MARCIA E. VETROCQ

THE PERFORMANCE DRAWINGS OF MORGAN O’HARA

The corpus of drawings that Morgan O’Hara calls LIVE TRANSMISSION was conceived at two meals—a solitary lunch and a boisterous dinner—separated by eight years. Seated at the counter of a North Beach Chinese restaurant in 1981 and captivated by the vigorous preparations of the ambidextrous chef, O’Hara reached for paper and two pencils. She traced the rim of a rice bowl to situate the wok on the first sheet and, without looking down at the paper again, began to follow the swift movements of the chef’s hands with the pencils gripped in her own. The lunch drawings remained a singular experiment until 1989, when O’Hara was a guest at the home of the collector Carlo Cattelani in Emilia-Romagna. As a dinner party stretched into the mild June night and the cross-cutting conversation outstripped her then-limited command of Italian, O’Hara felt her mind drifting. To moor herself in the moment, she slipped a notebook onto her knee and, with several pencils in each hand, began to track the arcs and thrusts of the speakers’ gestures, following the hands as they seemed to inscribe a language of their own in the air above the long table. Caught in the act, O’Hara shared the surreptitious, mystifyingly tangled line drawings with her companions. Their interest surprised her. Even more significant was the response of her discerning host, Cattelani, who enthused, che bello vedere i disegni classici di nuovo (“how beautiful to see classical drawings again”).1

O’Hara has made more than four thousand LIVE TRANSMISSION drawings since then, variously prompted by the activity of the wind and the flight of bees, the beating of a human heart and the liquid surge of an incoming wave, the wheeling of swallows in the sky above Verona and the scratching of chickens on a farm near Bremen, the expert procedures of butchers and midwives, the exchanges of produce and payment between cheese mongers and shoppers, and the myriad movements of dancers, musicians, martial arts masters, and other live arts performers of every stripe. The promiscuous range of subjects reflects their parity for O’Hara, her conviction that “movement is life.” But if natural phenomena and animal behavior figure in her work, it is human movement that engages her most profoundly. The imperative is to capture the essential vitality of human movement in all its particularity and pattern, the push and pulse of it, the manifestation of instinct or intention, the urgency of necessity or joy. This volume, the sixth in O’Hara’s ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LIVE TRANSMISSION, is distinctive for being devoted almost entirely to individual performers and their actions intended for an audience. Further delimiting the category is O’Hara’s nearly exclusive concentration on the movement of the performers’ hands, a situation—indeed, the original situation in that North Beach restaurant—in which a mirrorlike correspondence intimately locks the performer and O’Hara in motion.

Keenly focused and exquisitely responsive, O’Hara is the witness to an action. Movement, observation, and drawing all but coincide—her pencils seem to travel at the speed of sight. The work is finished once O’Hara has inscribed along the paper’s bottom edge a set of requisite data: the name of the performer, the classification or nature of the action, the event or circumstances in which the action transpired, the city, the date, and her own name, which is not so much a signature as the final piece of information. Distinct from a title or caption, the minutely lettered notation is an integral component of the drawing as such, one that substantiates the authenticity and specificity of an experience—O’Hara’s experience. The systematic yet diaristic inscriptions can claim a distant precedent in the distinctive message that Jan van Eyck lettered on The Arnolfini Portrait: Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 (“Jan van Eyck was here 1434”). No routine claim of invention, van Eyck’s words testified that the painting was the record of the artist’s direct observation, evidence of his presence. And if the concave mirror depicted on the rear wall contains van Eyck’s reflection—as is widely believed—then the domestic prop helps the inscription to underscore the panel’s newly minted status as the true record of an experience conveyed with as much immediacy as a painter then could summon: a 15th-century live transmission.

The universe of O’Hara’s abstract marks beggars a comprehensive description. Her pencil tracks are sinuous, staccato, confident, tremulous. There are curvaceous and languid-looking passages and others that resemble the awkward iterations of an Etch-a-Sketch drawing. Her quarry, after all, is not the integrity of a form that is in motion but the trajectory of the motion itself. With O’Hara’s terse inscriptions, the marks provoke a perhaps inevitable desire to rationalize the drawings, to grasp the sense of the movements, and even to picture, as best we can, the absent figure responsible for the action. Sometimes we find a reasonable congruence between a drawing and the movements we are told it tracks: Yumiko Okado’s performance with balloons and thread in Nagoya in 2001 (page 112) is conveyed with lines that seem appropriately precise and fanciful. But how to make sense of the movements of Allan Kaprow’s hands at the Fondazione Mudima in Milan in 1991 when the drawing (above) resembles a stalk of bamboo resting on its side and sprouting fine fibers? For that you need O’Hara to oblige with an explanation: Kaprow was talking while rolling up a carpet. Each pause to tie up the carpet became a “joint” in the stalk.

