[A number of years ago, I started making some notes on performance art, but I never did anything with them. A few weeks ago, I went back to the notes and brought them up to the current time, and below you see the outcome. Well, part of it: the subject of performance art is big enough that even in my superficial coverage of the form, the article takes two parts, so here is Part 1, with Part 2 to follow in a few days. This section covers the art form from its origins through the 1970s, arguably its first heyday; the follow-up will pick up in the 1980s, a period of turmoil in both the art and performance worlds (not to mention the political and social spheres) as you’ll read, and continues to the first decade of the 21st century.]
Also known as “live art,” “living art,” or “body art,” performance art exists at the conjunction of the worlds of art and theater. (In Europe, especially Germany, the art medium goes by names like Aktionen, Art Aktuel, or Art Total.) Performance, as it’s often called, is the demonstration or execution of the ideas of Conceptual Art, defined as “art of which the material is the concept.” (Other, earlier art influences include Dadaism, Futurism, Constructivism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Art.) Conceptual Art, which flourished between the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s, elevated ideas and the process of creation over product and technique, and insisted that art can’t be bought or sold. Like performance art, it can’t be comodified and brought home for display. Accepted as a separate medium of artistic expression in 1970s, performance, however, defies precise definition, asserts RoseLee Goldberg, an art historian, critic , and curator who’s lectured at many institutions and schools and who wrote the most comprehensive texts on it. (Goldberg’s Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, originally published in 1979, was reissued in 2011 in an edition that brings the history of performance up to the first decade of the 21st century.) As performance artist Laurie Anderson, a composer and musician who plays violin and keyboards and sings a variety of experimental music and art rock styles, puts it: “This is literally living art that continues to evolve and expand.”
Except that it’s live art by artists, in fact, few practitioners will agree on what comprises performance art and the artists and writers about performance keep expanding the scope of the definition with each succeeding wave of experimentation and exploration. By nature, performance art constantly changes and evolves, as the artists adopt and adapt new technologies and media, engulfing new ideas and concepts as they pursue their aims. The event might be performed only once (most common in the early years) or repeated several times, with or without a prepared script, improvised spontaneously or rehearsed over many months. The works might be presented in solo performances or in groups, with lighting, music, or visuals made by the artists themselves or in collaboration with other artists. Performances could take place in galleries, theaters, museums, streets, parking lots, public squares, parks, open fields, vacant lots, bars, night clubs, lofts, or any space the artist selects that’s suited to the piece. In general, however, in addition to being live, it’s also predominantly presentational and typically involves improvisation. The artist-creator-performer, using her or his body as the primary artistic medium (either as canvas or as sculpture, or both), combines dance, music, drama, and often technology like film, video, projections, or computer imagery, as well as any other media that the artist can adapt and apply. Performance also encompasses behaviors outside the performing and visual arts like ritual, work activities, sports, and daily tasks.
The prehistory of performance art began—at least in its identifiable form, since some historians trace the art form back to Diogenes of Sinope’s frequently behaving like a dog, though some form of performance art must have existed as far back as human culture’s nascence—with the Italian Futurists in 1908 or thereabouts. An art movement that emphasized themes associated with early-20th-century notions of the future, its art explored speed (especially automobiles and airplanes), technology, youth, violence, and industrialization. Futurist performances were “wild and provocative variety shows in which distinctions between actors and audience were sometimes obliterated.” By World War I, the Dada movement formed in Zurich in 1916 (in a cabaret, no less) and performance became an integral part of the Dadaist’s art, which spread its influence across Europe and the United States. In the 1920s, the Bauhaus in Germany, founded in 1919 in Weimar, included a theater workshop to explore relationships between space, sound, and light. Each succeeding art movement began with some form of performance before moving on to creating art objects such as paintings or sculptures. In the 1930s, artists from the Bauhaus fleeing the Nazis joined the faculty of Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina, founded in 1933 to explore “performance—how [art] is done—[as] the content of art.” As I’ll discuss momentarily, this development directly led to the Happenings of the 1950s, the immediate precursor of modern performance.
