Catherine Wood — Act

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Catherine Wood

Catherine Wood is senior curator of international art (performance) at Tate Modern, London.

The significance of the term action in relation to art has shifted gradually since the late 1950s and 1960s from connoting straightforward physical action, for example in “action painting,” toward a more charged or political association in the 1970s, relating in part to the idea of activism. However, the term is also used broadly as an adjectival description of art that is non–object based, and has also been used to describe more subtle interventions by artists into the fabric of everyday life, as well as, occasionally, in a deliberately referential way by the current generation of younger artists to invoke the origins of performance art.

The term action painting, which is arguably the most significant use of the word in visual art history, was initiated by Harold Rosenberg in his essay “The American Action Painters” from 1952.1 He wrote, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined.” He claimed that the “picture”—or depictive result—had been replaced by process, the “event.” Action painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning made work that manifested the traces of their movements in visible, energetic brush marks, and Allan Kaprow, in “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (1958), suggested that it was the actions of Pollock as he made his paintings—captured in photographs and on film by Hans Namuth and others—that would make an impact on the next generation, rather than the paintings themselves.2

In the mid- to late 1950s, the Gutai group of artists in Japan began to make “action events” that, in certain ways, related to and expanded upon the look of American action painting. Jiro Yoshihara, one of the key proponents of Gutai, wrote in his manifesto, “Gutai does not alter the material. Gutai imparts life to the material.”3 Yoshihara explicitly referred to the work of Jackson Pollock in relation to their experiments, although they were also influenced by the practice of Japanese calligraphy, and by the visits of Michel Tàpies and Georges Mathieu to Japan in the late 1950s. The live action events of Gutai artists Shozo Shimamoto and Kazuo Shiraga diverged from US action painting in various ways that were more explicitly theatrical, and designed to be captured on camera: throwing glass bottles full of pigment at the canvas, in the case of the former, or swinging from a rope and painting with his feet in the latter.

The term action (or aktion in German) was used in parallel by Josef Beuys to describe the live performances that he was making. He made seventy actions between 1963 and 1986. In 1974 he performed one of his most famous actions at the René Block gallery in New York, I Like America and America Likes Me. For Beuys, as this side of his practice came to gain ever-greater significance, the performance action was increasingly related to forms of direct action after the mid-1970s. His ecological-spiritual project of collaborating with local people to begin planting 7,000 oak trees in Kassel was inaugurated in 1982 for Documenta 7.

The Vienna Actionists—Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Günter Brus, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler—became known for a series of highly provocative bodily actions, which they regarded not so much as performances but as a new, living form of painting that included painted bodies, floors, walls, and, in the work of Nitsch primarily, animal carcasses and blood. In the 1960s much of this work was staged solely for the camera, often intended for publication. The Actionists belonged to a generation of Austrians who grew up with the memory of World War II, and their work emerged partly from their reaction against what they saw as the political oppression and social hypocrisy of their country. They saw these actions as a kind of catharsis, freeing the aggressive human instincts that society repressed. As Mühl stated, Actionism was “not only a form of art, but above all an existential attitude.”4 Emerging from this context, the artist VALIE EXPORT challenged the use of female bodies in both Actionism and mainstream media culture, making works such as Action Pants: Genital Panic (1968), in which she entered an art cinema in Munich wearing leather trousers with the crotch cut out, and roamed among the seated spectators of an experimental film. She also performed a number of actions in the street in collaboration with the Austrian artist Peter Weibel.

The term action was widely used by performance artists in the 1960s and 1970s. In London, Stuart Brisley recalls it as the favored term among artists to describe performance events, and used it for his own work. Los Angeles–based artists such as Linda Montano and Tom Marioni used the term to describe their live performances in the 1970s, which were often made in storefronts and public spaces. In parallel, artists such as the Collective Actions group in Moscow and KwieKulik in Warsaw used the term action perhaps slightly differently, and poetically, to describe group or collaborative actions performed for each other, as private forms of art-making and experimentation. Jiri Kovanda’s subtle interventions into the everyday activity of the city in Prague, where he lived in the 1970s, could be understood in the same way.

The Filmaktion group in London created performative film events in order to “create a more active, participatory experience of cinema for their viewers, in which they would become alert to the dimensions of the gallery or auditorium around them, and the unfolding event occurring within it.”5 For a year or more, in 1972–73, Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicolson, William Raban, Gill Eatherley, and others performed together as Filmaktion, though according to Le Grice, “[F]ilmaktion was never a formal group. Filmaktion was the title of an exhibition at the Liverpool Walker Art Gallery in 1972. That was the first time we ever used the term.”6

In recent years, the term action has been used more playfully by a younger generation of artists. Swiss artist Roman Signer uses it for his sculptural events, which often involve pyrotechnics: gunpowder and fireworks. The British artist Mark Leckey appropriated it, in part enjoying the word’s fairground-like connotations, for the title of his 2003 performance at Tate Britain, Big Box Statue Action, in which he set Sir Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel (1940–41) against a speaker-stack sound system. It has also been used variously by museums in titling exhibitions and programs. In 2007, Tate held a two-day performance event titled “Actions and Interruptions” that included Kovanda alongside Mario Garcia Torres and Dora Garcia; the opening program for the Tate Tanks was titled “Art in Action”; a recent exhibition about the legacy of action painting at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm was titled “Explosion! Painting as Action”; and an exhibition at the Migros Museum dealing with the legacies of feminism in 2011 was titled “It’s Time for Action, There’s no Option.”

But the term is generally used far less by contemporary artists than it was in the 1960s and ’70s, and, when it is used, it carries a certain knowingness or historical “form.” The word performance is now more common. Nevertheless, sometimes it is used by artists—such as Signer—because “action” seems to be more literally about doing something, and has a sense of being “real” with direct effect, whereas “performance” seems more self-conscious or intentional and is associated, perhaps, with acting and imitation. In her publication with Ana Vujanović, Public Sphere by Performance, Bojana Cvejić attempts to distinguish between the two, citing Richard Schechner: in “doing” versus “showing doing,” the latter is not more fake, but is invested with awareness of the former.7 But Cvejić asserts that the two should not be separated as a binary opposition. Perhaps we are not at a point beyond the need for marking out “action” as a singular form or material so straightforwardly, and artists are making work in which gestural movement, materials, and the broader setup of audience and architecture are all visible within the frame of art-making. In the exhibition “A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance,” which I curated at Tate Modern in 2012, I juxtaposed David Hockney’s reflexive approach to figurative painting—his creation of theatrical “sets” for his own flamboyant and camp approach to lived life—and the indexical register of Jackson Pollock’s action painting. While Pollock’s movement across the canvas was understood to be unmediated and raw—an impulse—Hockney’s intricately rendered “splash” might be understood as a performative act of painting that is about “showing doing.” At the other end of the spectrum, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has initiated a project titled Arte Util that seeks to push art’s usefulness and capacity to act on real political questions such as immigration and inequality. The question as to whether art—as a representational form—can effect action in any literal sense, to accomplish a purpose, remains open to potentially infinite elaboration and testing within this complex of considerations.


  1. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News 51/8 (December 1952): 22. Republished in Rosenberg, The Tradition of the New (New York: Horizon Press, 1959), 28–30. 

  2. Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (1956), Art News 57 no. 6 (October 1958): 24–26; 55–57. 

  3. “Gutai Art Manifesto” (1956), quoted in Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 91. 

  4. Otto Mühl, quoted in RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present (New York: Abrams, 1979), 106. 

  5. Lucy Reynolds, Tate Etc. 25 (Summer 2012). 

  6. Malcolm Le Grice, interview by Maxa Zoller, X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s (exh. cat., MUMOK, Vienna, 2004). 

  7. Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović, Public Sphere by Performance (Berlin: b_books and Paris: Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, 2012), 29. 

See Also

Live — Catherine Wood

Prop — Allison Smith

Poststudio — Emily Roysdon

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

Anthony McCall, “Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture,” Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin, 2012. From front to back: Meeting You Halfway, Breath III, Between You and I, Coupling. Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995. Performance, installation, video, and photographs. Photo: Karen McCarthy / Damon McCarthy. © Paul McCarthy. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007. Photo: Frank Aymami. Courtesy of Creative Time.

Andrea Fraser, Projection, 2008. Still from a 2-channel HD video projection installation. © Andrea Fraser. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler.

David Levine, Bystanders, 2015. Installation view, Gallery TPW, Toronto. Performer: William Ellis. Photo: Guntar Kravis.

VALIE EXPORT, TAPP und TASTKINO (Tap and touch cinema), 1968. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Bildrecht, Vienna. Photo © Werner Schulz.

My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon, and Alexandro Segade), Broke People’s Baroque Peoples’ Theater, 2010. Courtesy of Alexandro Segade.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Miguel Gutierrez and Tarek Halaby in Gutierrez's Last Meadow, 2009. Dance Theater Workshop, New York, September 2009. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Mac Wellman, Muazzez, 2014. Performer: Steve Mellor. Chocolate Factory Theater, Queens, New York (a co-presentation with PS 122). Photo: Brian Rogers.

Janine Antoni, Yours Truly, 2010. Ink on paper, 5 7/8 x 8 1/2”. © Janine Antoni. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, score for “Trio B: Running,” from The Mind Is a Muscle, 1966–68. Graphite and ink on paper, 8 5/16 x 7 5/16". The Getty Research Institute. © Yvonne Rainer.

