How Performance Art Entered the Mainstream

Julie Baumgardner
Nov 3, 2015 4:17AM

Charles Atlas and Merce Cunningham. Merce by Merce by Paik Part One: Blue Studio: Five Segments (1975-76). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Barbara Pine. © 2015 Estate of Merce Cunningham. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Performance art is a medium complicated and challenging not only in its theoretical qualities, but in its practical ones, too. What exactly is it? “The term ‘Performance Art’ is often overused, or unspecific,” explains choreographer and multimedia artist Jonah Bokaer, a next-generation acolyte of Merce Cunningham, who was a torchbearer in the performance-meets-art field. The challenge arises not simply due to performance’s elusive character. (When does it become dance or theater?) As RoseLee Goldberg, founder of the only existing performance biennial, Performa, which unveiled its sixth edition on November 1st, points out, the medium is “not catalogued as performance per se but scattered across departments within the museum such as drawings, photography, or video.” Goldberg has long been an advocate for viewing performance not as a discrete category but one that intersects with all types of artmaking and other cultural fields.

Performance & the Museum

Performance art may be something of a moving target, but there’s a prevailing sentiment among critics, dealers, and curators that it might also just be “the medium of our time.” “Now we’re dealing with a virtual world; people are looking for different kinds of experiences that can root them more specifically in the present moment, which performance definitely does,” says Stuart Comer, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance. More than ever, artists working in performance are being added to blue-chip gallery rosters, while major museums are prioritizing new facilities for time-based works.


Gallerist Andrea Rosen recently took on Yoko OnoLlyn Foulkes, and even the post-apocalyptic mayhem of Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin. The Whitney’s new $422 million Manhattan space includes a multi-use black box theater, and the Tate Modern converted its underground oil tanks into a gallery dedicated to installation and performance as part of a $400 million expansion plan. Likewise, there’s nary an art fair nor biennial free of performance offerings—even from artists whose practices aren’t focused on the medium, like conceptual practitioner Rashid Johnson’s recent restaging of the grandfather of midcentury performance art Allan Kaprow’s 1970 Sweet Wall, or even social-practice popularizer Theaster Gates’s recent in-situ pottery presentation at the Istanbul Biennial.  

But whether staged in museums or commercial galleries, performance art comes with numerous challenges—to commission, to produce, to preserve, to historicize, and to sell—with both sides of the art world’s church and state figuring out how to build on the medium’s potential (and popularity). MoMA, for example, back in 2010, presented what is now likely performance art’s most famous work—Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present—which attracted 850,000 visitors over the 750 hours she sat staring into people’s souls.

“A big moment was when Jay Sanders did the Whitney Biennial in 2012, and he didn’t just select the same-old-same-old dozen or so anointed artists,” says Philip Bither, the Walker Art Center’s curator of performing arts since 1997. “They invited Richard Maxwell, Sarah Michelson, and Jason Moran, people generally considered to be in the performing arts world. Lo and behold, Sarah Michelson wins the Bucksbaum award.” However, the Wexner Center’s director of performing arts, Charles Helm, argues that the craze for performance art is “not a recent development. It is more recent in New York for museums, because historically there were other venues accommodating that work.” He explains that it’s artists crossing over from object-based mediums that have made it appear as though enthusiasm for performance is something new. “There’s no doubt there’s an uptick in artists in this kind of activity,” Helm says.

Imponderabilia, reperformed continuously throughout the exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present at MoMA, March 14-May 31, 2010. Pictured in this image: Maria S.H.M., Abigail Levine (back to front). Marina Abramović and Ulay originally performed Imponderabilia in 1977 for 90 min. Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna. Photo by Scott Rudd.

So just what is driving more artists to experiment with performance? It may have to do with the medium’s fluidity—that it encapsulates the multi-disciplinarity shaping our current lives. “What’s 21st century about it is that people are recognizing that the interaction between art and the public has changed profoundly, and very visibly. There’s a way in which performance, as it’s brought into the museum, has engaged participation—even with exhibitions that have been thought of as ‘traditional’ having elements of that,” says Johanna Burton, director and curator of education and public programs at the New Museum, New York, an institution unafraid to hand over floor space to performance.

The New Museum’s 2013 Chris Burden retrospective, “Extreme Measures”—exploring the practices of an artist who shot himself and drove nails through his palms into a car roof in the name of art—was one of the most comprehensive studies of the legend. Burton has also filled its dedicated performance residency programs with artists like Gerard & Kelly, known for their dance-oriented sociological inquiries, and Wynne Greenwood, aka Tracy & The Plastics, a shapeshifter across personas and mediums alike.

“It’s pretty radical stuff,” says Bither of the Walker, which just staged a two-day conference about the challenges facing performance art today called “New Circuits”—the notes from which will be published in Triple Canopy come November. Based in Minneapolis, the Walker is somewhat known for identifying future stars before the coastal art centers pick up on the buzz. They were one of the first institutions to collaborate with Cunningham, and created an official performance department in 1970.

