Vito Hannibal Acconci
(1940 - 2017)
Vito Hannibal Acconci was active/lived in New York. Vito Acconci is known for performance and video art, architecture.
Vito Hannibal Acconci
Biography from the Archives of askART
"Vito Acconci, Performance Artist and Uncommon Architect, Dies at 77," The New York Times, April 28, 2017, obituary by Randy Kennedy
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Vito Acconci, a father of performance and video art and a shamanistic, poetic, deeply influential force on the New York art scene for decades, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 77.
Maria Acconci, his wife and only immediate survivor, confirmed the death. She said it came after a short illness but gave no cause.
Starting in the late 1960s, in love with literature but realizing he was too restless by nature to be a traditional poet, Mr. Acconci began creating documented performances in the street or for tiny audiences, his radar finely tuned to an existential unease that pervaded American society.
Some performances might have gotten him arrested, though Mr. Acconci also seemed to possess the instincts of a cat burglar. In one of his most famous early works, Following Piece, from 1969, he spent each day for almost a month following a person picked at random on the streets of Manhattan, sometimes taking a friend along to photograph the action. The rules were only that Mr. Acconci had to keep following the person until he or she entered a private place where he couldn’t go in.
Mr. Acconci saw himself not as a stalker but as an un-moored soul searching for direction.
“It was sort of a way to get myself off the writer’s desk and into the city,” he once told the musician Thurston Moore. “It was like I was praying for people to take me somewhere I didn’t know how to go myself.”
The dozens of performance pieces that followed through the early 1970s, many of them now little-known, featured varying elements of bodily discomfort, exhibitionism and gender play — elements he shared with other artists of the time, particularly female — as well as a devious wit and a Svengali aura that were Mr. Acconci’s own.
In Seedbed”(1972) — Mr. Acconci’s most infamous piece, which came to overshadow much of his other work — he constructed an angled false floor at the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo and hid himself beneath it with a microphone; as people walked above him he spoke to them as he masturbated. The piece became a touchstone of performance art in part because of its sheer, outlandish audacity.
But it also underscored Mr. Acconci’s abiding interest in art that did not exist as an object set apart from the world, in a frame or on a plinth, but as something deeply embedded in everyday life.
“I wanted people to go through space somehow, not to have people in front of space, looking at something, bowing down to something,” he said of the performance in an interview with The New York Times in 2016 on the occasion of a retrospective at MoMA PS 1 in Queens. “I wanted space people could be involved in.”
That ambition took hold fully in the mid-1970s, when, in a radical career turn, he abandoned the gallery world and remade himself as a highly unorthodox architect and designer, creating works like public parks, airport rest areas and even an artificial island on a river in Austria.
The move confused his peers and caused his profile in the art world to recede, to the point where many younger artists who were indirectly influenced by his work had little idea who had created it. In his later years, Mr. Acconci sometimes agonized over this situation, but he said he had no choice but to follow his interests where they took him — which was no less than an ambition to change the way people lived.
“I wish we could make buildings that could constantly explode and come back in different ways,” he said in one interview. “The idea of a changing environment suggests that if your environment changes all the time, then maybe your ideas will change all the time. I think architecture should have loose ends. This might be another problem with Modernism — it’s too complete within itself.”
Vito Hannibal Acconci was born on Jan. 24, 1940, and raised in the Bronx in a tightly knit Italian-Catholic family. His father, Hamilcar — Hamilcar Barca was the father of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, hence Mr. Acconci’s unusual middle name — was a bathrobe manufacturer whose business was never very good. His mother, Chiara, known as Catherine, worked as a school cafeteria attendant to help makes ends meet.
Mr. Acconci spoke often about how his father’s unusual name, and his love of literature and opera, sparked a fierce interest in words at an early age. (“I prefer Hannibal to Vito,” he once told an interviewer, “but, then again, that was before Silence of the Lambs.”)
His father died when Mr. Acconci was in his early 20s. He said he was spoiled and protected long into adulthood by his mother, whom he labored to keep in ignorance of the shocking specifics of his work.
In 1962, he enrolled in the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa, in thrall to postmodern writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and John Hawkes. He married a fellow artist, Rosemary Mayer (they divorced in the late 1960s), and with her sister, the poet and artist Bernadette Mayer, he published a journal called 0 to 9, after the numeral paintings of Jasper Johns.
By 1969, in what he called “a kind of fever,” he was making performances at a rate of sometimes several a week, documenting them in a decidedly analog archive of metal filing cabinets that grew vast toward the end of his life, taking up a large room in the studio in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he and Maria Acconci ran Acconci Studios, a design and architecture firm.
Holland Cotter, describing Mr. Acconci’s sui-generis performance persona in The Times in 2016, wrote: “Thirty-something, hirsute, in slack shape, he looks and acts the part of sleazoid voyeur, stand-up comic, psychopath and self-martyred saint.”
He added: “In ways not so different from Cindy Sherman’s in photography, he was creating multiple characters who happened to share a body — his — that he wanted both to explore and escape, and that was coming apart under stress.”
In 1980, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago organized a retrospective, and by that time videos, photographic documentations and other works of his had entered numerous important public collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
To support himself throughout a career that was never careerist, he taught and lectured in art schools around New York, and his classroom presence became legendary, a kind of performance work itself — with his long unruly hair, his all-black wardrobe, his gravel-bed voice with its distinctive loping stutter and, before he quit, the endless cigarettes he would light, stub out, pocket, retrieve and light again.
Even when thinking about the end of his life, he seemed to conceive of it as consonant with his work, a performance. In a letter to an unknown recipient in 1971, he spoke of his fears of dying on a plane trip to Canada and stated that before the flight he would deposit an envelope with a key to his apartment at the registrar’s desk at the School of Visual Arts.
“In the event of my death,” the letter, a kind of will, concluded, “the envelope can be picked up by the first person who calls for it; he will be free to use my apartment, and its contents, any way he wishes.”
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