By Jerry Vis
For ten plus years, I was exclusively involved in the New York City Avant-garde art world. There were reasons for my initial involvement and equally compelling ones for not stopping, but meandering. I was thirty, and in the midst of completing an MFA degree at Rutgers University and wasn’t interested in the limitations of making saleable objects. Actually it was antithetical to me, too tame, not up to the energies of the Dicksonian changes swirling about in what turned out to be truly the best of times and the worst. It was 1968.
Context I realized, almost from the start, was at the root of any decisions I made then, as it was for so many, and in the 60’s and 70’S it was everything: the Viet Nam War and the draft topped the list. And then there was the counter culture stuff – that of being fed up with the humdrum American dream – a house, a three-piece suit and the career that went with it, a wife, two kids, a dog and being hopelessly in debt, all of which I eventually did, except I had three kids and two dogs and only a flirtation with a three piece suit. There were also burgeoning new freedoms for blacks, women, drugs and sex, and visceral issues: anti-war demonstrations, dropping out, drugs, abortion rights and over-laying everything great, great music.
The New York City gallery scene was also dealing with change. Abstract Impressionism was on the wane. What replaced it was cerebral Minimal sculpture, equally remote Op and Hard Edge painting and cleaver, satirical Pop Art, all of which was mostly soulless saleable stuff that had little to do with the nitty gritty of that time. As I perceived it, it lacked the zeitgeist for those of us living closer to the ground. The age of Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Patriotic parades were over for the under thirty set. And, while I was slightly on the wrong side of that age cut off, I wasn’t in my gut. Of course all of these conditions are known to anyone that was alive then or cares to look back. I present them here to indicate what was true for so many then, and overwhelmingly so for me. There was an amazing transformation in consciousness taking place. It seemed unbelievably liberating for a whole generation and terrifying for everyone else.
My art tastes then and still, a bit out dated perhaps, ran to Dada, Surrealism and German Expressionism, also Abstract Impressionism -psychologically penetrating art. One criticism I received at the time from a well established, well meaning successful artist, was that I was too much of a Romantic, which seemed quite humorous to me, considering the darkness of my choices. I didn’t take it to heart. I saw it as an indication of just how escapist that artist and art world had become.
In Marshall Mcluhan’s book, Understanding Media (1964), which propounds that “the medium is the message”, Mcluhan explains that the methods of communication are as significant as the content being presented, even at times literally the dominant content. In brief he suggests that all media: print, radio, TV, speech, and computers, (and the arts, by extension on my part), range from very hot to very cold, hot being that form of communication that requires your participation to complete the process, requires your intellect, emotions and often your body, while a cold form does the work for you, typically only your wide eyed presence is required. Thus TV is cold, verbal story telling hot, and the same story in writing is warm. For me, performance art was a hot medium, while Pop art tended to be cool. Hot media requires a greater level of demand, while cool media tends to be vicariously entertaining. (If sex is hot, what is pornography?)
This concept about media had a profound effect on my work, which eventually led to my wanting to include the non-artist in a more dynamic way beyond that of a walk by viewer. It was a complex problem. I didn’t want participation to be required. I wanted the work itself to seduce someone into voluntarily joining the activity. I wanted to derail the preciousness of object making to make the creative process a shared event. This was a concept, which I was borrowing from Conceptual Art, only I wanted it to be physical as well as mental.
In 1968, I was not aware of the Fluxus art movement, but found that there was a counter culture, alternative art scene in New York City that was beginning to flourish. And that scene consisted of Installation works, Site Specific works, Happenings, Performances, Collaborative activities and Conceptual art.
This awareness occurred while at Rutgers where all of the studio classes were really run as seminars, group discussions, where the teacher was an equal participant. These were not classes in which we made art objects or mastered technique. We talked about art ideas, thinking and problem solving processes, shows in New York, and went to student studios to critic their work. It was an environment of exciting intellectual exploration, but also harsh demanding standards. Bob Watts, involved with Fluxus taught there. Allen Kaprow, the originator of the Happening, had taught there and it was that influence that attracted me to their program, and set the tone for the learning environment. That environment along with serendipitous events conspired to bring me to Alternative Art.
In 1968 – 69, I was offered an opportunity to do some site-specific works for the Avant Garde Festival in NYC, put together by Charlotte Moorman. That was my first definitive commitment to that direction. Previously I had been making sculptural constructions and uninteresting paintings. Then through a mutual friend, I was invited along with other people from Rutgers University to show in a new space on west 23rd Street, created by Billy Apple and Jackque Apple. This space (we seldom used the term gallery for it was just a raw space) functioned as a blank canvass, which allowed artists the creative freedom to present unconventional works with absolutely no requirement to make sellable objects. Often, if objects were made, usually as a by-product, such as documentation, or art artifacts, they would be given away. The nature of the Space was to make no demands upon the artist. Just clean up after yourself. It was one of several such galleries in the Soho section of Manhattan. There was 112 Green, 98 Green, Gain Ground, 10 Bleeker Street, Idea Warehouse, and 3 Mercer as well as Apple. Common to all these spaces was this same attitude of freedom and non interference.
Artists were allowed whatever time was needed to present what ever he / she had in mind. There were no restrictions of any kind. These works ran the whole gamut of alternative art. One such early work that I did was to construct a one half scale model of the Space, down to the smallest detail, centered within the Space. The only way to see the work was to get down on your hands and knees and crawl through the half scale door. Inside, centered on the scaled down Space was a printed 1/8 scale drawing of the full size room, which could be cut out and assembled. These were free to take. I sat inside the room and handed out the cut out prints. Some one asked if there was a framed version available. I told them that would cost five hundred dollars but if they would take the artwork for free, they could have it framed themselves for far less. They left without the print.
Ed Hee, who’s show was next, asked me to leave the room up so he could do a spontaneous piece called “Tight Shoes” in which anyone entering the Space had to don shoes that were too small and walk about with the scale room for a fixed amount of time. There was a large turnout which concluded with most people painfully on the floor laughing themselves silly .
Most of the works I did then were Process / performance pieces, in that I was in the gallery every day, all day for the entire show. It became a crucial aspect of these pieces to write a daily journal on the wall in which I would note what had occurred, what relative or random thoughts I had, the gist of conversations, if I took a nap and dreamed – it all went on the wall. All the while I would be working away at some scripted objective.
Because of the length of show time, most of those working at Apple did what I came to think of as duration pieces. In all there were approximately ten regular people, and a larger number of occasional artists. The Apple’s financed the whole affair, and because they never told anyone what or how to do anything, the work produced was incredible. Ideas flowed from one to another like honey on a hot summer day. There were many collaborative works. Jackque did one work which involved a diner in which several of the artist dress as servants browbeat and forced to serve dinner dressed in servant garb in a sacrine fawning manner while being insulted. I found this piece to be demeaning and ended up feeling quite angry, but then realized how successful that performance had been. Geof Hendricks, Billy Apple and I did two very successful works together, not an easy thing for loner artists to do: give up their autonomy.
Not everything succeeded and that was important to the validity and vitality of the risk taking freedom. In time, I’ve realized that polished sellable products never occurred for two reasons: our unintentional, almost indifferent protest against the gallery system and two, these works existed in time only.
What we did was alternative, not just because it’s form was transient, or because it didn’t produce precious art objects, but because it was about ideas that were irreverently psychological, political, sociological and most often spiritual. Unlike the standard art world’s offerings of vapid slickness, everyone drawn to Alternative Art was dealing with capital C Content. I now understood that these alternative forms led to content, instead of the form being the content, as it was for minimal art found in most galleries showing current work.
Conventional art vocabulary was inadequate in such a totally free context. This placed an enormous responsibility upon Alternative Art artists to create their own visual language and juxtaposed symbols if Performance Art was to circumvent the aloof ivory tower of the gallery system. This in itself was thrilling to me. It was so freeing. But I also realized that if I, as an artist, were sloppy or self-indulgent, no one would understand the intent (my personal language and symbols) and the work would not succeed. For me, inscrutable ideas were irrelevant ideas. Art, after all, exists in that space between the question and the answer. An undecipherable question destroys a work’s momentum. That doesn’t mean a work has to be dumbed down, just brought to a place that made the journey of exploration worthwhile. It also doesn’t mean that the answer, if there can be one, is obvious. There is an admonition for teachers, which states that –to teach well, you must study the learner- for artists -study the viewer if you wish to communicate. I also understood that since there was no lasting product to evaluate (from sales), a lasting memory and visitor responses were the only proof of a piece’s success.
I particularly liked these duration works. All performance pieces are by their nature are about time. I liked long-lived works that would allow for in depth immersion, which could and should lead to exploration and modification. This I found was the fastest way to evolve ideas. In several performances I lived (24/7) within the piece as a living element of the work. It was a way of adding personal emotional intensity, realness at a level not possible within short pieces. Another way to define Performance Art -it is not theater. It doesn’t need to have a resolved ending. It is like life –while looking in one direction discover you’ve moved in the opposite.
