The 1970s are widely considered the decade of performance, years that saw both the formulation of the term and fierce debates about its precise definition. Championing this novel genre, critics and artists often sought to distinguish performance from both the conventions of theater and the formulas of commercial entertainment. The definition of performance that has since dominated art history ruled out narrative, script, characters, and pretending—all of the elements traditionally associated with theater. However, this understanding of performance relies on a caricature of the genre that excludes much of the work made in downtown New York City in the 1970s: performance art’s constitutive moment. My dissertation, completed during my year in residence at CASVA, is a critical study of this important but heretofore neglected history. In this project, I articulate neither a singular nor an ontological definition of performance but rather a genealogy of the term itself as it was defined, debated, and complexly manifested in the moment of its emergence.
Structured around case studies of pivotal works by Laurie Anderson (1947–), Julia Heyward (1949–), and Jill Kroesen (1949–), path-breaking figures in the downtown milieu, the project considers how artists melded narrative forms, theatrical devices, and charismatic onstage personae with biting social critique. Often challenging television, rock music, and advanced art alike, the performances at hand exemplify the period’s complicated matrix of “selling out” and “crossing over,” adding new dimensions to a long-standing conversation about the relationship between the avant-garde and mass culture. Beginning in the mid-1970s, mass culture was plumbed by a younger group of artists, the Pictures Generation, who borrowed or restaged images from an increasingly spectacular media culture to critique representation itself. As the curator of the 1977 exhibition Pictures at Artists Space, Douglas Crimp theorized that these artists had, in fact, “apprenticed in the field of performance.” In subsequent art-historical literature, this connection has been altogether ignored. Understood as an extension of happenings (Allan Kaprow’s reading of Jackson Pollock’s “action painting”) and minimalism (the viewer’s phenomenological encounter with the sculptural object), performance has been theorized primarily through bodily action and physical presence. My dissertation attends to the ways in which artists of the 1970s
Contemporaneous with these artists’ performance work, the resurgence of
Rather than constituting a total renunciation of theater, as has often been proposed, performance emerged in the 1970s, as I argue, in a complex dialectical relation with theater’s elements. For the artists represented in this dissertation,