Performance art descended also from environmental theater, productions conceived with the whole space in which they were to take place in mind, and Happenings, a largely improvised performance that combined sound and visual material in random ways, often with the spectators participating. Performance art began to emerge in the late 1930s and by 1945 was recognized by artists as a separate activity—though it didn’t yet have a name. At Black Mountain, faculty members John Cage (1912-92), an experimental composer, and Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), an innovative choreographer, created works using non-instrumental sounds and unconventional movement, culminating in Untitled Event there in 1952. This work led to “live art” works such as Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959, New York). This piece gave rise to the name Happenings for these early live art performances and earned the “action artist,” as he took to calling himself, the reputation as the originator of the Happening. Kaprow (1927-2006), who had studied art history (as well as philosophy) in school, painting with Hans Hofmann, and music composition with Cage, defined the form as a series of situations or images during which the assembled participants, often volunteers from the audience, followed directions they didn’t know beforehand. (Kaprow, in fact, eventually decided that there shouldn’t even be an audience, since everyone present at the event should participate. Having passive observers present, he felt, was alien to the principles of the Happening, something that separates it from the performance art that followed.)
Happenings rose in the 1960s with presentations like Robert Whitman’s The American Moon (1960), Claes Oldenburg’s Snapshots from the City (1960); Kaprow’s Courtyard and The Big Laugh (both 1962), Red Grooms’s The Burning Building (1962), Whitman’s Small Cannon (1962); and Oldenburg’s Autobodys. Ray Gun Spex (1960), organized by Oldenburg (b. 1929) with Whitman (b. 1935), Kaprow, Grooms (b. 1937), and others at New York’s Judson Memorial Church, drew 200 spectators. Unlike most early performance art, their chronological successor, Happenings could employ many performers (and the artist-creator might not be among them). By 1968, political events provoked the artists to reevaluate their intentions. The art object was deemed superfluous; performance is visible but intangible, leaving no trace and can’t be bought or sold.
“Live art is especially ephemeral,” writes Anderson:
Once performed, it tends to become myth and a few photos and tapes. Many of the artists . . . only occasionally reconstruct their performances, mainly because much of the work—performed by the artists themselves—was designed on the most basic levels for that particular artist’s voice and body. Also, there are no performance companies to re-present the work. So representing the work as text and images becomes an act of imagination.
Performance in fact, Anderson asserts, “resists documentation.” When a work is recorded, “it immediately becomes another art form—a film or a record—another rectangle or disk. It’s in the can.” Art curator Erik Hokanson, co-director of Grace Exhibition Space, a performance venue, declared, “It’s the action that’s the art, not so much the physical result. A lot of times there’s little or no result other than what you walk away from the piece with thinking or feeling.” Anderson’s “very proud” that she didn’t document her work: “I felt that, since much of it was about time and memory, that was the way it should be recorded—in the memories of the viewers—with all the inevitable distortions, associations and elaborations.” This assertion is, of course, open to interpretation and application, as the work of some performance artists attests. In such pieces as Leap Into The Void (1960), French artist Yves Klein (1928-62) often used a photographer to capture an emblematic moment of his performance and even manipulated the act after having performed it without documentation. In Leap, Klein jumped off the second story of a building, apparently into an empty street, but in reality he was caught in a tarp by a group of friends. For the photo, taken months later, the photographer shot the artist jumping into mid-air, then shot the empty street below and composited the two pictures to show Klein jumping out over the empty pavement. In other words, the live event was a different art experience than the subsequent document was. (Performance documentation, either for historical reference or for cataloguing and promoting exhibits and demonstrations, is an issue of its own now, too great to take up here, and a topic of much debate in the art world.)
Artist Ana Mendieta (1948-85), famous for her self-photographs or -videos, usually nude, in provocative poses and situations, often covered with earth or other organic material (she called them “earth-body” works), created pictorial documents which were the artwork, despite the notion of impermanency. She had no audiences for her live act, so the photos or videos were the art objects she displayed. The “liveness” of performance art, one of its fundamental criteria, was missing except in the evocation of the scents, feels, and sights in Mendieta’s images.
