all about putting the work back into the ready made.”

But Molesworth takes the point even further as she analyzes some photographs of Duchamp’s studio from 1912-15. First she reminds us that Duchamp’s ready mades were not widely exhibited until after World War II. She then continues:

“These studio photographs do not show the (glorified) artist at work. Instead, we see ambiguous rooms filled with curious objects. Ambiguous because these rooms are not only Duchamp’s studio, they are also his home. …These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work”.

By sheer chance this could be a description of Mildred’s Lane as well. Such affinities need not be conscious. Nor Duchamp’s domestic experimentalism, described in Molesworth’s conclusion:

“The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional.”

Mildred’s Lane “refunctions” the ready made and turns it away from its alienated production: not vacuum cleaner but broom, not paper towel but repurposed napkins made of raw linen, not house cleaning but hooshing.
No doubt Man Ray and Duchamp would have been at home at Mildred’s Lane. Man Ray’s sewn brass lampshade, made well before he went to New Jersey, is of course a founding object in the history of creative domesticity.

The Gift heralds also an age of antibourgeois domesticity.
Mildred’s Lane does not traffic in anti or pro bourgeois (in a way everyone but the working poor are bourgeois these days) but the idea of the “coevolvement” of inhabited spaces; neither bourgeois or anti-bourgeois but attached to the lost histories Puett works at reinvigorating such as the rural work clothes of the depression era in her fashion line.

While Man Ray and Duchamp did everything they could to unravel art, Mildred’s Lane is where those rambunctious modernist threads return to refashion and repurpose domesticity in order to produce community and critique. In other words, Man Ray’s Tapestry wouldn’t just hang on the wall at Mildred’s Lane but would serve as a blanket to keep body and mind warm during one of the discussions in the barn.
Although there is much more to say about Mildred’s Lane, let me end here, with the chance coincidence of the very subject that brought me to Mildred’s Lane. Innovation is innovation, whether that of Man Ray’s industrious mother, the young Emmanuel with his locomotive and brass lampshade, the two most rigorous of the high modernism of the 20th century playing with everyday objects, or the creative domesticity that heralds from Mildred’s Lane.
In this end, this paper is at once a joke—did you here the one about Man Ray in New Jersey?, and a serious history across a hidden history of modernisms built from the vibrant and important rural artists colonies right outside of New York at the end of the 19th, ushering in the 20th. It is about a simple talk given spontaneously that actually became the framework for a legacy in which to situate Mildred’s Lane, where, in the words of Morgan, “All in all we remain ambassadors of entanglement and seekers of new modalities of exchange that aspire to a hopeful modernity.” A hopeful modernity, Emmanuel Radnitzky, would have liked that.