By Jane Heil Usyk
Judson Memorial Church, a mainstay on Washington Square South, has been on the right side of hundreds of causes since the nineteenth century. Among its precepts is the idea that artists will lead the way in establishing ideals. This is an ancient idea, from classical times; but who today even thinks of it, let alone follows it? A further precept is that art is connected to the spirit and to religion. Another is that there should be no censorship, not even when the American Baptist Convention calls you on the carpet to find out why people were dancing nude in the sanctuary—not even then.
When a new minister, Howard Moody, a former marine with a crewcut, came to the church in 1956, and a few artists asked him if they could open an art gallery in a small room in Judson’s basement, he said okay. The gallery’s first show was black and white drawings by an unknown artist, Claes Oldenburg. That was followed by a show of a new form of art devised by Allan Kaprow, who had taken a course at the New School from John Cage, an Eastern-oriented, postwar avant-garde American composer. Kaprow wanted to put what he had learned into action, which he called “Happenings.” A happening was a partly improvised or spontaneous piece of theatrical or other artistic performance, typically involving audience participation. Unlike most art, you couldn’t buy it or put it on your wall or lawn. And it didn’t last. A museum couldn’t buy one. That was part of the rebellion of it.
Kaprow and his associates, all unknown—Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Tom Wesselmann, Red Grooms, Robert Whitman, and Yoko Ono—exhibited there, with a great variety of happenings.
One early year, Jim Dine did a happening in which he painted, hummed, tossed pots of paint onto a huge canvas, then tossed the cans and then himself onto the canvas.
In 1965, Yoko Ono and second husband Anthony Cox did a project in which audience members, one at a time, took off their clothes and crawled into a big black bag.
In 1967 or ’68, there were 12 consecutive evenings called “Manipulations.” One artist held forth each night. They included Kate Millett, Carolee Schneemann, Nam June Paik, and Charlotte Moorman. Moorman performed Nam June Paik’s piece of holding a violin by the neck, slowly raising it overhead, then rapidly bringing it down to smash on the surface below.
Happenings often involved a lot of street detritus, newspapers, fabrics, cardboard boxes, colored lights, various sounds, fruit, chicken wire, straw, the artists, and the audience. The gallery held many other shows and featured such artists as Phyllis Yampolsky and Bob Thompson, but in the early ’70s it closed for good.
Another phase of art at Judson, in 1961, involved theater overseen by the newly hired assistant minister, the Reverend Al Carmines. It was called Judson Poets’ Theater, and was founded by playwright and landscape architect Robert Nichols and playwright Charles Gordone, who were members of the church. Gordone later wrote No Place to Be Somebody, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Critics Circle Award, and the Drama Desk Award.
Judson Poets’ Theater presented plays by Rosalyn Drexler (a former wrestler), Maria Irene Fornes, Robert Nichols, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Ronald Tavel, Helen Adam, Harry Koutoukas, and Reverend Carmines, who discovered he had a gift for musical theater. He hadn’t known that before.
The theater happened in the soaring, adaptive space of the church sanctuary. The sound was good, and almost everything could be moved around or removed, unlike at other churches where the columns, pews, and religious artifacts and artworks were immovable.
Judson Poets’ Theater put on an amazing 88 shows in the 25 years between 1961 and 1987; 42 were entirely or partly written by Carmines. Many were directed by Lawrence Kornfeld, Director of Judson Poets’ Theater, such as Sing Ho for a Bear and Dracula Sabbat (by Leon Katz and John Herbert McDowell), for which Kornfeld won an Obie. (He won three Obies in all.) Several of Carmines’s plays went on to Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway longevity in other theaters. Some were repeated in succeeding years, such as Christmas Rappings, which became a favorite. Some of Carmines’s best-known shows were Sing Ho for a Bear, Promenade, San Francisco’s Burning, Joan, In Circles, and The Faggot. He won several Obies and Drama Desk Awards.
For a while Carmines was involved in putting Gertrude Stein’s nonsensical or extremely obscure words and thoughts to music. He did this in several shows, rendering Stein (whom he seemed to resemble) in musical terms.
Then there was the avant-garde Judson Dance Theater, which began in 1962 and—in a different incarnation and with a different name, under a new minister, Donna Schaper—is still going strong, believe it or not. It set a standard for dance innovation unmatched anywhere else. Among the first performers were Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Fred Herko. Other later dancers included Meredith Monk, Katherine Litz, Twyla Tharp, Rudy Perez, and Remy Charlip.
In 1966, Yvonne Rainer and Bob Morris danced nude in the church sanctuary. That required an explanation to the American Baptist Convention, which Howard Moody accomplished successfully.
The name of the dance theatre morphed into Movement Research, but you can still come every Monday at 8:00 pm in the fall, winter, and spring to see avant-garde dancing and other artistic movement for free. And although Al Carmines left Judson in 1980, and the planet in 2005, you can still go every Wednesday at 8:00 for a free show, and, on the first Wednesday of every month, a free meal at 7:15. Wednesdays are overseen by one of the current ministers, Micah Bucey. I saw a few of them, and they are varied and interesting, featuring individuals and troops. They offer an excellent view into the artistic concerns of people of all ages.
Promenade, by Al Carmines and Maria Irene Fornes, always a popular show, will have a revival at City Center in July.
So Judson sails on, always in the vanguard, guided by an unerring conviction that artists can show the way.