Simone Forti, Still from Zuma News, LA, 2013, video (color and sound), 12:36 min. From NONFICTIONS – Gorbachev Lives / Zuma News / Questions – a joint work by Jeremiah Day / Simone Forti / Fred Dewey. Courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles.

Simone Forti: Fortissimo

“It was packed and I was surprised at the kind of adoration I received. But it seemed like people were responding to the work and it felt good. It [also] scared me a little bit.”

That’s artist, dancer, choreographer, and writer, Simone Forti, speaking by Zoom after having attended the January 14th members’ opening of “Simone Forti,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.

Co-curated by Rebecca Lowery and Alex Sloane, with Forti’s longtime assistant Jason Underhill guest curating the show, which runs through April 2, features more than 80 works spanning Forti’s six-decade career. From the early 1960s to the present day, the exhibition also includes live presentations of three of her legendary Dance Constructions.

Having performed in many prestigious venues around the world, including the Louvre Museum, Paris, as well as having had solo exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum in Bonn, Germany, and a major career retrospective at the Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, Austria, Forti, who, on the cusp of 88 suffers from Parkinson’s disease, had also been at MOCA the week prior, when she oversaw her Dance Constructions.

With instruction by Carmela Hermann Dietrich, it was Sarah Swenson who was tasked with coordinating the performances, which are being presented in succession four times a day, three days a week. Swenson, who has a pick-up dance company, Vox Dance Theatre and who also has a long history with Forti, initially studying with the groundbreaking artist in 1998, has continued to work with her over the years.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for the depth of emotion that that event produced or provoked,” said Swenson, of the MOCA opening. “And not only her being there that day, but her being hands on and deeply involved in the training process that took place the entire previous week.

Indeed, Swenson explained that Forti came to all of the training sessions for the trio of dance works that are being performed by a diverse group of L.A.-based artists and creative professionals. “Simone was also weighing in on the fine tuning and experimentation of how to achieve her goals in those pieces. Just having her there was so special.”

Forti, who was born into an Italian-Jewish family in Florence, Italy in 1935 and emigrated to L.A. with her parents and sister in 1939, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area some sixteen years later. It was there that Forti began studying and performing with Anna Halprin, the pioneering choreographer, dancer and teacher who was key to redefining dance in postwar America and who died in 2021 at 100.

“It was wonderful,” recalled Forti, whose books include her 1974, Handbook in Motion and Simone Forti: Thinking with the Body, which documents nearly 200 of her works showcasing the diversity of her output. Of her time with Halprin in Marin County, where she often spent hours on movement that was based on the idea of a single action, Forti noted, “We were dancing outside on the deck in the woods and she was starting to focus on new work and improvisation. I just fell in love with it and I started taking the Greyhound bus there.”

Simone Forti and Sally Banes perform “Planet,” P.S.1 Long Island City, NY, 1976, with music by Peter Van Riper. Photograph by Peter Moore

Somewhat peripatetic, in 1959 Forti moved to New York with her first husband, artist Robert Morris, whom she was married to from 1955-1962, and enrolled in a composition and improvisation class at the Merce Cunningham Studio. Taught by musicologist Robert Dunn, the classes that would soon lead to Judson Dance Theater, concentrated on the work of John Cage, with Forti meeting and working, albeit informally, with choreographers including the late Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. (Paxton, who initiated contact improvisation in 1972, lives in Vermont, as did Forti for 10 years, with the pair still keeping in touch.)

“Robert was giving us a lot of information about John Cage,” Forti recalled, “and [those] assignments gave a lot of us encouragement to do whatever we wanted. That was wonderful at that time, because now we can do whatever we want, but there’s so much going off in different directions that today it means something else.”

And while Forti, whose various honors include a 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship in Dance and a Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts in 2011, is celebrated as both a choreographer and dancer, she sees herself in more expansive terms—as an artist who works with movement, using her own body in conjunction with other materials and media.

To that end, the MOCA show explores the numerous ways in which her practice addresses movement through archival documentation, sculpture, drawings and technology, including her experimental holograms from the 1970s, done in collaboration with Lloyd G. Cross. Drawings and videos from her Illuminations and News Animation series, which Forti had performed in numerous venues around the world since 1986, are also on view.

“I felt that even when I was in my 20s,” explained Forti, “that I was an artist working with movement. Because of the things I’ve made and the Dance Constructions, I do feel that they are sculptures and dances. I made things that kind of don’t fit, like the News Animations where I’m moving and I’m speaking, and sometimes I say, “I’m not a stand-up comedian, I’m a roll-around comedian.”