Under the influence of dancers of the 1960s, performance art moved from traditional dance to experimental work with Cage and Cunningham and into the art world. Performance doesn’t separate art activity from everyday life and incorporates everyday actions and objects into the performance. As Kaprow insisted: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” Performance uses innovative attitudes toward space and the body not previously considered by visual artists. “Living sculpture” and “autobiographical” performances of the artists’ personal histories provoke questions about the boundaries of art, such as, What distinguishes art from life? The work, therefore, is usually anarchic, drawing on a number of disciplines and media—literature, poetry, theater, music, dance, architecture, painting, photography, video, film, slides, and narrative—used in any combination. Usually breaching the borders between genres, performance challenges the rules of both art and society, historically existing in the forefront of the avant-garde.
Performance art was developed by artists impatient with the limitations of established art forms and determined to take their art directly to the public, reducing the alienation between the performer and the viewer, both of whom experience the work simultaneously. Performance artists reject the traditional materials of canvas, brush, or chisel as they turn their own bodies into art material, using performance to animate the formal and conceptual ideas of creating art. Some insist they paint visual images with their bodies, movements, and words. “For us the body is much more than an instrument or a means,” explained Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenological philosopher; “it is our expression in the world, the visual form of our intentions.” “The only people this art exists for are the people who are there,” said Terry Fox (1943-2008), a conceptual and performance artist. “And it’s the only time the art exists.”
Performance is suited to experimentation that traditional forms with restrictions and physical limitations, such as sculpture and painting, aren’t. It allows artists the freedom to look at their discipline in non-traditional ways so that John Cage, for instance, can stage a concert where a musical note isn’t heard (4′33″, 1952) or Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934) can choreograph a dance piece that’s based entirely on walking and talking (“Talking Solos,” 1962). Indeed, whenever artists became dissatisfied with traditional forms of art because techniques like painting and sculpture no longer met their needs, they frequently turned to performance to revitalize their work. Performance artists, many of whom also have training in acting, dance, mime, and other performing arts (and sometimes more than one), can explore a wide range of subject matters, use any medium or material, present their work anywhere at any time for any duration in direct contact with the audience. In fact, performance artists view the form as a way of taking their art directly to the public, bypassing galleries, agents, dealers, museums, curators (as well as producers, directors, and other intermediaries in the theater world), and all other representatives of the art establishment. Audiences see the artists, their work, and its production instead of just the product; the artists are liberated from the art object. Like Conceptual Art, performance art eschews pictorial values for visual communication, viewing art as a vehicle for ideas and action. One prominent example, for instance, is the famous “bed-in” staged by performance artist Yoko Ono (b. 1933), associated then with Fluxus, a group which presented the most ordinary actions, such as brushing teeth, making a salad, or exiting the theater, as art, and her husband, John Lennon (1940-80). In 1969 in Amsterdam, Ono and Lennon put ordinary human routines on public view, requiring personal interaction and raising popular recognition of their pacifist beliefs.
Performance artists soon found that the perspective of art criticism was also insufficient for the attitudes and techniques of their work and the critical vocabularies of traditional dance, music, and theater were too limited for the scope of performance. The critical and consuming communities of both the visual and performing arts “struggled to define this ‘new’ hybrid that combined so many media and broke so many rules about what art was supposed to be,” notes Anderson. (In the ensuing years, the field of criticism abhorring a vacuum, new writers and observers of art and performance have arisen, specializing in or knowledgeable of performance art, its history, and its artists.)
In performance art, as distinct from most traditional (and even avant-garde) theater, the performer isn’t a character, but the artist. As art critic and writer Gregory Battcock wrote, “In performance art the figure of the artist is the tool for the art. It is the art.” In another contrast with theater, the content of performance art rarely follows a traditional plot or narrative. Performance might comprise a series of intimate gestures or large-scale visual theater and last from a few minutes to many hours. The format is like theater or dance, with a performer, an audience, and a message for the audience from the performer, but there are further contrasts between theater in which:
- a playwright produces a script
- a producer backs it, finds a director and a company
- the play is cast; actors are assigned characters
- the performance may be presentational or representational
- the director stages the play, sometimes in collaboration with the playwright
- the play is rehearsed over many weeks; the production is “set”
- the final production is presented to an audience on a repeated basis
- a performance artist conceives a piece
- the artist finds a gallery or an alternative space
- performers appear as themselves, not “characters”; sometimes other performers are asked to participate
- the performance is presentational
- the piece is staged in the artist’s mind
- the performance is unrehearsed or minimally rehearsed
- the performance is done once, perhaps several times.
While some performances seem to be both theater and performance art (Mabou Mines, Spalding Gray, Penny Arcade), there are additional differences. Each art performance, for instance, can be new for the artist as well as the audience and most performance art can’t be done (or would be substantially changed) if presented (that is, performed or “directed”) by an artist other than the creator/conceiver. The lines aren’t necessarily memorized and there are few stage directions, so each time the artists perform the piece, it can change and grow.
(Cee S. Brown, a former curator at MoMA and gallery director who’s worked with many artists in non-traditional forms including performance, declared in 1979, “Performance art is a new form of theatre, but it is certainly not a totally new concept in art.” The overlaps are too great, insisted Brown—on whose comparison my lists above are based—for the two forms to be separate disciplines. Brown, however, may concede that things have changed since he made that assertion.)
Centered in museums, art spaces, and “alternative spaces” like those mentioned earlier, especially in New York City’s East and West Village and SoHo, performance art developed in venues like 8BC, PS 122, Limbo Lounge, WOW Cafe, La MaMa E.T.C., Dance Theatre Workshop, The Kitchen, Franklin Furnace, Artists Space, Judson Memorial Church, and the Performing Garage (home of Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, then the Wooster Group). The performance space, as for environmental theater presenters, is an important consideration—according to artist Claes Oldenburg, it’s the first and most important factor; the material at hand and the players are second and third factors. Aside from cafés, galleries, and auditoriums, Oldenburg used a farmhouse (Injun, 1962, New York), a parking lot (Autobodys, Los Angeles, 1963), a swimming pool (Washes, 1965, New York), a movie theater (Moviehouse, 1965, New York), and so on. City Scale (1963) from Ken Dewey (b. 1934) started at one end of New York City in the evening and wound through the streets (stopping at a series of events and places) until dawn and Pelican (1963) by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was performed in a Washington, D.C., roller rink.
From the late ’60s into the early ’70s, performance was informed by political statements, especially anti-war, anti-military, anti-nuclear, and anti-capitalistic beliefs (as exemplified by the Ono-Lennon “bed-in,” among others). By 1972, performance art had become stylish and flamboyant, even as it toed the deeply philosophical and anti-amusement line of the Conceptualists. This decade also brought an increased focus on autobiography and personal history as the subjects of performance. Among the most prominent early practitioners were:
- Vito Acconci (b. 1940), a poet who used his body as his art work. In Following Piece (1969), Acconci followed randomly chosen people in the street, abandoning them once they left the street; in Conversion (1970), the artist attempted to conceal his masculinity by burning his body hair, pulling at each breast, and hiding his penis between his legs; Telling Secrets (1971) took place in a dark, deserted shed on the Hudson River from 1 to 2 a.m. as Acconci whispered secrets “detrimental to me if publicly revealed” to visitors.
- Dennis Oppenheim (1938-2011), a body artist. In Parallel Stress (1970), Oppenheim constructed a large mound of earth then hung himself from parallel brick walls by his hands and feet, creating a body curve parallel to the shape of the mound. He also used puppets instead of humans as in Theme for a Major Hit (1975) which featured a lonely puppet in a dimly lit room which jerked endlessly to its own theme song.
- Chris Burden (b. 1946), another body artist, uses physical danger as expression, as in Shooting Piece (1971) in which Burden asked a friend to shoot him in left arm from 15 feet away. (The shot was supposed to graze Burden’s arm but it blew away a chunk of his flesh.) In Deadman (1972), the artist lay wrapped in a canvas bag in the middle of a busy Los Angeles boulevard (and was arrested for causing a false emergency to be reported).
- Gilbert [Prousch or Proesch] (b. 1942) and George [Passmore] (b. 1943), two British “living sculptures.” Their Underneath the Arches (1969) consisted of the two artists with gold-painted faces wearing ordinary suits, one carrying a walking stick and other a glove, moving in a mechanical, puppet-like fashion on a small table for approximately six minutes to the accompaniment of the 1932 song of same name Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen. In The Red Sculpture (1975), the pair, their hands and faces painted bright red, moved into slowly paced poses in relation to taped commands from a recorder for 90 minutes.
- Scott Burton (1939-89), also a “living sculpture,” whose Pair Behavior Tableaux (1976) was an hour-long performance for two male performers composed of about 80 static poses held for a number of seconds each.
- Laurie Anderson (b. 1947), an autobiographical performance artist. Initially trained as a sculptor, Anderson did her first performance-art piece, Automotive, in 1972. In For Instants (1976), a 45-minute piece in which Anderson explored the original intentions of the work while presenting the results, the artist told the audience how she hoped to screen a film of boats on the Hudson and described the difficulties while filming, then did the same with the recording of the soundtrack. Meanwhile, Anderson discussed the problems using autobiographical material, thus making a blurred distinction between performance and reality. She turned the struggle into a song: “Art and illusion, illusion and art / are you really here or is it only art? / Am I really here or is it art?” In Ethics is the Aesthetics of the Few(ture) (1976), Anderson replaced the strings of a violin with recording tape playing recorded sentences, with each pass of her bow corresponding to one word on the tape. United States (1983) was arguably Anderson's masterwork, an eight-hour presentation featuring musical numbers, spoken word pieces, and animated vignettes about life in the U.S.
- Linda Montano (b. 1942), an autobiographical live and video artist who uses performance as a means of personal transformation and catharsis. Her video Mitchell’s Death (1977) mourns the death of her ex-husband. The artist recounts every detail of her story, from the telephone call announcing the tragedy to viewing the body, in chants reminiscent of Buddhist meditative practices, as her face, pierced by acupuncture needles, slowly comes into focus then goes out again. Montano’s also the author of the book Art in Everyday Life (1981).
Much of performance art is akin to what Bonnie Marranca, writer on theater and co-editor of PAJ, called the “theater of images,” a non-literary performance form dominated by visual images with no straightforward narrative, dialogue, plot, character, or setting. Imagistic theater, like performance art, emphasizes the “stage picture” and the spoken word is focused on the manner of the delivery by the performer and the perception of the audience simultaneously. Some exemplars of makers of the theater of images who also had an influence on performance art (and were in turn influenced by it) are:
- Robert Wilson (b. 1941), who took performance to a larger scale. Wilson’s work is influenced by his background in art and architecture. His 12-hour performances, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1968) and The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1972), showed influences of Richard Wagner (Gesamtkunstwerk), Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, and the ideas of Cage and Cunningham, as did the three-hour piece, A Letter to Queen Victoria (1974). Wilson’s works had no traditional beginning or end; they were a series of free-association events, each with its own theme but not necessarily related to the others. Einstein on the Beach (1976), five hours long with the music of Philip Glass, the choreography of Andrew deGroat and Lucinda Childs, and the work of several other artists expressed Wilson’s fascination with the effect of Einstein’s theories of relativity on the contemporary world; The CIVIL warS (1983-84) was arguably Wilson’s grandest effort, intended as a 12-hour spectacular whose six parts were created with the collaboration of artists from five different nations (Holland, Germany, Japan, Italy, and the U.S.), among them Glass, musician David Byrne of Talking Heads, and German playwright Heiner Müller. Each section was to have been premièred in a separate city and then the whole work was to be presented at the 1984 Olympics in L.A. (The money never materialized for the final production and The CIVIL warS has never been staged in its entirety.
