PRINT April 1972

Vito Acconci and the Conceptual Performance

. . . there is mention of an Italian artist who painted with feces; during the French Revolution blood served as paint for someone. . . .
—Guillaume Apollinaire, The Cubist Painters,
Esthetic Meditations, 1913.

VITO ACCONCI, PERHAPS MORE THAN any other figure working in that aspect of post-Minimalism associated with the Conceptual performance, is the one who in a puzzling and constricted way allies those open and anarchic stances with the abstract reductivist enterprise known as Minimalism. In so doing he demonstrates a point that I have been at pains to make—that it is possible to recognize in Minimalism itself many of the clues which in fact led to its own stylistic dissolution. In Acconci’s work this was achieved by conjoining Minimalist form with Duchamp-like thought and behavior, a fusion which may only be short-lived because of the virtually antithetical nature of these two positions. Instead of forming autonomous objects this fusion has led, bizarrely enough, to the Conceptual performance—one which heretofore had been thought to derive exclusively from the Futurist and Dadaist theaters of the First World War.

The general response these past two years to Acconci’s “presentations,” or “performances”—there seems to be no precise term to cover what he does, although in the past it has often been referred to as “body art”—has been, I suppose, to scoff ever since Acconci’s activities, in certain measure, have become familiar. In this respect, as well as in others, one cannot fail to make connections between Acconci’s performances (if they are that) and those earlier manifestations of behavioral phenomenology occasioned by Bruce Nauman’s absorption of technological apparatus into a sensibility which had drawn upon a source in Duchamp. Instead of continuing to work in a diffuse no-man’s-land of Conceptual pretensions, Acconci now seems to concentrate his actions with such acuity that initial skepticism is replaced by the possibility that perhaps what he is doing may be akin to art, at least that side of art which has its affiliations in an obsessional focus. As Acconci himself has remarked:

. . . my work seems mainly concerned with what I guess could be called “attention” or “concentration”; like if I’m going to concentrate on my own body or a part of my own body, this intense focus on it, this intense channeling toward it is going to lead to a kind of turning in on myself which is a kind of masochism. But these elements are just sidelines, or by-products of this kind of attention or concentration. In the same way, if I’m concentrating on this other person or on my action with this other person, an exaggerated version of this is going to be what people can call sadism.1

In short, the earlier Acconci which was fashioned of a synthesis of Conceptual aspirations, has become more convincing as art because he is now able to manipulate and relocate inherited attitudes which need not only be understood as behavioral phenomenology.

“I used to think that art was not about therapy, I mean I learned to believe that art was not about therapy. But now I think that it is.” Acconci was talking in a stuffy, makeshift booth, surrounded by the photographs of six persons close to him and about whom he had been meditating. The closet was airless and muggy as a result of the heat given off, I believe, from a tape recorder and amplifier. The light source was a hand-held flashlight. Acconci was speaking about Seedbed, a work which takes the form of a wedge-shaped ramp which slopes up from the floor to cover an entire gallery. Within this wedge, Acconci passed two afternoons a week in a “private sexual activity,” stated bluntly, in masturbation. Acconci’s written and posted description of the piece touches on the following issues:

1. The room is activated by my presence underground, underfoot—by my movement from point to point under the ramp.

2. The goal of my activity is the production of seed—the scattering of seed throughout the underground area. (My aim is to concentrate on my goal, to be totally enclosed within my goal.)

3. The means to this goal is private sexual activity. (My attempt is to maintain the activity throughout the day, so that a maximum of seed is produced; my aim is to have constant contact with my body so that a maximum of seed is produced; my aim is to have constant contact with my body so that an effect from my body is carried outside.)

4. My aids are the visitors to the gallery—in my seclusion, I can have private images of them, talk to myself about them: my fantasies about them can excite me, enthuse me to sustain—to resume—my private sexual activity. (The seed “planted” on the floor, then, is a joint result of my performance and theirs.)

The poetical ellipses in points 2 and 4 play between the idea of Acconci’s sperm spurted onto the floor but understood in its agricultural metaphor: as seed. Duchamp’s parallel is Elevage de Poussière, or Dust Breeding. Not incidentally, Duchamp’s subtitle for The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even is “agricultural machine.”

Superficially the piece might correspond to a sadomasochistic submission fantasy in which the spectator—unwittingly or wittingly—may literally walk over the prone figure of a masturbating “servant.” Such an interpretation is too facile as it does not take into account what is finally interesting, namely that the Conceptual performance, at least in Vito Acconci’s case, may be a fusion of the Minimalist position in sculpture with a refreshed comprehension of the erotic implications in Duchamp’s late sexual works, most particularly The Wedge of Chastity (1951). What is perhaps the least interesting aspect of the work is its seemingly outrageous or so-called shocking subject matter.

