Nick Mauss’s Continental Divide

George Platt Lynes, "Tex Smutney," 1941. Collection of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University; courtesy the George Platt Lynes Estate.
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Nick Mauss is a fan of verre eglomisé, or “distressed hand-gilded mirror,” a phrase that sounds very European, and very gay. The artist takes these gay mirrors and adorns them: disheveled pastel splotches mingle with line work, which drifts in and out of figuration like a Cocteau drawing, or the wrinkles of a linen shirt. Mauss’s European – or, as Midwestern mannerist painter Grant Wood put it, “Europe-y” – references feel like a study-abroad trip. It’s an American’s romantic ideal: Nespresso pods, tiny pastries, Vespa rides, leisure. But Mauss’s Continental vibe functions as more than just a Call Me By Your Name backdrop. Instead, Transmissions, his solo show currently on view at the Whitney, foregrounds Descartes’s cogito, or mind/body split, to suggest a mutually formative relationship between Europe and gayness. Pushing back against prominent queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, who argued that performance modeled newer and gayer modes of subjectivity, Mauss suggests that most queer performance – and most queerness in general – bolsters a tired image of mind/body invented by the European Enlightenment.

Transmissions tracks the “flamboyant intersection” of European modernist ballet and New York’s interwar avant-garde scene. George Balanchine, co-founder of the School of American Ballet, was an important node, an essential connection between these worlds. After working with Diaghilev and Stravinsky in Russia, Balanchine was invited to New York by a wealthy arts patron named Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein was anxious to combine classic and modern Euro-Russian ballet traditions with something distinctly American: “Ours,” he wrote, “is a style bread … from basketball courts … and junior proms … the behavior of movie stars like Ginger Rogers … It is frank, open, fresh, and friendly.” While Transmissions combines archival photographs, painting, ephemera, and a folding verre eglomisé screen, the focal point is a piece performed daily by four dancers. Incorporating ballet with contemporary techniques, the dancers slip between warm-up gestures and routines choreographed collaboratively with Mauss. Watching from a foot away, close enough to catch an eyebrow raise or a bicep quiver, it’s an intimate, slow motion grace matched only by Evgenia Medvedeva’s figure skating.

Carl Van Vechten slides, photographed by Nick Mauss. Courtesy The Carl Van Vechten Trust and The Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

The exhibition is interested in a period of gay desire that, in Mauss’s words, existed prior to “a public language around queerness.” The show declines to use people’s lives as proof or materials for whichever queer theory is on trend (“the posthuman,” “entanglement”); instead, Mauss shows gays enjoying the beach, desiring each other, and trying out new artistic techniques with understandably varying success. That Mauss chose to examine this history via performance makes sense, considering Butler and Sedgwick’s famous theories of the performative nature of social categories like gender and sexuality. In real time, dance can model ways of acting these roles differently: Mauss’s “male” dancers variously arch their wrists, giggle, lift each other; buff “female” dancers dangle themselves, en pointe, atop visibly ripped calves. Hyper-awareness of the dancers’ bodies feeds a similar sense of one’s own body: a body watching and watched by others, a multi-point feedback loop that modulates, amplifies, and distorts the ways we perform our genders and sexualities.

Considering the current state of queer performance theory, however, Mauss’s focus on ballet is an odd move, not least for the ways that it foregrounds Descartes’s mind/body split, known as the cogito. A brilliant account of the cogito’s role in Western subject-formation can be found in “In “1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value” by Denise Ferreira da Silva. Da Silva’s essay starts by rehashing Descartes’s basic arguments: that the mind can know both itself and the world without the aid of the body; that the mind is thus superior to the body, which is reduced to a kind of corporeal container. Da Silva then uses Kant to argue that the cogito enabled the subject/object distinction as well. The “subject” is that which perceives and makes judgments with its powerful mind; “objects” are simply acted upon in this way. In an accompanying press video, Mauss argues against ballet as a “pure” or “rigid” art form; the show’s title is meant to suggest fluidity, as ballet’s legacy seeps into later forms of dance. But following Da Silva’s account – perhaps against the show’s own intentions – ballet feels like the embodiment of Enlightenment subjectivity. In a spectacle of mental dominion, the cogito en pointe, the mind directs the body into perpendicular lines. If this claim can be expanded out from ballet, Transmissions may incidentally argue that, while queer performance can expose audiences to gayer modes of movement and relation, it does not, contra Butler or Sedgwick, initiate new forms of subjectivity. Instead, it entrenches the same European cogito, just gay.

George Platt Lynes, “Ralph McWilliams, 1952,” 1941. Collection of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University; courtesy the George Platt Lynes Estate.

A much greater obstacle to Transmissions’s ambition, however, is its unraced account of queerness. Wall-text notes that, in turn of the century New York, most “ballet” actually combined the classic Euro-Russian tradition with jazz, vaudeville, and African dance. While New York’s emerging ballet style – Kirstein’s “American classicism” – predictably pilfered from Black cultural traditions, troupes with Black dancers were run by white directors; New York wouldn’t have a Black principal dancer until Arthur Mitchell’s 1957 appearance in Agon. But Transmissions stops short of analyzing the (non-)relation between blackness and queerness itself. As Da Silva points out, the cogito’s mind/body and subject/object distinctions that formed white Western subjectivity cannot apply to Black people. Those who transatlantic slavery horrifically turned into sentient objects cannot embody idealized Enlightenment subjecthood. It is thus not queerness but Blackness that ruptures the cogito’s problematic dichotomies. Many Black scholars, including Fred Moten and Rizvana Bradley, have analyzed this existence without subjecthood in relation to performance and dance. Perhaps Mauss’s choice not to reference them is partly an attempt to “stay in his lane,” but the omission is felt.

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