Portrait of Vito Acconci by Gesi Schilling. Photo courtesy of Gesi Schilling.
Vito Acconci, an artist and architect who pushed the boundaries of conceptual art, died on Thursday. He was 77 years old. Acconci leaves behind an influential body of work, including Following Piece (1969), a performance in which he trailed strangers throughout New York City; Seedbed (1972), which saw him masturbate under the floor of a gallery; and Murinsel (2003), a manmade island forged from glass and metal.
A true polymath, Acconci began his career in the 1960s, writing fiction and poetry. He spent the 1970s producing radical performance art, and thereafter devoted his practice to experimental architecture. And while he moved deftly between mediums, the motivation behind his shape-shifting work remained constant. Acconci’s poems, artworks, and architectural structures all explore the interaction between personal experience (dealing with sexuality, spirituality, and existential anxiety) and public space.
Last year, a retrospective at MoMA PS1 celebrated Acconci’s multifaceted output and indelible impact on contemporary art. Organized by museum director Klaus Biesenbach, the exhibition, titled “WHERE WE ARE NOW (WHO ARE WE ANYWAY?), 1976,” tracked Acconci’s prolific career, beginning with work from the 1960s, when he began to translate his poetry into performance.
It was then that the young writer laid eyes on a Jasper Johns painting and realized that he “was at least ten years behind my time,” he explained in a 1991 interview with Richard Prince. But it was an introduction to Minimalism, which Acconci lovingly referred to as his “father-art,” that would encourage him to break free from the bounds of a specific medium and realize his first bold performances. “Until minimalism, I had been taught, or I taught myself, to look only within a frame; with minimalism the frame broke, or at least stretched,” he once said.
Along with his contemporaries Chris Burden, Adrian Piper, Valie Export, and Bruce Nauman, Acconci began to use his body to explore issues of sexuality, gender, identity, and self-worth. Seminal 1970s performances included Trademarks (1970), where Acconci bit every part of his body that he could reach, covered the bite marks with printer ink, then stamped them onto paper like personal logos. In Applications (1970), fellow artist Kathy Dillon smothered Acconci’s bare chest in red lipstick kisses, which Acconci then rubbed onto the bare back of fellow artist Dennis Oppenheim.
Acconci continued to make video and performance work, and exhibited them in influential galleries like Sonnabend, where he showed the controversial Seedbed, into the early ’80s. But he soon tired of what he saw as the egocentricity of the art world, and the pursuit of a personal practice. “I hated the word artist,” he said in a 2016 interview just before the PS1 retrospective opened. “The word itself sounded, and still sounds to me, like ‘high art,’ and that was never what I saw myself doing.” In response, he established his eponymous architecture studio, which continues to design public spaces like museums and parks.
Installation view of Vito Acconci’s Murisel. Photo by Allie_Caulfield, via Flickr.
In every medium he used, Acconci had a way of upending expectations and expanding possibilities. “What started as an idea for a retrospective of the early work of Vito Acconci became a testament of his always new, groundbreaking, and innovative approach to being present,” Biesenbach told Artsy, “to looking at everything all over again, and even to look back at the past with new ideas.”