Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Performance Art

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


In the 1950s, the performative aspect of art gained some prominence through the influence of kinetic contraptions along with neo-Dada and assorted other schools and movements. John Cage (1912-1992), another influence from the music world, had been creating performance projects and through a collaboration with pianist David Tudor and choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919- ) as in a 1952 event which Cage describes:

Disparate activities, dancing by Merce Cunningham, the exhibition of paintings and the playing of a Victrola by Robert Rauschenberg, the reading of his poetry by Charles Olsen or hers by M.C. Richards from the top of a ladder outside the audience, the piano playing of David Tudor, my own reading of a lecture that included silences from the top of another ladder outside the audience, all took place within chance-determined periods of time within the overall time of my lecture. (qtd. in Dempsey 222)

Allan Kaprow (1927- ) traces Happenings to the action painting of Abstract Expressionism (such as Jackson Pollack). With the Nouveau Realistes, performance and collaboration were parts of the creation of the art work. Turtles had flashlights strapped to their backs. There were live collages.

Performance art can be liberating, sensational, harrowing for the audience. It connects also to the three-dimensional art of the period, and it takes pride in its multi-media, hybrid status. Rauschenberg proudly called it Bastard Theater. Performance art usually tries to assault the senses. Non-narrative structure and interdisciplinary collaboration are the key features of “Happenings.”

Some names in early performance art include Allan Kaprow (1927- ), Red Grooms (1937- ), Jim Dine (1935- ), and Claes Oldenburg (1929- ).

Carolee Schneemann (1939- ) enjoyed her greatest success with Meat Joy (1964), performed in Paris and New York, which brought together sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound. Actors’ bodies were covered with the blood of meat carcasses; the actors/dancers interacted with flashlights, wet paint, transparent plastic, raw fish, chicken carcasses, and sausages.

Other names include Rebecca Horn (1933- ), Jacki Apple (1942- ), Martha Wilson (1947- ), Adrian Piper (1948- ), and Karen Finley (1956- ). Spaulding Gray’s monologues (1941-2004) are classified as performance art.

Robert Wilson’s (1941- ) Einstein on the Beach (1976) is a five-hour multi-disciplinary production bringing together Philip Glass and Lucinda Childs.

More recently, Diamanda Galas (1955- ), drawing on jazz, opera, and anger, has been in trouble for satanic evocations in her performance art activism including that against AIDS, from which her brother died, in such performances as Litanies of Satan (1982) and Wild Women with Steak Knives (1981-1983).

John-Paul Zaccarini (1970- ) has combined eroticism and horror with circus works such as Throat.

Laurie Anderson (1947- ) is my favorite though, with multi-media spectacles that fuse high art and pop culture. For Wired for Light and Sound (1986), she constructed a special light bulb and microphone to place inside her mouth which lit up her cheeks and allowed her to emit singing noises resembling the sound of a violin. A “Best of” collection of her work has recently come out on CD.

Works Consulted

Dempsey, Amy. Art in the Modern Era: A Guide to Styles, Schools & Movements. NY: Harry N. Abrams Inc., Pub., 2002.