PRINT September 2017


Vito Acconci

Vito Acconci, Murinsel, 2003, Graz, Austria. Photo: Bildarchiv Monheim GmbH/Alamy.

VITO ACCONCI was already a mythical figure in New York’s teeming avant-garde scene when I arrived there on New Year’s Eve in 1977. I was bringing with me my collection of Avalanche magazines—one, the Fall 1972 issue, was devoted to Acconci and featured a picture of him on the cover, holding a cigarette to his lips and staring straight into the camera.

Many of Acconci’s early pieces were featured in that issue. Following Piece, 1969; Blindfolded Catching, 1970; Control Box, 1971; and the infamousSeedbed, 1972, among other radical works, had propelled him to what felt like the front lines of a revolutionary change in art. It was a position he shared with only a handful of others (Dennis Oppenheim, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, and Chris Burden), and I remember how the anticipation of each next risky work would radiate through the art community with an energy and excitement hard to describe today. There was a zeitgeist in the air, and Acconci was leading it.

His earliest works were fiction and poetry—and words recited in his mesmerizing, gravelly voice were always a dominant force in his practice. On a visit to New York a few months before I moved to the city, I saw his Under-History Lessons, which were installed in the boiler room of what was then the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, PS 1, for its opening exhibition in 1976. Acconci had lined up little stools for children, all facing the gaping hole of the boiler, with microphones hanging above and his voice, deep and insistent, hypnotically repeating: “A lesson. A lesson. A lesson.”

In 1988, he turned to architecture, founding Acconci Studio. While his first works focused on his body in its relation to others, his architectural projects turned this focus into a probing exploration of the ways in which space itself engages the body.

I had started my own architecture practice the year I moved to New York, and in the mid-1980s Acconci and I collaborated on a project for the Arts Walk in Washington, DC, which was to be a series of permanent installations across several blocks, stretching from the National Portrait Gallery to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. We had prepared an elaborate presentation about our installations, which focused on engaging pedestrians’ movements along the street, and flew to Washington to meet with a straitlaced board (all elderly white men). Acconci stood up in rumpled green fatigues, stating the concepts—“a way up . . . a way down . . . a way under . . . a way over”—slamming his hand against the drawing on the wall for emphasis. I noticed that his shoes were untied. Suddenly, the chairman asked us to leave the room, as they needed a break. About fifteen minutes later, they emerged to tell us we had been dismissed!

In 1993, Acconci and I collaborated again, this time on a facade for the Storefront for Art and Architecture, which was first realized as a temporary installation but was restored years later, in 2008, under the directorship of Joseph Grima. At the opening, I remember the artist Kyong Park summarizing the project perfectly: “No inside, no outside, no Storefront, no Acconci, no Holl.”

Acconci passionately believed in architecture “as an occasion for activity, making spaces fluid, changeable, portable.” He became an artist-architect always driven by his poetic transience.Although he realized only a handful of the projects he imagined, these were profoundly memorable, like the oneiric, undulating form of Murinsel, the floating amphitheater he designed for the Mur River in Graz, Austria.

Acconci took his passion for architecture into teaching when he joined the faculty at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute—where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2002. He became a beloved professor and something of a legend within the school, and he was still teaching this past fall, only a few months before his death.

Acconci’s last show was titled “Where We Are Now (Who Are We Anyway?), 1976,” and was—appropriately enough—one of the exhibitions celebrating the fortieth anniversary of MoMA PS1 in 2016. He purposely focused on early works—I think to clarify the philosophical importance of his poetic language. He was always posing, with piercing intensity, those same questions that Paul Gauguin had asked a century before: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

Steven Holl is an architect based in New York and Beijing.