What constitutes performance art? Almost any ephemeral activity, if one determines to make it so and applies that label. Think of Marina Abramovic spending ten weeks sitting at a table making wordless eye contact with strangers in The Artist Is Present (2010), or John Cage’s infamous music-free composition 4’ 33” (1952). But it needn’t be nearly so silent: In his ongoing 100 Novels project, Los Angeles-based artist Tim Youd specializes in retyping novels from beginning to end in locations that are charged with literary significance in the author’s biography. Employing the same make and model typewriter used by the author, Youd types each novel on a single sheet of paper with a backing support.
Youd’s next installment, Retyping “The Group” by Mary McCarthy, gets underway at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 19 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. The performance will continue over the next two weeks, with the artist relocating daily to various spots on the Vassar campus through May 4. This will constitute the 56th novel that Youd has typed in the series, and is one of several that he will undertake in the Hudson Valley in 2018. The resulting Hudson Valley diptychs will be presented in an exhibition at the Lehman Loeb this coming fall.
Vassar has produced quite a few literary lionesses over the decades, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, Eleanor and Eunice Clark, Ruth Stiles Gannet, Shana Alexander, Sue Kaufman, Alexandra Ripley, Jane Kramer, Mary Oliver, Lucinda Franks and Jane Smiley. But none has distilled the experience of being a Vassar girl quite so acidly as Mary McCarthy (Class of 1933) did in her best-selling 1963 novel The Group. Based loosely on the author’s circle of friends at school (her alter-ego character, Kay, even had a boyfriend with the same unusual name, Harald, as McCarthy’s first husband), the book was a lightning rod for controversy on account of its frank depiction of sexuality among unmarried, upper-class “nice girls” of the 1930s.
The Group wasn’t the first piece of writing to get the notoriously sharp-tongued author in trouble with the administration of her alma mater. “The Vassar Girl,” published in the May 1951 issue of Holiday magazine, was contracted with the intent of comparing the current Vassar to the Vassar of the 1930s. The majority of the article focused on McCarthy’s impression that the college’s academic standards and reputation as a crucible for critical thinking had deteriorated.
“The vivid and extraordinary student, familiar to the old teachers and the alumnae, is, at least temporarily, absent from the scene,” she wrote. “The idea of excellence, the zest for adventure, the fastidiousness of mind and humanistic breadth of feeling…seem somehow to have abandoned the college…as literature and the arts give way to the social sciences, and ‘pure’ scholarship cedes to preparation for civic life and marriage.” McCarthy also criticized the faculty and administration for its “fear of being considered Communist.”
Vassar tried unsuccessfully to suppress the article, and one administrator jokingly suggested putting arsenic in McCarthy’s beer. But eventually the college patched up relations with the woman who became one of its most lauded alumnae, inviting McCarthy back to the campus a half-dozen times throughout the ’70s and ’80s. She led discussions during a weeklong symposium in 1971, packing the Chapel; gave the commencement address in 1976; was the inaugural President’s Distinguished Visitor in 1982; celebrated the college’s acquisition of her personal and professional papers in 1985; did a book-signing on campus upon publication of her autobiography How I Grew in 1987; and read a chapter aloud in 1988 in honor of the 25th anniversary of The Group. All, apparently, was forgiven. McCarthy died of lung cancer the following year, aged 77.
Yes, you can come to campus yourself to watch Tim Youd retype The Group. Admission is free. To find out where he will be set up on any given day from April 19 to May 4, visit www.vassar.edu. Vassar College is located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie.