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Robert Whitman's "Passport" at Dia:Beacon

Ordinary Events Misperceived

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Robert Whitman is in the business of making miracles. His next miracle-creation, Passport, will unfold at Riverside Park in Beacon on April 16 and 17. Spectators will see a boat on fire, and two walls that build themselves. Reading the “score” for the performance, one comes upon sentences like: “A performer is levitated.”

One of the commonplace miracles of modern life is being indoors and outdoors at once. Passport will be two simultaneous events, one in Beacon, the other at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. Video from each of these events will be seen at the other, projected not on screens but on fog and giant shirts.

Whitman is an unpretentious man who looks—and talks—more like a truck driver than a neoconceptual artist. He doesn’t like what he calls “precious” art. “I like slop,” Whitman told me.

There is the sturdiness of daily life in his work. Whitman once cast his next-door neighbor, a fireman, in one of his pieces because “he’s comfortable carrying people.” Whitman rarely uses dancers, but is making an exception for Passport. “I like dancers because they are not afraid,” Whitman notes. “There’s a new generation of dancers who don’t mind being slammed around.”

Robert Whitman was born in New York City in 1935, but moved to Englewood, New Jersey as a teenager. In 1953, he went to Rutgers. “I was an English major, but I was not a very good student. So I switched to art, because I felt the energy. In those days, visual art was much more dynamic than literature that I knew of,” Whitman recalls. At the college, Whitman met a group of key avant-gardists: Lucas Samaris, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, George Brecht.

After college, Whitman moved to New York City and staged theatrical performances in East Village storefronts. In one, titled Mouth, Whitman built a giant replica of a mouth in which the audience sat on chairs shaped like teeth. Whitman was the first artist to use film in a theatrical work, in American Moon (1960). “For a while, all of our works were being called ‘happenings,’ but that wasn’t the word we used. Only Allan Kaprow used that term,” Whitman explains. Several of the artists from the “Happenings” movement went on to success as visual artists: Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Red Grooms. But Whitman continued creating performances, as well as drawings and sculptures. His work has been featured at the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center, and many other museums.

“Isn’t it strange that after all these years, your artform still has no name?” I ask. “Yes, it is, but it’s up to smarter people than me to name it,” Whitman replies. The term “performance art” has come to refer to single performers. Most of us think of “theater” as having a plot. Whitman uses the logic of poetry to organize visual rituals. The one text in Passport is the definition of the word “word.”

One of Whitman’s themes is the unreliability of the senses. We see a rowboat on fire, but is it actually on fire? Is it a theatrical fire or a “real” fire? And what is a “real” fire? Is a miracle just an ordinary event misperceived?
“There is a switch in most people—I think it’s in their hip—that turns them into an adult. That never happened to me,” Whitman confessed.

Passport
will be performed Saturday, April 16, and Sunday, April 17, at 8pm at Riverfront Park in Beacon. Tickets are available through www.diaart.org. For more information: (845) 440-0100.

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