This study, focusing on the 2015 acquisition of Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions, a suite of performance works first shown in New York in 1960 and 1961, by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), details the museum’s first acquisition of historical dance works and an important model for collecting live performance and time-based artworks. Most commentators agree that because it is a living, temporal, and embodied experience, dance cannot be held in a repository such as an archive, library, or museum. But without a consensus on what constitutes dance “preservation,” and as the museum deals with the changes brought by non-object-based ephemeral art, it may offer another avenue for thinking about dance’s continuation into the future, which is reflected in Forti’s arrangements with MoMA. My treatment tracks the changes: the transfer, translation, and (re)invention of Forti’s artworks as well as the museum at the moment of their encounter, which newly defined the works as well as the institution. The case study offers insight into transformations of the art object, evolutions of the institutions that care for them, and changes in values for both visual art and dance over the last half-century. Using an interdisciplinary approach, the dissertation brings together art history, dance history, performance studies, and conservation and museum studies to build upon the mostly monographic studies of Forti to date that treat the historical and contemporary conditions of the artist’s work separately. The co-articulation of Forti’s Dance Constructions with MoMA represents a convergence of dance and art as well as the past and the present, shedding critical light on the artworks as well as the processes of making history.
A theoretical introduction identifies the key conceptual problematics underlying art, dance, and institutions that are generated by considering Forti’s dances and the museum together, laying out the terms for the discussion that follows. Part I looks back to the emergence of the Dance Constructions from Forti’s nascent practice, produced within an interdisciplinary landscape of experimentation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The performances proposed new models of movement and composition for dance, while also examining sculptural questions and the nature of artworks more generally. Posing very basic questions about bodies and objects—even turning bodies into objects—they made radical propositions that shaped future work in dance and art. Part II of the dissertation details the materials and procedures developed by the artist and the museum for MoMA’s 2015 acquisition of the Dance Constructions. Using models from both dance and visual art, protocols were developed that challenge, revise, and offer alternative definitions for issues central to the art museum: the art object, authenticity and provenance, and continuation/conservation. The process gave the Dance Constructions new resources and definition, bringing to light aspects of the works that were unconscious, unknown, or otherwise unspecified prior to that point while at the same time providing for their future. Tracking the Dance Constructions through time from inception to institutional acquisition reveals shifts in the core functions of the museum since the 1960s, as well as changes in dance and evolutions of Forti’s practice. This raises legal, ethical, and practical issues in addition to aesthetic ones, which implicate all postwar art as potential objects of museum acquisition, and contains lessons for historians, practitioners, and institutions alike.