Vito Acconci

Vito Acconci (1940–2017)

The legendary artist Vito Acconci, best known for his works from the 1960s and 1970s for which he performed a number of controversial acts ranging from biting himself to masturbating under the floorboards of Sonnabend Gallery, has died at the age of seventy-seven. According to art dealer Kenny Schacter, the cause of death was a stroke.

Born in the Bronx in 1940, Acconci earned his bachelor’s degree from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and his master’s degree in writing at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, in 1964 before returning to New York. Over the course of his career, he created a diverse body of work in poetry, criticism, performance art, sound, film and video, photography, and sculpture that often explored themes of the human body and the relationship between himself and the public space. In the 1970s he created works reflecting his interest in architecture, landscape, and furniture design, and in the 1980s he began making sculptures that required viewer participation.

Since his first solo show in 1969, at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Acconci has participated in numerous exhibitions. Retrospectives have been organized by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1978; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1980; and MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, in 2016. He also taught at several institutions including the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, the San Francisco Art Institute, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the School of Visual Arts in New York.

In an interview with the New York Times, Acconci spoke about his role as a creator: “I hated the word artist. To me, even in the years when I was showing things in galleries, it seemed to me that I didn’t really have anything to do with art. The word itself sounded, and still sounds to me, like ‘high art,’ and that was never what I saw myself doing.”

Among his many works are Following Piece, 1969, in which he followed pedestrians on the street until they entered private spaces; Information, 1970, for which he had his mail delivered to New York’s MoMA and went there every day to open it; Openings, 1970, a video framing the artist’s stomach as he pulls out his body hair; and Trademarks, 1970, a performance during which Acconci bit every part of his body he could reach.

In the November 1980 issue of Artforum, Italian art critic Germano Celant wrote: “In the slow development of Vito Acconci one can detect a reluctance to show off art’s purifying power and an attempt to confront its relationship with ‘filth.’ He puts the history of the senses before the history of forms. In fact, all his work seems to me to lead to the disqualification of the formal and the visual, in favor of everything that annoys form and vision.”

Acconci received multiple fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the American Academy in Rome. He was awarded the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and two New York City Art Commission Awards for Excellence in Design, in 1999 and 2004. In 2000, Acconci was a finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize.