The Revolutionary Dance Critic Jill Johnston

Johnston showed how writing was performance and politics at once

Jill Johnston at the University of Florida, Gainesville, on tour for her book Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, 1973. Courtesy and photograph: Morgan Gwenwald

Jill Johnston stands in my kitchen and gives me this sardonic ‘is-this-all-you’ve-got?’ look. She glances from under her eyes, her hand to her mouth. In anyone else this would be flirtation, but there she is: long hair, low-slung jeans and questioning. She is, in fact, gracing a poster and standing in a field that looks just like the one outside my kitchen, and the poster – for a recent exhibition celebrating Johnston at Bergen Kunsthall – is here thanks to Chris Kraus, who mailed it to me.

My way into Johnston has always been Kraus and Eileen Myles, too. Myles has said: ‘Everyone wanted to “be” Jill Johnston.’ Kraus tells me on the phone: ‘I copied her.’ Her voice is almost deadpan. In the 1990s, she recalls, she’d just begun writing. ‘I had no qualifications, and people were asking me to write about art, and I was reading Jill.’ She talks of how Johnston, too, wrote about art without any training or degrees and used herself as a pole around which to analyze artists like Agnes Martin. ‘She has this complete candor and gives me the license to say anything. When I started, I took that freedom.’

I steal from Johnston, too, when I’m stuck. Her voice gets into me, to save me. Just these lines here from her punningly titled ‘Fluxus Fuxus’ (1964): ‘Fluxus flapadoodle. Fluxus concert, 1964. Donald Duck meets the Flying Tigers. Why should anyone notice the shape of a watch at the moment of looking at the time? Should we formulate the law of the fall of a body toward a centre or the law of the ascension of a vacuum toward a periphery? […] Fluxus moved into the street and onto my typewriter.’ Or, there’s Anna Sokolow in a Merce Cunningham production in 1961: ‘Miss Sokolow doesn’t pull any punches. The tension is right there, bam, raw, undistilled.’ That staccato syntax … sigh.

Any fan of Johnston has been relying on used paperbacks of Marmalade Me (1971) and Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (1973) that are out of print and decaying to dust and retail for more than a hundred bucks. A new volume, Jill Johnston: The Disintegration of a Critic (2019), collects these together with her classic pieces for the Village Voice on Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Dance Theater as well as John Cage, Allan Kaprow and Sturtevant. She started as the paper’s dance critic in 1959 and graduated to something broader, bigger – her column became an open-ended diary of her life, in which she came out in print in 1970 and chronicled the events of her world, where people were no longer Miss this-or-that, as dancer and choreographer Anna Sokolow had been, but on a first-name basis, and Johnston dares us to keep up.

The columns are penned from the multitudinous place of Johnston’s mind. And, in this moment of multifarious art writing, or even just essay writing, not to mention auto-fiction, we owe a debt to her. Kraus says: ‘She will be talking about an art idea on an abstract and theoretical level and then inserts herself. It’s radical and makes you realize abstract thought is not divorced from other kinds of being.’

By the early 1970s, Johnston was in her early 40s and her language was gluey and slangy, slipping around the tongue. Her writing works in the pileup of words. Her reflections on the messiness of parenthood and being in a John Cage piece in ‘The Yearly Mellowdrama’ (1972) get me jazzed the same way as Elizabeth Hardwick writing on Billie Holiday in Sleepless Nights (1979) or Eileen Myles in the incandescent Chelsea Girls (1994) or Ali Smith channeling the run-on dissonance of 24-hour news and social media. You can trace in Johnston’s voice a breakdown of the US from the punchy pop of the early 1960s, with her two-word sentences and no verbs, to an implosion of structure where syntax breaks open, like the country itself. Johnston broke too, I learned in Jennifer Krasinski’s fantastic essay in the book, landing in Bellevue Hospital in 1965. By the late 1970s, she was buttoned up again, the punctuation and capitalizations and paragraphs all back in check, as if she, too, were part of the US’s conservative bent.

