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A History of Performance Art


Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center
"Performance art turns out to be therapeutic. . . . Its function is to perform art and thereby, to re-form and transform art. . . . The problem with performance art is that it has no place that it can call its own. If it's in a theater, if it's in a gallery or museum, then it fades out of its own classification and slips into the categories of those other arenas. . . . It destroys itself as it is being made. It can never be pinned down as it has already disappeared."--Vito Acconci, 1998

Performance art was not "new" in the 1970s, but had roots stretching back to the early part of this century. European artists in the Dada, Italian Futurist, and Russian avant-guarde movements experimented with cabaret and street performance in an attempt to break down the barriers between art and life. In the 1920s the Bauhaus in Germany became the first art and design school to have a stage workshop and to offer a course on performance. Sculptors, painters, architects, dancers, and costume designers created events and festivals combining their individual disciplines into entirely new forms of performance.

From the late 1940s through the 1950s, artists at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina collaborated on multidisciplinary and performance work. In 1952 composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, and others created an event combining poetry, dance, slide projections, and a cacophony of sounds culled from radios, phonographs, and everyday noise that is considered to be the very first "Happening." At about this time, Jackson Pollock was making Abstract Expressionist "action paintings" by throwing paint onto unstretched canvases placed on the floor, a process that also became a performance. Simultaneously, members of the Japanese avant-garde Gutai group produced paintings using their bodies in actions such as breaking through a canvas of brown paper or rolling in mud. As Rauschenberg said, these artists worked in "the arena between art and life," setting the stage for Happenings, live art, and other emerging forms of performance that began in the late 1950s and continued into the 1960s.

During the early 1960s, performance both by individual artists and by artists' groups proliferated internationally. American visual artists Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman created Happenings and theatrical events. Artists associated with Fluxus, including Joseph Beuys, participated in a series of concerts, events, and festivals in the United States and Europe. Other international artists' groups interested in social and political issues such Aktual Art (Czechoslovakia), COBRA (Copenhagen/ Brussels/Amsterdam), DIAS (England), Group Zero (Berlin), Hi Red Center and Neo-Dada (Japan), the Situationists™ (France), and the Vienna Aktionists created performance art and demonstrations that often occurred in public spaces.

Since the 1970s, different genres of performance art have evolved from simple, often private investigations of ordinary routines of everyday life, rituals, and tests of endurance to larger-scale site-specific environments and public projects, multimedia productions, and autobiographical cabaret-style solo work. In tandem with these developments in performance art, the arena of the "performing arts"--postmodern dance, new music, experimental theater, and spoken-word performance--also evolved through increasing collaboration between visual and performing artists.

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Type: Commentary, gallery guide
Source: Gallery Guide, A History of Performance Art, from the exhibition Performance in the 1970s: Experiencing the Everyday, Andersen Window Gallery, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, May 24-November 8, 1998.
Rights: Copyright 1998 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009