Film still of Talley Beatty in A Study in Choreography for Camera. 1945. USA. Directed by Maya Deren. è 2010 Estate of Maya Deren. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
Film still from Sink or Swim. 1990. USA. Directed by Su Friedrich. Courtesy the Artist.
Photo still of Hammer in I Was/I Am. 1973. USA. Directed by Barbara Hammer. Courtesy the Artist.
Bent Time. 1983. USA. Directed by Barbara Hammer. Courtesy the Artist.
Plumb Line. 1971. USA. Directed by Carolee Schneemann. Courtesy the Artist.
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater Galleries and Theaters 1 and 2
Maya Deren’s Legacy:
Women and Experimental Film
May 14-October 4, 2010
The legacy of Maya Deren, considered America’s first prominent avant-garde filmmaker, film theorist, and visionary of experimental cinema, is explored in the exhibition Maya Deren’s Legacy: Women and Experimental Film, a five-month film series and video installation. Deren’s innovations — performing in front of the camera, using semi-autobiographical content, and meshing literary, psychological, and ethnographic approaches with rigorous technique — laid the groundwork for future generations of experimental filmmakers, bridging film, performance, and conceptual ideas. In the 1940s and 1950s, Deren (b. Ukraine, 1917–1961) was a pioneer of experimental cinema as an art form, independent and distinct from Hollywood production values or the dramatic narrative, closer to the modernist and avant-garde art practices of her generation. This exhibition looks at Deren’s legacy through her own work and that of a trio of women directors upon whom she had an indelible influence — Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, and Su Friedrich. It is organized by Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.
Maya Deren’s Legacy: Women and Experimental Film coincides with the publication by MoMA of Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art (June 2010), which includes an essay by Ms. Berger that explores Deren’s aesthetic theories, her films, and her methods of promotion and self-distribution. It also includes interviews by Ms. Berger with Schneemann, Hammer, and Friedrich, who discuss Deren’s impact on their work, revealing how Deren helped to pave the way for future women to enter the field of experimental cinema.
This exhibition provides an opportunity to study the complex layers and seamless qualities of Deren’s work, which influenced other filmmakers. Three of her earliest films — Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), At Land (1944), and Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) — are shown as projections on the walls of the Roy and Niuta Titus 1 Gallery, juxtaposed with three works by Schneemann (Meat Joy, 1964), Hammer (Bent Time, 1983), and Friedrich (Cool Hands, Warm Heart, 1979). Two choreographic works by Deren —A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) and Meditation on Violence (1948) — point to Deren’sspecific interest in using film to explore dance, physical movement, and space, creating scenarios that can only exist on film. To express the concept of ultimate form practiced in the Chinese martial art of Tai-chi chuan performed as a constant, fluid motion), Deren created a continuous loop in Meditation on Violence by reversing the first half of the film.
Schneemann, Hammer, and Friedrich discovered Deren’s work as emerging artists in the 1960s and 1970s. Schneemann found a kindred spirit in a woman artist working in a pre-feminist world, interested in the body and nature; Hammer identified with Deren’s ideas of “creative geography,” using motion and editing to connect different geographic locations and metaphysical concepts; and Friedrich was profoundly impacted by how the formal structure of Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon perfectly articulated the psychology of the human condition. The effect Deren had on these directors reflects a larger phenomenon of Deren’s legacy — many artists continue to be inspired by her work, and are drawn to experimental film as an intimate and expressive form.
Originally from Kiev, Russia, Deren immigrated with her parents at the age of six to the United States where they soon after settled in Syracuse, New York. A precocious student, she studied poetry and literature at New York University and Smith College, where she became interested in the arts. While working for modern dance choreographer Katherine Dunham on the West coast, she met her husband, Czech émigré filmmaker Alexander Hammid (née Hackenschmied), who introduced her to European avant-garde film. In 1943, they collaborated on Meshes of the Afternoon, a film which has become a classic in the experimental film canon, and one of the most widely influential of all American avant-garde films.
Deren continued making films, developed comprehensive theoretical concepts about avant-garde cinema, and was a tireless advocate of experimental filmmaking throughout her lifetime. She wrote about, lectured, and promoted experimental cinema at universities and in private and public screenings throughout the United States, helping to spur the growth of cinema societies. One of only a few women working in experimental film in the 1940s, she became an inspiration to succeeding generations of artists. In 1946, she was the first person to receive the art world’s prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of motion pictures. She formed the Creative Film Foundation to bring recognition and support to experimental filmmakers. By her untimely death at the age of 44, she had made six films, was working on several film projects, and had written numerous articles on film as well as a definitive ethnographic book on Haitian Voudoun (Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, 1953.).
Meat Joy. 1964. USA. Carolee Schneemann. Courtesy the Artist.