One starts somewhere. My career as a writer began in the minimal and marginalized field of dance criticism. Despite, or perhaps because of, its low place on the cultural totem pole, I had a compelling ambition to excel at it and make it my own. I was twentysomething, and the time was the late fifties, just when a great sea change in the American modern dance tradition was underway. My aspirations as a critic were academic and literary from the start. Certain analytic interpretive writings of a prominent German dance critic were a model--best applied no doubt to history rather than to work of the moment. And it became the moment--so eventful and attractively shocking heading into the sixties--that would arrest me.
Summoned in 1959 by the upstart revolutionist paper the Village Voice, then only four years old, to write about dance, I had a forum obviously set up for covering or perpetrating all manner of outrage. When the postmodern dance movement burst officially on the scene in 1962, with performances at the Judson Memorial Church in New York, I already knew all the choreographers and associated artists and was an enthusiastic convert to their attacks on tradition. Though a surpassingly partisan critic, standby of everything avant-garde, I retained the more objective vision of capturing movement on the page, describing and interpreting its character, defining the structure of its choreographic frame. Also my literary ambition remained intact. The opportunity of learning to write on the job was not lost on me. For me, style was always integral with what I wanted to say. While contributing to the Voice every week, I had further scope for growing as a writer in monthly reviews of painting and sculpture for Art News.
As the combustible sixties progressed, writng itself, such as collage-like assemblages of "found" sentences, increasingly devoured the space allotted to me for the review of works by artists and choreographers. The Voice was collusive in this subversion, ultimately altering my status to that of columnist. Now I was a chronicler of my own life, by sixties standards perhaps not too egregiously adventurous and experimental, but in a newspaper in full public view, in the most fractured dada style of work I had admired as a critic--a rather wild spectacle in those woolly times.
As more time passed, and my subjects expanded to include the feminist politics and activism of the late sixties/early seventies, this extreme style of writing, by then a signature, became a problem. An art of high amusement and contempt for authority often seemed unserviceable for serious political rhetoric. But a deeper conflict of interests was at work
Awakened to my life in the mid-sixties, I was seized by a new ambition--more powerful in its way than my first. Not, as it may seem, to write about my life, i.e., in any diarist or memoirist sense, but rather to address my story. The life I had awakened to was my story, my origins, which in my case were fairly unusual, now seemingly impossible to ignore. However, no ready outlet was at hand.
|And even had there been one, I was unschooled in a language needed to bring the story into focus. And the times were not yet conducive to literary revelations of a personal nature. I was handicapped as well by large gaps in my knowledge of crucial pieces in the story. My father, for instance, an Englishman I never met and naturally a key figure, remained largely mythological to me. Not until 1980 did I begin to research his life and careers.
In the meantime, I had several books published (1971, '72, '74), mainly collections of my work since 1959. During the latter half of the seventies I endeavored to undo the insular style of writing cultivated from the sixties. With the world becoming increasingly conservative, it seemed unlikely I would even survive without writing to reach a larger public. On my own, I taught myself to organize simple syntactic sentences and short narrative paragraphs conceived as mini-chapters, while normalizing punctuation. The Voice printed these tightly written essays during the late 70s.
Beginning in 1981, several distinguished editors came to my aid. One was the editor-in-chief, Robert Gottlieb, of Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of two autobiographical volumes, "Mother Bound" and "Paper Daughter," 1983 and 1985. For two other editors, Elizabeth Baker and Rebecca Sinkler, who headed up the establishment publications Art in America and the New York Times Book Review, I would write articles and reviews in a revived career as critic. Now I was able to resume designs in criticism left unfulfilled in the late 1960s when I quit the field, frustrated by the coded absence of biographical data to support assessments of work. A culminating venture of this period was the publication by Thames and Hudson in 1996 of my scholarly work on the artist Jasper Johns. A collection of essays representing the same period, bridging the 1980s and 1990s, was published as well.
With earlier writings also collected and republished, I now had my sights on the project that had long awaited my preparedness--the work I had come to identify with the clichee: "the book I waited all my life to write." By the year 2000 with my helper and collaborator Ingrid Nyeboe, the foundation for such a book had been laid through two decades of research in the USA and abroad. This would be my story of origins conceived in the 1960s, but now woven into the more public story of my father's extraordinary career as a bellfounder. An English bellfounder at a time when the concert instrument known as the carillon was undergoing a renaissance, it was on one of his transatlantic voyages to America bearing bells for carillons that he met my American mother.
In my first life as a writer I enjoyed an intimate alliance with the artists and choreographers whose interests I served. Now, in combining forces with the dedicated founders, craftsmen and musicians of the bell universe a similar match has been struck. Carillonneurs, long invisible at their keyboards in church or university towers, believe like the avant-garde artists I once championed that I might help deliver them to a larger public, encouraging appreciation of a virtually unknown art form and its rich history.