Still, there’s that look in the poster. She can, I’m sure, see through my entire bourgeois existence: IKEA kitchen, house and husband. Traitor. By the early 1970s, she also saw being a lesbian as a weapon, as politics. It was not about biology, or it was, but for Johnston all women should be lesbians. She argued for ‘the intimate connection between power, economy, property and sex’ advocated by radical feminists such as Shulamith Firestone, but her stance was strung through the performance of her persona. In Norman Mailer’s infamous Town Hall of 1971, where he took on feminism, Johnston read part of her next Voice column: ‘All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it naturally; they are but don’t know it yet.’ She riffed on ‘nature’, ‘naturally’, ‘women’, ‘love’ and ‘lesbian’, throwing in some Biblical ‘begats’. It ended in laughter, Mailer’s disgust and her making out with two friends onstage.

When she came out in the Voice she wrote: ‘Oppression is a worldwide interfamilial interstate intercontinental interpersonal phenomenon.’ No commas slow the roll of that sentence. ‘It is a prime fact of a political structure […] oppression is real. Our lives are illusory […]’ I hate trimming this because it’s not just the substance of the words that matter, it’s how they twist in the mouth and on the page. ‘An oppressed person becomes beautiful in the presence of a beautiful presence.’ Which is a beautiful, optimistic sentiment about the power to overcome.

In 1972’s ‘Films Out of Focus’ she writes: ‘Six in fifth place means: Persistently ill, and still does not die. Obstruction of enthusiasm. Impatience for the revolution. A telepathic coalition and a derby hat. An airplane obstacle dream. I have that sort of dream sometimes.’ Those phrases stop me dead. Read them aloud. Sentences later – this is all one long paragraph, mind – she writes: ‘Lesbians are Feminists, not Homosexuals.’ She’s now onto the New York Times and how women are identified in the papers and the nature of identity itself. ‘The press generally should add Male to their titles. The New York Male Times, The New York Daily Male News, The East Village Male Other, etc. Then it would be clearer how and why a woman was appearing in its pages. If the movie-going population saw the credits on the screen reading the directors’ names adding in bold letters white male heterosexuals, we’d understand immediately we were about to watch a political film.’

There follows a dialogue lifted straight from the movie Zee and Co (1972) between Michael Caine, Elizabeth Taylor and Susannah York to drive home Johnston’s point about violence and men, which becomes comically apt as she relates it. She declares that museums ‘should also assume the courtesy of political clarification: Museum of Male Modern Art, the Jewish Male Museum, etc. Then we’d know better how and why a woman was appearing in its rooms.’ I’d just add the word ‘white’ to those names.

My favourite piece of hers is from 1965, ‘Critics’ Critics’, written from Bellevue, from that breakdown. If you write criticism, what we now call ‘art writing’, you might sympathize. She was sick of people not being happy with her reviews and wanting to be in them at the same time: ‘Criticism wears me out – it’s like riding a bike up and down the country hills in a race against a phantom judge. I’ll take a plot of level territory and stake out a claim to lie down on it and criticize the constellations if that’s what I happen to be looking at. I also stake out a claim to be an artist, a writer, if that’s what I’m doing when I get to the typewriter.’

She posits criticism as its own art. ‘Need I say more,’ she writes at the end. ‘The field is wide open. The future is upon us and the Art of Criticism has already come into its own in those public places where the critic is lying down on a soft piece of ground to enjoy a bit of blue and yellow scenery.’

With that, there’s Jill Johnston in my kitchen standing as she does in a field in upstate New York, where she lived. I walk outside to a field in upstate New York, where I also live, and lie down in the grass grateful for everything. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 206 with the headline ‘A Telepathic Coalition and A Derby Hat’

Jennifer Kabat is a writer based in upstate New York, USA. She teaches at New York University and the New School and is working on a book of essays titled Growing Up Modern.

Issue 206

First published in Issue 206

October 2019

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