Karen Finley wore a black wig and a black jacket over slightly flared white pants when she took the stage at the Broad Museum in Downtown Los Angeles this weekend. She also wore big orange-rimmed sunglasses, a key part of her Jackie O. costume. “I can feel your judgment,” she told the audience, after admitting the glasses were Gucci knock-offs. At this point, she was still speaking in her high, sweet Jackie O. voice. Later, she’d let her voice drop down to a huskier register.
The New York–based Finley, a performance artist still best known for being one of the four whose NEA grants were denied in 1990, spent most of Thursday and Friday in rehearsals and sound checks. She would be the first artist to ever perform in the Broad Museum’s Oculus Hall, a modestly sized event space on the second floor of the two-month-old, $140 million museum, built to house the collection of billionaires Eli and Edythe Broad. Glitches with projectors, lighting, and speakers had to be smoothed out before Finley, as Jackie, could search for JFK paraphernalia on eBay, dance to Sylvester, and lecture on photography and trauma under a single spotlight.
Finley was not an obvious choice to be the first to perform at the Broad Museum. She has a raw, sometimes aggressive aesthetic, and none of her work appears in the museum’s collection, which skews decidedly male and toward high price points (Cindy Sherman, Cady Noland, and Kara Walker are the most prominent female artists on view in the debut exhibition).
But when the Broad’s audience-engagement director, Ed Patuto, decided he wanted to organize a feminism–focused event series in the museum’s first year, he tapped scholar and critic Jennifer Doyle. He knew that she served on the board of the experimental alternative space Human Resources, which is based in a former theater in L.A.’s Chinatown, and that she had written extensively about difficult performance work. “The charge to me was to really animate the collection,” Patuto told me, noting that Karen Finley’s performance directly relates to Andy Warhol’s portraits of Jackie currently on view. It also interfaces with the room full of Murakami sculptures and paintings on the first floor, he said—Murakami’s mushroom clouds and pop depictions of nuclear disaster deal with trauma just as Finley’s consideration of Jackie’s legacy does. “By really bringing in fresh voices, we have an opportunity to look at the concepts and ideas with new eyes, new ears,” he said.
“I was surprised to get the call,” Doyle said, of Patuto’s invitation to curate a performance series, which will continue through 2016 and include appearances by younger artists like Martine Syme and Heather Cassils. Wanting a title for the series that conjured images of a body about to speak, she settled on “The Tip of Her Tongue.”
She also wanted to acknowledge the way feminist performers, at least those most interesting to her, resist institutional stories about what matters and why—the kind of stories museums tend to propagate. “I have a very frustrated relationship with museums in general,” Doyle said, “and I don’t approach the Broad with more or less weariness than I do any other institution.” (When the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles hosted the “WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution” show in 2007, Doyle co-organized a panel about the versions of feminism that had been downplayed or left out.)
“The intention for me is not to sell the [Broad] collection, but to engage it,” Doyle said. Only one program in “The Tip of Her Tongue,” a video screening, will include artists actually in the collection. She chose to start with Finley, she told me, in part because organizing something with the artist has been at the top of her “bucket list.” It was also exciting to think of an artist iconic on the art world’s market-adverse fringes performing at a well-funded museum with mainstream appeal.
November 22 marked the 52nd anniversary of JFK’s death, and Finley had spent the summer reworking her Jackie Look performance, which she initially debuted in 2010 at New York City’s West Bank Café. She thought she might perform it in Dallas, near the site of JFK’s assassination. But then the invitation from the Broad came. So she tailored the piece to Los Angeles, dropping in references to Warhol’s Twenty Jackies paintings, among other things.
She began the first of her two performances, which took the form of a sometimes-confessional lecture, with Internet searches, an image of the browser projected large on the screen behind her. She landed on the website of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, a disturbing site in which JFK’s death is treated as curiosity. The word “Assassination” flashes large across the homepage. “How many asses are in assassination?” asked Finley. “There are two.” (She veered between comedy and seriousness throughout the performance.) She pulled up a blurred image of a police officer holding the rifle used to shoot the president, noting that the way it blurred into oranges and yellows reminded her of something. “Yes,” she said, “this is in discourse with [Andres Serrano’s] Piss Christ.”
Often, Finley’s Jackie mused about other women. “Jack loved her as a way of loving himself,” she said of Marilyn Monroe, and became almost hysterical when discussing the way the media criticized Caroline Kennedy’s speech patterns when the daughter of Jackie and JFK considered running for office. Caroline used “you know” too often, critics said, and Finley repeated those two words at length, until it sounded like she was saying “You! No!,” aggressively fighting off unwanted attention. Michelle Obama’s well-defined arms were a motif as well. Near the lecture’s end, Finley pulled up an image of the current first lady in a sleeveless purple dress, noting that a mix of red and blue makes purple. “The Civil War on her body,” said Finley.
Speaking on the phone from the Biltmore Hotel in Downtown L.A. last Saturday morning, Finley described her interest in Michelle Obama. “One is looking at how the woman’s body is purposefully chopped up,” she said, adding that the criticism of Obama’s body and clothing reflected a racism and sexism that she wanted to explore. Her voice changes were, in part, a way to do that. “When I get my voice to a place where I can feel it in my body,” she explained, “it’s supposed to get at what’s left unsaid.”
She said that she also thought about the body when visiting the Broad for the first time, riding up the escalator toward a womblike opening into the main third-floor gallery.
“How does an artist research a collection?” she asked. “I probably would have done more if I’d had more time.” But she did make one suggestion to Eli and Edythe Broad, who sat near the middle of the room Friday night and slipped out just as the performance ended: They might consider installing a larger-than-life pair of Jackie O. sunglasses in their lobby. Finley had made a ceramic prototype. It would suit the scale of their museum nicely, and conjure one of the most famous female bodies of the 20th century.