Remembering Vito Acconci, New York’s Father of Performance Art
A Bronx-born performance artist's unsettling work
Influential performance artist, designer, and architect Vito Acconci passed away on Friday at the age of 77. Longtime collector and dealer Kenny Schachter was the first to break the news on his Instagram. According to Artnet the cause of death was a stroke.
Acconci was born in 1940 in the Bronx, to an American mother and an Italian father. He began his career as a poet, editing 0 TO 9 with Bernadette Mayer in the late 1960s. Starting with his first solo show in 1969, he participated in numerous art exhibitions throughout the United States and Europe, and was the subject of retrospectives at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and most recently at MoMa’s PS1 in 2016. The sprawling retrospective, entitled VITO ACCONCI: WHERE WE ARE NOW (WHO ARE WE ANYWAY?), was a fitting tribute to this groundbreaking artist who also taught at Brooklyn College and the Pratt Institute.
Acconci was a pioneer of conceptual and performance art. Many of his best works incorporate some sort of unusual social situation. For his month-long 1969 “Following Piece,” the artist would follow a randomly chosen stranger throughout the streets of New York until he or she entered a private location. This process varied in length, anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, and took the artist throughout every borough of the city. As the artist explained, “I am almost not an ‘I’ anymore; I put myself in the service of this scheme.”
While Vito’s broad artistic output ranged from video, photography, and poetry, perhaps his most recognized work was his 1972 “Seedbed” performance at New York City’s Sonnabend Gallery. Acconci lay hidden underneath a ramp installed at the gallery, masturbating while the artist’s spoken fantasies about the visitors walking above him were played through loudspeakers in the gallery. The performance lasted for three weeks, eight hours a day.
In the 1980s Acconci turned his attention to sculpture, installations, and architecture, founding the Acconci Studio in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood in 1988. The facade of Storefront for Art and Architecture was a collaborative project by the artist and architect Steven Holl.
Acconci Studio, located in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, was just a few floors above my own studio space. Through the course of my day I would occasionally see Vito stroll by in his signature all-black outfit. While I never followed him anywhere, I did manage to introduce myself to the artist on one occasion.
In the wake of this shocking news I find myself returning to Vito’s work, which can be viewed via UbuWeb, with newfound appreciation. In a 2007 interview with Architectural Record, Acconci was asked what he preferred about architecture to art. His answer speaks volumes: “The beautiful thing about architecture, it does have the anticipation of renovation always built into it, which I find so refreshing from art because art is supposed to be unchangeable. The only things that are unchangeable are tombstones.”
New York City just won’t be the same with Vito Acconci.