Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

5:02 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser No comments
A Story from my memoir Tales of the 70’s Art World


How I Met Vito Acconci

Basically, I am not a person drawn to nihilism and perversity, yet back in the 70’s I such forms these qualities were so fascinating and original at times I could not resist the pull of its attraction. The outrageous was fun; it interrupted the boredom of doing and thinking the conventional thing from day to day. It was like being at the circus with nose-thumbing artists as the clowns. A part of me longed to be outrageous too, but I was too timid, too hemmed in by the bourgeois constraints that had held me in all through my childhood and youth. I had always sought to be proper and ladylike suppressing deep-rooted urges to break out of the mold I had been poured into. Seeking out the outrageous, along with the beautiful and idealistic answered a need in me that needed to be liberated. Soon my need was met. With no encouragement on my part, the outrageous sought me out.
I had gone to see an exhibition at the Jewish Museum called “Software,” and while I was examining one of the works in a glass case, I noticed that a man was standing much too close to me. I felt uncomfortable, so I moved away from him. To my consternation, he followed me, and I was deliberating if I should call a guard, when he laughed and said,
“Don’t worry, I’m not a masher. I’m an artist and I’m in this show. This is one of my pieces—seeing how close I have to get to make someone uneasy or to move away.”
Knowing artists of that period had begun to do anything if they called it “conceptual art,” much relieved, I turned eyed him closely. He had a long, sad, basset-hound-like face and light brown hair that hung in limp strands down to his shoulders. He wore a kaki army jacket, that I guessed came from a thrift shop, nondescript kaki pants; and laced-up combat boots. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. He could have almost passed for one of the homeless.
My curiosity was aroused, and I asked him to tell me about himself and his art t in more detail... He said his name was Vito Acconci and that he thought of himself as a sculptor who used his body as his material. His work was to explore the reactions to various behavior types of actions like the one he had tried out with me. He called it a “Proximity” piece. His action had made had made me move away, so he considered the piece accomplished. He had explored other types of behavioral interactions such in as a series of “Trust Pieces.” In one such piece, he had himself blindfolded while standing on a pier with his back to the water, and then followed directions from another person to keep moving backward, trusting that the participant would not maneuver him into the Hudson River. I was hooked. I knew Vito Acconci would be my next interviewee for Arts Magazine where the editor Gregeoire Müller and I were very simpathico.
Vito lived in the top floor of a walk-up in the Village and had a small studio that which had a few pieces decrepit furniture including who chairs and a table on which I put my tape recorder... When I entered he was wearing the exact same outfit I had seen him in at the Jewish Museum, and his hair was as straggly as ever. He invited me to sit down and placed himself opposite me. As we began to tape the interview, as he spoke in a monotone voice, he kept rocking back and forth in his seat as if he were a rabbi reading from the Torah. However, he was very organized and concise in his response to my questions. He told me he had been educated by the Jesuits and learned from them how to be logical and economical in presenting himself.
Then we discussed his method of using himself to make art works... In a very dead pan voice, he said, “I bite myself and then apply printer’s ink to the bite marks to make prints. I’ve also pulled the hairs along my naval, so that it gives the illusion of opening further and starts to resemble a vagina. This piece called “Openings, allows me to break out of being a male and experience the possibility of being a female. I’ve done pieces about one entity being absorbed by another such as the one when I rubbed a cockroach into my chest.” I refrained from saying “Yuck and kept my response very neutral. . .Actually my editor liked this image so much he put the cockroach sitting on Vito’s hair chest on the cover of the issue that contained the interview. .It was the first full length piece about the artist.
We did not however, discuss Acconci’s most infamous Installation piece in which he masturbated under a wooden platform made for him at the Sonabend Gallery since it was still in the future. In that art work, as you approached the platform, you heard his ecstatic groans as if he was in the throws of a sexual climax, but you could not see him. That show was considered scandalous and it made Acconci famous. From then on anything he did was considered significant. Graduate students make him the subject of their PhD theses but he never topped the bridge piece. (It’s fun to note that in April 2004, Acconci mounted a partial reprise of his 70’s exhibition and presented another platform from which orgasmic groans could be heard throughout the gallery. The artist was not under the platform, but there was a full documentation of the piece with all sorts of notes and diagrams, and most titillating of all, there was the black and white video tape of Acconci performing the act itself.)
During our interview, Acconci kept to a low monotone voice as he continued to move back and forth in his chair as if he could not rest for a moment and he told me how he constantly used his physical presence to interact with the world outside him.” I had my mail sent to the Museum of Modern Art during the Information Exhibition so that anyone could read it.
