In the eyes of many today, stodgy mediums like painting and sculpture can’t compete with performance when it comes to subverting esthetic and social norms. Insofar as it insists upon fluidity between art and life, "the performative," so the boosters bleat, retains a radical edge all other forms of artistic practice have lost. It’s the final refuge of avant-gardism.
This kind of talk always sounds more like desperation than militancy to me, so imagine my joy when, opening up Artforum this month, I discovered an article entitled "Against Performance Art" by the Harvard art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty. "Merciful heavens," I thought, "someone’s finally mustered the audacity to drown this albatross."
But a diatribe the piece is not -- alas! The author’s name should have tipped me off: Lambert-Beatty’s scholarly work focuses on the intersections of Minimalism and dance during the late 1960s into the 1970s and she has published a book on Yvonne Rainer, a pioneer of performance. What Lambert-Beatty specifically objects to is the kind of celebrity-driven performance art that is fast becoming another part of the institutionalized canon of art history. Her bugaboo is Marina Abramovic.
According to Lambert-Beatty, Abramovic’s tendency to present her works in museum or gallery settings in recent years, alongside her embrace of official, reproducible forms of documentation of these events, inadvertently consolidates performance art into a "form" susceptible to commodification. These choices threaten performance art’s elusive legitimacy, its "propensity to spread" beyond the restrictions of medium specificity and institutional constraint. In place of this elusiveness we get a glorification of the performer, something Lambert-Beatty feels Abramovic’s current staring contest embodies all too effectively.
Lambert-Beatty thus wants to defend the original promise of performance’s medium and market nonconformity from the quisling Abramovic, and is more than willing to go to absurd lengths to do so. Take, for example, her dismissal of the monetary, legal and archival process Abramovic went through before re-staging a series of other artists’ famous performance pieces in 2005. "In 2010," Lambert-Beatty writes, "the aspect of Abramovic’s idea of reperformance that privileges ownership is preposterous." In an attempt to link performance to the relative freedom of open-source computing, Lambert-Beatty tramples the very idea that artists might have rights over their performances, past or present -- though Lambert-Beatty does acknowledge that informing the artist before presenting his or her work is good etiquette.
In what is far and away the most poorly written article in any magazine this month, Caroline Jones, professor of art history at MIT, address these very same issues while discussing the relationship between performance and its public. She contrasts Abramovic’s work, which emphasizes an artist’s public performance, with Tino Sehgal, which instead creates a "performative public" that more often than not unwittingly participates in a contrived situation, like his much-discussed This Progress (2009). According to Jones, both strains are invested in a "realness" that all art obsessed with being "live" mistakes for reality. The truth of the matter is that performance art has no justifiable claim to being closer to everyday life than any other kind of art. Practitioners of performance bump up against this again and again, but the hope lives on that some kind of breach will be made, and art and life will comingle. Jones suggests that this idealistic struggle may stem from performance’s fear that, when all is said and done, it may only be a form of theater (the horror!).
If performance has no inherent link to "the real," I think we can also confidently say that there is nothing inherent in performance art, even in its purest guise, that makes it somehow impervious to institutionalization, commodification or politicization. All these conditions have tarnished performance from time to time, depending on the context, so to conclude that performance in itself functions as a kind of conformity-repellent or that it holds revolutionary potential is just plan wack. See, for example, noise artist Mattin’s article in the latest issue of Mute that trumpets radical performativity and contains gems like "[i]mprovisation can be an extreme form of site-specificity as well as a radical, intimate and immanent self-criticality." The piece reads like warmed-over Situationism, and the fact that it seems to be written sincerely only makes it sadder.
Of course, the existence of intrinsic political relevance in any work of art is a question with a long pedigree, and no period has been tied up with this debate more than the late 1960s. Yet, in an article in Art Monthly left over from last month, Francis Frascina looks at how the Vietnam War era continues to be occluded in art historical surveys. This was a time of artistic collectives like the Art Workers’ Coalition, the Guerrilla Art Action Group and Women Artists in Revolution who matched their art making with overt political activism against the war abroad and the inequalities that existed at home in the U.S. Artists became "art workers" and became adept as employing "symbolic means of resistance" to stand up to the shackles of post-WWII consumer society (with, admittedly mixed results). According to art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson, whose recent book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era Frascina singles out for approval, the discipline has never been able to wrap its head around this kind of artistic political engagement. Now this kind of activity has started coming back, and with it a number of unforeseen ironies.
