Between 1900 and 2000, performance art evolved from a fringe practice to a global divertissement. Its history divides into two periods: the first half of the 20th century, when performative practices by the avant-garde weren’t formally categorized as art, and the postwar era, when they eventually were. Moreover, these activities were confined largely to Europe and America before spreading worldwide after 1950.
Performance before and after midcentury was also distinguished by its increasing reliance on the camera, first for documentation, and later as an element integral to the work. The genre became increasingly bound up with photography, film, and video, which transformed a transitory medium into an art object after the fact.
Moreover, by the 1990s, film and video had achieved production values commensurate with mainstream movies, which had the effect of turning performance art into another form of cinematic mise-en-scène disconnected from live action in front of an audience.
The most salient development for performance art after 1950, though, was the sheer number of artists who embraced it. What follows, then, is a necessarily abridged account of this fascinating chapter in art history.
Abstract Expressionism, Nouveau Réalisme, and Gutai
Arguably, performance art after World War II began with performative approaches to painting—most conspicuously in Jackson Pollock’s “drip” compositions, which became nearly inseparable from photos of Pollock making them. These images would come to influence artists associated with French Nouveau Réalisme and the Japanese Gutai group during the mid- to late 1950s.
In France, Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” (1960), a series of performance-cum-painting works, replaced Pollock’s paintbrush with nude female models who’d roll across a canvas in public while slathered in the artist’s patented International Klein Blue pigment. Klein’s best-known work, Leap Into the Void (1960), was a photograph in which he appears to dive off the roof of a building with the empty pavement below. A group of fellow artists who were there to catch him with a tarp were elided out of the photo by combining two views—one with Klein, one without—into the iconic image we know today.
In Japan, the artists of the Gutai Art Association (founded in 1954) made physicality central to their art, as evinced by the movement’s name, a contraction of the Japanese words for “tool” and “body.” Two notable Gutai figures worked with canvases on the floor: Kazuo Shiraga, who swung from a rope to apply thick swirls of pigment with his feet; and Shimamoto Shozo, who fired paintballs with a handmade cannon and threw pigment-filled bottles to create explosive splatter patterns. Another member of the group, Atsuko Tanaka, fashioned one of Gutai’s best-known works: Electric Dress (1956), a wearable amalgam of light bulbs and fluorescent tubes painted in primary colors that resembled an Atomic Age kimono.
Happenings and Fluxus
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, another branch of performance featuring nonnarrative actions emerged out of Happenings events and the Fluxus group.
Happenings often involved temporary environments, cobbled out of found materials and objects, that invited viewer participation—most famously Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961), which comprised a junkyard-scale pile of discarded tires that were meant to be clambered over, moved around, and sat upon by gallery goers. In Jim Dine’s Car Crash (1960), the artist, costumed in a silver spray-painted raincoat and shower cap, barreled through a small audience while making engine sounds.
Fluxus furthered this merger of art and life. Interdisciplinary and international in scope, it focused on process over product, becoming foundational to the development of performance, conceptual, and video art that followed. Founded by George Maciunas in 1961, Fluxus counted Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, and Yoko Ono among its members. As this eclectic roster suggests, Fluxus practice was extremely varied, but its participants shared an anti-elitist, antiauthoritarian attitude and a utopian view that anyone could become an artist.
Performance and Dance: Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and the Judson Dance Theater
The early 1960s also witnessed a revival of dance-based performance art, an idea dating back to Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet from 1922 (a kind of pean to the Machine Age, in which performers resembled mechanized forms), thanks to dancer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg. They frequently collaborated, with Rauschenberg designing sets and costumes for Cunningham.
But Rauschenberg also choreographed performances like Pelican (1963), which featured the artist and two other performers wearing large, parasol-shaped sails on their backs while roller skating. Rauschenberg was likewise involved with the Judson Dance Theater, a group of dancers, composers, and artists inspired by Cunningham, who performed at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park in lower Manhattan. JDT produced such stalwarts of contemporary dance as Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown.
Postminimalism, Body Art, and Feminism
As the late 1960s segued into the 1970s, Modernism entered a radical endgame in which artists rejected the gallery system and the traditional artworks meant to go inside them. What ensued was a decentered, dematerialized aesthetic emphasizing idea over form, leading to new genres such as earthworks, installation/process art, video art, and numerous variants of performance, including a type of solo effort in which artists served as the medium for the work.
Body art, as it was sometimes called, could entail transgressive acts, as exemplified by Vito Acconci and Chris Burden. Acconci followed a random stranger on the street until he or she went inside somewhere; in another piece, he hid under a ramp in gallery, masturbating while fantasizing out loud to the sounds of visitors walking above him. Burden endured acts of self-harm, such as being shot in the arm, say, or being crucified on the back of a Volkswagen. Burden’s Five Day Locker Piece (1971)—which entailed closeting himself in a gym locker for five days—became the template for performance as a feat of endurance.
In Europe, the performances of German artist Beuys rested on a self-mythologized chapter from his life as a Luftwaffe pilot shot down during winter over the Eastern Front. Beuys claimed to have been rescued by Tartar tribesmen who kept him warm by wrapping him in fat and felt, which became his signature materials. For his best-known performance, I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), Beuys traveled to New York, where he was covered on arrival in a heavy felt blanket. Bundled into an ambulance, he was sped to a Soho gallery to spend the next three days communing with a wild coyote for eight hours each day. Beuys then left the city the way he had come.
In Austria, a group of artists combined violence, explicit nudity, and bodily fluids for performances of unmatched abjection. Known as the Viennese Actionists, Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler were viscerally reacting against the country’s postwar denial of its willing absorption into the Third Reich. In 1968 Brus was arrested for singing the Austrian National Anthem in public while masturbating, vomiting, drinking his own urine, and smearing himself with his own feces. Schwarzkogler’s death, in 1969, which rumor attributed to his having sliced off his penis as art, a story that was purely apocryphal. But his “Aktions”—which exist only as black-and-white photos—were gruesome enough with their depictions of eviscerated fish and models mummified in hospital gauze. Nitsch’s “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” were drenched with blood from animal sacrifices. Outrageous as these artists were, they’d prove to be influential.
This stew of self-flagellation, cruelty, and male bravado spoke to the male privilege pervading the art world. However, women artists were becoming increasingly visible, and this development, coupled with second-wave feminism, sparked a very different approach to performance art. Women’s bodies have always been contested sites for personal, political, and economic autonomy, and for Carolee Schneemann, no slouch at transgression, this meant an unapologetic embrace of female sexuality in such pieces as Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975). The former entailed a troupe of men and women dancing, rolling on the floor, and pouring paint all over one another while fondling pieces of sausage, fish, and raw chicken. In the latter, Schneemann jumped naked onto a table and pulled from her vagina a long strip of paper bearing a text that she read out loud.
Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) was an allegory of sexual violence. In it, the artist sat on stage and invited audience members to cut away her clothes until she was down to her underwear. Similarly, Tap and Touch Cinema (1968) featured the Austrian artist Valie Export walking around topless beneath a box strapped to her chest, which was accessible through an open front behind a piece of fabric meant to resemble a movie screen. Male passersby were encouraged to reach in and fondle the artist’s breasts to critique the way women were objectified in film.
What we’d call social justice issues today were explored by African American artist Adrian Piper. She carried out such public provocations as donning an Afro wig and mustache to pose as the kind of young Black male that was considered threatening by white people.
Expressly feminist or political themes weren’t always apparent. Ono’s performances included pranks like unofficially mounting a one-person exhibit for herself at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which consisted mostly of notices for the show tacked to the museum’s entrance. Ana Mendieta’s site-specific land art pieces related the female form to nature. She would cover her naked body in grass, flowers, and mud, using the latter in one case to camouflage herself against a tree.
Laurie Anderson engaged in music-based performances like Duets on Ice (1972), in which she played a violin while wearing ice skates whose blades were frozen into blocks of ice; Anderson had also adapted the instrument into a playback device by substituting a magnetic tape head for its bridge and restringing a bow with magnetic tape.
Joan Jonas blended video and performance, bringing together music, dance, drawing, sculpture, costume design, and installation to explore identity through mythic stories.
