John Fleck pranced onto a makeshift stage at Track 16 Gallery and sang and danced happy birthday to Rachel Rosenthal, the queen of Performance Art.
“Rachel I love you,” he sang. “I love you because you’ve done more than any performance artist.” And he summoned Rosenthal to join him. Dressed in a long robe and a necklace of alternating green beads and skulls, Rosenthal told the crowd of 200 or so friends and supporters “I hope that all of you are rich and that you bid and buy and buy and bid.”
Track 16 was hosting an 83rd birthday party for Rosenthal and she was hoping that those in attendance would bid in the silent auction of works by 83 artists donated to raise money for Rosenthal’s new theatre company, Tohu Bohu. The art works included contributions from such noted artists as George Herms, Ed Moses, Llyn Foulkes, June Wayne, Betye Saar, and the estate of Robert Rauschenberg.
Rachel Rosenthal’s life has been one of versatility in experience. Born in Paris to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family, she grew up in France and Brazil, then in New York where she graduated from the High School of Music and Art. She studied theater and dance back in Paris after World War II and later, in Los Angeles in the mid 1950s, created an improv troupe, Instant Theater.
“It was a very fertile and profound period for us,” Rosenthal said. “All of it was totally new and the people who came to see [us] were artists and poets. No theater people at all.”
Over the years, Rosenthal was a co-founder of Womanspace, a gallery for feminist artists, created her own workshop, the DbD Experience, presented over 35 original performance pieces in 100 venues around the world, wrote books, and in 1981, infamously shaved her head as part of a performance (of late, she has grown her hair back).
Things have been a bit quiet for her since 2000, but Rosenthal is now back with her new company, which she describes as “total free improvisation,” plus a forthcoming book, The DbD Experience: Chance Knows What it’s Doing!, part manifesto, part teaching manual, part memoir.
Members of Tohu Bohu ( a name derived from a French expression), dressed in outrageous costumes with big wigs, served drinks and cavorted around Track 16 at the party. In addition to Fleck, entertainment included a moving performance by musician Amy Knowles and artist Michael Sakamoto, who portrayed what seemed to be an animatronic samurai. Sakamoto is one of Rosenthal’s former students.
Later, a huge black and white birthday cake was brought out for Rosenthal to take a slice of. Looking around at the crowd, she remarked that what she was seeing was a surprising support for her life and work that she had never expected.
“I want to live for the next two decades,” she stated. “Because there’s a lot more to do.”