Sylvia Palacios Whitman Performances at Whitney Museum Reviewed by Art In America

An artist who staged performances at the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Kitchen in the ’70s is having a moment back in the spotlight.

The Chilean-American artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman, who has not shown her work in New York since the 1980s, opens a New York gallery show this weekend, marking the occasion with presentations of simple, enchanting performance works tonight and tomorrow (A.i.A. attended a rehearsal). Named after one of those performances, the exhibition, “Elephant Trunk,” at Broadway 1602 (Dec. 14, 2013-Feb. 15, 2014), encompasses works on paper, performance photographs, paintings and live performance, with examples ranging in date from the ’60s to 2013.

Whitman’s earlier output is also currently featured, with props, documentation and performance videos, in “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan” (through Feb. 2, 2014) at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, where she will perform on Jan. 18.

Her performances generally employ simple props to create bold imagery. In Human Paper Coil (1974), a lone female performer wraps herself in a spiral of brown paper that lies in a 10-foot-wide sheet on the floor, then shuffles out of the room, implying a play on the expression “shuffling off this mortal coil.”

In Cat’s Cradle (1975), six women use a loop of rope to enact the titular game, their bodies standing in for fingers as they create various geometric designs. They thus blow a child’s pastime up to adult proportions.

And in Negatives (1980), three men carry before them translucent banners that sport images of blank-faced men in trench coats and fedoras. After walking around the gallery in simple, choreographed motions, the three begin to draw swathes of colorful fabric from under their clothing, as if revealing beautiful traits from behind a facade of stereotypical masculinity.

“That piece, with its father figures, takes me back to my childhood,” the artist told A.i.A. during a visit to the gallery this week. “Darkness and rain come to mind.”

Many of the recent drawings in the Broadway 1602 show, some of them from just the last few weeks, hang at rakish angles and are pinned up, unframed. “I wanted them to look like they were thrown at the wall,” Whitman said. That playful spirit infuses the works, which combine watercolor, pencil, collage and magic marker to show humans and animals—rats, cows, monkeys, horses—interacting in ambiguous, dreamlike scenes.

The first drawing one sees on entering the gallery shows a horse in a sheer dress dancing on its hind legs with a pants-wearing corkscrew. “It means to be funny,” the artist said.

Whitman came to New York in the ’60s after breaking off her studies at Santiago’s School of Fine Arts. For a time she performed with the Trisha Brown dance company. After participating in some of Robert Whitman’s Happenings, she married the artist in 1968. Thereafter, she began to organize her own events, in which untrained performers often interacted with basic handmade props, under the then-new rubric of performance art.

“Sylvia comes from a Minimalist downtown 1970s scene,” gallery founder Anke Kempkes told A.i.A., “but her mode of performance is infused with her own Latin American mythologies.” Pointing out notebooks with drawings for unrealized performances, Kempkes added, “Our relationship with her will include not only reviving early performance works, but also staging new ones.”

After commanding packed rooms for performance evenings at Brown’s studio and other loft spaces in the ’70s, Whitman dropped out of the art world in the mid-80s for personal reasons, remaining largely invisible until now.

The ebullient, 72-year-old artist, looking at a drawing of herself dressed in a devil costume while putting on a play as a young girl, acknowledged that she was a devilish child.

“And I haven’t stopped,” she added, with a laugh.

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