In the work Claim from 1971, artist Vito Acconci sat blindfolded, positioned at the base of a narrow stairwell in a gallery, wildly swinging a metal pipe. The viewer was left with the uncomfortable choice of figuring out how serious the intent of the artist was in deciding whether or not to progress. As with many things Acconci, you might be advised to proceed with extreme caution.
Similarly, the 1971 work Trappings saw Acconci making use of his penis, in this instance dressing it up like a doll and carrying on a monologue, addressing it as another person; Vito’s version of the Vagina Monologues.
In an early 1969 performance at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York entitled Points, Blank, Acconci began in Harlem and phoned the gallery every dozen or so blocks as he incrementally made his way by foot to Soho from uptown. Acconci wrote of the piece that by periodically informing the visitors in the space of his progress, he was haunting the audience with the notion of his impending presence, an ethereal figure that hung over the crowd.
Acconci was a concrete poet that segued from words, actions, and output in various media, to literal concrete, by building some extraordinary structures like the floating island/cafe/performance space in the river Mur in Austria in 2003 when Graz was the cultural capital of Europe. Few so seamlessly and radically changed gears in such a far-reaching fashion, yet always from one form of radicalism to another. The pace was unrelenting and unmatched.
In my role as an independent art curator throughout the decade of the 1990s, I futilely tried to contact Acconci—by phone, fax, and later email, to no avail. Then I read in an interview he had long ago forsworn making art (and the art world in general) to practice architecture and design; an alumnus of the school of the self-taught (like Tadao Ando). He mentioned he was so wanting of work he’d happily accept a bathroom commission. I seized the opportunity, not to get an Acconci toilet (I wanted that too), but to design a temporary conceptual exhibition space; rather more for the occasion to work with him, than actually wanting anything that resembled a typical gallery.
In 2000, I called the studio: Within hours there was a message from Acconci and two days later he was sitting on my couch discussing the brief, which I was hatching as we went along. I still have the microcassette tape with his inimitable voice. My fandom relates to the fact the gravelly, gruff guru of performance and installation helped inspire me to enter art in the first instance—he didn’t open doors, expanding content and practice, but bulldozed his way into history, most notably by engaging in an endurance act of onanism under the floor of Sonnabend Gallery in New York in 1972, the infamy of which dogged him till his death; it neither pleased nor amused him.
My exhibition idea was based on Frederick Kiesler’s design for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, which opened in 1942 on 57th Street in New York. There, paintings were cantilevered off the wall (by sawn-off baseball bats), and other works were displayed in a vitrine with a manually operated, revolving lazy Susan–like turntable.
Acconci came up with a design influenced by Kiesler’s biomorphic Endless House (1950s), a Möbius strip of multifunctional metal componentry. Kiesler described his house as: “endless like the human body—there is no beginning and no end,” and in Acconci’s gallery layout the front door extended to the desk and window shutter, and from there, swooped into walls, an upstairs office, and even an overhead video-projection screen. The walls were constructed of expanded metal, on which the art could be hung from hooks inserted into the mesh surface; and, additionally, elements could be manipulated and adjusted into seating and shelving for sculpture.
It was Acconci’s first interior commission and led to another for United Bamboo’s fashion boutique in Tokyo. Though the space was open for merely two years, it was reviewed in the New York Times and hosted many exhibitions including those of Mary Heilmann, Joe Bradley, and Kim Gordon.
Acconci’s space was sublime (to live and work in—it was in the back of my house on Charles Lane) and simultaneously angst provoking. conTEMPorary, as it was called, harked back to the provocative performances of Acconci—hard-edged, brutal, and unforgiving; some artists recoiled from the cage-like interior, while others embraced it.
The art world (and especially the market) affirms and consumes art in repetitious series and is very unforgiving of artists that don’t. Employing any strategy was anathema to Acconci, a restless artist who never capitulated a day in his 50-year career. Poetry, performance, installation, sculpture, design, and architecture were for Acconci natural progression; but, for the rest of the conservative art and design worlds, it was hard to swallow.
Historically, a dilettante was not a dabbler but a seeker, someone who cultivated artistic interests and pursuits in a wide variety of endeavors. And that Acconci did in the best possible way. Marcel Duchamp (another multitasking art practitioner) led the charge, declaring any store-bought object could be art if the artist deemed it; Acconci took it a step further, initially looking within enlisting an assortment of body parts before casting his gaze outward. An ascetic and philosopher, Acconci functioned outside of the material myopia we are all enslaved to on one level or another. I will miss him and for what he so steadfastly stood.