All Positions Possible: Simone Forti Across Time, Through Community

Simone Forti, "Planet, P.S.1 Long Island City, NY," 1976, performed with music by Peter Van Riper. Pictured: Simone Forti and Sally Banes. Image by Peter Moore. Courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles.

An eight-foot wooden ramp was propped up at a forty-five-degree angle in one corner. Knotted ropes hung from six holes drilled near the ramp’s top. The din of the ongoing installation echoed from adjacent museum galleries as three performers mounted the board. They were trying this work, artist Simone Forti’s Slant Board, for the first time. All eighteen performers, who had responded to an open call, would take turns. A few were dancers, but there were also artists, musicians, a designer, a stylist. This is ideal for Forti’s work, which is meant for all kinds of bodies, not just those trained in movement. Though the work is performed, it shouldn’t feel performative.

The instructions for Slant Board, which Forti first presented in 1961, sound simple enough: use the ropes to climb up, down, or across; move at a steady pace; stay on the board for the duration of the work, usually ten minutes; if you need a breather, use the ropes to assume a restful position (for instance tie the rope around your waist for support, or crouch in place while bracing yourself). In practice, it is arduous. “That felt like twenty minutes,” said one of the performers, musician Alan Duff Berman, after the first three-minute run. Forti, who had been watching, seated in a wheelchair amid the performers, explained: “It’s tiring. You can know that and accept it.”

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 and Performance Art Funds. © 2022 The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

It was the first full rehearsal for Forti’s Dance Constructions, a group of performances that are part of the artist’s survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), which would open six days later, on January 15. It wasn’t initially clear whether Forti, who is eighty-seven and lives with advancing Parkinson’s, would feel able to attend these rehearsals at the museum. She had prepared for this possibility years ago, tapping former students who had become collaborators to step in as her proxies. Carmela Hermann Dietrich, the official West Coast instructor for Dance Constructions, led this rehearsal. Sarah Swenson, the performance coordinator, lent her expertise. And here Forti was, too, offering feedback.

These works, among Forti’s earliest and still maybe her best known, brought a Fluxus logic to dance. They were based on accessible, easily repeatable instructions, and yet they had a voice and attitude specific to Forti’s interests. (After years of experimenting, she had become interested in control—“I remember saying that my inner ear could no longer take those limitless seas [of improvisation],” she writes of that time—and how clarity of concept could shape a performance.) Their effect on New York’s performance scene was immediate: “I am indebted to Simone for my awakening as a dancer; I can honestly say that my creative life began when I met her,” artist-dancer Yvonne Rainer wrote in a letter in 1961, shortly after participating in the newly debuted Dance Constructions. It was the way Forti brought “the god-like image of the dancer down to human scale” that particularly struck Rainer. In the six decades that followed, as Forti changed, the works did too, becoming a model for how an artist could reperform and reimagine their own oeuvre with time.

Simone Forti, “Planet, P.S.1 Long Island City, NY,” 1976, performed with music by Peter Van Riper. Photo by Peter Moore. Courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles.

The process of teaching these works became as formalized as possible when the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Dance Constructions in 2015. The acquisition took years, as Forti had to strategize over how works that initially consisted of bare-bones instructions and were meant to change with their circumstances could be learned and reperformed in perpetuity. With the help of multiple collaborators, she assembled a package of teaching videos to accompany the instructions and appointed younger artists she trusted as teachers.

Still, the instructions leave room for adaptation. At the rehearsal at MOCA, like many before it, the works evolved in real time. Someone asked whether to acknowledge the audience while performing Slant Board. In the past, Forti had recommended not making eye contact. This time she wondered, “Why not?” Incidental eye contact with audience members seemed okay, but it shouldn’t get complicated. “No drama,” Hermann Dietrich repeated, for those who couldn’t make out Forti’s fainter voice.

“I think if I had not done [Dance Constructions], there would not be the amount of interest there is in the rest,” Forti observes when I speak with her over zoom (she lives just one mile north, but there have been Covid cases in her building, so we are taking precautions). She notes that they share affinities with other works that also occupy the first gallery of her MOCA survey: animal studies, where she modeled movements after animals she observed in zoos, and a performance in which she walked and then crawled rhythmically in circles, incorporating animal movements as she went. These works all explore the casual, instinctual ways bodies move in contrast to the more self-conscious poetics often associated with modern dance.

