Linda Montano: The Art/Life Hospital at the Dorsky Museum
Walking through the hallway of the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz on a cold and dreary Thursday afternoon this past February, I was heading towards the Alice & Horace Chandler Gallery and North Gallery where Linda Mary Montano’s one-person show, Linda Montano:The Art/Life Hospital was scheduled to be on exhibit from January 23 through April 14, 2019. Montano, the performance artist recognized for her work in second-wave feminism, endurance art and blurring the lines between life and art, was exhibiting her new work exploring death and healing. Montano is best known for One-Year Performance (Rope) with Tehching Hsieh, in which Montano and Tehching were tied at the waist with a rope from 6 pm on July 4, 1983 until 6 pm July 4, 1984.
Upon arrival, the gallery looked darkened and seemed closed. For a brief moment, I felt disheartened. I was especially looking forward to seeing Linda Mary Montano’s exhibit at the museum, as she is a personal friend. I was about to turn away and head off to work at my studio but then I noticed movement inside. From the darkness an apparition-like image was moving on the far wall inside of the gallery. Intrigued, I entered the museum’s doors and was able to grasp that the ghostly image was actually a large black and white projection of the face of a younger Montano (figure a). Many acupuncture needles pierced her face, her eyes were closed and she was nearly swallowed by a deep black background. In front of the projected image there were several white cubes distributed in the center of the large gallery space for viewers to sit on. On screen, Montano was chanting, “I must see him. I have to go,” and the story of how Montano responded to her husband’s death, continued on in a droning voice.
To my left as I entered the museum gallery was a large reception desk with a young woman smiling and wearing a nurse’s caps behind the desk, much like you’d see at a nurses’ station in a hospital setting (figure b). Behind her, I noticed there were seven numbered signs titled Healing Stations. Every sign had a red cross with specific qualities or traits listed such as Security/$$/Things and Compassion/Heart. Below the signs were seven large chalkboards including big pieces of chalk on the rails. The chalkboards were covered with drawings and writings by the many museum visitors. Each “chalkboard station” was bathed in a different colored light: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and white. Montano has a long history of using colors that correspond to the chakra or energy centers of the human body according to Eastern mystical philosophies.
Opposite the entry way and the reception desk to my right was a solitary white antique wooden rocking chair. Beside the rocker was a simple rectangular wooden box with a red bundle of wrapped and tied cloth lying on top of it. A deep orange sign hung on the wall with the words: The Art/Life Hospital Gratitude Nursery. The walls surrounding the rocker also had seven signs with red crosses. Below each sign was a miniature wooden bed frame hung waist high on the wall. Every sign had a statement below the red cross, such as “I am grateful for money because it helps me feel secure.” The beds were painted in the same seven colors seen throughout the show: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue, purple, white. On each little bed frame was an odd bundle of material that seemed to represent a swaddled baby. Instead of a baby’s face, the material was wrapped around a glossy portrait of the Madonna, saints or Jesus.
To the far right of the main gallery space there was a long deep section with pillars and a much lower ceiling. Montano cleverly created a Buddhist temple-like space out of the museum’s architectural features. On the façade at ceiling height, was a hanging piece that looked similar to the structure of Tibetan prayer flags made of soft cotton-like strings of balls repeating the seven chakra colors used throughout the exhibit. On the floor, directing visitors to a coffin at the back wall, was a long green artificial grass runner that led from the entry of this low-ceiling cavernous gallery past the first set of pillars with a hand-painted black outline of a chicken on the front and “life=art” written on the side. The runner continued past the Fourteen Chakra Drawings on the left and right side walls between the second set of pillars, to a shrine with photos from the artist’s family, religious and spiritual figures on a wall mounted shelf on the left wall and a sign-in book on the right wall, all the way back to the far wall where an open coffin is installed with a skeleton, death mask and mirror inside.
Flanking the coffin on the floor are two synchronized video monitors playing a film of a mother breastfeeding a baby. Between the monitors below the coffin is a sign bearing a quote: “The Tibetan spiritual teacher Chogyam Trungpa allegedly said to his son on entering his room ‘I’m dying.’ And then he said to his son, ‘You’re dying too.’ This story resonates with me and I remind myself ‘I’m dying too’ Linda Mary Montano” On the back wall above the right half of the coffin is a neon red cross. On the floor against the back wall, on both the left and right sides are arrangements of artificial flowers in large vases. The cross and the vases of flowers are common items at a Catholic wake (figure h). On the wall, above each flower arrangement, several pencil lines are faintly drawn. Between each line, the words “I’m dying” are written over and over again.
After leaving the exhibit, my mind reflected on how brilliantly the show was installed using the unique architecture of the Chandler Gallery within the Dorsky Museum. Overall, it was remarkable to see how the gallery space was used to augment Montano’s Art/Life Hospital narrative. Beginning with the visitor’s approach to the exhibit from the hallway outside the gallery, the viewers were thrown out of their day-to-day reality and pulled into Montano’s Art/Life universe by the darkened large central space and the faint projected videos and images that were moving on the far wall across a considerable distance from the front door.