Performance as Spectacle
Philip Glass’s and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (1976) elevated performance art to a theatrical spectacle sublimating narrative to Wilson’s set design, which situated performers in a Hollywood Squares–like arrangement of boxes. Its 1976 debut at the opera house in Avignon, France, and its subsequent remounting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music 1984, also signaled the spread of performance art from alternative spaces to institutional stages.
Performance Art in South America
Although New York was the center of performance art during the 1960s, South America was also a hotbed of activity, especially Brazil. Like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and other countries in the region, Brazil saw a crackdown on artistic expression when its democratically elected government was overthrown by a military junta in 1964. Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Hélio Oiticica—three artists associated Brazil’s Neo-Concrete Movement—responded to the reactionary climate by abandoning painting for interactive sculptures and installations that seemed purely abstract at first.
Clark’s series “Bichos” (Critters), for instance, comprised groupings of flat geometric shapes cut out of aluminum and hinged together so that viewers could alter their configurations. Another piece—one of a series Clark dubbed “Propositions”—consisted of binding two people at the wrist with a Möbius strip made from an elastic bandage.
Pape’s best-known performance was Divisor (Divider), in which scores of participants poked their heads through slits in a gigantic sheet and then marched down the street in unison, which figuratively and literally cloaked a protest against the regime.
Oiticica imbued color and tactile materials with antigovernment sentiments. His “Parangolés,” cloaklike garments meant to be worn while dancing the samba, were made of painted fabrics that sometimes bore political messages. His immersive installation Tropicália (1967)—a partitioned environment made up of shacklike structures and sectioned areas of flooring variously covered with sand, straw, and shallow pools of water—evoked Brazil’s impoverished favelas, undermining the clichéd view of the country as a lush tropical paradise.
The 1980s: From the Margins to the Mainstream
By the 1980s, performance art had become thoroughly established as a worldwide phenomenon, though New York remained its center. A generation of baby boomer artists whose worldview had been shaped by television and film came to the fore during a period when Wall Street ruled, a former actor occupied the White House, and the notion that artists were the new rock stars took hold. Performance began to merge with popular culture, its creators becoming more interested in bridging the gap between art and entertainment than the one separating art and life.
Thanks to a roaring art market, many visual artists discarded conceptualism for painting, leaving performance open to people from non-art backgrounds. The line between the art world and show business became porous: Andy Kaufman’s avant-garde comedy, for example, was influenced by his acquaintance with Laurie Anderson, and Anderson herself scored a hit record in 1981 with O Superman. Eric Bogosian and Ann Magnuson took their cues from stand-up and rock music before eventually moving to television and film.
Concurrently, alternative spaces that were once artist-run became professionalized, taking some of the spontaneity out of performance. Budget cuts under Ronald Reagan also pinched government grants to nonprofits. A new venue for performance art—nightclubs—appeared as a workaround. Places like Club 57, Danceteria, Arena, and the Pyramid Club staged raucous performances that essentially took the genre back to its early-20th-century roots at the Café Voltaire.
Building on the conventions established over the previous decade, 1980s performance art continued to inform visual art. In her “Untitled Film Stills” series, Cindy Sherman cosplayed as cinematic female stereotypes, while her Pictures Generation coeval, Robert Longo, produced tableaux/spectacles influenced by Robert Wilson, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Endurance as a theme resurfaced in the work of Tehching Hsieh, whose time-based rituals included punching in and out of a time clock every day for a year; he also created a time-lapse video showing his hair sprouting out of his shaved head until reaching shoulder length. Viennese Actionism’s scatological sensibility was reprised by Karen Finley shoving a yam up her rectum at Danceteria.
Dance performance reached new heights, with collaborations such as the ones between Keith Haring and Bill T. Jones in which Haring used Jones’s naked body as a canvas or painted a mural behind him as he danced. In Drastic Classicism (1980), at club called TR 3, “no-wave” composer Rhys Chatham dissonantly thrashed a guitar while choreographer Karole Armitage moved frenetically across the stage.
