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

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Cheers to Vito Acconci

4:48 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser No comments
As Vito Acconci closes his retrospective at MoMA P.S.1, I am brought back to my encounters with him back in the 1970s. My interview with him was published in Arts Magazine in March 1970 and I wrote about my experiences with him in my memoir Firebrand. 

Here is an excerpt about Vito Acconci that is in my memoir Firebrand and below you can find a scan of the interview from Arts Magazine, March 1970:

I had gone to see an exhibition at the Jewish Museum called “Software,” and while I was examining one of the works that was encased, I noticed that a man was standing much too close to me. He was invading my space, and I felt uncomfortable, so I moved away from him. To my consternation, he followed me, but then 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.”
Much relieved, I turned toward him and 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. His complexion was pasty as if he didn’t get enough fresh air. He wore a khaki army jacket, that I guessed came from a thrift shop, nondescript khaki pants; and laced-up combat boots. He could have almost passed for one of the homeless.
My curiosity was aroused, and I asked him to explain further. He told me his name was Vito Acconci and that he was a sculptor who used his body to explore the reactions to various behavior patterns like the one he had tried out with me. He called it a “Proximity” piece. His action 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.
Vito lived in the top floor of a walk-up in the Village and had a small studio that was barely furnished. 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, 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 art works that consisted of using himself as sculptural material. He bit himself and then applied printer’s ink to the bite marks to make prints. He pulled the hairs along his naval, so that it gave the illusion of opening further and took on a resemblance to a vagina. This piece called “Openings, allowed him to break out of being a male and experience the possibility of being a female. There were pieces of one entity being absorbed by another such as the one when he rubbed a cockroach into his chest. The image of this activity made the cover of Arts Magazine when they printed the interview. We did not discuss Acconci’s most infamous Installation piece in which he masturbated under a wooden platform made for him at the Sonnabend Gallery since he had not yet done it. As you approached the platform, you heard his ecstatic groans as if he was in the throws of climax, but you could not see him. (It’s fun to note that in April 2004, Acconci mounted a show of his 70’s pieces 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, was the black and white video tape of Acconci performing the act itself.) 
Using a low monotone voice he continued to move back and forth in his chair as he told me also he used his physical presence to interact with the world outside him. He had his mail sent to the Museum of Modern Art during the Information Exhibition so that anyone could read it. The artist admitted that his works had both and masochistic and sadistic elements in them since it was sometimes necessary to use shocking actions to break out of society’s structures and limitation. He said, “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 actions assaulted both social and sexual taboos; he used them with the intention that was positive and humanistic. Though it was far from obvious, here was a mind that had much in common with Emerson’s version of transcendentalism that insisted that all humans were interconnected. Acconci was through his own body and presence 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. He’s not specialized in regard to any craft. He’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 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 least pretentious about him. One time when 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 shiny-from wear-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 was 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 obtain his results. In one case, he had treated two women like rats in a disastrous lab experiment. While teaching at Visual Arts, he told me, he invited a young female art student to come and live with him and his girl friend. Soon the situation evolved into an unhappy ménage à trois. The women disliked each other. They were competitive for Acconci’s attention. He enjoyed their conflict and was able to detach himself from the rather nasty implications of this life style by viewing this situation as one of his pieces. He began to score each woman in terms of her successful attempts to claim his attention and no pasha could have enjoyed himself more with his harem. He kept this situation going until emotions came to a head and the student attempted to commit suicide. Then, Vito realized that his conscience would not let him continue this satisfying ego trip any longer and subsequently he had had to content himself with assaulting his female companion, playing pimp to her prostitute in a piece called “Broad Jump” where she and another girl were to be the prizes awarded to the person making the longest leap. I wondered if he had read about the way Picasso had abused two of his mistresses in the same way but had never thought of it as his artwork. I did not include an account of this sadistic “piece” in the Arts interview.

Here is a scan of the interview I did with Vito Acconci for Arts Magazine, published in March 1970:





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