Once the visitors had stepped into the museum, they were greeted by someone, frequently a woman, in a nurse’s cap at the reception desk that had been transformed by Montano into a nurse’s station (figure a). Using the reception desk as a nurse’s station was humorous and unsettling as much as it was engaging. Immediately, you had found yourself transported into Montano’s peculiar world of religious iconography mixed with medical emblems, ritualistic imagery exploring life and death, including a Catholic/Buddhist wake, with no shortage of kitsch, absurdity, sincerity and humor. There were didactic signs placed throughout the show, including corporate-looking signs on metal stands at the entrance to the show and at the entrance to the life/death section of the show. Many red crosses and texts inform viewers about where and why they are standing in front of an object in a particular section of the gallery and the exhibit.
In contemplating what I had seen, it had occurred to me that Montano not only blurred the lines between her art and her biography, but she had also merged a retrospective exhibit with controversial new work about death. The show felt like a tribute, as a linear timeline within the museum space, of the events of her life and her work. The exhibit was laid out as much as a review of Montano’s entire life as it was an anticipation of her future death and the hopefulness of rebirth.
If we looked at the entire gallery as a timeline, starting at the corner that had contained the Art/Life Hospital Nursery and moving in a clockwise direction from there, we would have experienced all of life’s stages, including birth in the nursery, school at the blackboards, and within the videos, at the center of the exhibit are themes of career, religion, marriage, loss and trying on many different roles in life in order to grow and mature. Finally, spirituality and death were examined in the low ceiling section of the gallery that led to the back area where the coffin was placed in a wake-like scenario. The cycles of life and death would repeat each time you would walk the periphery of the gallery in a clockwise fashion.
Looking at the name of the exhibit, Linda Montano:The Art/Life Hospital, the word “hospital” seems of utmost importance when looking at how the architecture of the museum gallery was used. Hospitals are cold and stark places. Life often begins and ends there (figure i). Medical staff, including nurses and doctors, usually attend to you in brief moments and then they move on to other patients. With the idea of the a medical institution in mind, Montano seems to set up the Chandler gallery in a minimal and spiritually austere way using the existing elements of the museum’s architecture. Montano’s Catholic and Buddhist religious beliefs, along with her art practices of endurance and performance, are brilliantly blended into the hard spaces of the gallery. The floor of the Chandler Gallery is a dark and shiny gray, made of stones, metal and mortar. It is reflective of overhead lights and is as hard as can be. There is nothing about the physical space of the gallery or the materials used in the exhibit that makes for bodily comfort. It seemed that Montano was asking visitors to look beyond the physical form and to the spiritual realm for relief instead.
In the nursery section of the gallery, where life begins in Montano’s world, it was filled entirely with hardness, primary and secondary colors, hues that are not subtle or soft — no pastel pink or baby blue here, and the space was kept vulnerably open and spare. The miniature beds, with baby-like forms placed on them, hung from walls and had no mattresses. The old wooden rocker, alone in the middle of the space next to a plain wood box, had no cushion for the sitter. The only place of softness and soothing for a baby in this nursery would be the occasional human placed in that empty chair. The only place of comfort for the adult might be the religious iconography, if you were so predisposed. Babies’ bodies were missing and replaced by tied-up swaddled material. Baby’s faces were replaced with magazine photos of pious-looking Catholic saints and religious figures like Jesus and the Madonna. Viewers were directed to participate in the experience of Montano’s religious/spiritual and human birth by rocking the swaddled mass of material in the stark center stage of this nursery.
Moving clockwise to right while facing the entrance of the gallery past the reception desk is one of the gallery’s longest walls and an adjacent wall behind the reception desk. This space was filled with seven huge classic blackboards. Large pieces of chalk were provided for visitors to use on the blackboard ledges. From birth we moved to school with the blackboards that were most likely influenced by parochial school memories of Montano’s childhood (figure k). These traditional black colored blackboards are now things of the past. Like many artists who came up in the 1970’s, Joseph Beuys must have influenced Montano. Beuys, in a talk about democracy, used four large blackboards (figure l) to draw on during his lectures as part of an event — Seven Exhibitions, Tate Gallery, Feb.-March 1972. During that event, Beuys was quoted in his teaching:
Communication occurs in reciprocity: it must never be a one-way flow from the teacher to the taught. The teacher takes equally from the taught. And thus - at all times and everywhere, in any conceivable internal and external circumstance, between all degrees of ability, in the work place, institutions, the street, work circles, research groups, schools - the master/pupil, transmitter/receiver, relationship oscillates. — Joseph Beuys
After his lecture at the Tate, the four blackboards were preserved as sculptures. In a similar way that Beuys talked about the teacher and student having a mutual benefit through their exchange, Montano was inviting her visitors into a reciprocal experience as well. Montano provided the topics of contemplation and the space for the visitors to express themselves with chalk and blackboard. Montano enjoys her artistic role as teacher and she also became the recipient of the public’s expression of creativity and their ideas in this section of the gallery.
