“Everything I did in art was based on a hatred of art and a hatred of museums, because it was the opposite of everyday life,” Vito Acconci said in 2008, looking back on his more than 40 years of work. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, in a relentless series of performances, installations, films, sound pieces, and photographs, Acconci aimed to shatter that opposition. He followed people on the street, masturbated while hidden in a gallery, and disfigured his own body. Even among a generation of artists who were avowedly radical, he was an unrepentant outlier, pushing forms of art that were by turns lurid and abject, that made himself look pathetic and menacing, and that were absolutely exhilarating.
His death at the age of 77 brings to an end one of the most unusual, superb, and trailblazing careers in postwar American art.
Though Acconci made his name with radical performances and later reinvented himself as an outré architect, he started out as a poet, and throughout his life emphasized in interviews that writing was at the core of his practice. (On the topic of influences, he once listed Faulkner, Genet, William Carlos Williams, and Jean-Luc Godard.) In April of 1967, at the age of 27, he began publishing a journal in New York called 0 to 9 with Bernadette Mayer, which ran Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” among other radical texts.
Recalling that time years later, Acconci said that he particularly envied Aram Saroyan, whose poems regularly consisted of just a single repeated noun. “[W]hile the rest of us tried to be verbs, like everybody told us to do, he had the nerve to stop at nouns,” he once wrote of Saroyan. “Because he took a deep breath and willed himself into the self-confidence of naming.”
One might say that Acconci quickly willed himself into the self-confidence of acting. Verbs—executed precisely, even recklessly—shape his most famous works. In Following Piece (1969), he stalked after people around New York City, stopping his furtive pursuit only once they entered a building. “It was sort of a way to get myself off the writer’s desk and into the city—it was like I was praying for people to take me somewhere I didn’t know how to go myself,” he said in a line that was quoted in a profile last year in the New York Times.
Similarly discomfiting is Seedbed (1973), for which Acconci hid underneath a ramp in the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo, masturbating and speaking into a microphone as people stepped atop the work. Interviewed last year by Phyllis Tuchman in these pages, Acconci said that he came up with the title before the actual work, spotting the word in his favorite book: Roget’s Thesaurus.
It would be easy to cast Acconci in the role of the unbridled, wildly self-indulgent artist, but in many pieces he courts humiliation or presents himself in positions of vulnerability. For his 1971 video Conversions, he used a candle to burn the hair off his chest and then attempted to manipulate his breasts so that they look a woman’s. For 1970’s Trademarks he bit himself viciously, documenting his action through photographs. A text for the piece (he sometimes referred to such instruction as “scripts”) begins simply, “Biting myself: biting as much of my body as I can reach.”
Acconci also enacted uncomfortable forms of power exchange, teasing out the ways in which people dominate and control one another. For Untitled Project for Pier 17, he waited for visitors at the end of a Manhattan pier at 1 a.m. in the morning, from March 27 to April 24 in 1971. “If someone comes out to the pier to meet me,” he explained, “I confess to that person something about me that hasn’t been revealed before—something that I’m ashamed of, and that under normal circumstances I wouldn’t tell a soul. In exchange for keeping the secret, the visitor can demand something from me. The visitor can blackmail me.” A problem arose with that work, he admitted a few years ago, when the Village Voice wrote it up and he suddenly had a long line of people waiting to hear his secrets each night. “Maybe there were three or four things possibly worth telling!” he said.
In Remote Control, a video from from 1971, he instructs Kathy Dillon to tie herself up with rope, and in Pryings, a video of the same year, he tries to force open Dillon’s closed eyes. The two were dating at the time, though the relationship didn’t last. The artist told the Times last year, “she thought she had to get away from me because I was taking too much of her life, which I guess I was.”
At his strangest and strongest moments, Acconci made art that seems to render the whole world terrifying and alien. He makes the bottom drop out. One particularly potent example is Turn-On (1974), a roughly 20-minute film that consists almost entirely of a closeup of his head as he hums and rambles, debasing himself for the camera.
“I’m the problem,” he says later on in the video. “It’s me. I have no conviction anymore. It’s me. It’s all in me now. I can’t believe it…I can’t find any more reason to do art. I don’t understand it anymore. I have no idea what I’m doing anymore.” The ranting continues, and he shifts his address to you the viewer. “I’ve got to wait for you to care about that. I can’t do it alone. I can’t feel it alone. I can’t bear up to it alone. I’ve got to wait for you to feel that, to feel that too—to feel that there’s absolutely no reason. I’ve got to keep waiting for you to feel that.”
Vito Hannibal Acconci was born in the Bronx on January 24, 1940. (One can’t help but pause to underscore that his middle name was that of a storied military general.) His father worked for a bathrobe manufacturer near the Flatiron building in Manhattan, where he met the artist’s future mother. A devout Catholic early on, he attended Holy Cross, where he was a member of the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps.
Speaking with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Acconci discussed the abusive behavior of that marine training group with some enthusiasm, saying “If you were asked to go to the captain’s hut, you had to knock on the door. And you’d hear this voice saying, ‘Louder. I can’t hear you.’ Then you’d knock. Then he’d come and look. And if your fingers were bleeding, he would let you in. It was phenomenal.”
Acconci earned an M.F.A. in literature and poetry from the University of Iowa, and then settled in New York, living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and throughout Downtown Manhattan. “Until 1968, I didn’t pay any rent that was more than 92 dollars a month,” he said.
While his work from the late ‘60s and 1970s has been canonized alongside Chris Burden, and Marina Abramovic, Valie Export, as some of the key pieces of performance art, he long resisted that term. “It sounds like it isn’t real,” he told Tuchman last year. “It conveys the idea that I’m not really doing it.” Nevertheless, his influence on that field has been profound, and his fearsome approach reverberates in practices as diverse as those of Pope.L, Sophie Calle, Andrea Fraser, and Georgia Sagri, to just begin to scratch the surface.
In the late 1970s, Acconci’s interest in performance and art objects waned. Increasingly interested in public space, he took up architecture, proposing (though less often actually constructing) structures defined by sci-fi aesthetics, wry humor, and, of course, a sense of danger. Discussing his architectural practice with Jeff Weinstein for the Museum of Modern Art in 2012, he said, “I admit what I want—did I always want this in work, and maybe I didn’t know it?—but what I really want from work is, I wanted a work that can make people freer than they were before.”
Last year, MoMA PS1 in Queens presented a remarkable retrospective of Acconci’s early work. On the top floor was a transitional piece, with the wonderful title WHERE WE ARE NOW (WHO ARE WE ANYWAY?), 1976, which feels perfectly emblematic of him, despite there being no violence, no blood, no leering terror. It is just a series of stools around a long wooden table whose top extends through a window and out into open air.