November 2016

In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a major exhibition of performance art, which included live performances taking place daily in the rooms of the museum. I am talking about The Artist is Present, a retrospective of the work of the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art”, Marina Abramović, which attracted thousands of visitors (700.000 according to The New Yorker).

The presence of performance in leading institutions such as the MoMA has definitely contributed to its acceptance into the mainstream during the last few decades. However, some people still question why performing in front of an audience can be considered art, and not drama/theatre. Abramović herself gave her opinion on this matter in an interview while promoting her MoMA show, stating that “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Marina Abramović, ‘Rhythm 10’, 1973, performance, 60 min.

I am sure many actors –and perhaps some artists as well- would have many counterarguments to Abramović’s words, but her assertiveness shows that the performance vs. acting debate is still alive. The lines separating performance art and drama are certainly blurry, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a world where everything seems to be more and more interconnected. So instead of focusing on trying to define what performance is against other disciplines, I think it is much more interesting to examine here why its irruption in the world of visual arts has been so important for the development of contemporary culture.

The beginnings of performance art can be dated back at least to the early twentieth century, and particularly to the Dada movement. Dadaists defied conventional definitions of art by mixing poetry, music and visual arts in unconventional performances that took place in alternative spaces such as the famous Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Yoshihara Jirō, Please Draw Freely, 1956. Paint and marker on wood, approximately 200 x 450 x 3 cm. Installation view: Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition, Ashiya Park, Ashiya, July 27–August 5, 1956. © The former members of the Gutai Art Association. Courtesy Museum of Osaka University.

Between the 1940s and the early 1960s, a series of artistic actions (often derived from  “action painting”), interactive installations, and performative events organised by artists such as Yves Klein and groups like Gutai, anticipated some of the characteristics of what was to be labelled “Performance Art” from the 1960s onward.

The Japanese group Gutai was one of the first to take exhibitions and artistic actions outside the traditional spaces of the museum and the gallery. They organised many outdoor events, like the 1956 Outdoor Gutai Art Exhibition (Ashiya, Japan), where visitors were invited to take part in the artworks. The idea of opening up art to the participation of the public was also at the heart of Allan Kaprow’s happenings, in which art became a collective experience.

Allan Kaprow's happening Fluids, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

Allan Kaprow’s happening ‘Fluids’, photographed by Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills, October 1963.

This new role of the public -who is no longer contemplative and passive as in traditional art exhibitions- that comes with performance art, disrupts the conventional relationship between the viewers and the artworks, and generates new dynamics between the viewers and the artists. Because, as the title of Abramović’s exhibition points out, one of the most important characteristics of performance is that the artist is present. In performance art, the body of the artist is the medium, and it becomes an incredibly powerful tool to express different narratives and ideas.

In opposition to an inert painting or sculpture, the presence of the very alive body of the artist means that art stops being a safe experience for the viewer, given the unpredictability of the situation. With performance, art invaded the “real world”, the here and now. Some artists have put the public in particularly difficult positions by putting themselves in danger in front of an audience. Abramović, Joseph Beuys, and Chris Burden are some of the most prominent examples. The latter is known for his 1971 piece Shoot, in which he was shot in the arm by a friend in front of a small audience.

Chris Burden, Shoot (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. At 7:45 p.m. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me. © Chris Burden. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

Chris Burden, ‘Shoot’ (1971). F Space, Santa Ana, CA. November 19, 1971. © Chris Burden.

In the 1970s, performance was already a quite established artistic practice, with Fluxus –an international, heterogeneous conglomeration of artists, designers, composers, dancers and other professionals that shaped a highly experimental artistic community- as one of its most important representatives.

Why was performance such a success at the time? One of the main reasons was the rise, particularly in the United States, of a series of social and political movements that demanded civil and social rights, equality, and justice. In such a politicised environment, many artists used performance as a means to address the concerns behind different social groups and communities. For instance, some of the most well-known performances from this period are linked to the rise of feminism and the Feminist art movement. This is the case of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll (1975), which culminated with the artist extracting a paper scroll from her vagina while reading from it.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece Interior Scroll, 1975.

Carolee Schneemann performing her piece ‘Interior Scroll’, 1975.

These are just a few of the many artists and actions that contributed to the early developments of performance as an art form. It would be impossible to cite them all here, but the changes they introduced during the second half of the twentieth century -the organisation of artistic actions outside traditional spaces, the increasingly active role of the publics, and, most importantly, the use of the artist’s body as a medium- are essential in order to understand our current artistic context.

