The superb survey show of Vito Acconci’s poems, films, and archives currently at MoMA PS1 in New York makes you feel as if you’ve been given a Christmas present in July. The exhibition is exhilarating, challenging, groundbreaking, and profound. It traces Acconci from his days as a poet to a maker of vanguard films that sometimes recorded the harrowing performance work he was pioneering, and closes with a tour of the 76-year-old’s sprawling archives.
You will treasure the gift-wrapping, too. Vito and Maria Acconci, the husband-and-wife team who now run Acconci Studio, an architecture firm, designed the show, and the overall presentation is an artwork in its own right. Its title is “Vito Acconci: Where Are We Now (Who Are We Anyway?), 1976,” borrowing the name of the final work to appear in it. (It is open through September 18.) The installation includes novel ways to display poetry and to hear it read; inventive circular islands with video monitors; and steel moiré structures peppered with documentary material that are impressive sculptures in their own right.
An exhibition celebrating Acconci’s multifaceted career should have been organized ages ago. Why did it take so long? Was it that he stopped actively exhibiting, or that he took up the practice of architecture? Whatever the reason, Acconci emerges here as a major historical figure who is only now getting his due. Though the subject matter verges on the sensational, it’s hard not to be impressed by the work from the late 1960s through the mid 1970s that is the focus here.
Vito Acconci was born and raised in the Bronx. An only child, he grew up six blocks from the Bronx Zoo and near the New York Botanical Garden and Yankee Stadium. Until he went to the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, for his MFA in literature and poetry, he had always attended all-boys parochial schools. No girls, only nuns. To be sure, he got a great education at Regis High, the elite, tuition-free school on East 84th Street, off Park Avenue.
As a teenager, Acconci, who has a weathered face, slate-colored eyes, a gravelly voice, and dresses all in black, watched the Guggenheim Museum being constructed. His father, who was blind in one eye, brought his son to Manhattan every Saturday. They’d often go the Metropolitan Museum, though the future artist “wanted to see current art,” as he told me on a blistering hot day last week at PS1.
Acconci started writing poetry as a youth. Though he was a bona fide New Yorker, he wasn’t drawn to Kenneth Koch, Alan Ginsburg, or Frank O’Hara, the reigning lights of the period. He was, as he put it when we met, “enraptured” by Richard Wilbur, who won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1957. After mentioning this, he quoted from memory Wilbur’s “Epistemology”: “Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones: / But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones. / We milk the cow of the world, and as we do / We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’ ” “Wilbur,” Acconci said, “made me want to question everything.”
Acconci’s graduate-school classmates were not impressed by his poems. Nevertheless, when he returned to New York, he continued to write and also founded and edited a DIY literary magazine.
Art critics—myself included—often overuse the phrase “visual poetry,” but that best describes where Acconci’s work went next. His words slipped off the page, replaced by images he photographed with a Kodak Instamatic camera and developed at a local drugstore. “Even though I loved words, I wanted words to be actions,” he told me.
If you read the Village Voice back then—and who didn’t?—you became familiar with Acconci’s works early on. In the pages of that weekly, many of us found coverage of a month-long project that involved Acconci following people he did not know on the street until they entered a private space. “Today,” he admitted, “that would be called stalking.” Meanwhile, someone had to follow Acconci in order to photograph the various situations.
Acconci said that Roget’s Thesaurus, which he owns in multiple editions, is his favorite book, and when our conversation turned to Seedbed, the infamous piece he performed at the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo—beneath a wooden ramp, Acconci masturbated for eight hours while having fantasies about visitors to the space at 420 West Broadway—his lifelong love of words became clearer. One day in 1972, before he had a concept for his next solo show, Acconci found the word seedbed in his beloved thesaurus. Intrigued, he visualized what a seedbed was. The rest is history. A week later, his show opened.
While scanning Acconci’s archives, you’ll discover that he was making photographs and films at the same time. Most of his films only last three minutes or so. There are about 60 to view at MoMA PS1. Acconci is naked in many of them, performing a single action. As it happens, Richard Serra compiled his famous verb list around this time, but the things that Acconci is doing in his works do not appear on his contemporary’s compilation. They are instead unusual or painful actions: burning hair off the nape of his neck with a match, biting his fist, pulling hair off his chest. Many times, he’s blindfolded.
Was he conquering his worst fears or defying unknown odds? It’s almost as if he was updating the stories of saints and sinners replete with their attributes. His is a world of deprivations glimpsed in close-ups. Would the church sanction his being filmed in the nude with his naked girlfriend or rubbing lipstick applied to his chest against the back of a fellow artist, the late Dennis Oppenheim? After masturbating, was he trying to see if he would not go blind like his dad?
When asked about all the videos where he is nude, Acconci said, “They were all films. I never walked naked through a gallery.” Though he’s often described as a performance artist, he doesn’t like the term performance art. “It sounds,” he explained, “like it isn’t real. It conveys the idea that I’m not really doing it.” But then, he also doesn’t like to be called an artist, preferring to be known as an “art doer.” To Acconci, the word artist sounds like someone who is “too much in the clouds.”