In: Yves Klein

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.

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.

It’s basically impossible to narrow London’s top modern and contemporary galleries down to 10. With the wealth and vibrancy of the arts scene in the British capital, there are too many to mention. Indeed, London has long been a global powerhouse in the modern and contemporary art world, so much so that this list simply sums up the starting points, merely scratching the surface of the city’s endless offerings.

We’ve created two lists examining galleries in London. This first one will guide you through London’s classic and long-established names such as the Tate and Serpentine, whilst the second will focus on London’s more recent additions to the modern and contemporary scene like Blain|Southern and Victoria Miro.

1. Tate Modern

In a nutshell: The Tate is one of the most famous art institutions in the world and, undoubtedly, a force to be reckoned with. Its neat “family” of four British galleries show its dedication to demonstrating the scope of the arts – old and new – and has thus become a household name across the globe. The Tate Modern is arguably its most impressive offering. Housed in the former Bankside Power Station, the building was repurposed into a gallery by architects Herzog & de Meuron who decided to reinvent the structure rather than demolish it. Now, with its chimney intact, the Tate’s commanding physical presence on the bank is symbolic of its prevalence in global culture. Its brilliant permanent collection includes world-class works such as David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). The Tate Modern is known for exhibitions that spectacularly transform its interior such as Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (2007) which took the form of a long crack in the floor of the gallery’s Turbine Hall. Don’t miss the Thames-view café and the superb bookshop.

Where: Bankside, SE1. Open 10am-6pm everyday with late closing at 10pm on Friday and Saturday.

2. Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery facade, with the Tree of Life by Rachel Whiteread.

Whitechapel Gallery facade, with the Tree of Life by Rachel Whiteread.

In a nutshell: Cited by the Independent as “the place to promote a new belief in the good of art”, Whitechapel Gallery was actually one of the first publicly funded galleries in London, and its history is one of education and outreach. What’s more, it organises exhibitions according to local interest. This loyalty to locale make it uniquely personal when considering its international renown. With a penchant for catching up-and-coming artists and catapulting them to recognition, the Whitechapel has premiered the likes of Frida Kahlo and Mark Rothko. It even brands its history as one “of firsts”, having also been the only British gallery to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and the first one in the country to produce a major survey of Jackson Pollock’s work. So, you might see the next big thing, perhaps the polar opposite…or something completely unexpected. Such is the Whitechapel, and it is not to be missed.

Where: Tower Hamlets, E1. Open 11am-9pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

3. Saatchi 

The Saatchi Gallery at the former Chelsea Barracks in London, UK

The Saatchi Gallery at the former Chelsea Barracks in London, UK

In a nutshell: As the urban legend goes, major British art patron Charles Saatchi apparently accidentally destroyed one of Marc Quinn’s legendary Self sculptures – consisting of the artist’s head cast and frozen in his own blood – when the freezer in his house was unplugged during construction works. Saatchi’s reputation precedes him, his name being one so powerful that an attempt to rename the gallery the Museum of Contemporary Art for London in 2010 completely flopped, ‘Saatchi’ enduring as before. Anyway, you must be doing something right if you’ve got a  in your freezer and Saatchi’s art empire is no weak feat; he opened a gallery in order to showcase his personal collection. The gallery boasts its temporary exhibits nearly always being by artists that no-one has heard of, providing a “springboard” to launch careers.  In a similar vein, the Saatchi is currently showing the rare effort of an all-female exhibit – Champagne Life.

Where: King’s Road, SW3. Open 10am-6pm everyday.