Susan Leigh Foster, The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe, 2011, a performed lecture in the series Susan Foster! Susan Foster! Three Performed Lectures, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and performed at the Philadelphia Live Arts Studio, 2011. Photo: Jorge Cousineau.

Opening performance of the exhibition “Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing,” Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Brown improvises movements across a large piece of paper on the Medtronic Gallery floor, holding charcoal and pastel between her fingers and toes, drawing extemporarily. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Allora & Calzadilla, Sediments Sentiments (Figures of Speech), 2007. Mixed-media installation with live performance and pre-recorded sound track, dimensions variable. © Allora & Calzadilla. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucinda Childs, Pastime (1963), 2012, performed by Childs at Danspace as part of Platform 2012: "Judson Now." Photo © Ian Douglas.

Siobhan Davies and Helka Kaski, Manual, 2013. Photo © Alan Dimmick. Courtesy of Glasgow Life.

“Performance Now,” curated by RoseLee Goldberg. Installation view, Kraków Theatrical Reminiscences, Poland, 2014. Photo: Michal Ramus. Courtesy of Independent Curators International (ICI).

Steve Paxton, Intravenous Lecture (1970), 2012. Performed by Stephen Petronio with Nicholas Sciscione. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Dance Works I: Merce Cunningham—Robert Raschenberg,” curated by Darsie Alexander at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2011. Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Chief Dalcour and the Serenity Peace Birds in “Public Practice: An Anti-Violence Community Ceremony,” curated by Delaney Martin and Claire Tancons for New Orleans Airlift, October 25, 2014. Photo: Josh Brasted.

Ain Gordon and David Gordon, The Family Business, premiered 1993. Performers: David Gordon, Ain Gordon, Valda Setterfield. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

Hotel Modern, Kamp, 2005. Photo: Herman Helle.

Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photo © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Sarah Michelson, Devotion Study #1—The American Dancer, 2012 Whitney Biennial, February 26, 2012. Photo © Paula Court. Performers: Eleanor Hullihan and Nicole Mannarino.

Ralph Lemon, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere?, 2009. Archival print from original film. © Ralph Lemon.

Pope.L, The Great White Way, 22 miles, 9 years, 1 street (Whitney version), 2001. © Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Photo: Lydia Grey.

Iannis Xenakis, Terretektorh, Distribution of Musicians, 1965. Collection famille Xenakis. Courtesy of the Iannis Xenakis Archives. © Iannis Xenakis.

Lisa Bielawa, Chance Encounter, premiered 2007. Co-conceived with Susan Narucki. Photo: Corey Brennan, 2010, Rome.

Claudia La Rocco, 173-177 [or, Facebook Is Inescapable], 2013. Headlands Center for the Arts. Courtesy of José Carlos Teixeira.

Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Palermo, Palermo, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1991. Photo: Maarten Vanden Abeele.

Tomás Saraceno, Observatory, Air-Port-City, 2008. In “Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture,” curated by Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010, paint and chalk, 210 x 1,045 inches. Installation view, “Christian Marclay: Festival,” 2010, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Christian Marclay.

Steven Schick at the “Peacock” in the Paul Dresher Ensemble Production of Schick Machine, 2009, by Paul Dresher, Steven Schick, and Rinde Eckert. Mondavi Center, UC Davis, Davis, CA. Photo: Cheung Chi Wai.

Ralph Lemon in An All Day Event: The End, part of Platform 2012: “Parallels.” Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Installation view, “Allison Smith: Rudiments of Fife & Drum,” The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CT. Photo: Chad Kleitsch. Courtesy of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Meredith Monk, Shards (1969–73), 2012. Part of Platform 2012: “Judson Now,” curated by Judy Hussie-Taylor, Danspace, New York. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Berlin, Bonanza, 2006. A documentary project focusing on Bonanza, Colorado, population 7. © Berlin. berlinberlin.be.

Gob Squad, Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2007. Photo © David Baltzer / bildbuehne.de / Agentur Zenit Berlin.

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, 1980. On screens in front of Lincoln Center and The Broadway department store in Los Angeles, passersby could see and talk to their counterparts on the opposite coast, and many “reunions” were quickly set up, in this early example of video conferencing. Courtesy of the Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway Archives.

Hans Haacke, News, 1969/2005. Installation view, “State of the Union,” Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, 2005. © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.

Pauline Oliveros, circa 1967. Courtesy of the CCM Archive, Mills College, Oakland, CA.

The Builders Association, Elements of Oz, 2015. Photo: Gennadi Novash. Courtesy of Peak Performances @ Montclair State University.

Ain Gordon, A Disaster Begins, 2009. Veanne Cox. Here Arts Center, New York. Photo: Jason Gardner. Courtesy of the photographer and Pick Up Performance Co(s).

The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Anna Köhler (on monitor) and Willem Dafoe. Photo © Mary Gearhart.

