Sartle School of Art History: Performance Art

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Mel Brimfield, This is Performance Art, 2011, C-print

Ah, performance artists... the stuntmen of the art world. In performance art, the main event is the action of the artist or other performers. Yes, you could apply this definition to modern dance or Pussy Riot’s brand of political dissent. But the term is used to describe live or documented occurrences in contemporary art that, if not thought of as conceptual pieces themselves, could be written off as random acts of the extremely socially unacceptable variety.

Sylvia Palacios Whitman, Passing Through, “Green Hands,” at Sonnabend Gallery 1977.

Performance art became quite chic in the 1960s and ‘70s and spilled over into many subsets, but its beginnings can be traced back to avant-garde circles of the early 20th century, like Dada. There are just too many gems to list them all concisely. So, we at Sartle have prepared for you a timeline of a few classics from performance art’s heyday. The weirdest, the grossest, the most shocking, the most moving, and the least safe for work.

Famed "grandmother" of performance art, Marina Abromovic 

1964. Yoko Ono gets near-naked on stage in Kyoto with Cut Piece, in which she invites audience members to snip away bits of her clothing. She urges viewers to consider the aggression and accountability that are implicit in viewing the female body as an object in art. I personally wouldn’t let anyone get that close to my boobs with scissors.


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Cut Piece by Yoko Ono 

1972. Vito Acconci scandalizes the people of New York with Seedbed, a questionably rape-y piece in which he lies beneath the floorboards at Sonnabend Gallery masturbating and muttering sexual fantasies about gallerygoers into a microphone as they walk around in the room above him. CREEPY AF.



1973. Adrian Piper (an African American woman) dons a fake mustache, afro wig and oversized shades, and takes to the streets as The Mythic Being. Her ambiguous appearance and odd behavior (muttering passages of her writings as a film crew trails her) provoke passersby to confront their assumptions about race, gender and class as they try to make sense of her. Sort of feels like a more philosophically pithy episode of Punk'd.


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The Mythic Being by Adrian Piper


1974. Chris Burden. Where do we even start. In 1974 he performs Trans-fixed, in which he gets crucified (literally, nails through hands) to a Volkswagen Beetle. Other notable works involve him getting voluntarily shot in the arm, and crawling over an expanse of broken glass (broadcast on a television ad spot).



Trans-Fixed by Chris Burden


Also 1974. Joseph Beuys gets weird with I Like America and America Likes Me. He flies from Germany to JFK Airport in New York, is placed on a stretcher and enveloped with a felt covering, then is transported to Rene Block gallery where he spends three days living in isolation with a wild coyote (whom he eventually sort of befriends), and then gets taken back to the airport in the same manner by which he came.



I Like America and America Like Me by Joseph Beuys 

The coyote is meant to symbolize the “spirit” of America, Beuys himself is trying to channel some kind of shamanism, and it’s all very new-agey.


1975. Carolee Schneemann pulls a feminist manifesto out of her vag and reads it to an audience during a performance of Interior Scroll.



Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann

Not unlike Ono, she’s probing at the objectification and agency of women as simultaneous subjects and artists. While doing things her gynecologist would not approve of.

1988. Marina Abramovic and her former lover/collaborator Ulay spend three months walking towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China.


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The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk by Marina Abramovic and Ulay 

When they meet in the middle, they say goodbye and end their relationship.



2003. Andrea Fraser’s Untitled is technically, legally, in the state of New York, prostitution. In a critique of art world power dynamics and desires, Fraser films herself having sex with an unidentified art collector (who paid about $20,000 to “participate”). As they say, making art is the world’s second oldest profession.



We won’t go into Martha Rosler’s violent cooking lesson, Bruce Nauman’s boring Wall/Floor Positions, or Yves Klein’s paint-covered naked babes. The moral of this story is that a lot can pass for art. Remember that the next time you get the urge to do something gross or mildly illegal!


By Anna McNeary



Beaven, Kirstie. “Performance Art 101: Dance Magic Dance.” Tate. June 28 2012. Accessed July 30 2017. 


Cain, Abigail. “A Brief History of ‘Happenings’ in 1960s New York.” Artsy. Mar 12, 2016. Accessed Jul 29, 2017.


Cembalest, Robin. “Adrian Piper Pulls Out of Black Performance-Art Show.” ArtNews. October 25, 2013. Accessed August 28, 2017.


Cook, William. “Anarchy + Absurdity = Dada: The Cabaret Voltaire at 100.” BBC Arts. February 4, 2016. Accessed August 28, 2017.


“Fluxus.” Tate. Accessed August 28, 2017.


Gilewicz, Nicholas. “I Like America and America Likes Me: A Meditation on Performance and Violence.” Fringe Arts. July 22, 2012. Accessed July 30, 2017.


Hess, Liam. “After 40 years of controversy, artist Vito Acconci is as shocking and relevant as ever.” i-D. June 29, 2016. Accessed July 30, 2017.


Knight, Christopher. “Chris Burden dies at 69: Artist’s light sculpture at LACMA is symbol of L.A.” Los Angeles Times. May 10, 2015. Accessed August 28, 2017.


Moreland, Quinn. “Forty Years of Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Interior Scroll.’” Hyperallergic. August 29, 2015. Accessed July 30, 2017.


“Performance Art.” Tate. Accessed August 28, 2017.


Thurman, Judith. “Walking Through Walls: Marina Abramovic’s Performance Art.” The New Yorker. March 8, 2010. Accessed July 30, 2017.


Trebay, Guy. “Encounter; Sex, Art and Videotape.”


“Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece explained.” Phaidon.

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Anna McNeary


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