4. Gagosian Galleries

Gagosian

In a nutshell: Larry Gagosian’s art empire spans continents and, unsurprisingly, holds a firm base in London with no less than three galleries in the capital. While the galleries roots are in New York and Los Angeles, London was the first international location that was opened by Gagosian. Although that gallery on Haddon Street is now closed, three more have risen from the ashes including one on Britannia Street which started in 2004 with an exceptional opening exhibit of paintings and sculpture from Cy Twombly. Gagosian’s empire is publicly active and always expanding; in Sothebys’ recent Contemporary Sale, the gallery purchased Yves Klein’s Untitled, Anthropometry (1960) for a cool £1,025,000.  Expect a constantly evolving program of contemporary art in sensitively curated interiors from all three galleries which are all located within reasonable distance of each other. And, of course, all three galleries are commercial, so all the art is for sale…

Where: Britannia Street, WC1 // Davies Street, W1 // Grosvenor Hill, W1. All three galleries are open 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

5. The Hayward

Hayward

The Hayward Gallery facade, London, the Uk

In a nutshell: Located on London’s vibrant South Bank (as part of the SouthBank Centre) amongst many other major arts centres, the Hayward’s Brutalist concrete exterior looks like it popped straight out of one of Orwell’s dystopian narratives. The Hayward doesn’t house a permanent collection, however, it hosts three or four major exhibitions each year; one of its many iconic shows having been Martin Creed’s What’s The Point of It? (20140 and Carsten Höller’s Decision (2015). Whilst its output is largely contemporary, the Hayward brands itself as embracing visual arts from all periods and has, in the past, shown work from Leonardo DaVinci and Edvard Munch. The gallery is well-known for doing ‘survey’ shows of contemporary art, including How to Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art from the Art’s Council Collection. The SouthBank centre location sees it sharing a setting with some of London’s other cultural epicentres, such as the Queen Elizabeth Concert Hall, and these make the area the arts hub that it is. As if that weren’t enough, it is adjacent to the Thames and on top of the famous (and luckily still-standing) Undercroft Skatepark so you shouldn’t be stuck for things to do once you finish in the gallery.

Where: Southbank Centre, SE1. The gallery re-opens in 2017. 

6. Serpentine Galleries

Serpentine_Gallery

Serpentine Gallery facade, London, the UK

In a nutshell: With two galleries that are within walking distance of each other in the coveted Kensington Gardens of Hyde Park, the Serpentine Galleries are an extremely popular tourist destination. Named after the Serpentine Lake which separates the galleries, you have to cross a bridge to get from one to another if the romance weren’t already enough. They both showcase diverse contemporary art programs, and each space is housed in Grade II listed 19th and 20th century buildings: the original Serpentine in a former tea pavilion (it doesn’t get any more English) and the Serpentine Sackler in an ex-gunpowder store. Every summer the Serpentine commissions a leading architect to design and erect a temporary summer pavilion to be built on its lawn. Each building stays up for three months and, in previous years, has been designed by Pritzker Prize-winning names such as Jean Nouvel – famous for designing numerous iconic galleries worldwide – and Zaha Hadid to name a few.  

Where: Serpentine, Kensington Gardens, W2 // Serpentine Sackler, West Carriage Drive, W2.  Both galleries are open 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

7. ICA

ICA

Institute of Contemporary Art facade, London, the UK

In a nutshell: The Institute of Contemporary Arts is a cultural centre that houses galleries, cinemas, a theatre, a bookshop and a bar. And, located just off Trafalgar Square, it is as geographically central to London as it is to the city’s arts scene. It is a membership institute that promotes and encourages an understanding of radical contemporary art, initiated in 1947 by Londoners in an attempt to endorse an approach that went beyond the traditionalism of the Royal Academy. In the ’70’s the ICA was known for its anarchism, this period is marked by an attack on the director of exhibitions at the time – Norman Rosenthal. In a demonstration of their alternative spirit the ICA decided to keep Rosenthal’s bloodstain and it remains at the institute today, framed and preserved under glass and affectionately signposted ‘This is Norman’s Blood’. Historically, The Independent Group began meeting at the ICA in 1953 which ultimately lead to the launch of British Pop Art. The ICA’s association with events such as this, combined with its history of anarchy (and nonchalance) have made it one of the more exciting, forward-thinking institutions in London today.

Where: Pall Mall, SW1. Open 11am-11pm Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.