Opinion

Discovering a Downtown New York Artist Who Disappeared for 30 Years

(GIF by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic via YouTube)
(GIF by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic via YouTube)

I had never heard of Jill Kroesen before a Whitney Museum press release landed in my inbox a few months ago: this “artist, composer, and singer” who was “an essential figure in the 1970s downtown New York performance scene” had taken “an artistic hiatus of over thirty years.” Now she would debut a new work at the museum in July.

As it turned out, I missed the debut — fortunately Paul David Young, writing for our Weekend section, did not — but it inspired me to go looking for some of Kroesen’s past work, before she disappeared. There are scattered bits on YouTube: the double-entendre-filled song “I Really Want to Bomb You“; a video of her play Excuse Me I Feel Like Multiplying, which turns the conflict between the US and USSR into one between two women fighting over a man; Kroesen herself delivering an absurd story called “Lou’s Dream” so matter-of-factly, it feels like she’s explaining how to tie shoelaces to a child.

There’s another version of “Lou’s Dream,” too, acted out and danced by a cast of performers at the Kitchen in 1978. It features a young Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, the dancer-choreographer couple playing, respectively, the Share-If of a strange small town and the If Be I who shadows him. After the two dance through a sequence that fuses exaggerated sheriff motions with modern dance, Jones proclaims, “My name is Share-If. Cause I only share if get some profit.” He proceeds to explain that he hates fun — “any kind of fun is sick, if you ask me” — and that his favorite thing to do is eat roast beef. The story gets weirder from there, involving a potato farmer who disappears and loses his “thing,” another farmer who magically receives it (“Walter has Lou’s thing!”), forbidden abnormal love, ballet dancing, some poetically nonsensical passages about going to heaven and giving people rings, and a lot of dreamy electronic music. Most of the talking is done in voiceover by Kroesen herself — again in that restrained tone — though occasionally Jones blurts out a line so absurd that it made me laugh out loud.

Kroesen called her collaborative performance works “systems portraits,” because through them she aimed to illuminate the workings of societal systems. What exactly she’s laying bare in “Lou’s Dream” — which is an excerpt from her longer play The Original Lou and Walter Story — isn’t entirely clear, but it’s a treat to experience all the elements of her style, which seems informed in equal parts by Brecht, morality plays, modern dance, and pantomime. The video gives us a window onto the work of a disappeared artist, and in the process, a moment in recent art history that awaits further excavation.

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