Consider two of the drawings made on 30 October 1994 during a Fluxus festival in New York City. In the drawing of the movements of the hands of Larry Miller and his fan (page 40), the inscription allows us to ascribe the long filaments of line to the smooth passage of hands through space, while the woolly congestion of marks is the persistent rotation of the blades of an electric fan. The inscription for Yoshi Wada performing The Lament of Fluxus (page 52) may lead us to see the two leaflike shapes as the rising and falling of hands in a ritual enactment of grief or sorrow. The dark, maverick line that licks across the right form suggests an abrupt, emphatic cessation of motion and, possibly, emotion. But was it so? Attributing emotion to line is a dicey exercise. The spiky, ragged, clawlike marks in the drawing of Nicola Frangione performing in Nagano in 2002 (page 30) are as barbed and fierce as the marks in some of Arshile Gorky’s drawings, where biography makes us prone to detect isolation, anguish, and despair. But the performances of Frangione, an action-poet, are rhythmic orchestrations of voice, gesture, recordings, and projections that often reach crescendos of sensory stimulation which are euphoric, even ecstatic, and anything but tragic.

Given O’Hara’s profession of neutrality—she says, “whatever people do with their hands is what I follow”—the action she observes may lead to a drawing that unexpectedly approximates representation. As Sarah O’Gorman removes and applies make-up (page 91), the repeated passes of her hand around her face, mouth, and eyes add up to a rough portrait. By the time Chan Aye finished applying gold leaf to a stone (page 71), his hands had rendered the contours of that stone. Most uncanny is the appearance of a headless body in the drawing of a punishing and redemptive performance by Ron Athey (page 19). Lying on a steel frame to which the skin of his face was tethered by fish hooks and wire, Athey invited the audience to apply wax to his body. The massaging motions of those many hands accrued as the rounded silhouette of a prone figure. The rare geometry of a black square on another sheet (page 104) is no tribute to Malevich but a record of the systematic destruction of a mandala by the artist Kurita Koichi, who swept the sand with measured strokes of a small brush held in one hand. Accordingly, O’Hara held the pencils in just one hand and, following Kurita, kept the other hand on her leg.

From the outset of LIVE TRANSMISSION, O’Hara has maintained a consistency of vision and purpose, even as she distilled the technique and deepened the physical and mental discipline entailed in the execution of the drawings. She arrived at the project with an already knowledgeable right hand: during a childhood spent in Japan, O’Hara studied brush painting and calligraphy. Manipulating chopsticks, which became second nature to her, was a first step toward drawing with multiple pencils gripped between her fingers. In the beginning she chose soft pencils for her more limber right hand and harder pencils to minimize drag on her less agile left hand. The compensatory difference in the leads fostered an equivalence of touch and weight throughout a drawing. Once her hands had developed equal dexterity, O’Hara introduced harder paper to speed the action of her hands, to thwart any inadvertent meddling by purposeful draftsmanship, to “free the pencil to make the mark.” The study of Aikido contributed to O’Hara’s growing ambidexterity as well as to a cultivation of body awareness that has sustained her through drawing sessions that may last several hours. Moreover, a student of Aikido trains in tandem with a partner, and O’Hara applied that give-and-take experience to the commitment of her own movements to a mirroring engagement with those of another. As she draws, O’Hara reacts to motion with wondrous quickness. A correlation with dance is unavoidable: the pair moves in unison even if one partner leads. Looking at O’Hara’s drawing of his Kyoto performance, Frangione noted with admiration, “Everything is Movement together with her. [ . . . ] Each of my synergistic shifts (text, voice, video) was always simultaneous with Morgan’s Visual Poetry.”2

In essence, O’Hara aims to reconcile two seemingly incompatible objectives: the absolute submission of the movement of her hands to the movement observed and the achievement of a purely graphic precision or rightness on paper. Triggered by phenomena perceived but not to be represented, the abstract marks cannot be improvised or premeditated or subject to correction. While following an action wherever it takes her—the pencils tracking in swoops and switchbacks, loops, hooks, serpentines, clusters, and LIVE TRANSMISSION: movimento delle mani di ALLAN KAPROW / Fondazione Mudima / Milano, Italia / Agosto 1991 coils—O’Hara is also in pursuit of what she calls “quality of line,” that amalgam of grace and control which Cattelani recognized as an attribute of i disegni classici. As O’Hara explains:

I’m trying to track the vitality of movement in real time, in such a way that my personality doesn’t filter it out and I’m not interpreting or emoting. I’m not expressing myself. It goes through my body, so these look like my lines. I don’t care about what I think or feel while I’m doing it. Of course, I’m responding to it, especially if it’s music or if it’s a category of action that I’m learning about, and then I pay very careful attention to learn it. But a bad drawing would be if the pencil isn’t sharp, and so the quality of line isn’t there. And I would only discover that at the end, or I might feel it as I’m going—I can feel that there’s something wrong with a pencil, and I just throw it aside.

