PRINT February 2018


Elise Archias’s The Concrete Body

Yvonne Rainer, Three Seascapes, 1962. Rehearsal view, Judson Memorial Church, New York, 1963. Yvonne Rainer.
Photo: Al Giese. © Al Giese.

The Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci, by Elise Archias. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 240 pages.

THE INVOLUNTARY EXPRESSIONS and accidental actions of bodies are at the center of Elise Archias’s account of 1960s and early-’70s performance. Taking three New York–based protagonists as her guides, Archias argues that Yvonne Rainer’s choreography of pedestrian movement, Carolee Schneemann’s material treatment of sensation, and Vito Acconci’s self-assigned feats of physical endurance all shared a capacity to make visible unintended behaviors on the part of their performers (who were sometimes themselves). These actions ranged from somatic reflexes to psychic drives. Archias contends that by developing strategies to release performing bodies from disciplined habits, and by presenting these bodies as uncontrolled matter, these artists answered a call of their time to reconnect art with lived, everyday experience. The Concrete Body’s critical assessment of physical vulnerability feels deeply resonant today.

Three stills from Vito Acconci’s Soap & Eyes, 1970, Super 8, black-and-white, silent, 3 minutes. © Vito Acconci/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The book does more than flesh out the art of late modernity, though. Its principal claim is that in their “bodily practices,” Rainer, Schneemann, and Acconci advanced a materialist project of modernism by using their own and others’ bodies to create tensions between subjects and the cultural structures with which they were intertwined. In this way, the book argues, these artists carried forward a project that their predecessors had begun in bronze and paint. Indeed, Archias shows that Rainer and Schneemann came to their investments in the material potential of bodies through their engagements with the structure and physical substance of abstract painting as much as (and in Rainer’s case, more than) with the actions of the painters themselves. While Rainer put ordinary movements in tension with gravity to unleash the “unruly physical properties” of her dancers’ bodies, Schneemann catalyzed her performers with intense unanticipated sensations, resulting in a range of instinctive actions.

The Concrete Body’s critical assessment of physical vulnerability feels deeply resonant today.

In “Reasons to Move,” the innovative chapter on Acconci, painting plays a lesser role. This section of the book brings us to the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s, ushering in some of the preoccupations that marked the art of the latter decade—most prominently, feminist and postmodernist convictions that spectatorship is never a neutral or disinterested endeavor. Archias understands Acconci’s work as an exploration of desire in relation to the possibility of failure. In his canonical Following Piece, 1969, for example, the artist documented his exercise of choosing a person on the street at random and following him as long as he remained in the public spaces of New York. Archias argues that Acconci’s actions designate public space as a realm where desire is enacted but ultimately frustrated—the exercise is driven by the urge to get close to someone, yet the artist never achieves contact, let alone intimacy, with the stranger he follows. Typically for Acconci, there is absurdity alongside pathos here, and Archias refreshingly emphasizes the ways that Acconci—like Rainer before him—consistently used humor to serve the critical ambitions of his work.

Carolee Schneemann, Newspaper Event, 1962. Performance view, Judson Memorial Church, New York, 1962. Photo: Al Giese. © Al Giese.

The Concrete Body’s account of vulnerability emerging in artistic practice as modernist values yielded to postmodernist ones is meaningful not only within the book’s field of postwar art history but also for conversations in the current moment. As feminist theory has argued, to acknowledge subjective vulnerability is to accept interdependence among individuals and collective bodies as a given; such a proposition defies prevailing fantasies of invincibility and rationalizations for sovereignty. Through her incisive interpretations of the performing bodies in work by Rainer, Schneemann, and Acconci, Archias makes a compelling and persuasive case for art’s role in this opposition.

Yet one question lingers: How might bodies of different races and classes—bodies perhaps more vulnerable than the ones under primary consideration here—have inflected the book’s narrative? Archias addresses this query to some extent by offering a compelling consideration of Adrian Piper’s work alongside that of Acconci. Throughout, though, a more diverse range of performing bodies would have been welcome, especially in relation to the racially motivated physical protests that Archias invokes as her history’s political backdrop, including Rosa Parks’s courageous act of resistance as well as the nationwide sit-ins of the civil rights era. There is an opportunity, in other words, for additional protagonists to enter the critical space that Archias has productively opened up. With The Concrete Body, Archias illuminates the art of Rainer, Schneemann, and Acconci in bold new terms that reframe the art that preceded them, even as they speak directly to the present moment. Countering traditional narratives of historical rupture—and their idealization of a stable past—the book challenges standard generational readings of history, instead volleying the reader across not just media, but also time.

Emily Liebert is associate curator of contemporary art at the Cleveland Museum of Art.