Adventures in the Avant-Garde at New York’s The Kitchen

The 52-year-old experimental art space unveiled performance art by Leslie Cuyjet and poetry jazz based on the writing of Sun Ra in December; in 2024, it will host J Jan Groeneboer, Harmony Holiday, Martha Friedman, Susan Marshall and more.

How do we scale the success of art?

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We could reference many rubrics in response to that question; however, the endeavor to arrive at one satisfying scale would be arduous and likely boring. So, let’s settle quickly on the broadest answer: art’s job is to provoke a feeling. Disgust or delight are both viable options.

However, when art requires context before we can arrive at any easily articulated response, is the process of artistic absorption interrupted? Or is this an advanced form of creative expression, one that requires we open our hearts as well as our minds? Somewhere in these questions exists the avant-garde progressive artist space, The Kitchen.

A woman stands on a wooden floor flanked by two large screens projecting different images
Leslie Cuyjet in ‘Leslie Cuyjet: With Marion’, The Kitchen at Westbeth. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk

Founded in 1971 by Woody and Steina Vasulka as a collective, the artist-driven institution rooted in the Kunsthalle Model today offers exhibitions, performances, discussions and online platforms featuring mixed media and writing. Executive director Legacy Russell told Observer that The Kitchen is a site that “expresses its history through the language of the avant-garde.” Their goal is to “use experimentation as a prompt.”

Lynn Hershman Leeson and Dara Birnbaum are former collective members, and the organization now has 4,000 artists in its archive. The art and cultural experiences empowered by The Kitchen iare not meant to be entirely straightforward; the institution frames creativity as a complex thought experiment that stands counter to the traditional museum model. Your experience at The Kitchen will require both intellectual and somatic labor. “I think the performance continues in the mind of the audience after the conclusion of the actual live event,” said Matthew Lyons, one of the space’s curators alongside Robyn Farrell.

What is The Kitchen?

In its orientation toward the avant-garde, The Kitchen actively embraces non-traditional modes of creation that resist Western limitations and adopt an unfettered approach to artistic expression. “Many of the artists I work with, I’m drawn to because I see some struggle within them […] if I can identify that they are on this kind of spiritual quest that they address through artistic means, that’s a flag for me of someone to watch out for, to support and to give these opportunities to, because they can continue that struggle in front of the public. I think that’s what makes compelling art that speaks to where we are in the contemporary moment,” Lyons explained.

Award-winning choreographer Leslie Cuyjet debuted her performance “With Marion” at The Kitchen earlier this month, a perfect example of the hyphenated space in which The Kitchen thrives. The audience sat on the floor surrounding a cube made of screen projectors, in which Cuyjet remained for most of the performance. The digital-archival-dance-visual presentation was an ode to the artist’s great-aunt Marion Cuyjet, a pioneer of dance education for students of color from the late 1940s to the early 70s.

The performance began with videos from a Cotillion Ball associated with The Links Incorporated (a nonprofit volunteer service organization founded in 1946 for African Americans) projected on the screens. Cotillion Balls are an American Southern tradition in which debutantes are presented in a formal coming-of-age ceremony. As the images of Black women in pearly white gowns were displayed, I anticipated a further meditation on Blackness. However, the performance was not so explicit; Cuyjet began creating a looped video of images, symbols and scribblings, which felt almost too abstract for me and, based on the murmurings around me, several other audience members.

However, when she closed with Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” as she emphatically stomped the wooden ground, sending vibrations through the seated audience, a more complex meaning began to crystalize. Following her performance, I was left slightly confused, attempting to decipher the intended message behind each element of Cuyjet’s art piece. Eventually, her frantic mode of communication—stomping on chairs and scribbling anxiously and illegibly onto crumpled paper—began to resonate as her anger and frustration with white beauty standards and the boundaries of traditional modes of expression revealed themselves.