O’Hara has likened herself to a seismograph, as if the drawings were comparable to the accurate registrations of an indifferent mechanical device. This determination to suppress artistic subjectivity contributes to the tension inherent in the work. She acknowledges and quickly dismisses the singular or autograph appearance of her lines, explaining simply that the process “goes through my body, so these look like my lines.” Adamant about the equivalent validity of the drawings as outcomes of a procedure precisely followed, she declares, “as long as the process is authentic, the drawing has to be accepted.” (She does allow that “it doesn’t mean I like them all.”)

The abstention from composition and expression, the enforcing of parameters such as finishing in a single sitting and restricting materials, and the seriality of LIVE TRANSMISSION as a potentially limitless undertaking are all features that align O’Hara’s work with the coolness of conceptual art. However, neither repetition nor chance plays a role in her drawing, nor does the de-skilling that characterizes much conceptual practice. On these points, O’Hara is quick to distinguish the intent and meaning of her drawings from those of William Anastasi, to which they are frequently compared. Beginning in the 1960s, Anastasi carried paper and a board with him or kept a folded piece of paper in his pocket as he walked, rode the subway, or sat through a film. With pencils held to the paper, his marks recorded his own movements, assisted by the lurch of a train, the unevenness of a pavement, or, when he drew with his eyes closed in meditation, the passage of a vagrant thought. Although O’Hara, like Anastasi, doesn’t monitor the look of her drawing as she works, her fierce determination to capture what she sees is far from the adventitious and involuted nature of his work.

To think about O’Hara’s goal of objectivity—recusing herself from determining the appearance of a drawing beyond the characteristics of the lines her own body makes—is to be reminded, paradoxically, of early photographers who claimed the status of art for their work against the accusation that a photograph is a purely mechanical and chemical product. O’Hara heads in the opposite direction, foreswearing any inclination to illustrate, dramatize, compose, or enhance an outcome. The goal is an unimpeded transmission:

The reason why I have to eliminate my personality and my will when I am drawing is so that the vitality gets onto the paper without my interfering with it. So that it transmits to the viewer. Because if I put my ego into it, I’m going to influence the line, and that’s not the point.

Yet even with ego fully in check, O’Hara is anything but detached or dispassionate. Her honest registration of action observed is far from the indifference of Warhol-as-machine. To see O’Hara work is to see the activation of a willed state of total absorption. There is a film on O’Hara’s website that records her visit to the noodle kitchen of the Va Heng family in Macao in November 2010. The camera surveys the ingredients and then follows each stage of production: hands punch the mixture of flour and eggs, hands roll out a flattened mass, hands receive the broad ribbon of dough that has been fed through a machine, and hands tear, gather, and comb the slender noodles, rolling them into compact spheres, each as tidy as a ballerina’s bun, before nesting them in steamers. We also see O’Hara. Seated among the workers—back straight, eyes like lasers—she follows the workers’ movements with rapid, fine adjustments to the position of her pencils as she transmits the activity before her to the small, flat field of the paper. It is mesmerizing to watch her. You wish for the presence of another Morgan O’Hara who could draw the hands of Morgan O’Hara as she draws the noodle makers in Macao.

Any talk of watching O’Hara at work begs the question: Is O’Hara a performance artist? She poses this question herself with bemused ambivalence, noting that she is regarded as such these days when she is invited to draw at live art events. Performance art has become an elastic category, and “performative” a quality possible to achieve in any medium or cross-media undertaking. Still, the idea of making a work of art as a performance carries considerable baggage, conjuring such spectacles from the 1950s as Jackson Pollock filmed from below while painting on glass, Georges Mathieu executing enormous canvases on a stage before dazzled audiences, Yves Klein dragging paint-smeared nudes across a canvas to the incomprehension of witnesses wearing evening clothes, and—his speculative humor notwithstanding—even Jean Tinguely’s drawing machines, the kinetic Meta-Matics. Compared to the outright theatricality of those precedents, O’Hara recoils from attention, as if wishing that her unmitigated focus on the action of someone else had the capacity to render her unseen. This is not a matter of modesty. It is a matter of control.

Having rejected a number of potential titles for the series because of their awkwardness in translation, O’Hara chose LIVE TRANSMISSION, an expression she heard during a news broadcast being televised directly from a crime scene. For all the trumpeting of television’s immediacy, the colloquial and appealingly profane expression really breaks down into two steps: the feed from the scene and the broadcast to the audience. In a similar vein, there is leeway in which to re-frame LIVE TRANSMISSION as a two-part process in which O’Hara transmits the action to the drawing and the drawing transmits O’Hara to the viewer. Her authorship is inescapable. The protocol she has refined to make movement materialize on paper holds no legitimacy for any other practitioner. O’Hara’s own physicality—not simply the look of her lines but the way she perceives and the point of view, however circumstantial, from which she observes an activity—makes for a drawing that is uniquely her own.
New York,
February 2016