Still at a tilt

Barbara stratyner 

The New York Times Sunday Review section on a recent Sunday dedicated its cover editorials to Presidents Trump and Putin.  The cover page editorials provide the Times with a rare opportunity to narrate through graphics and on this particular Sunday, the headlines were in boxy full caps. and the text tilted from bottom left up at a 30 degree angle to the right.  The tilt energized the words. 

This essay is not about Trump, Putin or the irony of their agreement about oligarchic autocracy as an ideal form of government.  Nor is it about tilting as a metaphor for their styles of government.  It is about the energizing power of the tilt and how it still defines the international, modernist visual culture of the 20th century.  This winter, New York was energized by two great examples of the modernist tilt – an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and major revivals by the Martha Graham Dance Company.     

The graphic style of tilted text is associated with Soviet Constructivism, subject of a wonderful exhibition at MoMA.  A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde (through March 12) includes art and graphics from the collections.  It focuses on experimentations from the immediately pre-Revolutionary, or Leninist, and early Stalinist eras, 1912-1935.  This is not an unusual topic for an exhibition here since many of the artists were extremely influential in art, graphics and performance design.   Many New York institutions have major holdings in the artists of those periods, and develop exhibitions within their unique missions, from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ focus on the designers who collaborated with Diaghilev to the Ukrainian Museum’s show suggesting that the major figures of the movement were Ukrainian, not Russian. 

The strength of the MoMA exhibition lies in its curatorial organization, combining paintings and drawings with the posters, flyers, artists’ books and small press editions to illustrate the artistic movements within the avant-garde.  It includes film but only alludes to the prolific Constructivist theater and dance communities. 

Type-set texts on newsprint were shown with paintings.  Ignoring genre to focus on style is challenging for large museums, but the curators were able to explicate the many mini-movements, some with only one or two followers.  They also had the space and the collections to display multiple pages from the books, frequently the entire set of illustrations.  This revealed the power of the works, such as Olga Rozanova’s linoleum-cut and collaged pages from the poem War, lined up and filling the wall immediately outside the gallery.  The political and artistic movements were comparatively gender-neutral and the MoMA curators managed to feature many of the famous and lesser-known women artists. They had been excluded from other similar exhibits because they were graphic designers or worked in costumes, not painting.

As often happens with exhibitions, the art and artifacts on display are inherently boxed in.   They are rectangles in frames or cases.  But as you walk through the gallery, you are shown how these artists fought against that stricture.  Kazimir Malevich’s geometric red and black shapes float on the canvas.  Jean Pougny floated words and un-related letters.  Alexandra Exter’s costumes are only partially attached to the performer’s anatomic reality and stage sets lack flat surfaces. 

The same motivation led to the use of the tilt, though that may seem to be the opposite artistic response.  Artists and graphics designers moored their floating texts and images – but to a point on the side, just above the lower corner.  This diagonal thrust them away from the bottom and top edges so the words challenge gravity.   Newsprint became an valuable art supply when Vera Ermolaeva designed a Supremacist newsletter.  Try it – write yourself a to-do list.  Now try it again in full caps and write the headline in on a diagonal.  The curatorial wall texts cite the many artists’ manifestos on art as revolution, but even the casual visitor can see the power that tilting texts, images, shapes and colors added for the viewers – on the streets of revolutionary Russia and in the galleries at MoMA.

Following the tilt from MoMA to the Martha Graham season at the Joyce Theater is not just an oddity of New York’s cultural calendar.  It can be argued that Martha Graham(1894 – 1991) and her colleagues in the creation of American modern dance were recognized as avant garde in the era overlapping and following the Constructivists.  Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, and their students developed movement vocabularies and choreographic models of both abstraction and overtly political dance, especially in the 1930s. Posters and programs for New York dance concerts and festivals were frequently typeset in strong diagonals, alerting the potential audience to their left-wing tilt.

The contemporary Graham Company maintains her vocabulary through the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and presents revivals of her work, as well as commissions from contemporary choreographers.  For the two-week Winter 2017 season, the revivals included two of the works that have motivating ideas, but not narratives.  Primitive Mysteries (1931) and Diversion of Angels (1948) also provide opportunities to see how Graham dealt with the three-dimension box that is a proscenium theater.  More opportunities to appreciate the power of the tilt.

Primitive Mysteries was an abstraction inspired by the Miracle Play of the American Southwest that combined Spanish and indigenous traditions.  It is frequently compared to Nijinsky and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Sacre du Printemps), which was based on indigenous Russian culture, placing a female solo as a central node among massed dancers.   Graham’s central figure is the only one who moves independently.  The identically costumed and choreographed lines of female dancers at the back and sides of the stage move only when she approaches them.   It is frontal movement, connected to the proscenium opening and framing the open rectangle of the stage floor.  The closest art reference would be to the paintings and murals of Diego Rivera, Silvestre Revueltas and Frida Kahlo.  The occasional use of diagonal movement is shocking in contrast to the frontal poses.  The tilt here can be seen as the grouped dancers lean their upper torsos towards the central figure.

Diversion of Angels is a more abstract work of modern dance.  It demonstrates how Graham used tilting in every possible dimension of the stage, across the stage, across the proscenium and across the dancers’ bodies. . Although there is no story, there are three central couples, believed to represent “mature love, erotic love and adolescent love,” and small sets of female and male dancers, performing as teams.  Unlike Primitive Mysteries, Graham uses the diagonal frequently, sending dancers, for example, across the stage floor from upstage left to downstage right.  The defining movements for the chorus begin with a tilted body.  In one variation, the small sets of dancers moving across the proscenium remain in place but tilt their entire bodies as a unit in the direction in which they were moving.  Try it – stand on your right foot, raise your arms, straighten your body and lift the left leg out and up.   You will soon understand that the leg lift is really a full body movement that depends on your torso strength.  In another variation, the dancers take their tilted bodies into the air and make the tilt into a leap.  It is as if the power from the energizing tilt overwhelmed the dancers and lifted them up. They land as a body unit (don’t try it – this takes unbelievable strength and control) and take off again across the stage.

MoMA’s exhibition will be on view through March 12th. The Graham season at The Joyce ended last weekend, but the company tours extensively and recently launched a YouTube channel.  If you are feeling boxed in, walk around the city looking for tilts and diagonals. Get energized.