October 19, 2016

"Medium Specificity & the Post-Postmodernist Conundrum"

One of my former art theory students, and recent Corcoran College Fine Arts graduate Arthur Kwon Lee has interviewed me for his "Long Story Short" podcast series. Our lively discussion covered many topics, ranging from speculations about Greenbergian "master narratives" to the numerous challenges facing all artists that are practicing in today's contemporary world. It is available for your listening pleasure on Arthur's Soundcloud and the link is here.

September 30, 2016

Orders of Photographic Identity Construction [11/7/11]

Administrator's Note: In memory of James Dean who died tragically 61 years ago today I am re-posting my essay on photographic identity construction from November 2011. Even in Dean's brief lifetime his cinematic myth had begun with 1950's teens' appropriation of his jean-clad, windbreaker rebel image. One wonders what the 85-year-old James might have been up to in the 21st Century had he lived.  

In 1865, photojournalist Alexander Gardner had six of the accused Lincoln conspirators brought up on the deck of the USS Montauk, an ironclad monitor anchored in the Potomac River, and posed them for a series of famous photographs. Irrespective of their historic value, these photographs additionally reveal Gardner’s desire for an “artistic” expression in his photographic work. The accused men were dressed in coats and ties, hair combed and styled, then positioned against the iron turret for the various shots.

The above photograph of Lewis Payne then presents quite a conflict of photographer, portrait subject and image. First, we have a young man accused of savagely attacking Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to overthrow the Federal government. Moreover, the photographer appears to disguise Payne’s predicament, draping him in beige overcoat and hat. The Federal guard’s hands, holding a bayoneted rifle, are just visible at edge of frame and if we look closely we can see a chain hanging from Payne’s wrist.

This exemplifies the primary way a photographic image constructs identity and demonstrates first order identity construction, as authorial control by the maker. For reasons forever unknown, Gardner decided to cast Lewis Payne as a dashing but disheveled rake, handsome and mysteriously at peace with his fate.

The use of photographic image to wield fiction and create mystique was coincidentally used the previous year by a youthful Jesse James. In the 1864 photograph above, a sixteen-year-old Jesse attired himself in dandy tie, rolled-brim cap and Colt revolver to introduce his vision of what he was soon to become – an outlaw. The “Wild West” was waning by then but was being immortalized in newspapers and “Dime Novels” and these accounts may have inspired Jesse to present himself thusly, using second order identity construction as the photographic subject self-crafts their own identity, fictional or otherwise.

Warner Brothers and their careful control and dissemination of James Dean’s image in “Rebel Without A Cause” might best represent the final order of photographic construction of identity. In the motion picture, Dean portrayed Jim Stark, a troubled teenager, and the film studio costumed Dean in blue jeans, white t-shirt and red windbreaker in many of the prominent scenes. It is said that the red windbreaker was “over-dyed” by director Nicholas Ray to achieve luminosity for the color film.(1)

As quintessential depiction of teenage rebellion and angst, Dean’s persona in “Rebel” has no equal during the 1950’s. Perhaps this is due to its third order identity construction masterfully dictated by the powerful film company. The film’s influence upon American teenager fashion was further impacted by Dean’s sudden, unexpected and tragic death in a car crash:

“Teenagers who saw the film latched onto Dean’s look. Actress Steffi Sidney, who plays a bit character in the film, later remembered that how after Rebel came out she would drive by her old high school and all the boys hanging out in front would have on that same red jacket.”(2)


1. Bayse, Ali. “Cinemode: Rebel Without A Cause”.

2. Ibid.

August 29, 2016

Performance Art: Recreation or Emulation [10/19/06]

Performance art, which gained dominance as an art practice in the 1970’s, was definitively about duration and presence. The performance act is time based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s). The fact of the art object’s superfluity was already in the discourse, as stated in theoretical propositions laid out by Lewitt, Kosuth and other conceptualists. This paradigm shift from “commodity objects” to a dematerialization of those objects may have been a factor in the move to performance by many young artists during this era.

Marina Abramovic was one of those original performance artists of the ‘70’s generation and she is practicing her art today. Her "Seven Easy Pieces" performance project undertaken at the Guggenheim Museum last year represents the most visible project of “re-interpretation” of what can only be termed archival performance art “pieces.” What I would like to discuss here is the conflicts that will undoubtedly arise in future re-enactments of previously performed works that were time-based in a specific place, encompassing a particular presence, and existing within a long-past socio-economic and political episteme.

First, some background. In the Dialogue with Heidi Grundmann conducted in 1978, Abramovic says:

". . . no documentation can give you the feeling of what it was, because it cannot be described, it is so direct, in the documentation, the intensity is missing, the feelings that were there. And I think that that is why performance is such a strange thing – the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment and afterwards you don’t have anything, you have only the memory."(1)

Operating presumably from “memory,” but fortified with photographs, video footage and “eye-witness” accounts, Abramovic sought to recreate some of the 1970’s era performances, a “greatest hits” collection, if you will, of vintage Acconci, Beuys, Export, Pane and Nauman performance pieces (with two of her own for good measure). For brevity’s sake, I will only critique her recreation of the infamous Seedbed piece, for it is the most revealing divergence from the original performance work and the “particular presence” of Vito Acconci.

Acconci’s 1972 performance, in which he surreptitiously “planted” his “seed” beneath a wooden platform built into Sonnabend Gallery, was an invasive yet hidden ritual. The visitors to the gallery could not see his actions but they heard him on speakers in the space as he masturbated. He referred to the visitors as “my aid. . . my fantasies about them can excite me. . . the seed ‘planted’ on the floor, then, is a joint result of my performance and theirs.”(2)

The obvious distinction between Acconci and Abramovic is one of gender, which clearly validates the original ’72 performance as more worthy, as the “planting” of semen is biologically impossible for Abramovic. Her “cover version” of Seedbed, then, is a travesty, purely reliant on the sensational and voyeuristic modalities that performance has now become. The ’72 piece was clearly not about achieving orgasms, so why would Abramovic chose it to replicate in ’05? Where Vito negotiated the dangerous terrain of sexual power and threat, Marina’s Seedbed seems relegated to the realms of soft-core arousal and empty spectacle.

After Abramovic’s week of performances, in a public dialogue at the Guggenheim monitored by Nancy Spector, a question was raised about “the perhaps insuperable difficulty of preserving a performance’s meaning in a totally different social and political context.”(3) It was noted that Abramovic appeared to “bridle” at this query, and possibly that is “the tell” that would suggest to us that Abramovic had not fully considered all the implications of this performance-appropriation series.  For if she sought to emulate the performance pieces, to actually “strive to equal or excel”(4) the earlier works with her re-presentation of them, then she was ignoring her own dictum that “the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment.”

Original post from 10/19/06, with comments & discussion.


1. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 759.

2. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, 1984, 408.