Sylvia Palacios Whitman was born 1941 in the South of Chile and later studied painting and sculpture at Santiago’s School of Fine Arts. She came to New York in the early 1960s, where she pursued her own work in drawing and painting. She became interested in dance and theater performing with Trisha Brown and Robert Whitman, whom she married in 1968.
“I did study a little ballet, like all little girls. But I always entertained my family in the attic. At the time I just didn’t know it was something you could do. So eventually I’ve gotten to where I always was!”
Soon after leaving The Trisha Brown Dance Company Palacios Whitman developed a unique performance style of her own in which she used surreal stage props and giant drawings to create a visual theater that combined a rich Latin-American pictorial sensibility with the minimalism of the New York dance scene. She performed these works at various venues in downtown Manhattan such as artists’ lofts, The Kitchen, Sonnabend Gallery, and the Whitney Museum of American Art Downtown Branch as well as the Guggenheim Museum. Her performers were non-professionals whom she casted from her milieu or through chance encounters:
“I go to church. It’s always very natural there and people spring out at you. One day there was an incredible face beside me, and instead of just wondering I said “I’ll use her’”. The ‘her’ tuned out to be Ilse Rumpler, who worked in a Madison Avenue music box store, and became one of Palacios Whitman’s most compelling performers in “South”, her exuberant ‘concert’ at the Guggenheim in 1979.
Palacios Whitman at times used the taped pastoral compositions of Steve Reich to accompany the phases of her performances, happy or melancholic scenes which lined up like three dimensional animate sketches, often informed by autobiographical stories and visions, a “delicate blend of fantasy and the mundane” (Sally Banes, 1979).
The artist makes central use of props, both found and made – such as cup and saucer, envelopes, telephones, beds, skirts, needles and thread and most of all paper -, “weaving phantasmagoria out of material at hand and transforming scale or time to dwell briefly in the marvelous, then moving on readily to the next thing” (Banes). Most of the materials are fragile and ephemeral in character and where often destroyed after the event, apart from her giant “Green Hands” currently on show at the Whitney Museum or the larger-than-life anonymous men in trench coats drawn on the gauze banners in her piece “Negatives” that will be performed in the gallery.
At the beginning of Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s ideas for performances are usually drawings and sketches of exceptionally free spirited imagination. The New York critic Sally Banes called this approach ‘hypnogogic’ (after Sartre’s “Psychology of Imagination”). In this show the walls of the gallery will be covered with these drawings lightly spread out and loosely magnetically fixed behind static plastic sheets. They are the mental initiators of the scenes staged.
Filmed by Walter Patrick Smith
Click here to view the interview “Rituals of Rented Island: Sylvia Palacios Whitman”