Donald Martiny, Set Designer by Donald Kuspit

Paul Taylor Dance Company, " Somewhere in the Middle." Set by Donald Martiny. Photo by Whitney Browne.

By DONALD KUSPIT, December 2022

On November 3, 2022, in the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York, the first performance of “Somewhere in the Middle,” a dance choreographed by Amy Hall Garner to the music of Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Bill Evans, took place.  The stage set was designed by Donald Martiny, the prominent neo-abstract expressionist artist, known for his stand-alone brushstrokes, grandstanding brushstrokes, ambiguous paintings and sculptures, for they are attached to the wall even as they seem to stand apart from it, floating in space. They have a jazzy look, suggesting they would accord well—certainly complement—the jazz works, chosen by the African-American Garner and all performed or composed by African-Americans, with the exception of Bill Evans.  Marsalis “sees jazz music as the perfect metaphor for democracy,” but the term “jazz” derives from the slang word “jasm,” metaphorically “virility,” more broadly “vitality, lively, energetic.”  But “jasm” is a condensation of “gissum,” “the thick white fluid containing spermatozoa that is ejaculated by the male genital tract.”  The expressionist gesture is in effect a simulated ejaculate.  Pollock’s paintings, the grand climax of painterly abstraction—abstract expressionism carried to a nihilistic extreme—were called “masturbatory” by one insightful critic when they first appeared.  Dare one say that dripping paint helter-skelter onto a canvas was the method in the madness of compulsive masturbation, probably artistic compensation for the inability to have a good sexual experience with a human being?  

The issue of Martiny’s stage set is not its place in Martiny’s oeuvre, however much its grand scale gives it a special place, but how it interacts with or relates to the Paul Taylor dancers performing Garner’s work and the music that informs it.  The dancers move, the music moves, and both “move” us:  does Martiny’s stage set move us—have the same expressive power as the moving bodies of the dancers, involved with each other in a variety of complex, changing—rapidly, often suddenly, changing—unexpected, unpredictable, seemingly spontaneous ways (however scripted by Garner)?  “Marrying the movement of the dancers with the movement in the paintings” Martiny has written, in a statement of purpose.  Does the marriage work?  Is it a good marriage or a bad marriage or a marriage of convenience--more in name than substance?  “I wanted works that participated and danced with the dancers.  I wanted the works to be part of the performance?” Martiny writes.  Are they?  Or are they a sort of afterthought, incidental, to it?  Do they perform as well as the dancers?  Do they dance, or at least epitomize dance?  How can they do so:  the dancers are always in movement, Martiny’s works epitomize movement, which is not the same as actually moving.  They are passively present, witnesses to the dancing, decorative props, ingenious asides that add a certain panache to it, but are not of its essence, even as, paradoxically, they distill its essence.  Filling the empty space above the dancers, they show that art like nature abhors a vacuum.  

Paul Taylor Dance Company, " Somewhere in the Middle." Set by Donald Martiny.

Hanging above the stage, at times dropping on it, Martiny’s works form a passive background for the active–indeed, hyperactive--dancers, which is not the same as moving on stage, as the dancers in the foreground do.  Simply put, they do not have the energy the dancers have—the organic, natural energy that informs, underlies their movement, seemingly unstoppable, even when they stop, pause to pose, for a moment.  Martiny’s planar “set” works do not have the muscular, rounded bodies, moving swiftly, seemingly effortlessly in spacetime, that the dancers have, but are inorganic props, the motion in them frozen, falling flat compared to the motion of the dancers, affording a lived experience of motion, as dance is.  Martiny has said that “mark making is movement and motion, and movement is life,” but dancing is not mark making, but structured motion—motion given form, not formless gesturing in space, certainly not petrified motion. 

While Martiny’s “freely formed gestures or brushstrokes” seem spontaneous they become passive, static, “set” background for the dancers—unlike the space of the stage on which they perform, which is the context for the dynamic text of the dance—rather than an active and necessary participant in their dancing.  Is the dance in and of itself convincing, aesthetically and expressively, or does it need the spice of the set to be tasty to the audience, unable to engage pure dance for its movements seem too unrealistic, “stylized”?  The set is cosmetic, rather than essential to the dance.  The set brings the work into the so-called society of the spectacle by reason of its own spectacular character.  But, no doubt, the set adds a certain atmospheric accent to the dancers, underlines—headlines? (for it is usually over their heads, dwarfing them)--their movement.  The static stage set can never keep up with it—outrun and outwit its dynamics--although it sometimes seems to epitomize or underscore it—and, more purposefully, epitomizes the interpersonal character of the dance, unlike Martiny’s stand-alone, rarefied “pure gestures,” which have an autonomy the set works lack, for they are dependent on the dance and music.   

Paul Taylor Dance Company, " Somewhere in the Middle." Set by Donald Martiny.

Martiny has said that he “design(ed) the works to go specifically with each number.  Particularly for the Bill Evans work, Happy to be Me.”  The “works by Count Basie and Wynton Marsalis seemed to need exuberant and kinetic works.”  “The other work, which was a non-work, was Sarah Vaughn’s version of Perdidio. That song is about a woman who lost her love and is now alone.  For that piece we decided to not have any sets on the stage to emphasize the fact that the dancer was alone.”  The dancer doesn’t need the back-up of the set to confirm, underscore, or convey aloneness, loss, suffering: the movement of the body alone will do, empathically engage the viewer, instantly communicate with his or her unconscious, change him or her into a participant observer in the suffering rather than a detached spectator—an engaged witness to misery, inconsolable unhappiness, relieved only by being expressed.  No “additive” of a stage set can make him or her one, only the moving, expressive body of the lonely dancer.

Happy to be Me and Perdidio deal with love, an existential theme—like many jazz songs.  They are poignantly emotional, psychologically profound, intuitively creative.  Evans’ song has an ironic edge:  the singer is happy to be me because he has found you to love. The works by Count Basie and Wynton Marsalis convey over-the-top joie de vivre, informed by libidinous vigor.  Martiny’s sets can’t compete with the songs, but, no doubt, it punctuates them, accents them, underscores their presence, oddly confirming Pater’s idea that music is the highest art. Martiny’s gestural sculptures are in a sense the epitomizing climax, exquisite condensations of Kandinsky’s musical paintings—Martiny cites him as an influence, even a role model—but the somewhat more symphonic, overly orchestrated, amorphous, sprawling stagey works that accompany the jazz music seem like an overblown, decadent afterthought, straining for effect, are a far cry from the tightly constructed songs, as well as Martiny’s tightly constructed painting-sculptures, dialectical triumphs, overcoming the difference between gestural and geometrical abstraction, ingeniously and seamlessly integrating expressionism and constructivism, to achieve a fresh autonomy and integrity.  Compared to those innovative, stand-alone, concise and precise, monadically concentrated, self-contained and self-sufficient, aesthetically unique, radical works—for they get to the double root of visual art--Martiny’s sprawling stagey works are regressive, all the more so because they depend on the dance for their credibility.  The painting-sculptures have a rare beauty, the bloated gestures of the stagey sets a pompous pretentiousness. WM    


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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