In the Spring of 2007, Washington, D.C. museums and galleries celebrated the Washington Color School, a group of abstract painters who, in the early 1960s, briefly made D.C. the center of the visual arts universe. Artists Jeffry Cudlin and Meg Mitchell didn't play along. Instead, the two staged an art historical intervention, weaving an alternative history for Washington art.
Cudlin and Mitchell mounted a retrospective for their alter egos, Ian and Jan—a fictitious husband-and-wife performance art duo. According to the exhibition’s premise, Ian and Jan led the Washington Body School , a group that, in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, exhibited their body art alongside the work of prominent Washington abstract painters.
"Ian and Jan: The Washington Body School" provides humorous commentary on Washington ’s cultural legacy, on revisionist art historical agendas, and on gender bias and power politics in the arts. The show includes photographs, drawings, props, and videos of the couple in action.
The centerpiece of the show is a video featuring interviews with D.C. gallerists, collectors, and historians, all recalling the rich, heretofore unexplored history of these two obscure performance artists. Participants in the video include: Jonathan Binstock, former Curator for Contemporary Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art; Sam Gilliam, celebrated artist; J. W. Mahoney, contributing writer for Art in America; Joshua Shannon, Professor of Contemporary Art History at The University of Maryland, College Park; Andrea Pollan, Director of Curator’s Office; Janis Goodman, critic for WETA’s Around Town and instructor of art at the Corcoran College of Art and Design; and Tyler Green, blogger for Modern Art Notes.
The Undiscovered Duo: essay by Rex Weil
When artists Jeffry Cudlin and Meg Mitchell discovered references to Ian and Jan's Washington Body School in an obscure 1985 Corcoran Gallery of Art catalogue, they were puzzled: How could a seemingly major episode in Washington art have been expunged from history?
With further research, their interest widened to more general inquiries: What is the relationship between a given historical context and specific modes of art production? How does the grand narrative of art history seek to weave art and context in some useful, rational way? Why are some artists 'in' history and why are some neglected? How is art history made, unmade, and re formulated?
As Cudlin and Mitchell pursued their investigation, they unearthed an impressive documentary and physical record of Ian and Jan's career: films, photographs, drawings, costumes, and props. Interestingly, they also struck a mother lode of resurgent and enthusiastic interest in Ian and Jan among historians, collectors, critics, gallerists and curators in the Washington area. As Cudlin and Mitchell's project progressed, it became increasingly apparent that they were now actively influencing the very process they were interrogating.
A critic once observed that no artists have ever been as definitively in the wrong place at the wrong time as Ian and Jan. Certainly, 1970's Washington was hostile to Ian and Jan's advanced conceptual and performance-based practice. At the same time. it is important to note Ian and Jan's symbiotic relationship to Washington art. In many ways, the duo viewed their work as a restorative, a cure for what they perceived as a strain of valetudinarian, passionless aestheticism in Washington painting.
This connection to Washington art was, in turn, a veritable poison pill for acceptance outside the city. If Washington painting, with only a few prominent exceptions, was considered 'minor' in New York critical circles, how could a mere embellishment, a critique of minor work make any headway? In a sense, Ian and Jan were trapped by their love/hate relationship to the Washington Color School.
Ironically, the most recent, comprehensive and widely used text on 20th century art, Art Since 1900 [Foster, Krauss, Buchloh, Bois] does not contain a single reference to either the Washington Color School or the Washington Body School. For now at least, it seems, they are united in oblivion.
"Wings" effectively marks the end of the cycle of major body paintings in the oeuvre of Ian and Jan. It is also one of their most complex and poignant works. The performance consisted of the duo painting a large scale canvas in front of a live audience. Instead of using traditional brushes or color field pouring techniques, they applied paint with feathers awkwardly harnessed to their shoulders. As they worked, Ian chanted the names of Morris Louis paintings and Jan muttered Helen Frankenthaler titles.
At the time of its performance in 1979, the Washington Post chief critic, quite mistakenly, interpreted "Wings" as a redundant and dated attack on the art world's worshipful, unthinking acceptance of the Greenbergian narrative of post-painterly abstraction. In retrospect, it is clear that the piece is not so simple. If Ian and Jan's reverential attitude toward Louis and Frankenthaler seems facetious at first blush, there is also a genuine, and tragic, sincerity here. In fact, "Wings" can now be seen as a self-abasing ritual of surrender: Washington to New York, body school to color field, collaboration and teamwork to individual accomplishment. The references of "Wings" to the story of Icarus are inescapable. Like the mythic hero, Ian and Jan made a noble effort to challenge inflexible constraints. Where Icarus wanted to fly, Ian and Jan sought, by sheer force of will, to insert themselves into art history. In the mid-1970's, they had come close to the flame of recognition, but now their downward spiral was painfully evident. With characteristic ingenuousness, Ian and Jan made their folly and humiliation the subject of art.
Though the critical response to "Wings" was hostile and entirely insensitive to the bittersweet coda it constitutes in Jan and Ian's career, the couple's live audience was unusually appreciative. In Ian's account of Wings, he recalls that one young woman wept at the end of the performance. "She understood," he avowed.
The Chariot (1976)
"The Chariot," created for the 1976 US Bicentennial, is perhaps Ian and Jan's most ambitious, elaborate and widely known work. In a full scale Roman-style chariot, decorated with wings resembling Morris Louis's oozing stripes, the couple, dressed in togas, circumnavigated Washington's Dupont Circle to the amazement and delight of commuters and the usual assemblage of park denizens. Jan sat regally in the driver's seat, while Ian pulled the cart like a rickshaw. No 'art world' audience was on hand to witness the event. Jan insisted that no art professionals be alerted or invited.
In hindsight, Ian and Jan's celebration of a national holiday may seem naïve. But this was special time for the duo – a period of optimism, confidence and success. The Viet Nam war was over. The stains of Watergate, Chile, and the CIA scandals were fading. Jimmy Carter had been elected president and promised a new era of respect for human rights. And, importantly, Ian and Jan were in love. For the moment at least, romance and artistic collaboration seemed perfectly balanced.
If "The Chariot" brims with optimism and good humor, it also, typically, has a tendentious aspect. The work skillfully toys with the accepted wisdom that color field painting reflects the formality of Washington's neo-classical architecture, yet remains staunchly apolitical. For Ian and Jan, the notion of an uncritical art based on a rigorously authoritarian building style was intolerable. In this context, the appropriation of Morris Louis's 'colors' for the chariot makes sense. The undulating lines of Louis's poured magna suggest the stripes of a flag waving in the breeze – for Americans, always a signal of victory -- peace through strength. The contrast with the reality of Viet Nam, where peace was achieved only by virtue of a humiliating defeat, is unavoidable. Here, the stripes function ironically as an emblem of art's unthinking accommodation to power. In this light, Ian and Jan's 'victory' lap around Dupont circle takes on a darker, Nero-esque black humor – they are the deranged off-spring of formalist painting, madly circling Admiral Dupont in their color field chariot.
The Duo Dissolves
The early 1970's saw the rise of feminism in society-at-large and an attendant sweeping, devastating critique of art practice, art theory and art history. Under the circumstances, it should be no surprise that -- from the very beginning -- gender and power issues were percolating violently beneath the surface of Ian and Jan's work. Ian's heroes were charismatic [male] cult figures, like Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein. In the final analysis, Ian sought a follower, not a collaborator. The couple's inability to explicitly address these overarching [and particularly pertinent] issues in performances constituted a major frustration for Jan and eventually contributed to end of Ian and Jan's professional and personal relationship.