Art

The Lasting Presence of a 51-Year-Old Performance Piece

First performed in 1965, Robert Whitman’s “Prune. Flat.” contrasts cinematic images with live performers to create its own kind of theater.

Robert Whitman’s “Prune. Flat.” performed at Fridman Gallery, December 15–17 (all images courtesy the artist and Fridman Gallery)

More than 50 years ago, in 1965, in a festival of performances by visual artists, Robert Whitman presented on a stage in a modest midtown basement a new work with film and silent performers. He called it, with curious orthography, “Prune. Flat.” In the audience on one or perhaps several nights was me, impressed by a kind of theater I’d not witnessed before — neither drama nor dance nor mine.

Admiring it then, I devoted a chapter in my book The Theatre of Mixed Means (1968) to a conversation with Whitman, mostly about “Prune. Flat.” I later wrote the entry on Whitman in the mammoth encyclopedia Contemporary Artists (1977), which went through five editions until the market for reference books disintegrated in the wake of Google.

Robert Whitman’s “Prune. Flat.” performed at Fridman Gallery, December 15–17

Every few years since the original, Whitman presents “Prune. Flat.” again, often along with other, newer theatrical works that are, inexplicably, never quite as strong. Every time I resee “Prune. Flat.,” most recently at Fridman Gallery last week, it reestablishes itself as a classic in my discriminating memory bank. Along with a select few other performance pieces from that period — among them Terry Riley’s “n C” (1964) and La Monte Young’s “The Tortoise” (1964) — it continues to not simply survive but to astonish me, and perhaps others, every time it is presented.

“Prune. Flat.” opens with the screen image of a movie projector, quietly declaring one of its theme to be cinematic images, especially in contrast to live performers. Then appears a grapefruit (that nearly fills the screen) being cut by a knife. After other images, a tomato appears, which is also cut, prompting black egg-like objects to pour out. And when the tomato-cutting sequence is repeated, two young women dressed in white smocks and white kerchiefs walk in front of the screen, the filmed blade apparently cutting through them.

Robert Whitman’s “Prune. Flat.” performed at Fridman Gallery, December 15–17

As the film shows the two women walking down the street, one slightly behind the other, so two similarly dressed women walk across the stage in the same formation. Later in the piece, the image of a woman undressing and showering is projected directly onto the full-length body of one of the women performers — but once the film shuts off, the woman who had appeared to be undressed is suddenly revealed to be besmocked. A key theme of “Prune. Flat.” is the perceptual discrepancy between filmed image and theatrical presence, and it differs from other visual artists’ performance pieces not only in its precise control but in its visual beauty.

I should note that YouTube currently offers an excerpt from a performance that fails the original, because film alone can’t present the theatrical theme of perceptual discrepancies. Also performed at Fridman were excerpts from a more recent Whitman performance piece titled “Swim” (2015); especially directly after viewing of “Prune. Flat.,” it seemed slight.

Robert Whitman’s “Prune. Flat.” performed at Fridman Gallery, December 15–17

Were “Prune. Flat.” to be presented yet again, I’d see and probably admire it. That’s the measure of a classic. I’d like to think that if you had asked me, 50 years ago, if “Prune. Flat.” would maintain its presence, along with those Terry Riley and La Monte Young pieces, I would have replied, “yes, definitely yes,” as I identified their excellence then.

May I propose that younger critics today try to identify what new works now might likewise survive to 2066? Be true to your sense of excellence, and probably you will.

Robert Whitman’s “Prune. Flat.” was performed at Fridman Galley (287 Spring Street, Soho, Manhattan) on December 15–17.

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