Take the case of the 2006 reconstruction of the 1966 Peace Tower, organized by the Artists’ Protest Committee as a beacon of dissent and originally located high above the gallery corridor of West Hollywood. Its 2006 double, however, stood in the courtyard well next to the front entrance of the Whitney Museum, a location that obscured most of the work and subordinated its message. The increased visualization of contemporary warfare and dum-dum patriotism also jeopardizes artistic responses to the crazy shit that passes for foreign policy these days; still, Frascina welcomes the restoration of explicit political art and what he calls "utopian visions." Whether such an art could have an impact remains to be seen. (I rather think it’s going to take more than "symbolic means of resistance" myself.)
One artist uniquely tied to this period and due for another turn in the spotlight is Robert Morris, subject of a funny little piece in this month’s Art in America. The artist Richard Kalina, a frequent writer for the magazine, reviews the recreation of Morris’s 1968-69 Scatter Piece that recently closed at the Leo Castelli gallery on East 77th Street. Composed of metal slabs and big pieces of heavy felt strewn about the room more or less by chance, the work was originally exhibited at the Castelli warehouse on West 108th Street, where Kalina worked as a guard, along with the more famous Continuous Project Altered Daily. Breaking with the Minimalist focus on the objectivity of objects, Morris emphasized the activity and process behind making and distributing bits of metal or junk around a room -- you might say he "performed" Minimalism. Kalina relates how, one day, Richard Serra visited the exhibition, crossed the viewer barriers and kicked around bits of the Morris work "like a child does to a tempting pile of leaves." After Kalina grudgingly rebuked him, Serra replied that "it doesn’t matter." And it really didn’t seem to, because Morris never knew the difference.
The best of the AiA features this month looks at Mr. Bleu himself, Yves Klein, in connection with the big retro at the Hirshhorn that opened on May 20, 2010, "Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers." It’s standard Art in America fare: one part CV, one part informed comment, provided this time ‘round by Pepe Karmel of NYU’s art history dept. Karmel criticizes those who seek to cast Klein in the role of postmodern prophet and unabashedly declares the paintings of the late ‘50s to be the artist’s best works. He contrasts the famous blue monochromes of varying textures to the monumental paintings of Abstract-Expressionist and Color Field painters, saying Klein’s works fill the field of vision by drawing viewers into the canvas, whereas those of Pollock or Rothko just overwhelm one’s sight. Klein’s paintings absorb; Barnet Newman’s confront. Yet it works both ways. I recall once standing in the gallery of museum where one of the blue monochromes hung with a variety of lesser works from the Zero movement. Nothing could compete with Klein; the intensity of his color just sucked the life out of other works.
As for the contemporary connection, well, Klein was exploiting young women for artistic purposes long before Vanessa Beecroft’s Brazil-waxed beauties hit the scene, but I suppose that doesn’t make him a prophet so much as entrepreneur. Karmel’s problem is that Klein’s PoMo reputation does not mesh with the artist’s own ideas about his art. His works draw more from a personal symbolism derived from his study of Theosophy and Rosicrucianism, according to Karmel, more than any Duchampian love for ironical play or some marxisant critique of the gallery system. Klein could only ever be an inadvertent prophet, if a prophet at all. But doesn’t Klein’s interest in the hermetic tradition also make him something of a contemporary avant le temps? I mean, consider Matthew Barney in relation to Klein.
Meanwhile, ARTnews provides still new details in the ongoing Degas controversy outlined in last month’s column. Gary Tinterow, chair of 19th century, modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum and one of several Degas experts who met secretly last January to discuss the authenticity of 74 newly discovered plaster casts of Degas’s sculptures, has broken the group’s self-imposed silence. In response to claims made by Gregory Hedberg, director of European art at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, that these 74 pieces represent so-called "lifetime plasters," Tinterow maintains that "there is nothing that demonstrates that Degas had a set of plaster casts made of his sculptures during his lifetime." But in that case, where did the casts -- which have impressed plenty of art experts -- come from?
That’s all for this month. In response to Tim Griffin’s recent announcement that he will be stepping down as editor-in-chief of Artforum, June’s Magrack will take an in-depth look at "the Griffin years." Until then, enjoy your birthdays Geminis!
GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.