The 1980s also witnessed the AIDS crisis and with it, artist activists who addressed the issue through performance. One was Hunter Reynolds, who, upon learning he was HIV positive, adopted the drag persona Patina du Prey and performed in gowns like a black satin number printed with the names of 25,000 AIDS victims taken from the AIDS Quilt catalog.
The Fin de Siècle
The early 1990s continued to see the proliferation of performance and performative tactics within contemporary art, ranging from simple to baroque. Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija resuscitated Fluxus by cooking up large quantities of pad thai to feed gallery goers. Matthew Barney’s florid videos and installations incorporated dense performative allegories that referenced, among other things, athletics, the Masonic Order, and General Douglas MacArthur to relay the travails of masculinity in a postfeminist world.
Performance Art in China
As the 1990s wore on, New York’s role as the world’s art capital began to wane. Indeed, the decade’s most consequential development was China’s ascension as the world’s second-largest economy. The country became an art superpower and a fertile ground for performance—much of which emanated from the aftershocks of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Though the Communist Party banned political protest in Tiananmen’s aftermath, thinly veiled critiques by artists were initially tolerated as something of a safety valve. Zhang Peili, for instance, recorded a popular TV anchorwoman and official mouthpiece for state-run news reciting a list of Mandarin words for water. This same person had reported on the Tiananmen demonstrations without mentioning the carnage that followed.
Ai Weiwei, who used allusions to China’s past to critique its present, famously dropped an ancient Han dynasty vase, capturing the action a trio of photographs. (Ai eventually ran afoul of the authorities and was exiled after a term in prison). Qiu Zhijie repeatedly overwrote the lines of a 4th-century calligraphic text until the paper turned black.
The New Millennium
From 2000 to the present, the number of artists creating performances or performative-adjacent artworks has grown to such a degree that any attempt to list examples is bound to be incomplete. Among the names that could be considered, however, one might cite Tino Sehgal, a Berlin-based artists known for site-specific “constructed situations,” wherein performers mix among viewers, singing, dancing, or engaging in dialogs—actions that Sehgal refuses to document in any form so that they exist only in memory. One might also mention Korakrit Arunanondchai , a Thai multimedia artist who echoes Klein and Beuys by evoking a personal mythology through performance-based videos. These often feature performers in paint-soaked denim outfits rubbing up against canvases to create “body paintings” that, along with the clothing, are subsequently incorporated into installations. And Anne Imhof, based in Berlin and New York, combines music and dance in hypnotic ensemble performances coupled with architectural structures, including a piece staged above and below an elevated glass-floored platform.
One name, though, has become synonymous with performance art: Serbian artist Marina Abramović, whose career stretches back to the body art of the 1970s. Working with life partner Frank Uwe Laysiepen (aka Ulay), Abramović probed the fraught nature of interpersonal relationships and the boundary between public and private. In one piece, the two knotted their hair together; in another, they faced each other naked across a narrow doorway while viewers squeezed past. In 1988 they ended their collaboration by meeting in the middle of the Great Wall of China after trekking 1,250 miles from opposite ends.
Sheer chutzpah became a defining aspect of Abramović’s practice. In 2005 she mounted “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, a reenactment of seminal performances by Acconci, Beuys, Export, Bruce Nauman, and Gina Pane. While all of them had been intended as one-shot affairs, Abramović appropriated them all the same, appointing herself the arbiter of performance history. During her 2010 MoMA retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” she spent the show seated across from an empty chair at a table in the museum’s atrium. Viewers were invited to sit opposite her for as long as they wished, creating queues lasting hours. The piece became a media sensation. With these two exhibits (and a short-lived attempt to establish an academy teaching the “Abramović Method”), Abramović, in essence, transformed herself into a kind of embodiment of performance itself—which one might call the ultimate performative act.
Still, “The Artist Is Present” chimed with the Fluxus notion that anyone could be an artist—or rather a performance artist—a proposition truer with each passing year. Performance artist as a phrase has entered the language as a catchall that could be either pejorative or complimentary. Late capitalism has shifted its focus from the consumption of goods to the consumption of experiences, while flash mobs and events like Burning Man transform crowds into performative collectives.
Most crucially, social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have insinuated performance into the everyday, marking its transcendence from a genre to the 21st century’s modus vivendi.