Jill Kroesen: Collecting Injustices, Unnecessary Suffering

27 Jul 2016 – 31 Jul 2016

Regular hours

10:30 – 18:00
10:30 – 18:00
10:30 – 22:00
10:30 – 18:00
10:30 – 18:00

Whitney Museum of American Art

New York
New York, United States


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Artist, composer, and singer Jill Kroesen was an essential figure in the 1970s downtown New York performance milieu, working at the intersection of experimental music and then-emerging performance art.


After studying at Mills College with composer Robert Ashley, she embarked on a series of performances that defied categorization, such as Stanley Oil and His Mother: A Systems Portrait of the Western World (1977), The Original Lou and Walter Story (1978) and Excuse Me, I Feel Like Multiplying (1979). With these performances, she invented a space between structuralist theater, graphically-scored musical composition, and cabaret. In the words of performance critic Sally Banes, “condensing political events with soap opera plots and infantile rationalizations about the way the world works,” Kroesen’s “systems portraits,” as she came to call her works, manifested socioeconomic, sexual, and gender politics through funny, ramshackle, and chaotic performances. Archival documentation of these works was presented at the Whitney in the exhibition Rituals of Rented Island in 2013.

In Kroesen’s systems portraits, an individual might personify a virus, a gender, or a superpower, revealing the power dynamics embedded in social structures and world politics by means of personal drama. In Excuse Me, I Feel Like Multiplying, for example, we experience Cold War negotiations as a fight between Kroesen (the USSR), and another woman (the US president), over a boyfriend (the underdeveloped country). While methodically structured and carefully scripted, Kroesen’s plays are nevertheless casually untheatrical, often made up of a cast of non-actors. As a way of revealing patterns in human nature, narrative often develops through loose, game-like systems that Kroesen directs and narrates in her unmistakably deadpan style, as in Stanley Oil and His Mother: A Systems Portrait of the Western World, a ten-act, two-and-a-half hour epic. Representing different countries and social classes spanning from evolution to the present day, the cast performs rote activities with props according to Stanley, the ruler (played by Kroesen), and becomes increasingly rowdy and disobedient as civilization progresses and as the evening goes on. Kroesen’s performances almost always include several of her original songs, and with names like "Honey, You’re So Mean" and "Fay Shism Blues," they add another layer of satire to her projects. In 1982, Kroesen released Stop Vicious Cycles under the Lovely Music record label, an LP compilation that stands up as a work in its own right.

After an artistic hiatus of over thirty years, she returns this summer with a new show at the Whitney, Collecting Injustices, Unnecessary Suffering. This theatrical performance features original songs, dance, and the participation of many of her past collaborators—including an elaborate sculptural set designed and constructed by Jared Bark and costumes by Mary Kay Stolz. In this new performance, Kroesen articulates for herself and for her audience an allegory that animates the structures of parenting, socialization, and control that shape individual lives and collective society. Employing Kroesen’s own unique approach to portraiture, this performance coincides with the Whitney’s collection exhibition Human Interest.

Exhibiting artists

Jill Kroesen


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