I began encountering Forti’s work fifteen years ago, not long after I moved to Los Angeles. Yet I got to know her much better as an artist and person when I started dating my partner, her longtime assistant Jason Underhill, in 2017. Underhill guest-curated the MOCA survey, titled Simone Forti, alongside the museum’s associate curators, Rebecca Lowery and Alex Sloane. I admire the way the three of them strike a balance between giving viewers a sense of chronology and honoring the resonances that move across Forti’s sixty-five years of art-making; but for me, the show offers an opportunity to explore something else I want to think about more deeply: Forti’s strong presence in my own community, and the way she has for decades fostered a sense of community around the kind of work she does—always relational, even when it is not collaborative or participatory.

In talking, and thinking, about her work, Forti often sidesteps questions of legacy or career trajectory. She prefers instead to trace connections and discuss relationships, between artworks, people, and environments. “There’s this ‘Simone Forti’ that’s done these things, and I kind of have to service that,” she said on a 2020 zoom conversation hosted by the nonprofit JOAN, noting how the slowdown that came with COVID-19, while she was isolating, had given her a reprieve from her growing renown as an artist.

Recently, I overheard her say that she didn’t particularly desire more recognition, because “a lot more recognition will take a lot of time out of the day. There will be more emails coming in.” I mention this to the artist Brian Getnick when I call him to talk about Forti. He has followed Forti’s work closely since moving to LA in 2007, and when he opened the art space PAM in 2014, she frequented performances there. Getnick observes that the MOCA exhibition is not primarily valuable because of what it means for Forti’s career. Its significance is in how it benefits those who have not been exposed to the breadth of her work. “The thinking behind [the work] opens up so many doors and possibilities, but in order for those possibilities to remain open, they have to be taken up by other voices,” he says, noting that, especially in Los Angeles, work like hers has mostly lived and thrived in alternative spaces, which are by nature more fleeting and fragile than museums.

Simone Forti, “Sea Lions Sunning Fullness of Throat Sensuous Quality (Animal Study),” 1968. Courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles.

Simone Forti was born into a Jewish family in Florence, Italy, in 1935. The Fortis left to escape the Mussolini regime in 1938, the year the fascist leader stripped Jews of citizenship. After passing through Bern, Switzerland, and Le Havre, France, they landed in New York City, drove across the country in a Buick, and settled in Los Angeles in 1939. Forti graduated from Fairfax High School in 1953, then moved to Portland, Oregon, to attend Reed College. She had no intention of studying art. “I think if I had to get pinned down at that point, it was going to be biology,” she tells me. At Reed, she met Robert Morris, who would later become revered as a Minimalist artist, and the two dropped out to move to San Francisco, where they married in 1955. Morris felt Forti needed inspiration. “He said to me, you can’t just stand there, look out the window, and eat peanut butter,” Forti recalls. He suggested she paint and taught her to stretch canvases. “But it didn’t really take. For one thing, I didn’t know what to do with all those wet canvases, and also I didn’t think I could make any sense in the field. I could never paint as well as De Kooning.” She found her path by accident, when she took a dance class for fun at a school in the neighborhood. Dancers Welland Lathrop and Anna Halprin ran the school. Lathrop’s style, which Forti found less appealing, resembled Martha Graham’s (in her 1974 book Handbook in Motion, Forti talks about how Graham dancers held in their stomachs, insisting, “I would not hold my stomach in”). But Forti loved Halprin’s improvisational approach and continued working with her over the next four years, trying out experiments like running while moving the spine into all positions possible.

In 1959, Forti and Morris relocated to New York City. They quickly became immersed in an evolving art scene, where the previously prominent Abstract Expressionism was receding (“Like a sudden death,” Forti writes) as conceptual and performance art found footing. The composer La Monte Young invited Forti to participate in the Chambers Street Loft Series, hosted by Yoko Ono in her live-work space between December 1960 and June 1961. There, she debuted eight Dance Constructions. “I think of it as a pilot concert for works I was to do for years to come,” Forti explains in Handbook in Motion, influential among her many artists books for the easily introspective way it captures her approach to art—taking acid at Woodstock, living off grid, staring at rocks, making friends, and considering different ways to move—while documenting her early work.

Her life evolved swiftly as the 1960s became the 1970s: a stint teaching nursery school, separation from Morris, marriage to artist Bob Whitman, a year working in Rome, a year living communally in the woods near the Catskills, and a move to California where Forti substitute-taught at the California Institute of the Arts, practiced tai chi, and shared a Los Feliz house with artists Nam June Paik, Shuya Abe, Alison Knowles, and Peter Van Riper. Van Riper and Forti returned to New York and married in 1974, moving into one of the cooperative SoHo lofts renovated by Fluxus artist George Maciunas. There, the two collaborated—Van Riper would play a variety of instruments as Forti responded with movement (“as Peter walks around striking the wood bell whose sound is mellow and precise,” she writes of the work Turning in Place, “I stand in the very center, doing a simple swinging of arms and legs”). In the loft, Forti also honed her lifelong practice of teaching workshops. Her workshops, at least those I’ve attended, feel more like master classes in methods of thinking and experimenting than master classes in movement. One exercise may involve freewriting in silence, then walking around reciting from the free-write you and everyone else just completed. The artist Emily Mast tells me about her first experience in one of Forti’s workshops: “Here’s this woman who’s literally rolling around on the floor and then speaking stream of consciousness and inviting us to open our own consciousnesses, and there was such a lack of judgment and such a lack of pretension.”

