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Performative is one of those art-world terms that, like curated, have migrated into general usage, promiscuously diluting its meaning in the process. As a descriptor, it has infiltrated practically every facet of contemporary society—certainly politics and business, as well as the broader vectors of culture. But in a way, this makes perfect sense: Performance art, once a radical genre that broke down the experiential barrier between art and real life, has arguably become a model for a world governed by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and WhatsApp—fostering, in the bargain, its own rise as a global phenomenon. All of this, of course, was scarcely imaginable to the original practitioners of the form, who viewed it as an avenue of aesthetic liberation. The story of the genre as it has developed to the present day makes for fascinating reading. Find out more in our list of the best books on performance art. (Prices and availability current at time of publication.)
1. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present
Until RoseLee Goldberg published this seminal history on the subject in 1979, performance art usually had been associated with 1960s and ’70s Conceptualism and the radical effort to “dematerialize” the art object—freeing, as it were, the genie that was the idea behind the artwork from the bottle that was the work itself. In performance art, that meant undertaking an action instead of creating a concrete thing. Setting the record straight, Goldberg’s book tracks back to performance art’s 20th-century roots in Dadaism, Italian Futurism, the early Russian avant-garde, and the Stage Workshop of the legendary Bauhaus. The 1979 edition covered the key figures of the movement up to that point: Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Marina Abramovi?, Gilbert & George, Piero Manzoni, and John Cage. A 2011 update added the performance art revival (best represented, perhaps, by the work of Matthew Barney) that followed the collapse of the ’80s art boom.
Purchase: Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present $22.95 (new) on Amazon
2. Catherine Wood, Performance in Contemporary Art
Much like RoseLee Goldberg, Catherine Wood has been instrumental to the institutionalization of performance art through her position as the senior curator of international art (performance) at the Tate Modern in London, overseeing, for example, the museum’s annual BMW Tate Live series (the corporate prefix for which is highly indicative of performance art’s transformation into a mainstream divertissement). Wood’s book presents her contention that rather than operating as a distinct medium, performance is an attitude that informs all approaches to contemporary art, whether expressed through individual or collective actions or through the making of objects. After stating her case with examples from the present (including artistic endeavors from Latin America, Asia, and Africa), she turns to the past to find art-historical antecedents in the work of the Viennese Actionists (whose taboo-breaking sojourns into abjection involved the use of animal carcasses, blood, bodily fluids, and self-harm), Chris Burden, Yoko Ono, and the Japanese Gutai group.
Purchase: Performance in Contemporary Art $200.00 (used) on Ebay
3. Michael Kirby, Happenings
Originally published in 1965, Happenings delves into the history of a collaborative movement that flourished only briefly, from 1959 to 1962, but served as an important precursor of performance art. Its members included Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman, all of whom were visual artists (Dine, Grooms, and Oldenburg, for example, would become associated with Pop art). It was Kaprow who played the key role in promoting the form. Although sometimes linked to avant-garde theater, Happenings were nonverbal, and closer to visual collage than theater in the way they featured compartmentalized actions, each with its own mise-en-scène, that were played out in found spaces. They were performative manifestations, essentially, of André Breton’s description of Surrealist aesthetics as “a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Using photographs and artist interviews, author Michael Kirby documents 13 Happenings that epitomized the genre.
Purchase: Happenings from $6.26 (used) on AbeBooks
4. C. Carr, On Edge: Performance at the End of the Twentieth Century
By the late 1970s and early ’80s, a new generation of artists raised entirely on TV and other mass media took over New York’s downtown art world. Some of them revived painting (and with it an art market boom), but others continued to do performance art, albeit far differently from what had been done in the past. Performers with theater and dance backgrounds entered the field, and borrowings from pop culture transformed the genre. Nonprofit alternative spaces institutionalized the practice, which also expanded into venues like clubs, especially in New York’s East Village. Cynthia Carr, a critic for the Village Voice who wrote under the byline C. Carr, covered the scene at the time, and this compilation of her reviews presents a first-draft-of-history perspective on a dynamic era, which also marked the beginnings of New York’s decline as the undisputed art capital of the world.
Purchase: On Edge $32.95 (new) on Amazon
5. Peggy Phelan, Live Art in LA: Performance in Southern California, 1970–1983
This volume on “live art”—a designation meant to reframe performance art and the more static practice of body art as a shared discipline—is both a chronicle of the subject as it developed in the City of Angels and a meditation on the inherent difficulties of writing the history of an intentionally evanescent medium. Particularly tricky in this regard are reenactments of seminal performances as if they were stage productions, obscuring a crucial distinction between performance art and theater. Yet live art, as the author defines it, was documented for posterity through photographs and videos—material drawn upon here to tell the story of Los Angeles’s role in shaping the form, and that of the key figures who made it happen. Among the latter are Chris Burden, Judy Chicago, the founders of the Feminist Art Program at Cal Arts, and collectives like the Chicano group Asco and the Black arts movement (which counted David Hammons among its members).
Purchase: Live Art in LA $19.95 (new) on Amazon
6. Dominic Johnson, The Art of Living: An Oral History of Performance Art
In his book, Johnson, a senior lecturer in the Department of Drama at Queen Mary University of London, interviews 12 performance artists who share a predilection for challenging the boundary between art and life—mostly by transforming themselves into a kind of vessel for their work. Their tactics vary and include hours-long, or even days-long, tests of endurance; permanent body modifications through plastic surgery; and the assumption of a persona both on and off stage. The subjects make up a list of key figures from the last 40 years—including the Kipper Kids, Breyer P-Orridge, Ann Magnuson, and Joey Arias—with each interview prefaced by a look at the artist’s work.
Purchase: The Art of Living $35.95 (new) on Amazon
7. RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Now: Live Art for the Twenty-First Century
Although Goldberg updated her previous book to extend performance art history into the beginning of the 21st century, this volume takes a separate look at the genre during the following 18 years, when the form spread globally and crept into popular culture. These developments were helped along by Goldberg herself in 2004, when she founded Performa, the first international biennale devoted exclusively to performance art. Performance Now’s chapter headings—such as “World Citizenship: Performance as a Global Language,” “Radical Action: On Performance and Politics,” and “Dance After Choreography”—reflect the different permutations taken by performance art in both form and content, which Goldberg illustrates through the work of Tania Bruguera, Guy Ben-Ner, and Hasan and Husain Essop, among others.
Purchase: Performance Now $34.54 (new) on Amazon