- Richard Foreman (b. 1937), the founder of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater whose art reflects his preoccupation with performance art and the avant-garde. Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation (1975) used Foreman’s taped voice speaking to the audience, making sure each section was “correctly” interpreted as it occurred. His Book of Splendors: Part Two (Book of Levers) Action at a Distance (1976) was an action performed and interpreted simultaneously while Rhoda’s taped voice asked questions the author might ask as he writes. (Rhoda, embodied by Kate Manheim, was a recurring persona in Foreman’s Rhoda plays.) Foreman’s work is influenced by his space at OHT’s SoHo loft; the specifically constructed space determines the pictorial aspects of the work. Nonetheless, his early works were the most verbal performances of the time.
By the late 1970s, performance art had moved toward popular entertainment. The anti-establishment idealism of the 1960s and the adamantly non-entertainment bias of the early ’70s faded and by 1982, some performance artists became wealthy “art stars.” RoseLee Goldberg, who’s taught at NYU since 1987 and was curator at The Kitchen, even designated the decade of the ’70s as the “golden years” of performance. Nonetheless, at the end of the 20th century, performance artists had become more engaged in certain social and political issues, such as feminism, homophobia, or AIDS awareness:
- Karen Finley (b. 1956) defied the passivity of the audience with threatening themes of sexual excess and deprivation. Her notoriety with Yams Up My Granny’s Ass (1984) and We Keep Our Victims Ready (1990) increased when NEA rejected a grant approved by the arts panel in a controversial 1990 decision that raised censorship and First Amendment issues in the notorious “NEA Four” case (with other performance artists Tim Miller, b. 1958; John Fleck, b. 1951; and Holly Hughes, b. 1955).
- Rachel Rosenthal (b. 1926) studied acting with Jean-Louis Barrault in Paris, apprenticed with German socio-political theater director Erwin Piscator, and studied dance with Merce Cunningham. She also studied several Asian martial arts and directed several Off-Broadway productions. Her work deals with feminism, the ecology, and politics, as in L.O.W. in Gaia (1986) in which she created a mysterious landscape through vivid visual images, moving about it with dance-like skill. Rosenthal’s other performances include The Death Show (1978), Gaia, Mon Amour (1983) and Pangaean Dreams: A Shamanic Journey (1990).
- Ethyl [James Roy] Eichelberger (1945-90) came from experimental theater, a protégé of Charles Ludlam. He took transvestism to the level of romance and satire. His performances include Medea (1981), Lucrezia Borgia (1983), Hamlette (1985), Leer (1984), Ariadne Obnoxious (1988), Das Vedanya Mama (1990).
- John Jesurun (b. 1951) is a filmmaker and sculptor. His Chang in a Void Moon (1982-83) is a “living film serial” with weekly episodes using film techniques such as camera pans, flashbacks, and jumpcuts, while Deep Sleep (1985) juxtaposed four live characters onstage with two larger-than-life performers on screens; each on-stage character was drawn into the film until only one remained to tend the projector. In White Water (1986), live actors with “talking heads” on 24 video monitors surrounding the audience engaged in a 90-minute verbal battle over illusion and reality.
- Guillermo Gómez-Peña (b. 1955), a Chicano performer, uses his artistic talents to explore cross-cultural issues through performance, journalism and critical writings, multilingual poetry, radio, video, and installation art. He epitomizes the role of the artist as citizen-diplomat and public intellectual, using performance as a tool to initiate a dialogue on a range of issues, including immigration, global capitalism, and Anglo-American attitudes toward Latinos and indigenous peoples. His pieces include Border Brujo (1989) and Warrior for Gringostroika (1993).
[This brings to a close my account of the history of performance art up to the end of the 1970s. Please come back to ROT for the continuation of my discussion of this fascinating art form as I bring it up to date at the start of the new century. Part 2 of “Performance Art” will be posted in a few days.]