Book Review: Jill Johnston – The Disintegration of a Critic by Dennis Brzek + artist contribution by Viviana Abelson

Viviana Abelson: Meiosis bondage, 2019

“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.“ Jill Johnston, “Critic’s Critic“, 1965

When googling Jill Johnston, a wall of grainy black-and-white photos showing a slender but relentlessly grinning figure builds up. Her coarse and scruffy bangs frame a face that always appears to be caught in the midst of speaking. Johnston sports shirts with huge collars and humorously bigger ties, roughly embroidered jackets of durable fabric for an even more persistent character, a body boldly emblazoned with a T-shirt shouting “Gay Revolution“. With Sternberg Press’ newly released compilation, Johnston’s more-than-one-decade long stint as a columnist for the Village Voice is available to an audience which is, more than anything, accustomed to writing as a form of personal online confession. Johnston wrote dance criticism and deliciously got pulled in by the undertow of her time that restructured artistic practice as something inevitably linked to the everyday.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Johnston became a witness to the emerging and viciously revolutionary performance group surrounding the Judson Memorial Church. By partaking in performances of dancers and artists like Merce Cunningham, Fred Herko, Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer, Johnston turned stenographer of a futile yet aesthetically austere moment in art history. Her writing traced Rainer’s appropriative choreographic gestures that translated the formal into the ordinary and vice versa. These moments of reality actualizing itself on stage left the writer with not much more than her own voice in her own body. Johnston quickly became a staple among the dance and performance scene of the New York of that time and her relationship with artists served not only as a lens for her criticism but an essential mode of being.

 With her 1964 text “Inside ‘Originale“, Johnston traces the Allan Kaprow-led staging of Stockhausen’s piece of the same name via her own participation as a performer. The rigidly structured work is made up of streamlined performers allocated with timed sets of actions and free movement whose sonic qualities would give body to audible unpredictability and hazard. Johnston describes her own person staining the static course of the performance, pulling on the rope tightly stretched between artistic aestheticism and everyday banality. From this point on, Johnston’s texts began to grasp her own existence as more than a mere side-note therefore translating the artistic mantra of the avant-garde performers into an invitation for the writer to contaminate the formality of art criticism with her own subjectivity.

Johnston’s writing stumbles into a fruitful period of formal experimentation with the typed word, using syntax, grammar, and interpunction to create a poetry linked to its proto-digital discovery as malleable and reproducible. She chimed in with those predilections for abstracted forms of writing and soon began to dispense of commas and occasionally periods, keeping her sentences on a treadmill whose panting breath appears behind the reader’s ears, evoking her writing’s irrepressibly effective bodily quality. The title of this compilation refers to a symposium held just before the incipient of the 1970s by colleagues and friends during which the likes of Gregory Battcock, Charlotte Moorman, and Andy Warhol discussed Johnston’s hyper-visual presence as an idolized celebrity critic. In best administrative fashion, the symposium became a nerdy meta-medium through which discussions were held, formalities tested, and mythologies created. By 1969, the literal “Disintegration of a Critic“ was in full spin and Johnston had made a name for herself as a larger-than-life art-world personality and Lesbian-feminist activist.

In 1970, she unceremoniously declared herself as a Lesbian via publishing “Of this pure and irregular passion“ in the Voice, following up to her readership with what her close and not-so-close circle of friends long knew. The lengthy record of a nascent gay and lesbian dash through the fog mirror that is the heterosexual sociality she took part in until several years prior claims the necessity of being ostensibly present. For Johnston, every column accounted for a coming out that framed her being as a thinking, observing, and sexual individual whose practice of writing met her needs for making things public. In the course of her criticism, she drew up a personal mythology that folded back into her public persona, creating a body inside and outside of the threshold of the text. In her column, appearing and being present became social, aesthetic, as well as political acts that she performed in various contexts, bringing together getting wasted at Max’s Kansas City after a dance performance by Rainer with proclaiming her mantra “Every Woman is a Lesbian“ at lectures and awareness group meetings.

Johnston would go on to publish “Lesbian Nation“ in 1973, a year before she calls it quits with her Voice column, collecting her texts that relate her art world suffused position as a writer with her persevering struggle to abolish patriarchy. The figure of art critic, critic’s critic, lesbian critic, and critic poet sets an example of how an art history can be drawn up that links experiments of the likes of Kaprow and John Cage in vast aesthetic openness with the political infusion of post-minimal practices. The YouTube clip I find of an iconic reading performance recalls a stylishly swaying jeans jacket-clad Johnston.[1] Her eyes trace line after line of her unapologetic writing that created magnetic fields of affective oohs and aahs emanating from an audience of women with weakening knees in rockstar-like infatuation. Her self-styled figuration of a life written, of a poet observing and of a critic responsive to her position in a web of friends, lovers, and enemies became the harbinger of an affectionate prose that might reveal how a claim for an unalienated existence of a political self within a tremendously ravening system could eventually be staked out.

Jill Johnston: The Disintegration of a Critic, Fiona McGovern, Megan Francis Sullivan, Axel Wieder (eds.), Sternberg Press.

Dennis Brzek is a curator and writer based in Berlin.

Viviana Abelson is an artist living and working in Berlin. Her work has recently been shown in solo exhibitions at Nassauischer Kunstverein, Wiesbaden, GrawBöckler Garage, Berlin, and Zmud Projects, Buenos Aires. In October, she will participate in “(Un-)Real E-state“, a group exhibition at Postscheckamt in Berlin as part of 3hd Festival organized by Creamcake.