Home Architect Kaegan Sparks on “Red, White, Yellow and Black: 1972-1973”

Kaegan Sparks on “Red, White, Yellow and Black: 1972-1973”

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Lit by the reflections of a low sun on the Hudson River, the temporary kitchen gallery at 163B Bank Street in New York City offered a perfect mirror to the black box vibe of the institution’s permanent space, which is currently under renovation. A row of eight-foot-high west-facing windows cast late afternoon light into the fourth-floor loft of Westbeth, a Bell Laboratories building renovated by Richard Meier in 1970 when it became a housing for artists. Echoing the outer fenestration of the space was a diagonal arrangement of ten CRT televisions showing grainy images of waterways, including the aforementioned river. A stack of three additional nearby monitors provided a live feed of viewers near the centerpiece of the installation: a plastic fountain continuously cycling synthetic orange juice.

This kitsch homage to George Maciunas by Shigeko Kubota – the artist Maciunas dubbed “Vice President of Fluxus” – was originally a participatory element of Kubota’s first multimedia installation, Riverrun—Video Water Poem, 1972. The work is an artifact of one of three multimedia performances that Kubota staged between 1972 and 1973 in cooperation with Mary Lucier, Cecilia Sandoval and Charlotte Warren-Huey in the original Greenwich Village space of the institution (the “kitchen” of the Mercer Arts Center). where it gets its name from). Documenting the ephemeral intersection of their early ’70s practices with correspondence and ephemera, the current kitchen exhibition has also recreated several temporal works that debuted at the ad hoc collective’s three “environmental concerts.”

“Spatial separation is more important than temporal separation,” Lucier wrote to his collaborators in an October 1972 letter. Simultaneity, rather than sequence, characterized the group’s first public meeting in December of that year, while it was planned to feature four individual but overlapping works: Kubota’s installation, presentations by Lucier and Warren-Huey including images and lyrics, and a draft (albeit technically compromised) song that Sandoval was to interpret remotely by telephone from a Navajo reservation in Arizona. (In 1973, Sandoval collaborated with Lucier to make The occasion of her first dance and what she looked likewhose script and reconstructed decor – including video streams, projected photographs, chairs and a hanging red dress – anchored the north side of Westbeth’s gallery.) Half a century later, the synchronous but distinct approach of the artists’ collaboration found an echo in the structure of this display.

The frame’s graphic identity can be found in a 1972 poster for their first concert. Photographed in profile, the artists’ faces are aligned along a horizontal axis and labeled WHITE, BLACK, RED and YELLOW respectively in a bold sans serif font. Subtly alluding to a line of police officers, or what the Brits call an “identity parade”, its design also coincided with elements of the announced event, such as Warren’s reading of “Poème d’Angela Yvonne Davis” (1970), written by Nikki Giovanni after her namesake was added to the FBI’s most wanted list, along with Lucier’s Red Herring Journal: The Boston Strangler Was A Woman, 1972. In this “conference-demonstration”, Lucier recites, while drinking heavily, a textual pastiche of criminal records from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Presented here in print, they read like a mutant profile of antiquated social pathologies: SHE WAS AN EXTENDED. SHE HAD SUNSET EYES AND A KISSING CHIN. SHE WAS OFTEN DEPRESSED. SHE WAS NOT INDUSTRIAL AND PEOPLE. SHE LOOKS LIKE A MAN. The spoken inventory accompanied a slideshow (shown here on a light box) of black-and-white ID photos, some with yellow or red tinted backgrounds. The work destabilized verbal and visual systems of criminological identification, alluding to historical applications of photography to classify subjects according to physiognomic traits. Perhaps as a formal reply to the austere typology evoked, even mischievously, by their initial image, the poster for the group’s second concert shows them rather in relaxed company around a kitchen table. Here, their usability exceeds the shutter speed of the camera, leaving facial details blurry.

“I heard the kitchen was to move after June,” Kubota wrote in a letter ahead of the show’s final two concerts in April 1973, just months before the building that housed the original kitchen collapsed. The coalition disbanded at a transitional moment in the institution’s history and its resurrection now comes under similar circumstances.

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