To adopt an extreme taboo in the context of a gallery situation in fact neutralizes its sexual emphasis, as it neutralizes the very notion of taboo. Since the spectator is a voyeur only in the sense that he is an auditor of the events2—Acconci’s mumbled fantasies are amplified and broadcast into the gallery—the spectator may not comprehend the activity which is taking place literally beneath his feet. It seems more likely that the work does not attempt, as part of any programmatic intention, to neutralize sexual taboos, although this is its practical effect. Sufficient stylistic information suggests that Acconci, like Nauman—and I think the primary model was Nauman at his most Duchamp-like, ca. 1966–69—is dealing with an exaggerated, nonobjectified relationship to the erotic legacy of Duchamp.

An interpretation of Duchamp’s evolution that is especially appealing at the present moment is that the elaboration of the adventures of the Nude to the Virgin to the Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors is an extrapolation on the possibility of Duchamp’s first name understood as a “Readymade”: Marcel = MAR + CEL = Mariée + Célibataire = Bride + Bachelor = Female + Male = Androgyne = Rose Sélavy + Marcel Duchamp. In this context, Acconci’s sexualization may be viewed as an extrapolation upon the androgyne of Duchamp. For example, the wedge-shaped floor seems apposite to the meaning of wedge as a fusion of male and female in Duchamp’s third sexual object of 1951, The Wedge of Chastity. I have already attempted to demonstrate that the verbal-visual objectification of Nauman’s two wedges (Wedge Piece) of 1968 are developments of the possibilities inherent in Duchamp’s Wedge. In this connection Acconci’s theatrical Seedbed and the Nauman might be regarded as cousinly efforts. However, the ramp floor of the Acconci speaks for a source in Minimalist sculpture, Robert Morris’ several untitled wedge like works from 1965–68 particularly. I do not think that Nauman derives in the slightest from Morris. Nor do I claim that Morris’ Minimalist “wedges” even remotely correspond to Duchamp despite Morris’ early production which seems so closely allied to Jasper Johns. One might have imagined that through the meditation of Johns, Morris’ “wedges” might derive from Duchamp.

“Are you aware of Duchamp’s three sexual objects,” I asked. Acconci, “and do you recognize the relationship of Seedbed to these objects?” “Yes.”

In the film Conversions of 19713, shown as part of the present exhibition, Acconci is seen tugging at his breasts, burning hair from his chest, and hiding his penis between his legs, that is, attempting to transform himself into a female, or, at least, into an androgyne. “Did this film record a process parallel to the sexual multi-valence between Marcel Duchamp and Rose Sélavy?” “Yes.”

Despite their fearful sexual obsessiveness, Acconci’s activities raise a number of questions that are difficult to answer, particularly as regards the cathartic relationship of the mental and physical dislocations of his work. Still, what is intriguing in Acconci’s latest performance is not its increment of the “polymorphous perverse” or the virtual denial of taboo through exteriorization, but that Acconci is able to handle the Conceptual performance in a way which expresses a closeness to the processes of the mind as opposed to the experiences of the senses. By contrast, we have the puzzling performances of Gilbert and George. In comparison with Acconci the Britons have an “act,” something which is as playable in a cabaret as it is in a studio or a gallery. In that sense their Conceptual performance refers back to the European Dadaistic experience, to the Café Voltaire, to a Dadaism which mixed together sociological, political, and economic commentary realized in Futurist and Cubist modes. Their Conceptual performance, therefore, is social in its ramifications and implicitly sensory in its appeals. It is a presentation of deliberate theatricality and campiness. On the other hand, Acconci, beginning with the apparently sensual theme of externalized taboo and sexuality, conducts the Conceptual performance in a virtually autistic vacuum. In this sense he approaches social indifference—despite the enormity of the social implications of his work—and remains as elitist and infra-referential as Duchamp always was and as the general tenor of New York Dadaism in its heroic period was as well.

Robert Pincus-Witten


1. Vito Acconci, from an unpublished interview with Barbara Fishman, November 23, 1971.

2. Voyeur and auditor probably correspond to the alter-egos of Jasper Johns’ paintings of the mid-1960s, Watchman and Spy. See Jasper Johns, “Sketchbook Notes,” Art and Literature, Spring, 1965, especially p. 192.

3. Based on the photo-essay by Acconci/Shunk-Kender, “Conversions,” Avalanche, Winter, 1971, pp. 90–95.