Simone Forti is a dancer. In the early 1960s, she began to make waves in the dance field by incorporating movements that were not part of the traditional dance vocabulary. Walking, stooping, climbing, reaching, crawling, call them vernacular bodily actions.
It would take a dance critic or historian to fully understand how that development was received, but I suppose Forti’s easy acceptance in the 1960s art world suggests that there were bumps in the established path of dance. She had first been a painter in San Francisco, then she began to explore dance. Avant-garde art everywhere was expanding to include Happenings and performances, as well as objects. Many of her friends were artists (she was then married to sculptor Robert Morris), while the art world was becoming a welcoming place for many interdisciplinary activities. Think of Forti as an artist whose medium became movement.
The concise exhibition of his work currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art does a good job of making clear what that means. (Curators are MOCA’s Rebecca Lowery and Alex Sloane, as well as Forti’s assistant Jason Underhill.) Perhaps to oversimplify, it means underlining the context in which art exists.
As any dancer knows, a defining context is simply gravity. The first room of the show includes platforms for his “Dance Constructions” of 1960-61. One is a row of ropes suspended near the gallery ceiling; another is a sloping wooden plank with knotted ropes. Dancers suspend themselves to hang in space or, on the slant board, use the ropes to stabilize themselves while shifting their weight out of the usual horizontal plane. By italicizing gravity in the performance, the viewer begins to feel it again.
The day I visited, no dances were held. (the MOCA website has a schedule of performances, which are held on Thursdays and weekends). Still, the context of other works fills in gaps.
One of the most attractive is installed nearby. “Three Grizzlies” is a short video clip from a 1974 film shot by Forti’s friend Elaine Hartnett at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. Caged animals, far from the complex environment of their natural habitat, periodically walk, rock, even do pirouettes, formalized movements that emerge as necessary antidotes against boredom and confinement.
In other words, they dance. Watching a 300 or 400 pound bear execute the fleet footed cousin of a jet tour turn your head. Forti’s vernacular movements are reformulated.
One unexpectedly fascinating work is “Zuma News, LA,” a 12-minute, 36-second video projection of a 2013 beach performance in Malibu. It is based on personal history, but it also talks about our present.
Forti was born in Florence, Italy, in 1935. The Italian Jewish community was among the oldest in Europe. Mussolini’s fascist regime passed its first anti-Semitic legislation in 1938: grim news of life and death that, reading the reports, motivated his father to act. The family left the country, eventually landing in Los Angeles.
In the video, Forti clutches a large, unwieldy bundle of newspapers as he wades through the waves toward the beach, like an immigrant arriving on a new shore clutching scant but essential belongings. The movement also echoes the story of ancient life crawling to land from the sea, ready to adapt. The wind and weight tug at the stack of newspapers, which Forti struggles to keep close, and she works in the quicksand as the tide rises.
The more sodden she and the newspapers get, the harder it is to keep everything together. But she doesn’t stop. She keeps getting closer to all that information communicated about the world. The video starts out looking absurd, but ends up being poignant, a picture of everyday survival.
Another context that exposes his work is a relationship with other arts and artists. Forti’s career has been marked by collaboration. The list of multidisciplinary artists with whom she has worked, directly or indirectly, is long: Anna Halprin, Robert Dunn, Robert Whitman (her second husband), Peter Van Riper (her third husband), Charlemagne Palestine, Yvonne Rainer and many others. further. Holographer Lloyd Cross was a catalyst for her hologram sculptures.
Holographic film fragments, projected onto small curved sheets of glass placed on pedestals, show figures in motion. In one, the artist gets down on one knee, almost as if he were cleaning the floor to prepare the space. He gets too close and the ghostly mirage vanishes. He takes a step back and reappears. A spectator becomes aware of locating his own body in space, which is essential for a dancer.
The action on the small screen is seen by walking on a slightly curved path that follows the curve of the glass. Even the public, suddenly aware of enacting an unexpected pas de deux with an apparition, helps create awareness of vernacular bodily actions. The spiritual connections that Forti coaxes are perhaps the greatest achievement of his art.
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave.
When: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 11am-5pm, Thursday 11am-8pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am-6pm. Closed Monday. Until April 2.
Information: (213) 626-6222, moca.org