- Soft Is Fast: Simone Forti in the 1960s and After by Meredith Morse, and: Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley eds. by Ann Murphy and Molissa Fenley
At age 83, the artist Simone Forti is finally hitting an apex of critical attention, with a 2014 solo show at the Museum der Moderne Salzburg and the 2017 bicoastal exhibition Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972, curated by Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, and catalogues and critical essays that accompanied both; a series of high-profile performances at the Museum of Modern Art and the Louvre; and now a scholarly monograph, Meredith Morse's Soft Is Fast: Simone Forti in the 1960s and After.
Witnessing even one of Forti's performances reveals the elusiveness of Morse's subject. At the University of California Santa Barbara in January 2017, Forti opened an evening linked to the Radical Bodies exhibition with a solo improvisation. I watched her from backstage, while waiting to perform Rainer's Trio A. We had spent the morning over breakfast at the hotel anxiously caught up in Donald Trump's ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Peggy Phelan launched her lecture that afternoon with a photo that had appeared in the New York Times the day before: half a dozen men in suits in the Oval office, signing away women's rights over their bodies. The question hovered in the air—what does this art do, if anything, in relation to this political-historical moment? "Are you going to deal with all this in your dance tonight?" Yvonne asked Simone. She said it might come up.
Forti's improvisation intertwined spoken words and kinesthetic storytelling to deal with current politics both directly and obliquely. She began by wondering aloud how many stars you could see from Australia—dislodging our northern hemispheric centricity. She arrived at current events through fragmented images that intensified the details, as a poet will do: "A signature, a signature, just a signature," she said while indicating writing, dissolving the power of an executive order through pure gesture. A black snake appeared, as did Benito Mussolini's jaw-line, which she evoked by jutting out her chin. As I watched her trembling hands and head, [End Page 191] enfeebled by Parkinson's, sculpt these stories, I realized she was cracking the patriarchy, entirely on her own terms. The world went in and spiraled back out in Forti form. She received a standing ovation.
Later that evening, the New York Times online edition posted the headline: "JUDGE STAYS TRUMP BAN." As Halprin had said on a panel earlier, concerning a different situation in which a dance of hers had coincided with a political breakthrough, "We didn't say we did it, but we didn't say we didn't do it, either […]." Forti's art influences, with tremendous subtlety, the web of social and political forces that bind us together.
Forti's power lies in her contradictions. She appears fragile yet steely, outward-gazing yet totally introspective, whimsical yet utterly serious. Her body of work, spanning 50 years and multiple mediums, seems impossible to pin down, as if contextualizing it would somehow be akin to nailing a butterfly to the wall. Its protean quality is its strength, but also potentially the reason her entire oeuvre has largely been untouched in academic scholarship, until recently.
Morse's starting point is the lack of scholarly attention to Forti's work. Her task is to contain and classify a practice that has wiggled in and around the discourses of its day: Forti's sui generis-ness is the most difficult, and most generative, to theorize. Morse joins a growing collection of art historians writing about 1960s postmodern dance, including Susan Rosenberg, Elise Archias, Julia Bryan-Wilson, and the trailblazer...