Abstract Expressionism was a movement dominated by male artists, talked about by male critics, with a discourse that emphasized ‘male’ attributes like scale, power, and dramatic gesture.  This stereotype has been mythologized over the past half-century, but we cannot discount the many female Abstract Expressionist who were also part of this movement.  These women were not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, even though they were creating, selling, and being written about at the same time as the men in the movement. This lack of recognition was due to the sexist nature of the art world in the 1940s and 1950s. Most of these women were written off as female painters rather than artists in their own right. Most of their work wasn’t even acknowledged until after their deaths. Only since feminist art history, recent scholarship, and a groundbreaking show at the Denver Art Museum in Colorado this year, have these women resurfaced in our art historical consciousness. Their work is as expressive, powerful, and emotional as their male contemporaries.  The following four women are just a few of the many talented artists created Abstract Expressionist artwork during this time period.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler. Copyright Ernst Haas

Helen Frankenthaler. Copyright Ernst Haas

Born and raised in Manhattan, Helen Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College in Vermont where she grew familiar with Old Master painting and techniques of Cubism. Afterward, she returned to New York to study with Hans Hofmann, and began painting with an entirely new technique. She would dilute her oil paints so that they would soak into the canvas rather than collecting on the surface; she called this her “soak-stain” method.  She would then pour her thinned paint onto a canvas stretched out on the ground. Though she is often categorized as a color field Abstract Expressionist, her work bridges the gap between color field and gesture painting.

Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, The Season. Copyright estate of Lee Krasner

Lee Krasner, The Season. Copyright estate of Lee Krasner

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Lee Krasner studied at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. She also studied with Hans Hofmann who once declared that one of her paintings was “so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.” Her work is quite rhythmical, with strong gestural brushstrokes, and thick texture.  Her work is strongly influenced by the Parisian Avant-Garde and Surrealism, but ultimately she creates very abstract images grounded in reality.  Her achievements were almost entirely eclipsed by her husband Jackson Pollock, until after both of their deaths. In a 1972 interview, Krasner said, “I think even today it’s difficult for people to see me, or to speak to me, or observe my work, and not connect it with Pollock.”

Alma Thomas

Anna Thomas, Stars and Their Display. Copyright estate of Alma Thomas

Anna Thomas, Stars and Their Display. Copyright estate of Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas began her professional painting career a lot later than one might imagine. Born in the Georgia, Thomas studied fine art at Howard University and was an art teacher for 35 years in Washington D.C. before she dedicated herself solely to painting. Thomas’s style expanded on Abstract Expressionism by creating patterns of color, shape, and line. Not only did she have to seek recognition during a movement that was dominated by white men, but she had to overcome the stigma of being of an older generation, being a person of color, and being female.  Her images are simultaneously loosely painted and meticulously formulated swatches of color that sprawl over the canvas. The most recent retrospective of her work is closing at the Studio Museum in Harlem on October 30th.

Elaine De Kooning

elaine-de-kooning

Elaine De Kooning, De Kooning portrait. Copyright estate of Rudy Burckhardt

Similar to Lee Krasner, Elaine De Kooning was outshone by her painter husband Willem De Kooning for most of her professional life.  As a fine arts student at the Leonardo Da Vinci Art School in New York, she took drawing classes from De Kooning, who would quickly bring her into his social circle of Abstract Expressionist painters.  Elaine De Kooning’s own work was heavily influenced by Cubism and abstract art. Her images are composed through rapid brushstrokes, wild color, and dynamic intensity of emotion.  She also worked as an art critic and editorial associate for ArtNews for a period of time. She was also influenced by the American southwest, during her time as a professor at the University of New Mexico.  Her most high profile work as commissioned in 1962, she was asked to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy for a presidential library.

Are you bored of seeing the same types of paintings over and over again, flat and on a regular canvas hung up on a white wall? Or are you an artist in need of some inspiration to move past the traditional image of a painting? Here is a list of artists from the past century that approached the flat surface in innovative ways, leaving behind conventional practices and taking their works to a whole new realm.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Henri Matisse, 'Memory of Oceania', 1952-53. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas. 112 x 112 7/8” (284.4 x 286.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse, ‘Memory of Oceania’, 1952-53. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper, mounted on canvas. 112 x 112 7/8” (284.4 x 286.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1968. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse was one of the first to depart from the classic method of applying paint onto canvas. While he is known for his “traditional” paintings, towards the very end of his life he broke away from this and pulled out the scissors. With the help of a large crew of assistants, Matisse created what are known as the cut-outs. For these cut-outs, he and his crew hand-painted white paper using brightly colored gouache paints, then proceeded to cut these painted papers into simple geometric and organic shapes. These cut-out pieces were then either pasted onto canvases and paired with other materials such as charcoal or, for the first time in art history, pinned directly onto the walls of the museum or gallery.