Then he said, “My works have both and masochistic and sadistic elements in them, since it is sometimes necessary to use outrageous actions to break out of society’s structures and limitation. I use art as an instrument to break through these structures. That’s why I’m always stressing the idea of an artwork as a means to improve, to correct, to open myself up, and to make myself vulnerable. Art is a way to make my life bigger than it is”
I found myself mesmerized by his bizarre actions and his methodical explication of the motives that had led him to perform them. Though Acconci’s behavior assaulted both social and sexual taboos; I chose to interpret them positive and humanistic. Acconci through the use of his own body and presence was attempting to break down barriers and connect with others. Though he said, “My immediate purpose is not to reach other people but to reach into myself; I think one essential for this kind of art is for the artist not be in an alienated position any more.
But he also said that he was s not divorced from other people. “My work is to get away from walls, not just museum walls. The goal is to break out of spiritual and social confines as well.”
These were rousing ideas and I was galvanized, yet after the Sonabend exhibition a little part of me was skeptical. Acconci said he wanted out of the art world system but here he was having one man shows and participating in museum exhibitions. And wasn’t performing sexual acts in public a sure fire way to get attention? Yet Acconci was so sincere when he spoke about his ideas and his goals. And he was a decent person with nothing the nothing pretentious about him although he seemed to have absolutely no sense of humor.
At the time my husband was doing photography development in the basement of our house, Vito, needing photographs developed in a hurry, came out to Park Slope since Chuck offered to do the prints for him. He brought along his companion Kathy Dillon, a pencil thin hollow-cheeked young woman who was dressed all in black. Acconci wore his usual shabby,-army jacket and heavy boots. They both made an odd presence in our conventionally furnished house with its wall-to-wall carpet and flowered wallpaper in the kitchen. We had by then started an art collection, but Acconci took no notice.
While the men were working on the photographs, I took Kathy to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens that were in glorious bloom, with the pink and white Japanese Cherry Blossom trees at their peak. As we strolled through the Japanese Garden, with its azaleas and peonies, Acconci’s bizarre, taboo busting art seemed far away. When we returned, the photographs were done, so I invited Acconci and Kathy to dinner. They were polite and appreciative, and I detected none of the snobbery so prevalent in the art world in either of them.
Yet though I fascinated by the physical and psychological activities that made up Vito’s art, a part of me was disturbed, even repulsed by some of the methods he used to create them. In one case, he had treated two women like rats in a disastrous lab experiment. In his customary monotone voice, he said, “While I was teaching at Visual Arts, I invited a young female art student to come and live with me and my girl friend. Of-the-moment, but soon the situation evolved into a disastrous ménage à trois. The women disliked each other. They were competitive for my attention. I enjoyed their conflict and was able to detach myself from the rather nasty implications of this life style by viewing this situation as one of my pieces. I even began to score each woman in terms of her successful attempts to claim my attention.” I kept this situation going until emotions came to a head and the student attempted to commit suicide. Then, I realized that my conscience would not let me continue this satisfying piece any longer and subsequently I had had to content myself playing a pimp to my girlfriend’s prostitute in a piece called “Broad Jump” where she and another girl were to be the prizes awarded to the a man making the longest leap”
I wondered if he had read about the way Picasso had abused two of his mistresses by playing one against the other for his affections although he never thought of it as a piece of artwork. I did not include an account of this sadistic “piece” in the Arts interview. I was a feminist by then and it revolted me. I wondered if he had any idea how sexist it was.
After I included him and some of his circle –Denis Oppenheim, Barry LeVa, Bruce Nauman etc in the first article about Body Art called “Subject+Object =
Body Art.” Looking back the dawning years of feminism, I am not surprised that neither Vito nor one of these male body artists ever suggested I include Marina Abramovic, who was also doing art of that nature to be included in my piece. It was still a men’s club. Now she is as well known as any of them for that kind of work and among many other factors, The Feminist Art Journal and my book Art Talk: Conversation with 15 Artists helped to lay the groundwork.
I never wrote about Acconci after that but I did do admire him as a true innovator and a strong influence on the work of younger artists up to today.
He lectured at the New York Studio School on February 8. I wonder if he was still wearing his Salvation Amy type jacket.
More tales will be coming tell you friends to come and read about the 70’s art world. I met many of the people we think of as icons today especially, but not exclusively women artist and the founders of the Feminist Art Revolution. Leave a comment and it pertains to my story I’ll put it one the blog. If you know an agent or editor who would be interested in getting this material published please let me know.

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