Joanna Haigood and Charles Trapolin, The Monkey and the Devil, performance installation, 2011. Performers: Matthew Wickett, Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask. Photo: Walter Kitundu.

Jarbas Lopes, Demolition Now, in “SPRING,” curated by Claire Tancons for the 7th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2008. Photo: Akiko Ota.

Lisa Bielawa, Crissy Broadcast (part of Airfield Broadcasts), San Francisco, 2013. Photo: James Block.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculpture, 1997/2005. © Erwin Wurm. Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

Wu Tsang with Alexandro Segade, Mishima in Mexico, 2012. Color HD video, 14:32 minutes. Courtesy of the artists, Clifton Benevento (New York), Michael Benevento (Los Angeles), and Isabella Bortolozzi (Berlin).

Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show, 2012. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2012. Hilary Clark, Regina Rocke, and Katy Pyle. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Romeo Castellucci, On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, 2010. Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, 2013. Photo: Kevin Monko.

Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos.

Troubleyn / Jan Fabre, Mount Olympus, 2015. Performance lasts 24 hours. Photo © Wonge Bergmann for Troubleyn / Jan Fabre.

Siobhan Davies Studios, Roof Studio, London. Photo: Peter Cook.

Emily Roysdon, Sense and Sense (a project with MPA), Sergels torg, Stockholm, Sweden, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.

David Lang’s home studio. Photo © Jorge Colombo.

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1964 (replica of 1913 original). Wheel and painted wood. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Galleria Schwarz d’Arte, Milan, 1964. © Succession Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2016.

Historical interpreters from Freetown Living History Museum, as part of Allison Smith’s 2008 project The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Allison Smith and Michelle Pemberton.

Rimini Protokoll, Situation Rooms, 2013. Photo © Ruhrtriennale / Jörg Baumann.

Jeanine Oleson and Ellen Lesperance, We Like New York and New York Likes Us, 2004. A “wry look back” at Joseph Beuys’s performance with a coyote, I Like America and America Likes Me, René Block Gallery, New York, 1974. Courtesy of the artists.

Christine Hill, Volksboutique Organizational Ventures, 2001. Mixed-media installation, Kunstverein Wolfsburg, Germany. Courtesy of Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Andrea Fraser, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Performance. Performance documentation: Kelly & Massa Photography. Courtesy of the artist. © Andrea Fraser.

Theaster Gates, Dorchester Projects, Chicago, 2012. © Theaster Gates. Photo © Sara Pooley. Courtesy of White Cube.

John Cage, two pages from 4'33" (original version, in proportional notation), 1952/1953. Ink on paper, 11 x 8 1/2" each sheet. Acquired by The Museum of Modern Art through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 1993 Henmar Press Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission of C. F. Peters Corporation. Photo © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

Yoko Ono, Painting For The Wind, summer 1961. First published in Yoko Ono: Grapefruit (Tokyo: Wunternaum Press, July 4, 1964). © Yoko Ono.

Rosemary Lee, Square Dances, 2011, commissioned by Dance Umbrella. Square Dances took place in four central London squares throughout a day, with different casts in each: 10 children in Woburn Square, 100 women in Gordon Square, 35 men in Brunswick Gardens, 25 dance students in Queen Square. Each performance involved bells, ranging from a huge church bell that struck every minute; to a handmade musical instrument using bells within its barrel structure, created and composed by Terry Mann; to tiny hand bells for the dancers. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Joanna Haigood and Wayne Campbell, Ghost Architecture, 2004. An aerial dance installation centering on the architectural and social history of the site. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012–13. Park Avenue Armory, New York. Curated by Kristy Edmunds. Photo © Ian Douglas.

Robert Wilson and Marina Abramović, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, premiered 2011. Park Avenue Armory, New York, 2013. Foreground: Willem Dafoe. Photo: Joan Marcus. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

Richard Maxwell, Neutral Hero, 2012. The Kitchen, New York. From left: Janet Coleman, Bob Feldman, Lakpa Bhutia, Andie Springer, Jean Ann Garrish. Photo © Paula Court.

Ann Liv Young, The Bagwell in Me, 2008. Photo: Scott Newman, Revel in New York.

Xavier Le Roy, “Retrospective,” 2012–. Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona, 2012. Photo: Lluís Bover. © Fundació Antoni Tàpies.

Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid, 1981. Photo: Peter Hujar. The Peter Hujar Archive. Courtesy of Pace MacGill and Fraenkel Galleries.

David Levine, Habit, 2012. Installation view, Luminato Festival, Toronto, 2011. Photo: David Levine.

Rimini Protokoll, 100% Yogyakarta, 2015. Teater Garasi, Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia. © Goethe-Institut Indonesien / KDIP Viscom.

Bebe Miller Company, A History, 2012. Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones. Photo: Michael Mazzola.