Georges Braque (1882 -1963)

Georges Braque, 'Still Life with Tenora' (1913). © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Georges Braque, ‘Still Life with Tenora’ (1913). © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Along with Picasso, Braque made some of the first collages in art history, also known as papier collé. As part of the development of Cubism, Braque introduced other materials and patterns onto his canvases, suggesting the subject through the use of found flat materials instead of describing the subject-matter through paint. This may seem like a simple idea, or resemble an art project you did with your kindergarten teacher, but it was a true innovation at the time. This idea soon evolved and inspired other artists to further explore it by introducing three-dimensional objects in their works.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Kurt Schwitters, 'Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture', 1921. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters, ‘Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture’, 1921. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Kurt Schwitters came from a very academic background, but around 1920 he became very involved in the Dada movement in Berlin, which mocked academic practices and provided artists with the opportunity to approach visual arts with complete freedom. Schwitters brought to this movement what is known as assemblage. Assemblage is linked to the concept of papier collé, but instead of using found paper materials, it consists in fixing actual found objects on the flat surface. Schwitters’ work plays with the shadows made by the objects stuck to the canvas, shadows that move and change depending on the light hitting the pieces.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968)

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, 'Waiting', 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept, ‘Waiting’, 1960. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milan.

Fontana went one step further in the use of scissors. Instead of simply cutting shapes and placing them onto the canvas, like Matisse and Braque had done, he cut the canvas itself and punctured purposeful holes into it. Fontana saw this acts as a means of building a bridge between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional in art. He referred to these series of works as Spatial Concept, and was quite proud of himself for discovering the power of the tagli (“cuts”). He stated “my discovery was the hole and that’s it. I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery”. Some of these cut canvases are painted in a single color, some are simply left white. These white canvases in particular evoke the sense of destruction of the pure as a vehicle to progress into the sculptural realm.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)

Jackson Pollock at Work. Photo: www.Jackson-Pollock.org.

Jackson Pollock at Work. Photo: www.Jackson-Pollock.org.

Jackson Pollock took his very large canvases and placed them on the floor instead of upright on an easel. Photographs of his creative process have circulated thoroughly. Once the canvases were on the ground, Pollock used paint brushes to drip and splatter paint across these large white surfaces. Pollock is a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, an artistic current that seeks to represent ideas and emotions using abstract forms and color instead of a figurative and realistic representation. Anyone interested in this important figure of American art can now visit the studio where Pollock worked, where you would find evidence of his technique.

Takis (born in 1925)

Takis, 'Magnetic Painting No. 7', 1962. Oil on canvas, magnets, silk ribbon, and cork. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

Takis, ‘Magnetic Painting No. 7’, 1962. Oil on canvas, magnets, silk ribbon, and cork. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston.

This artist ties together art and science. He is known as the first person to “send a man into space”, six months before Yuri Gagarin, during a performance. Takis’ work explores magnetic field energy, which he uses as a tool for altering the shape of the canvas. Takis transforms his canvases into sculptural pieces through the use of magnets, creating works that are a sort of magic trick. He often hangs small three-dimensional magnetic objects from the ceiling using thin wire strings, creating the illusion of floating geometric shapes in front of large brightly colored monochromatic surface. These geometric shapes are held up through the use of magnets on the back side of the canvas, which in turn is slightly pulled by the magnetic forces around it.

Yves Klein (1928-1962)

Photograph of Yves Klein's performance.

Photograph of Yves Klein’s performance.

Yves Klein used the body as a paint brush, transforming the act of painting into a performance. Klein experimented with his “living brushes” technique in small apartments in Paris. He would invite women to strip, dip their naked bodies in paint and press themselves against large white canvases. This, of course, became quite the hip thing to witness, and thus the creation of these pieces became a performance accompanied by live music that was also filmed for us to watch to this day. These pieces were kept very simple, with only one to a handful of single imprints of female bodies per canvas. For these, Klein used very strictly the color now known as International Klein Blue, whose significance for the artist is unclear and highly debated.

Günther Uecker (born 1930)

Günther Uecker, 'Untitled', 1967. Paint and nails on canvas on wood. 32 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches (82.5 x 82.5 cm). Photo: Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Günther Uecker, ‘Untitled’, 1967. Paint and nails on canvas on wood. 32 1/2 x 32 1/2 inches (82.5 x 82.5 cm). Photo: Dominique Lévy Gallery.

Günther Uecker used yet another surprising material in place of paint on his canvas: nails. He became obsessed with purification rituals, especially those used in religious contexts such as Buddhism. He used the hammering of nails as a meditative practice that eventually monopolized his artistic works. The canvases are supported by wood paneling in order to make this process possible. The nails create organic shapes through systematic and repetitive patterns. Most of his work is completely monochromatic, meaning the nails and the canvas are painted in a single color, usually a play off of black or white. After a full career of hammering nails to canvases, Uecker eventually progressed onto land art.

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