Last year, Bither commissioned Ralph Lemon for a performance called Scaffold Room (2014). The museum paid the artist for what Bither calls a “‘memory acquisition,’ honoring who saw and experienced it,” by purchasing the Walker’s iteration of the work rather than the work itself. For a one-night-only reprise for “New Circuits,” this year Lemon restaged and reimagined the 2014 piece as Scaffold Room: (Memory) refraction #1, and even created new material for it, a gesture which led to the addition of “refraction” in the title. This approach to commissioning and acquisition is unique, says Bither, often only found in multi-disciplinary institutions like the Walker, the Wexner Center for the Arts, or MCA Chicago, where curatorial approaches to stewardship and collaboration are always being tested. “It’s all being explored and there aren’t really any answers. And that’s kind of exciting,” he says.

Performance & the Market

So how does performance intersect with the market more broadly? The predominant practitioners who influenced what we today lump under “performance art,” like Abramović, Burden, and Robert Wilson, have all, at one time or another, said their stagings weren’t intended to be re-performed. As Wilson recently told Artsy, “I don’t see my work as being repeated, they’re like shooting stars in the moment.” This remains the medium’s signature quirk. It’s both museums’ and galleries’ mission to “come up with a constellation of material that can represent or document their practices,” says Comer.

Collectors and collections, of course, like things. “I’m not sure how much performance art has made a dent in the art market,” reflects performance artist Rashaad Newsome. “The market is still very obsessed by the idea of physical objects.” So curators and gallerists get creative—piling up documentation and ephemera: photographs, videos, props, flyers, original plans—which in turn forms a commercial market. Sean Kelly, Abramović’s dealer since the early ’90s, says that “to no small extent we determined the way things would be formally presented and sold,” an approach that began in the 1980s with little interest from collections. “Now there’s a much more plural and formal environment, where you can buy a photo or a video of Marina, or you can buy an actual performance.” These by-products of performance have become attractive to those with conceptual art collections.

Just like their forebears, the top-brass of contemporary performance art today, such as Tino Sehgal and Ryan McNamara, have famously recoiled from any market strategy. Sehgal, who is represented by Marian Goodman, not only eschews any market analysis of his practice, but even refuses to allow any documentation of his stagings (still, a few rogue iPhone videos slip through and end up on Youtube). In a twist, however, Sehgal’s works do play in the market. His works get acquired, as with The Kiss (2003), which is now part of MoMA’s collection, having been acquired in 2008 for $70,000.

The sale of Sehgal’s work is a rather secretive process: the artist transmits the work’s blueprint to his gallery representative. The purchasing collector or institution is then given those instructions verbally. And they may only restage the work with the aid of Sehgal himself or with one of his team members’ guidance. If Sehgal quits the art world or when he passes away, the legal right to stage his performances will vanish with him.

McNamara, who eludes permanent gallery representation, often works directly with an institution to commission a work, such as he did with Performa for ME3M: A Story Ballet about the Internet (2013), which premiered at the 2013 edition of the biennial and was restaged at last year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach. He has similar arrangements for his works. As long as McNamara is alive, a collector can buy, perform, sell, or gift the piece. But once the artist dies, so too does the work.

“I think a lot of collectors are still very nervous about collecting performance,” says Newsome, whose darling status is bolstered by  “a ‘studio practice’ and a ‘performance practice,’ that inform one another, and are often created and presented in the same space.” But, he adds, “I do think this is changing, and people are feeling more adventurous about how they invest in art. I also believe technology will be a big part of that change.”

Performance & Technology

Technology isn’t just challenging traditional collecting habits, but changing the medium itself. Documentation has become almost an inherent aspect of performance, as well as to its popular appeal. If it isn’t on Instagram, it didn’t happen—or so goes a prevalent social attitude. Artists needn’t create a formal record of a work’s existence, it’s already accessible across public forums, available for anyone to consume. Memory no longer has exclusive rights over a performance’s domain.

Relation in Time, reperformed continuously in shifts throughout the exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present at MoMA, March 14-May 31, 2010. Pictured in this image: Yozmit, Lydia Brawner (left to right). Marina Abramović and Ulay originally performed Relation in Time in 1977 for 17 hours at Studio G7, Bologna. Photo by Scott Rudd.

“The way we engage with images has radically changed, not least with iPhones and other devices, and images of the self have become more performative and fluid,” says Comer. Museums are responding with “new methodologies to document histories that otherwise are not even there.” Comer continues, “If you think back to the Ballet Russe and other dance movements that absolutely, cheek-by-jowl, were linked to visual movements of the time, it’s not a new conversation. There have been some key flashpoints throughout the 20th century. So certainly, at the museum, we are really aspiring to represent the full thrust of that history, and really make a case for the centrality of performance in the development of Modernism.”

Institutions, galleries, collectors, and audiences may be shifting their attitudes toward performance, but this cross-disciplinary experimentation has long been the domain of artists. “It’s all about your orientation,” Bither explains. “Attempting to carve new paths where these worlds can talk to each other, it’s not us at work—it’s what the artists are doing. Artists are being trained without these separations and barriers between disciplines.”

Julie Baumgardner