In a recent post about Eleanor Antin’s imagined personas I mentioned that she is generally considered to be a performance and conceptual artist. Some of you may be unfamiliar with those terms so I thought a brief introduction might be helpful. Let’s start with performance art.
Modern performance art has roots extending back to the early 20th century with the Dada, Surrealist and Russian Suprematist artists. The beginning of the 20th century was a tumultuous time that spawned many experimental art movements. Some of these artists conducted readings and brief performances that were more like events than solemn recitals. Their events also encouraged visual artists to perform in public rather than work exclusively in their isolated studios.
Later, in the 1960s, artists once again responded to world-changing forces that were shaping their culture. The sixties were also noted for experimentation and reinvention, and many artists became involved with work that challenged traditions…traditional media, traditional exhibition venues, and traditional expectations of what an artist should be. It was here that today’s performance art was born.
Eleanor Antin – the artist who sparked our conversation – created several characters during the 1960s that she has continued to develop over the years. Dressed and made up as these characters she has been photographed and interviewed many times. She has also played these characters in monologues and simple narratives.
Antin’s character-driven performance art draws heavily on the conventions of traditional theater. Other performance artists approach the field from different directions. Here are a few examples and links that will introduce you to some well-known performance artists. These are artists who began their careers years ago and have influenced generations of performance artists.
Allan Kaprow is generally considered to be a founder of modern performance art. In 1958 he produced the first of what he called “Happenings.” These were events held in the city or out in remote locations. They sometimes had structure and sometimes didn’t. At a Happening invited guests might be asked to play games, sample foods, listen to experimental music or explore a cave.
Laurie Anderson is a poet/musician/performance artist whose multimedia recitals and videos have gained massive cross-over recognition in pop media. Her recording and video titled O Superman was a hit in the 1980s. Over the course of her long career Anderson has received many prestigious honors and awards for her work including an Academy Award nomination for her documentary film Heart Of A Dog.
The late Spalding Gray was a writer/actor/performance artist who specialized in narrative monologues. His performances usually involved simple props such as a table and chair. Against this backdrop he told complex stories about things he had experienced. One of his most famous stories is Swimming To Cambodia that appeared as a play, a book and a popular movie. It won an Obie award for its off-Broadway production.
Abramovic has, at times, pushed her body to extreme limits. In other performances she has asked the audience to be a participant with her. Abramovic’s performance at the Museum of Modern Art titled The Artist Is Present let volunteers sit across a table from her for 30 minutes at a time and stare into her face.
Schneemann is generally considered a founding member of the feminist art movement. Her performances in the 1960s were noted for their candid sexuality and confrontational nature.
Linda Montano has used her performances to explore the concepts of discipline, self-sacrifice and spirituality. Collaborating with Taiwanese performance artist Teching Hsieh, the two were tethered together with a short rope 24 hours a day for a full year. She also conducted tarot card, palm and psychic readings in a street-level front window of the New Museum once a month for seven years.
Nam June Paik created installations and performances that pushed the expectations we have about technology and our relationship with it. Paik is also considered a video artist. Trained as a musician, Paik’s earliest performances in the 1960s involved collaborations with classical musicians and experimental composers.
These are just a few of the many artists who identify with performance art. It’s a field where artists engage audiences directly and in real time. It’s also an exciting arena with – as you might imagine – a lot of controversy.