In the program, there were several essays written by Cuyjet elucidating elements of her performance that weren’t easily grasped by the audience without context. In one, she writes, “With each turn, we create a loop that mimics my practice: show up, interrogate, write, let go.” Her incorporation of digital archives was made possible by coordinating with The Kitchen, which lets artists take residency in the space days or even weeks before performances. “The cultural workers of the organization and the artists sharing in one singular locality creates a really important dynamic; it means that the artist’s work is everywhere; there is no place where one can be set apart,” Russell told me.

“The most sustained euphoria I felt in a while”

Also on view at The Kitchen in December was “Angels and Demons,” a musical adaptation of writings by the cosmological poet and composer Sun Ra by saxophonist Darius Jones and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. The juxtaposition of these two performances is a quintessential part of this experimental space: “When you come to The Kitchen, part of the thing that is extraordinary is that you don’t know exactly what you’ll see,” explained Russell.

On this night, The Kitchen was transformed, with chairs surrounding a center stage illuminated by multicolored light throughout the loft. I sat down next to members of an eclectic audience to join a discussion on what value may be derived by describing elements of musical composition as paintings and listened as they deliberated what textures and colors might reflect Sun Ra’s futuristic jazz discography.

A musical performance in an intimate space lit by a large globe lamp
Amirtha Kidambi and Darius Jones: Angels & Demons. Performance view, The Kitchen at Westbeth. Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk

When Jones and Kidambi took the stage, some audience members sat up in their seats and held their palms open as if preparing to be healed. Large panels sealed the sound into the section surrounding the stage, and the initial hum produced by the saxophone and vocals in a discordant and complementary contrast felt like a cosmic sound bath designed for rebirth.

The performance started in synchronicity as the vocalist began singing, “My music sings of the discipline of depths and darkness, of space as matter”—an excerpt from Sun Ra’s poem “Angels & Demons.” However, the initial harmony descended into mind-bending discord as she sang further excerpts from poems that evoked Sun Ra’s sense of displacement in this universe.

The evocative jazz melodies juxtaposed with Kidambi’s raw and emotional vocal performance transfixed the audience as she sang, “I wait for you where human eyes have never seen; I’ll build you a world of abstract dreams and wait for you in tomorrow’s realm;” from Ra’s poem “Tomorrow’s Realm.”

An audience member and post-colonial musician, Karthik Kakarala, described the performance as “the most sustained euphoria I felt in a while.”

Following the show, the poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs discussed Sun Ra’s sustained impact on jazz and poetry with the performers. “It has to do with the ride,” Diggs said, “you’re saying, ‘Get on the ride with me, and I’ll wait for you on the other side.'” Jones added that the intimate nature of the venue was intentional: “I wanted you to feel the level of infinity possible in a small place.” Kidambi called her introduction to Sun Ra’s work “a portal into liberation music.”

Much of Sun Ra’s poetry embeds issues of blackness and the need to escape the orbit of a prejudiced atmosphere. He wrote about the concepts of angels and demons and how to define good and evil under the purview of a toxic system. “Precious things don’t last very long here, so be a demon, be evil, be black, be a myth,” Jones explained. “They all believe in the mythological versions of us, anyway.”

The element of musical performance, with the combined ethos created by the light design from Nicholas Houfek, and the sequential intellectual interrogation is the precise form of multi-dimensionality that has made The Kitchen such an enduring institution in New York City.

The Kitchen is currently undergoing a multi-year renovation of its Chelsea location, where it will unveil six floors that will amplify its ability to offer a diverse array of artistry. The “With Marion” and “Angels & Demons” performances are a testament to the universality of The Kitchen’s scope and evidence of the complex value of sitting in unknowns and beginning a collaborative excavation process to unearth rich meaning.

In early 2024, The Kitchen will host J Jan Groeneboer’s video installation “Selected Views,” Harmony Holiday’s immersive installation “BLACK BACKSTAGE,” sculptor Martha Friedman and choreographer Susan Marshall’s “Two Person Operating System Type 2,” Sacha Yanow’s “Uncle!” and more.

Adventures in the Avant-Garde at New York’s The Kitchen