With whimsy also part of her creative arsenal, Forti, whose artwork can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, the Stedelijk Museum, Generali Foundation and the Whitney Museum of American Art, has also looked to animals in the zoo for inspiration. Several of her sketches, including those of a turtle and sea lion, are included in the exhibition, as well.

“I spent a couple of years in Rome,” Forti pointed out, “and I had found an apartment near the zoo. I was wanting to move without stylization, just to appreciate how I move—how one moves—and so I realized that animals were not putting on some style, although they have ways of showing off to each other.

“What also meant a lot to me,” added Forti, “is that I noticed that some individuals, not every animal, but every individual of a certain kind, seems to have developed games which I started thinking of as the roots of dance. One very simple one that I remember, was this young chimp who found a hole in the ground and he put his finger into that hole and was running in a circle. It seemed like a lot of fun.”

That kind of fun and sense of play are decidedly found in Forti’s Dance Constructions, which were first performed at New York’s Reuben Gallery in 1960, with additional constructions premiered at Yoko Ono’s loft the following spring. A suite of nine works based on a set of task-based instructions, these pieces, which referenced Minimalism and were occasionally carried out with structures on which Forti’s husband, the aforementioned Robert Morris, collaborated, were made of unassuming materials, such as wood and rope.

A trio of these works are being performed at MOCA, including, “Huddle,” wherein a group of performers gathers in a circle, bending over in unison and holding on to each other’s legs. As individuals pull away from the group and move to another part of the circle, the only stipulation is that they climb over the so-called huddle of people.

Simone Forti, “Slant Board,” performed at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, May 1982, performance with plywood and rope, 10:00 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Media an Performance Art Funds. © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“Slant Board,” on first sight, however, appears more ominous: Three performers maneuver on a slanted wooden board by dint of hanging ropes, with their pedestrian moves making for various configurations. “Hangers,” also features ropes, but suspended from the ceiling, as the “movers,” Forti’s preferred term for dancers, swing nonchalantly while others on the ground weave in and out of these hovering, well, human sculptures.

Pivotal to the development of postmodern dance and central to Forti’s legacy, these seemingly unassuming works have, in essence, reframed the discussion between visual art and contemporary dance, consequently influencing artists of that time, as well as today’s younger generations of artists, such as Gerard & Kelly. (A Paris-based American team of artist-directors who interpret architecturally significant buildings through dance, their recently premiered video, “Panorama,” features dancers performing inside Paris’ Bourse du Commerce, originally an 18th century marketplace.)

As to the pedestrian element that helps define the Forti imprimatur—in a 2017 review, this writer once referred to Forti as being, “monumental in her simplicity”—it also accounts for her referencing performers as “movers.” Explained Swenson with regards to the performers in the Dance Constructions: “You don’t have to be a trained dancer to do this work, and a lot of them aren’t trained. There are several visual artists, at least one musician that I’m aware of, and several multi-disciplinary people.

“But being a trained dancer is not a requirement,” added Swenson, “so it never seemed right to call them dancers. It makes [an assumption] about who’s doing the work. That’s one of the challenging things, because there are times when it’s hard for people to let go of the training. Dancing and trying to look interesting and beautiful is not what we’re trying to do.

“It’s the quotidian things—walking, falling, singing, climbing,” Swenson continued, “and the beauty is that it’s a completely different concept than what we tend to think of in traditional dance or concert dance. It’s about movement, and that’s why Simone calls herself a movement artist and not a choreographer.”

The notion of improvisation also includes wide-ranging collaborations with musicians like Charlemagne Palestine and Forti’s third husband Peter Van Riper. (Forti’s second husband, Robert Whitman, still alive at 87, was recently in attendance at the remounting of his 1960 Happening, “American Moon,” staged at Manhattan’s blue-chip Pace Gallery.)

Admitting to never having liked working with recorded music, Forti said that La Monte Young, one of the first Minimalist composers and a central figure in Fluxus and postwar avant-garde music, introduced her to Palestine. The duo would go on to make “Illuminations,” created when the two were at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the 1970s. (Forti was not on faculty there, but substituting for Allan Kaprow, having also worked with him on “Happenings” with Whitman.)  

“I asked Charlemagne if we could just do one session and see if he’d like to work together. We worked well together and we could see that right away. He was playing this very good grand piano in one of the rooms at CalArts, [which] we eventually called the Temple. I don’t know the language of music, but he was playing a lot of chords that were tied together in certain ways and made melodies that basically came out of the overtones.

“I was running in a big circle,” Forti added, “and discovered that if I tilted my weight in one direction or another that that would change my trajectory. So, I was exploring centrifugal force and Charlemagne was exploring sound waves, and it made sense that we gave each other energy and inspiration.”