Moving clockwise to the center of the gallery was where Montano’s life and career of video/performance work was placed. In front of a large projection screen, seven white cubes were placed on the floor for viewers to sit on as they watched Montano’s videos (figure m). Montano’s voice from the videos bounced off the hard surfaces in the gallery to produce a somewhat haunting sound from the past. The hard floor, wood cubes and the center wall of the gallery was staged as an austere minimalist-style theater. As in the nursery area, there is nothing comfortable or soft for the public. Montano put 5 hours of videos together for this exhibit – this alone was an endurance challenge for any gallery visitor. And it’s also important to remember that Montano’s performance work came out of the art historical time of conceptual art and minimalism. It’s easy to imagine that the white cubes and their placement are reminiscent of a Robert Morris or Donald Judd installation from the 1960s or early 1970s.
And finally, to the right is the low ceiling area mentioned earlier. This section of the gallery is frequently referred to as “the cave.” In the back of this area was where Montano’s newest work, I’m Dying, was staged. I found this to be the most interesting use of the gallery architecture. The long and wide green astro turf runner led us back to the coffin. The fake flowers and the neon red cross are complete opposites of the chic stone flooring and light muddy grey of the museum’s walls. Montano kitschy attention to detail ironically made this area come alive as a funeral home complete with coffin, corpse and shrine with family and religious photos, a sign-in book and visitors paying respect to her.
During the duration of the opening and closing receptions on February 8 and April 14, 2019, Montano installed herself inside of the coffin and was tended to and fed mother’s breast milk from a baby’s bottle by her doctor, Amanda Heidel. Museum visitors played along with the performance and got in line to view the body. They then gathered around in groups to talk much like they would have if they were at a real wake. The entire cave area was set as a wake-like stage filled with interesting art historical references and visual jokes. When Montano wrote the sentence “I’m dying” over and over again in pencil on two areas of the back wall behind the coffin, it seemed like a humorous word play on the expression “reading the writing on the wall.” “I’m dying” also seems to be an amusing nod to John Baldessari’s piece I will not make any more boring art. The neon red cross over the right half of the coffin appears to be a humorous reference to Bruce Nauman’s neon work such as Raw/War.
Montano is a master of theater and space. She successfully transformed herself into a corpse and then resurrected herself for a message of hope, spiritual discipline and creatively living within the cycles of life and death. Montano brilliantly transformed the Dorsky Museum into a hospital baby nursery, a school, a movie theater, a Buddhist temple and a funeral home, all with a sense of humor and devotion. I, for one, hope Montano stays out of a coffin for a very long time.
Linda Montano, Art in Everyday Life, (Los Angeles, Astro Artz, 1981) The video on view at the Dorsky Museum, is titled “Mitchell’s Death.” The original performance by Montano, Pauline Oliveros and Al Rossi was in April 1978 at USCD. Mitchell Payne was Montano’s estranged husband who was tragically killed by gunfire. Montano chanted the story of her husband’s death from when she was first notified until she saw his body at the mortuary. Oliveros played a Japanese bowl gong, and Rossi a sruti box, as Montano chanted.
Linda Mary Montano, 14 Years of Living Art, (Brattleboro, C.X. Silver Gallery Press, 2017), 60-62. In the chapter “Notes Before 7 Years of Living Art Begins,” Montano describes her elaborate system, based on the energy centers of the 7-chakras, from Eastern philosophies and mysticism. Montano created a chart using the 7 colors she would wear per year related to each chakra: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and white. The chart also categorized the physical location on the human body for each chakra, a corresponding musical note, the quality of the energy center (e.g. Sex, Security, Courage) and the chakra name. The chart also included, beginning in 1984, the 7-year schedule and the accent she would speak in for each corresponding chakra. The 7 chakra colors appear again and again in Montano’s work.
Karen Kurczynski talks about Montano’s Catholic upbringing, her entering a convent as a teen and how her lifelong spiritual practices of Catholicism, Buddhism and Yoga blended into her artistic practice while blurring boundaries between art and daily life. Karen Kurczynski, Oxford Art Online, Grove Art Online, Published online: 24 February 2010, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.libdatabase.newpaltz.edu/groveart/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7002085967
Montano, 14 Years of Living Art, 199. 14 Chakra Drawings: Fourteen Years of Living Art. Allowing herself to make only one drawing per year during her 7 Years of Living Art, Montano asked herself to draw each chakra without editing. During her second 7 Years of Living Art, Montano used her non-dominant hand to redraw her original chakra drawings.
In a private conversation I had with the artist in February, 2019, Linda Mary Montano, she explained that she had used her late mother’s clothing to make the bundles that she had placed on the nursery beds and the box next to the rocking chair. She also spoke of the need for childless women, such as herself, to grieve their unborn children.
Montano, 14 Years of Living Art, 18. Montano talks about returning to a fundamentalist version of the Catholic religion and how the priests laid down the law. “No yoga, no palm reading, no tarot, no chakras, no nothing.”
Joseph Beuys, Joseph Beuys, Four Blackboards, 1972, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/beuys-four-blackboards-t03594
Published in: The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988
 Beuys, Joseph Beuys, Four Blackboards, Tate.org/uk