by Marlena Donohue
Yves Klein, "Untitled Anthropometry,"
Jackson Pollock, "No. 1," enamel
Carolee Schneemann, "Eye Body/Four
Gunther Brus, "No. 2
(Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown) Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object: 1949-1979 surveys performance art as a global phenomenon percolating from the late '50s in epicenters that included not just the U.S. but Japan, Britain, Italy and Germany. Chronological works sample 150 artists from 20 countries across Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, North and South America.
As much as Modernism changes the look of art from pink Renaissance nudes to geometric shapes, until the conceptual changes suggested in this show art continued to be viewed as a resolved, discrete object--a painting, a sculpture. That object was made to fit certain aesthetic and expressive expectations dictated by 500 years of academic tradition and the taste of an elite class of patrons that regarded art as prestige, luxury possessions.
The 1960's were wooly times in general: free love, the drug culture, Pop, the Cold War, nihilism, a shrinking world, our first hint of ethnic diversity, and a spirit of pushing boundaries in nearly everything. In this atmosphere, artists questioned their role as producers of attractive surfaces.
Artists began to identify art as the creative process itself, and art came to include any creative, interactive or subversive act taking place in real time and real, as opposed to depicted, space that actively involved maker and viewer.
As you'll see in Out of Actions, this had interesting, liberating, downright wierd implications. If the creative process or act itself constitutes art, then there are as many possibilities for viable art as there are imaginations. Then there as many acceptable media as the creative impulse may devise. The idea is that the possibilities are endless.
An artist could stroke a dead hare in public for days (a famous performance by Joseph Beuys), or pile tons and tons of earth into a temporary jetty (executed by American Robert Smithson), or nail himself to a VW (southern Californian Chris Burden), or drape cellophane aross a gallery space--which confused visitors then struggle to traverse (then New Yorker Alan Kaprow). As long as some creative underpinning marked an act--the artist was the sole judge of that--it counted as viable art. All these practical and ideologic crossroads are referenced and contextualized here.
The show keeps emphasizing that no one buys, owns or commodifies as art performance because it is intentionally effemeral and finite--when it was over, it was over. The best we can do is make a record of the creative act with film, photo,video.
Such documentation and recreations of '60s and '70s actions and happenings are meat and potatoes here. The luscious irony is that the "records" of effemeral, subversive acts, never intended for this purpose, serve to commodify what has now taken the appearence of an elite, post modern academy.
Suggesting that this art-as-action idea got a jump-start from none other than the New York School and action painting is an "all roads lead to New York" logic. No question but that Jackson Pollock emphasized the physicality of painting, but art as activity goes back a generation further than Manhattan to German Dada and the interactive, multi-disciplinary environment of the Bauhaus. American artists took Pollock's stress on action and creative liberty to literal conclusions, but you will come away feeling that performance got a more potent jump start from Germany's Fluxus Movement, as well as from the strong contributions of Japanese cohorts as the '50s got rolling.
Moments in this show may leave you feeling as if performance art rendered standards so fluid that in every art school to this day there is at least one kid who's sure it's imaginative to ride up and down the elevators in the nude. But you also leave with an awareness that performance reaches through nearly four decades to imbue--in direct and indirect ways--most of the best work being done today.