This brought me to the enjoyable realization that what happened spontaneously could be important or disastrous. It worked to draw the viewer in. I found that it was critical to start a work with a physical situation that was both visually seductive and had a mysterious aspect that intrigued. This concept, when successful, provided a path to the content. And it was the content that dominated my work. As I stated before, I felt most of the art in galleries at that time were dominated by form; if anything, it is even more so today. That in itself is another whole topic. But in brief – the art that is dominant in a culture is a window into its soul. I believe it is also the reason why there has been such a fragmentation of art movements in the last seventy years. Form dominated art has a great initial buzz but no staying power, which I came to understand. Thus the implication for Alternative Art is the responsibility to address content. We are living in a terribly confusing time. A time that feels it is coming apart, is irrational, devouring it’s self, that we are no longer standing on solid ground. This explains a common thread that has run through all alternative art as content. It is an easy solution to repeat that observation, over and over, to infer that feeling in a work. This can be derailing if a work relies upon the over use of shock, absurdity, and a game of one-upsmanship as its primary content. This for me was anathema. The time for such behavior being valid had ceased with the passing of the Dadaist break with Victorian constraints. I felt it is form masquerading as content. If these conclusions were valid what could I do? What should the purpose be for performance art works? If I was correct that lasting memory should be the proof of success, what should that memory be?
I believed that the best works allowed the viewer to take away a provocative question at the very least, which is in the nature of performance works, but beyond that my desire for the viewer was to participate. Unlike conventional art works, which place themselves between the artist and the viewer, I wanted people to become actively involved. During one performance piece at Apple, several visitors helped with some of the alterations I was performing on poinsettia plants. This show titled Transplant was done December 12th through the 19th, 1971. With in the square shape of the room I arranged 100 potted poinsettia plants, purchased from a nursery, in a ten by ten grid, space apart for easy access. Overhead I hung plant lights. In the room, along one wall I placed tools and materials to care for the plants. Along another wall were art materials: paints, carpentry tools, pins, glues, which were to be used to artfully augment the plants. On the wall were two written documents: one was my typical journal to record anything that affected the show and the other a chart of the room showing plant locations by number. Next to this chart was a sign up sheet for visitor’s to reserve a plant of their choice to be picked up on the last day of the show. The intent of the alterations was to esthetically kill one half of the plants, though this was not stated explicitly. I spent the entire day, every day, performing this function while people entered the show. Their reactions ran the expected gamut of response. Some left immediately, some stayed for hours, some even came back several times to see my progress, and some asked if they could do some alterations themselves. This led to a question of how they should proceed. My response was to extend the benefits of Apple, which was they were free to do anything to any plant, just clean up after themselves.
All of this activity was written upon the wall. Each night I drove to my home in Rockland County, north west of the City, and each night I had dreams about the show of increasing disquiet so that by the fourth night I could no longer sleep. On the fifth day I ceased altering the plants. And though I stopped, there was a hovering darkness that lingered over me. People came and went. Some asked why I had chosen to do such a piece in the first place? My answer was generally that is for them to determine.
In all, one third of the plants were altered. Every one that signed up came for their plant. Every plant taken was an altered plant. Not one health whole plant had been selected. I informed every one that my intent was to kill the plants with art. If they would be so kind, would they drop me a card stating the day of the plant’s death for documentation purposes. No one did. I gave away the remaining plants as Xmas presents. This was my final statement written on the wall: In the consumer world there is a corporate term for a basic item, such as potatoes, that have been altered in some way –let’s say they are pealed and ready cut into French fry shapes, then frozen- the corporate terminology for such an product is “Value Added”.
It was quite oblique statement. I hoped that it might be enough to reveal what I was dealing with. You’re never certain with performance works. It’s the dilemma of a communications gap. For me the work was a success, though I didn’t complete what I set out to do. I learned that I was not the conduit for a work but the object, the subject of the work and that all performance artists became the symbolic stand in for everyone else caught up in the same conundrum of life, that my nightmares and my depression were the proof of success. And that ultimately what Performance Art did that Pop Art or Minimalism did not do was to return the total human equation to the art experience. That of human emotion. That it’s need for obscurity kept it from becoming a Norman Rockwell illustration or a cerebral art game. That, not just performance art, but all Alternative Art activities were an attempt to put art back where it had been since cave painting: between the question and the answer.