The Most Iconic Artists of the 1970s
Brush up on art history with our series on the artists and movements that defined each decade.
Across the globe, the 1970s art world was shaken by reverberations from the social and political climate ignited in the previous decade—though the ideas proliferating in the realm of artmaking were still tethered to formalist concerns and intellectual inquiry. The creation and reception of both land art and feminist art were indebted to the hippie movement and student protests of the late 1960s. In New York in the 1970s, the Greene Street collective echoed the now-communal feel of the SoHo streets—newly populated with artists—especially in the social experiments set up by Gordon Matta-Clark. His restaurant FOOD, which opened in 1972, became a soup kitchen and salon of sorts for creatives, engendering a new way to integrate life and art in the form of living sculpture.
The decade saw performance art skyrocket from its crystallization in the 1960s as a style distinct from theatre or music, offering the body as a canvas more so than ever before. New frontiers opened up in the art landscape, extending it beyond the streets of New York—which had overthrown Paris as the capital of art in the 1950s—to California, Latin America, and as far afield as Japan, where conceptual group Gutai was flush with painters who acted more like performers and performers who were working in clay, whose influences were felt in New York.
The 1970s also laid the groundwork for explorations into the mediated image, especially with Photorealism, an offshoot of Pop Art that birthed the Pictures Generation, pushing further away from a brush-and-canvas-centered art history. Who were the artists driving this story of reinvention? Here, we bring you the most iconic moments of the 1970s.
Despite the earth’s long being the site for artmaking—not to mention all of recorded human experience (think the cave paintings at Lascaux or the plinths of Stonehenge)—a genre that incorporated the earth itself as a material wasn’t instituted until a few Americans and Brits placed the concerns of formal artmaking directly into it. The movement was underscored by an environmental impulse, even if it refrained from giving rise to protest culture.
When New York-based artist Robert Smithson devised his Spiral Jetty, a construction of rocks embedded into a salt lake in Utah in 1970, the artist’s gesture prevented the work from being exhibited in a gallery or a museum. In addition to Smithson’s use of silt, crystal, and rock, the piece’s fixed location outside and the its dependence on the lake’s water levels in order to be viewed—it was visible for two years after its creation until it became submerged, resurfacing only occasionally—countered the characteristic preciousness placed on the art object-as-artifact. Though Smithson died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 35, he made critical contributions to the legacy of land art.
California-born Walter De Maria, another great pioneer of the movement, began his inquiries in 1968 in Munich. He executed his project from that year again in 1977 as New York Earth Room, wherein he dumped 6750 cubic feet of dirt into 141 Wooster Street—well before Urs Fischer dug up Gavin Brown’s space in 2007—radicalizing the sacred space of the gallery. The same year, De Maria installed his Lightning Fields in New Mexico, steel rods formed in a pattern so that, when lightning strikes, they create a living sculpture that relies entirely on the earth’s own forces. Land art also became associated with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as well as Britain’s Richard Long, all of whose legacies persist today.
Female artists have been overlooked throughout much of history (and continue to be marginalized by the art world at large today), and prior to the 20th century, only a handful of women were recorded as having independent practices. But with the advent of the Women’s Liberation movement on the West Coast, feminist art boldly emerged in the wake of the second wave of feminism, addressing the social, political, and cultural concerns of womanhood. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974–79) is one of the best-known monuments of the movement. The piece is a triangle-shaped dinner table, at which 39 female icons of history are seated together, unique place settings embodying various aspects of their contributions. Since its first creation, the names of 999 other women have been inscribed into the floor.
Barbara Kruger abandoned her wall-hangings (a nod to “women’s craft”) for agitprop text-based slogan work that famously called attention to gender inequalities. Lynda Benglis flipped the switch on sexism when she appeared, in 1974, in an advertisement she placed in Artforum, naked and wielding a massive dildo, promoting an upcoming show of hers at Paula Cooper Gallery. Other early practitioners of feminist art broke new ground in the field of performance, especially the likes of Marina Abramović and Ana Mendieta—who would later become a martyr to the cause, following the incidents surrounding her suspicious death, when she either fell or was pushed from the home balcony she shared with husband Carl Andre.
The 1960s set the stage for performance art, especially with the kooky happenings of Yves Klein (in which he turned real women into living paintbrushes, by rolling them around on canvases and in smatterings of blue paint) and the experiential boundary-breaking of John Cage and Joseph Beuys. A new variety emerged in the 1970s, however, deconstructing time, space, place, and subject. It inserted the body as the material for artmaking—a notion that performance and feminist practitioner Abramović truly pioneered. In 1974, she unveiled Rhythm 0, a six-hour piece in which she laid out 72 objects, including a gun and knife, which the audience was invited to use on her passively reposing body (recalling Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964). In 1975, however, she upped the ante with her notorious performance Lips of Thomas, where she lay atop blocks of ice, cutting and flagellating herself, pushing her body to its physical limits and gesturing toward the abuse that female bodies have been subject to throughout history.