And one can’t talk about Forti’s inspiration on the art world without mentioning her impact, which Alex Sloane, co-curator of “Simone Forti,” believes is, “already vast. One thing I was really struck by and continue to be struck by in this whole process—the last year and a half in putting [the exhibition] together—is that her impact on so many artists is here in Los Angeles.

“It was a privilege casting everyone for the Dance Constructions,” she enthused. “We had so many applications, and narrowing it down to 18 was a challenge. They’ve had individual experiences with Simone—how she impacted their respective practices, whether in dance, art or music.

“She has been such a leader and teacher to so many,” added Sloane. “In terms of the exhibition’s impact, a lot of artists have known about her work for a long time, but it’s less visible to a wider museum audience.”

Simone Forti, Bug Jump, 1975-1978, 120-degree multiplex hologram, 56 3/4 x 20 x 13 in.

While Forti certainly has her share of disciples and supporters, Sloane pointed out that she hopes the MOCA exhibition will introduce the octogenarian to a wider audience, one that will show the relationship between contemporary dance and the visual arts. “This is the thing,” Sloane elaborated, “many artists, including Simone, bridge those two disciplines and make it their own. Simone has such a dedicated audience, I hope that in this context more people—those who haven’t followed her for years—are also going to learn about her.”

If audience reaction to the Dance Constructions is any indication, folks visiting the museum are indeed learning about Forti and her work. Swenson said that the feedback has been particularly robust, but one wonders if these particular performers/movers are aware that they are now a part of history?

Swenson believes that they are. “There’s been a lot of emails and a lot of people are expressing their gratitude and appreciation for this experience, and the fact that it was rare to have Simone involved in the training process. I think they get that. They talk to each other and I think they do understand.”

Forti was also on faculty at UCLA from 1997 to 2014, and found that her students “became more serious as the years went on. Finally, I was teaching advanced improvisation and I was teaching on Saturday for three hours instead of two times a week. In fact, one time I taught the spring course and then the class ended and the students in the class wanted to continue.

“We ended up at [Santa Monica’s] Church In Ocean Park. I ran it as a drop-in workshop. Anyone could drop in and pretty soon there was a nucleus of about five people who were always there, and there might also be two or three people who came by. That was very important for me to keep moving and keep exploring ideas with the students. They were my laboratory and some of them I’m still in touch with and I’ve performed with.”

One person who has known Forti for years is postmodern guru, the choreographer and dancer, New York-born Rudy Perez, now 93. After studying for five years with the doyenne of modern dance, Martha Graham, Perez found his true calling in the radical downtown aesthetic that was Judson Dance Theater.

Heading West in 1978 to teach at UCLA, Perez, like Forti, was a big influence on the L.A. dance scene. Founding Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble in the 1980s, the artist whose accolades include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and several honorary doctorates, spoke glowingly of Forti in a recent phone conversation.

“We’ve been very supportive of each other. There was never a sense of competition. We were on the same plane, doing the same thing—working with similar materials and realizing the possibility of what could be done with the same materials.

“We inspired each other by the nature of what we were doing,” added Perez, “and it reflected the times. It’s wonderful that this [exhibition] is happening. Simone’s reconstructions [come] at a good time, because they’re representative of how we approach art today and the effect it has on us. What would this world be,” mused Perez, “without Simone?”

Simone Forti at the opening of “Simone Forti” at MOCA, Los Angeles. Photograph by Alex Sloane

Fortunately, the world still has Simone Forti. Having moved to assisted living in March, 2021, she’s managed to live through Covid, even making colorful art works out of paper bags, some of which are displayed in the MOCA exhibition.

“Mainly, I was writing poetry, but the shopping bags, well, I guess it was kind of a hard time for all of us. I was wanting to press, to feel resistance, to push something through my muscles. I thought I could do that with acrylic paints that I could put on paper,” continued Forti, “but I didn’t have drawing paper, so I cut open those paper bags and they have a lot of strength.”

As does Forti, herself, if now more mental than physical, as she navigates through her days. “I get visitors and normally we would be having our meals in the dining hall, but because we had quite a bit of Covid here, we’ve been having to eat separately in our rooms.

“Some days it feels isolating,” acknowledged Forti, who has been represented by the Box since 2009, a Los Angeles gallery that also provided in-kind support for the exhibition. “But they get me up at six in the morning and change me into my daytime clothes—I can’t dress myself anymore. But I Zoom with people a lot and Skype. I’m involved in projects and I teach some, [but] I would love to run a workshop again and explore some new things.”

Knowing Forti, the innovator, the performer, the scribe, the teacher, the mover, and ultimately, the artist, she will be doing precisely that in whatever form and whatever way she can.