Vito Acconci died last week at the age of 77. He was best known for intense performance-art provocations that skirted interpersonal boundaries: public–private, consensual–nonconsensual, real world–art world. It is hard to imagine a career like his taking the same course today. Some of his works would be almost unthinkable in museums now. Audiences might not be willing to tolerate them.
Acconci was prolific over a short burst, working through a range of ideas and issues in photography, video, and performance between 1968 and 1976. During this eight-year window, the Bronx-born artist reconciled an interest in radical poetry with a Situationist focus on the body. His visual output culminated in spare conceptual works that survive today in video or photo documentation. In the mid-70s, when his growing reputation made his confrontational work more difficult to pull off—works that relied on his being anonymous, a stranger, a weirdo—Acconci abandoned performance, turning to sculptural installation and eventually architectural design. His earlier works influenced Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, Bruce Nauman, Tracey Emin—perhaps an entire generation of artists.
Following Piece (1969) might be Acconci’s best-known work, a staple of post-war art-history textbooks. For a performance that stretched over the fall, the artist selected passersby at random on the streets in New York City and followed them for as long as he was able—sometimes tracking his target for minutes, sometimes following them for hours, from borough to borough, wherever the work took him. With Following Piece, Acconci perverted the notion of public art. His was an unsanctioned artwork in which viewers had no choice about participating, a roving un-safe space.