Simone Forti, “Zuma News, LA,” 2013 (video still) from “NONFICTIONS – Gorbachev Lives / Zuma News / Questions – a joint work by Jeremiah Day / Simone Forti / Fred Dewey.” Courtesy of The Box, Los Angeles.

“I think of it almost as my laboratory,” Forti says of the workshops, observing that her own teacher, Anna Halprin, treated them the same way. “She’d try this with us and she’d try that with us. I think that was good teaching.” The improvisational performances titled News Animations that Forti began making in the 1980s evolved out of the workshops, in which she had to explain and move at once. During a particular workshop, one participant suggested responding to the headlines through movement. This exercise was an inspiration. “Soon I was talking and dancing the news,” Forti writes in her 2004 book Oh, Tongue. “The mud sliding down Panama’s deforested watersheds and silting up the Panama Canal, oil derricks sucking petroleum out of the earth.” She would lay out newspapers across a floor or, later, a beach, making shapes from them, wrestling with them, and occasionally reading from them, while allowing herself to free-associate verbally. News Animations stopped briefly during the first Gulf War (she felt she couldn’t get close enough to the reality, as she recounts in Oh, Tongue). Then they started again, continuing well into the 2010s, after she’d left New York to live among artists on Mad Brook Farm in Vermont, and then, in 1998, moved back to Los Angeles to be with her aging mother.

She hadn’t meant to stay. But her mother, Milka Forti, lived until just shy of one hundred. “By then, I was part of the community,” Forti recalls. She taught improvisation at UCLA, and, when that class ended and students wanted to continue, relocated classes to the Church in Ocean Park, charging five dollars. Some of these students became long-term collaborators, which reflects how Forti has always operated: revisiting modes of working and continuing collaborations over time, dismissing student-teacher hierarchies.

Forti collaborated with Halprin until Halprin’s death in 2021 at age one hundred. Forti even joined in when Halprin’s interests veered outside her comfort zone, toward spiritual ritual. (One performance, where participants ran in a big circle and yelled the name of someone close to them, left Forti crying behind a tree. She had called her late grandmother’s name. “And as soon as I called out,” she says, “I felt her scolding, ‘Don’t say my name out loud.’”) In 2017, she collaborated with Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, both also icons of the 1960s New York performance scene, in Tea for Three, which debuted at The Box LA. They embraced their changing bodies and playfully riffed on their past work while also engaging disasters of the present (the climate, rising fascism). In 2018, Forti traveled to New York to collaborate with her ex-husband and friend Bob Morris. Morris, who lived upstate, had meant to come down to the city to rehearse with her in Castelli Gallery’s Bryant Park outpost. Instead, he fell ill, and sent ahead large, thick sections of felt—his signature material since the 1960s. (Once, when I interviewed collector Chara Schreyer, she pointed to a draping, gray Morris felt sculpture in her living room and said it had been inspired by his then-wife, “a dancer.”) Forti rehearsed for a week with the felt and then performed twice, rolling and crawling within it, and using a battery-powered radio as a prop.

Performance view of “Good Times: Simone Forti & Jason Underhill” at The Box LA, Friday, August 9, 2019. Photo: Roxie Fuller.

I went to meet her and Underhill in New York in the days before these performances, and Forti took us to visit the SoHo loft she had lived in. When she left for Vermont in the late 1980s, she leased it to dancer Cathy Weis, a good friend. Later, she sold it to Weis for a price Weis could afford (SoHo had already gentrified). This detail struck me as particularly hopeful, given that I had been researching and writing about the effects of housing markets on artists’ ability to take risks. Weis still lives there and hosts workshops and events in the performance space Forti built out. We ate soup for dinner, though Forti finished her glass of white wine first because, she said, she prefers the way wine feels on an empty stomach. The two artists seemed so comfortable in this shared home, and so comfortable recounting the limitations newly affecting their bodies, which had been and continue to be their art-making tools.

