Saturday, September 2, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Becoming a Fan of Vito Acconci" (on his 2017 death)

becoming a fan of vito acconci
by Douglas Messerli

Poet, performance artist, sculptor, and architectural designer Vito Acconci died on April 27, 2017

In 1982, while working as a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., my companion Howard Fox organized a show of newly created sculpture. The show, titled Metaphor: New Projects by Contemporary Sculptors, included work assembled on-site at the museum by Vito Acconci, Siah Armajani, Alice Aycock, Lauren Ewing, Robert Morris, and Dennis Oppenheim.

     Since the artists worked on installments for several days within the museum, I got to know almost all of these noted figures quite well, visiting the installation while they were at work. We’d already known Aycock and Armanjani beforehand, and now it was a great deal of fun getting to know Morris, Oppenheim, and, in particular, Acconci.

      Bad boy, Oppenheim, almost got the show closed down when he slipped in several flares or roman candles which, evidently, he planned to use in conjunction with his Launching Station #1: An Armature for Projection; when their existence was discovered, the DC Police, the Capitol Police Force, and the Smithsonian Museum’s Protective Force all immediately descended on the exhibition, threatening the entire museum’s closure and forcing Howard and the artist to take the explosives to the street and empty them before whisking what remained away for special destruction. It is against the law, they reminded all, to bring explosives of any kind into Federal Government property.

      Fortunately, after a deep scolding of Oppenheim, the show continued be constructed.

      I love watching all of these incredible (the only way to describe them) works being created on the spot, but, if my memory’s correct, I spent much more time with Acconci as he created his Fan City.

     I’d read several of Acconci’s poems in small literary magazines, and knew that he had had a relationship with poet Bernadette Mayer. I also had seen copies of his legendary magazine he had edited with Mayer in the late 1960s, 0 to 9, each mimeographed copy bearing a different cover.

     Acconci, particularly for his almost private art performances across New York, was also known as a kind of “bad boy,” especially after his 1971 gallery performance, Seedbed, in the Sonnabend Gallery, where, underneath a gallery-wide ramp, he lay hidden, supposedly masturbating while vocalizing into a loudspeaker his fantasies about visitors walking above him.

     When Acconci died in April earlier this year, a fellow artist wrote to remind me that, although he thought Acconci was indeed a great artist, he was also a kind of cad, continuing affairs with many of young female students even after he married Bernadette Mayer’s sister Rosemary in the 1960s and during his long marriage to his second wife, Maria.


     Fan City engaged with the art more the artist, although it still brought forth many of his personal political concerns.

     Fox described the work in the catalogue as consisting “of an arrangement of four units that can be opened like fans to form a circle—a city—of tents, each “decorated” or identified by ideological and sociological banners,” that are pulled out by the viewers, releasing pennants “(fashioned in the style of the all-American cheerleader pennant),” bearing not those of an all-American team but “neutral-to-unflattering designations for social groups of various kinds”: “Beggars,” “Cripples,” “Old Folks,” “Blacks,” “Aliens,” “Pinkos,” “Gays,” “Punks,” “Nymphos,” “Schizos,” “Junkies,” “Freaks.” When the pull-chords are released, however, the pennants quickly snapped-back, retracting into invisibility, leaving only the metal cut-out, representing the common man, at the work’s center.

    It’s interesting, that today, with our growing definitions of people through identity politics, that this work seems even more potent and meaningful than it might have in 1981, the year of its creation.

    While he was in Washington, D.C., I talked to him about the possibility of one day publishing a book of his collected poems. A book of his early writings was later published in 2006, edited by Craig Dworkin, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

     Some weeks after he returned to New York after Howard’s show, a large package arrived at my door, holding within copies of all the now-rare issues of 0 to 9. Recently I gave those volumes that I had so loved to Chapman University.

     In his later years, Acconci turned to architectural constructions, many of them quite amazing. But I’ll always remember him with joy from this sculptor days-did I say he was also very funny--when I became one of his fans.

Los Angeles, September 2, 2017