Why Postmodernism Is Female : THE OBJECT OF PERFORMANCE The American Avant-Garde Since 1970 by Henry M. Sayre (University of Chicago Press: $39; 332 pp., illustrated)

Henry M. Sayre ends his latest book with a joke:

"There were these two fellows who got on a train for the first time in their lives. And they were amazed at everything about it." Somebody comes by selling bananas, which these two rubes have also never seen before: Just as the train enters its first tunnel one of them discovers how to get his banana unpeeled and takes a bite. " 'Don't eat that banana!' he yells to his buddy. 'I just took a bite and I've gone plumb blind.' "

Sayre means us to understand that when art left "modernism" (by 1970, most critics would say), we all took off on a strange new train indeed. We've been puzzling out what's related to what; and our first guesses have been like trying to understand the tunnels by hypothesizing that the bananas made us blind.

Only a critic as erudite as Sayre dares wear his learning this lightly, and the University of Chicago Press deserves credit for recognizing that and backing him. If Sayre's brand of intellectual shtick reminds you of Eleanor and David Antin's "performance art," it's no accident: The Antins are two of Sayre's mentors.

Anyone who has encountered Eleanor Antin in character as Eleanora Antinova, the once celebrated but now 90-ish African Ballerina of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe, or heard her husband, David Antin, spritzing out one of his "talk poems" (Antin is the answer to the question, "What if Marcel Duchamp had studied stand-up with Lenny Bruce?")--anyone, in short, who has encountered contemporary "performance art," has had that mixed feeling of shock, outrage, delight, frustration and, somehow, heightened sense of life that we used to associate with the term avant-garde .

So few of us now get that sensation from contemporary painting, where we habitually got it, that the avant-garde's death has become a critical commonplace. The general educated reader is startled to discover that the critics are as bored by contemporary painting as he is.

Critics agree that art since 1970 has fragmented into a hodgepodge of past styles: neo-abstraction, neo-classicism, neo-minimalism, neo-conceptualism, neo-geo, neo-everything. Some critics put the best face possible on this art-historical wax museum by dubbing it "pluralism."

Sayre's enormously ambitious new book would overturn that consensus (in which this reviewer too has participated) as banana-and-tunnel wisdom. Sayre dismisses pluralism as a modernism's crutch, "a kind of Me-Generation, do-your-own-thing, I'm-OK-you're-OK aesthetics." The critics, Sayre declares, have missed the great avant-garde of our time because it wasn't happening in familiar media like painting but in performance art; and, what's more, it was being done principally by women.

Sayre's idea (which I think excellent) will be widely discussed. First, he presents statistics to document that the New York art world's bizarre commercial structure helped blind it to a vital new avant-garde, even while it lamented that painting was no longer supplying one.

Although by 1976, Sayre reports, more than half the professional artists in this country were women, receiving 67% of the art-related BAs and MAs; six years later women still received only 2% of the exhibitions given to living artists, nationwide. By Sayre's count, the museums in enlightened New York give roughly 14 shows by living male painters for each given a female painter.

Galleries, Sayre easily proves, balk at representing such unpromising clients, so the women painters can get no reviews: The museums continue their policy, saying the eligible women painters have had no gallery shows and no press. It all has a certain insane perfection.

Sayre next chronicles how, excluded from painting, women artists found, in the late 1960s, an outlet in performance art forms. Building outward from a foothold in expressive dance, such women as Yvonne Rainer, Eleanor Antin, Carolee Schneemann, Laurie Anderson and Cindy Sherman began incorporating poetry, music, narrative, film and still photography into ever more interdisciplinary and unclassifiable works.

Sayre devotes long sections to all these artists and others, since, as he argues, by taking place " outside the museum and gallery, and hence art magazine systems," this "new feminist avant-garde" was institutionally invisible.

One of the first of these performances, Sayre tells us, was Rainer's "Ordinary Dance," performed July 6, 1962, "a collage of pure dance movements and observed behavior." Instead of music, Rainer spoke "an autobiographical narrative" as she danced. Her "dance" was itself often a mimicking of everyday motions, even facial expressions, that she'd observed in the subway.

Should we call that dance or mime ? "Dance-supported confessional prose poetry?" Traditional genres can no longer deal with it. Modest beginnings, one woman talking and dancing, but already a break with the Clement Greenberg-style ultra-formalism that modernism had finally married.

Twenty-one years later, Anderson's operatic "United States" was being performed with projected images, dancers, narrative spoken to a rock score written for violin and saxophone.

Sayre's great scholarly achievement is his utterly convincing (to me) account of how, locked out of painting--and thereby virtually locked out of modernism --women performance artists became from sheer necessity the first to defy modernism and invent a post-modern avant-garde.

In a 1960s interview with Calvin Tomkins, John Cage had summed up a century of modernism with his famous dictum that art's goal must be "waking us up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent." But dancer Rainer's wry reaction to Cage's familiar gospel was that only someone "born with a sunny disposition" could have said anything (Sayre adds caustically) "so vastly unconscious of social and political reality."

Rainer's reaction directly paralleled that of the late '60s women radicals, as they realized that after the Revolution they would still be fetching coffee and running the copying machines. Such women artists as Rainer, Sayre shows, were similarly realizing that after modernism had awakened them to the excellence of the life they were living they'd still have a 2% chance of showing their paintings.

So, Sayre convincingly documents, these women became the first artists to repudiate that central, fatuous, modernist dogma and got a great head start on the men, who, by and large, are still ransacking the modernist library of styles, looking for something to paint. The avant-garde became female and shifted from painting to performance.

Sayre writes the way Gene Fullmer used to fight, he's all over you from the first bell and he wants a knockout. Every page tries to bring you up short and make you think. A lesser critic could have coaxed whole books out of some of the chapters mentioned above. I have only touched on one of perhaps half a dozen controversial arguments Sayre crams into his 289 pages. He bombards you with a chapter proposing dance as "the new Gesamtkunstwerk, " and one on Roland Barthes as "critical performance artist," another proposing "Photography and the Portrait as Performance," plus 12 pages giving Jerome Rothenberg, that fine poet, his due. He rates Susan Sontag, extends T. J. Clark's work on Manet to the present, appraises rock musicians and the Watergate tapes of Richard Nixon, who "like all great liars, was something of a post-structuralist naif."

Like Frank O'Hara writing about New York artists or Hans Richter writing about Dadaists, Sayre has been personally involved with many artists he writes of, so his work has the added authority of a primary text. In the preface he says he spent eight years writing this book. Plainly he sought to make it a tour de force. In my opinion, he has succeeded.

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