Ever since the tremors that accompany Parkinson’s began manifesting, they have been part of Forti’s performances. Her work is about bodies as they are, so she does not treat her body’s evolution as something to avoid. Sometimes, her symptoms cause people to tiptoe around her or treat her as fragile even though, for many years, she remained more agile than most of us (I picture her rolling around in a big red bucket during Tea for Three, or taking off her shoes and walking in circles to liven up a 2016 panel discussion that had become stodgy). Even recently, as her movement has become more limited, she has acknowledged physical changes through writing: “The male nurse is my night nurse. It’s been difficult but interesting,” she writes in her 2022 poem “Another Pretty Autumn.” “Getting me out of bed takes strength from both of us.” From there, the poem moves into a meditation on prayer, nonsense, and lost and found threads. Forti read it aloud at MOCA in May 2022 alongside her friend and collaborator, Luke Johnson, among the artists she met soon after moving back to LA. It had become challenging for her to read uninterrupted for too long, so she would read a few stanzas, and then he would read. The rhythm felt easy.

These relationships are not just easy, though. They’ve been shaped and nurtured. After I first interview her, Forti emails me to ask if we could speak again. We have not talked enough about her long collaboration with Underhill—who in addition to being her assistant, has filmed many of her performances and performed alongside her—or her newer collaboration with Barnett Cohen, with whom she has been writing and reading poetry since the pandemic began. Like me, Underhill and Cohen belong to a generation who came of age in the early aughts. But Forti does not talk about them as younger acolytes; they are her peers, people who expand her world just as she expands theirs.

It’s perhaps because of this attitude that Forti has had such a palpable effect on younger artists in LA’s performance scene. She has not influenced them to make art like hers, but rather demonstrated how to be an artist who maintains their own ethic and pursues their own interests across life’s phases. Brian Getnick recalls that, when he first arrived in LA, Forti and Ron Athey were the two “central figures,” the two elders, who were always there: “You couldn’t avoid them, you know? They were just showing up to be the artists that they’ve always been, in spaces that they recognized as good.”

I reach out to other artists who I know have been shaped by their relationships with Forti. Emily Mast first met Forti in a 2007 workshop at the experimental Mountain School of Arts in LA. “Since that first meeting, we were in each other’s orbit,” Mast says. “Or, I should say, I was making sure I was in her orbit.” Later, they taught together. “When it comes to collaboration, she’s open and embracing of who people are and how they need to be.” Barnett Cohen met Forti when she attended a performance of his at Pieter Performance Space in 2019, after which they began the correspondence that became their poetry collaboration. “There’s a very specific way that I was taught to be an artist, which was not divorced from the market,” Cohen says. “And then when I met Simone, I was like, oh. You can be open, you can read poetry, you can surround yourself with a community that loves you. You can build that community.” Musician Tashi Wada initially met Forti as a young child (his father, Yoshi Wada, lived in a neighboring SoHo loft) and reconnected with her years later, after moving to LA to attend CalArts. “When I’m trying to be in the world as an artist and musician, I do think of Simone and how she handles herself,” says Wada. He collaborated with her on an album of her sound works in 2018. “She just has that ability to be fluid and kind of float above things,” he continues. “Then artistically, just seeing her ability to work across mediums has been very important. Not feeling bound by one particular role that you play.”

“Huddle,” one of Simone Forti’s “Dance Constructions,” performed during the members opening of “Simone Forti” at MOCA, January 14, 2023. Photo: Roxie Fuller.

Simone Forti’s “Slant Board,” one of the “Dance Constructions” performed during the opening of “Simone Forti” at MOCA, January 14, 2023. Photo: Roxie Fuller.

Simone Forti applauds the performers of the “Dance Constructions” during the opening of “Simone Forti” at MOCA, January 14, 2023. Photo: Roxie Fuller.

Carmela Hermann Dietrich, who first met Forti as a UCLA graduate student, agreed years later to become an instructor for the Dance Constructions. The role requires careful attention to the work of her mentor and friend, yet also, a healthy distance. “None of us are ever going to be Simone,” she says, noting how Forti herself has never approached these works the exact same way each time. “She’ll say some things that are the same, and then she’ll say a thing you’ve never heard before.”

Hermann Dietrich led that first Dance Constructions rehearsal at MOCA, and, as the afternoon wore on, performers transitioned from the physically demanding Slant Board to Hangers, which at first seemed easier. Three performers hung, standing inside thick looped ropes suspended from the high ceiling, while four others (“walkers”) walked in and around the “hangers.” It wasn’t quite working. Ideally, the walkers would bump accidently into the hangers, thus creating spontaneous, dynamic movement. But these performers were being careful with each other. Forti got up for the first time that day, walking with performance coordinator Sarah Swenson’s help to demonstrate. Hermann Dietrich hung in the rope, as Forti bumped her back up against her. Hermann Dietrich spun. “We have a tendency to not want to make waves,” Forti told the performers, after returning to her chair. “But it’s okay to make waves.”


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