Abramović wasn’t the only artist who blurred the line between body and canvas, pain and art. Sure, endurance ruled performance, but so did the abject. The Viennese Actionists (especially Otto Muehl) embodied this to the extreme, while in New York Vito Acconci stirred the SoHo scene with his 1972 performance Seedbed, occupying Ileana Sonnabend’s newly minted space at 420 West Broadway by spending two weeks hidden beneath the floor masturbating, broadcasting his fantasies about the gallery-goers via speakers throughout the space.
Performance art would never have been what it was without Laurie Anderson, who ushered in an entirely new aesthetic—matched only by Nam June Paik—that combined new technologies, absurdity, poetry, and found-objects. Her first performance Automotive, in 1972, was an orchestral concert of car horns honking as if it were a symphony, while her Duets on Ice involved her playing the violin in ice skates, encased in blocks of ice, on the streets of New York. Anderson’s recordings were soon played on pop radio and became integral to the 1980s New Wave scene.
Chris Burden, who died earlier this year, remains one of the most extreme and influential performance artists. In protest against the Vietnam War, in 1971, he asked his friend to shoot him with a .22 caliber rifle. Luckily, the bullet only hit his arm. In Doomed (1975), in Chicago, he laid under a large sheet of glass leaning up against a wall and stayed there for 45 hours and 10 minutes, shattering the glass after a museum worker placed a pitcher of water next to him—as per the rules of the performance, which was to go on until the staff interfered.
Though the 1960s established California as a surf-n-sun paradise, the state also produced some heavy conceptual thinkers, who drew increasing recognition in the 1970s. John Baldessari, who taught at CalArts, quickly became a major figure in academic circles and among his peers. Based in Los Angeles, Baldessari was a rabid conceptualist, and by 1970 he had abandoned traditional painting altogether, inserting text-based language into his compositions. (Ed Ruscha, his peer and friend, with his own text-based works, defined a generation of cross-breed painting that looked like an ironic subversion of consumerist America.) Baldessari went on to create compositions from disjointed photographs and collages that, when seen together, read as unified messages. This trick of the mind can be seen today in the work of artists like Cory Arcangel and Hank Willis Thomas. Baldessari’s 1971 video piece I am Making Art, where he moves his arm in differing gestures and repeats the phrase “I am making art,” played into the idea that there’s no perceptible boundary between art and life—one that circulated throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
Even though Baldessari became a figurehead for the California craze, a little further north of Los Angeles, in Pasadena, James Turrell was combining conceptualism, land art, and Flavin-esque lights to become a major force in a movement called Light & Space, which also included ever-influential artists Bruce Nauman and Robert Irwin. Turrell’s works, which today draw crowds in droves (his Aten Reign at the Guggenheim remains the most visited work in the museum’s history), opened up the idea of art as experience. Walk into one of his Skyspaces or Ganzfelds and it’s clear that the totemic essence of light can be approached as an object. His works also function as metaphysical spaces, which had historically been more readily associated with religious structures that housed art.
Only recently has Gutai received Western market attention, with a handful of active dealers prioritizing it and ushering it into the institutional realm—but the Japanese proto-conceptual movement that formalized in 1954 was, in fact, hugely influential on the history of contemporary art. Jiro Yoshihara, the group’s founder, encouraged his fellow 18 artists to be unrestricted by material, genre, or self-expression. The group published a newsletter that was distributed internationally—Jackson Pollock was aware of it, as was Allan Kaprow, who actively cited Gutai as an influence on his Happenings.
While the group was active until the 1980s, much of their groundbreaking work had been produced in the 1970s. Kazuo Shiraga, for example, painted massive canvases using only his feet, while Atsuko Tanaka used household or found technologies for her blend of performance, sculpture, and social commentary, as she did with Electric Dress. In history, Gutai serves as somewhat of an “artist’s art”—while performance and conceptual work in the 1970s was heavily influenced by these Japanese practitioners, their work rarely surfaced in Western exhibitions of the time.
Revisit the previous decade with our rundown of the 1960s—and look into the future with our guides to the most iconic artists of the 1980s and ’90s.
Cover image: Marina Abramović, AAA-AAA, 1978. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.