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Wednesday, April 10, 2013


In 1986, the New Museum in New YoRK

opened the exhibition

Choices: Making

an Art of Everyday Life

, curated by the

museum’s founder and director, the late

Marcia Tucker. This show included such

artists as Marina Abramovic and Ulay, James

Lee Byars, Spalding Gray, Tehching Hsieh,

and Linda Montano. It was at this show

that I first saw Montano’s compelling and

haunting video

Mitchell’s Death. For all its

focus on mortality, it proved to be my own

point of entry into a show that rigorously

investigated aesthetic counterpoints to a

wider art world of commercialism, media

overload, art’s co-option by entertainment

and fashion, and the art world’s seeming lack

of a moral compass.

It’s worth referencing the

Choices show

because most of Montano’s creative life as

a performance artist has been an attempt

to blur the boundaries between art and life,

and her retrospective at SITE Santa Fe—

curated by Janet Dees—loops back to her

first sustained performance, if you will, as a

would-be Catholic nun. Besides becoming

anorexic in the convent, this experience

set the tone for the artist’s inclination

toward a highly disciplined control of her

mind-body systems in order to reach a

heightened state of being, plus Montano’s

spiritual edge is part of her driving wheel.

By the time

Choices opened, Montano had

already begun, in 1984, a work with a multiyear


Seven Years of Living Art. This

piece was based on the seven energy centers,

or chakras, of the body, and each year the

artist would color-code aspects of her life—

such as her wardrobe—to match the seven

colors associated with the chakras: red for the

base of the spine, then yellow, orange, green,

blue, purple, and white at the top of the head.

In addition, the artist would stay a minimum

of three hours a day in a space matching the

color of the chakra in question, listen to one

certain pitch for a minimum of seven hours

a day, and, for one year, wear only clothes

that matched the color aligned with the

chakra under investigation. But Montano’s

art-life piece had a public component as well

and that’s where the New Museum comes

in again. Once a month, for seven years,

Montano sat in a room in the museum painted

to match the color of her clothes for that

year, and she met one-on-one with individuals

who desired to engage with her in art/life

discussions and counseling.

At SITE, the largest component of

Montano’s retrospective is devoted to

documentation from

Seven Years of Living Art.

Each year’s uniform hangs on the wall, and

on the floor, directly in front of the colorful

garment, is a bundle of clothes matched to

that year’s hue. Besides the clothes, which

poignantly carry a strong sense of the artist’s

presence as well as her absence, there is a

video that deconstructs the spiritual rationale

for this long and intricate performance. In it

we see the artist’s tattooed back marked with

circles denoting the chakras positioned up and

down her spine, but the most interesting part

is the live snakes that wind around her neck

and back and symbolically refer to the coiled

Tantric energy that is supposedly located at

the base of the spine.

Death is an eternal mystery and, on a

fundamentally deep level, the loss of someone

we love is never easily integrated into our

landscapes of memory. The power of loss

is palpable in Montano’s video



, which is about the shotgun accident

that took the life of the artist’s ex-husband

Mitchell Payne, in 1977. This is the strongest

and most incantatory of Montano’s works.

In a voice-over monologue, the artist relates

the moment of learning about Payne’s

accident; traveling to Kansas where he

lived; dealing with her ex-husband’s family;

examining Payne’s body in the morgue;

and unveiling her confusion and grief. The

attempt to mirror the death and its impact

on Montano results in a decidedly profound

artwork. In the video, her face morphs from

something ambiguous and skull-like to a face

dotted with acupuncture needles and slowly

back to a soft-focus skull. The artist recites

her litany of painful loss in a one-note drone

that emphasizes the strangeness and horror

surrounding Payne’s death. If Montano were

to be remembered for only one work, this

would be it.

The late art critic and writer Thomas

McEvilley has written extensively on the

potency of artists determined to create

situations and gestures that have “dissolved

the traditional boundaries of art activity and

set new ones within the limits of the lifefield.”

Establishing fluid boundaries within the

“life-field” is at the heart of all performance

work, and what results in this mindexpanding

genre are images of a variable self

splitting open like a seed. In 1983, Montano

collaborated with well-known performance

artist Tehching Hsieh in a yearlong piece

where the artists were tied together by a tenfoot

rope but were forbidden to touch. Hsieh

commented about this piece after it was over

and said, “It’s more than art—you have to

be a human being and an artist. It’s like [the


Rashomon in that everyone’s point of

view and understanding of the same thing will

be different.” In thinking about performance

art, the work eventually comes to rest in the

mind of the viewer, which alters the distances

between what is art, what is life, and what

it means to be a witness to phenomena

that arise between the two forces.

Diane Armitage

Linda Montano,

Mitchell’s Death, video still, 1977

My technique for feeling life’s ecstasy has been negation, taking something away, discipline…. I am in a perpetual state of letting go of control.


Linda Montano: Always Creative


anta Fe

1606 P

aseo de Peralta, Santa Fe

–Linda Montano

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