It’s rarely mentioned that many of the artists who get naked for their work have great bodies. Hannah Wilke was a beauty, Lynda Benglis a babe, and Carolee Schneemann, Karen Finley, and Annie Sprinkle all show their big breasts as often as possible. Janine Antoni is gorgeous and Claude Wampler is cute. Andrea Fraser, who fobs off her naked-ness as “institutional critique,” is notable mostly for her round rear end.
Women aren’t the only ones. It’s hard to imagine Chris Burden’s early work without envisioning his sweet, baby-seal-like body, or Matthew Barney’s art without enjoying his good looks. Even the once spongy Jeff Koons got buff for his close-up with Cicciolina. There are exceptions, though, mainly on the male side. In addition to the multiple love handles of Paul McCarthy and the geezerliness of John Coplans, there are the pigeon toes, knock-knees, and chunky thighs of that Keith Richards-Johnny Cash-Quasimodo of the art world, our own Man in Black, Vito Acconci.
To me, Acconci is a hero, and not just for his ultra-radical work. He’s proof that an “unconventionally attractive” man, as I prefer to call him, can be a sex symbol. Acconci is sexy not because he’s beautiful but because he’s cool, passionate, and smart. Like Bob Dylan, his beauty isn’t easy, although his droning, stuttering voice, like Dylan’s bitter one, helps. In 1990, an interviewer asserted that Acconci had “the most charismatic voice in the art world.” The following year, Richard Prince asked him, “You really think you would have been able to fuck anyone without it?” to which Acconci answered, “That’s probably exaggerated,” then conceded that his voice is the kind that “lulls you through a dark, disturbed night . . . promising intimacy, sincerity, integrity, maybe some deep, dark secret.”
Those secrets, that sincerity, and much more permeate a gripping, characteristically exhausting exhibition called “Vito Acconci: Diary of a Body 1969-1973.” Acconci, who stopped performing more than two decades ago and has been designing architectural structures and making sculptures ever since, has installed photographs, note cards, typewritten pages, proof sheets, and video and tape recordings from this, his super-protean, often disturbing season in aesthetic heaven and hell. Everything is connected by a network of red taped lines. Stand and study or just skim: You’ll behold an artist inventing and discovering the deeply strange, amazingly unvisual machine that generated some of the most penetrating and psychically buggy conceptual artworks ever produced. Acconci’s art is often incredibly grating and tedious. He goes on and on about everything. Still, a museum should purchase and install this ur-work if only to show that an artist was willing to go this far with almost no artifacts to show for it. (He once said, “I resent the visual; the visual means you don’t touch it.”)
All of Acconci’s creepy, crazy, yet very human obsessions are here: the self, the id, merging with others, claiming space, control, love, loss, loneliness, and anger. Remorse and shame are prominent as well. On view are many of his greatest hits: Trappings, in which he carried on a conversation with his penis; Claim, where he sat blindfolded in a basement swinging a lead pipe at intruders while repeating threatening phrases (Acconci’s spoken repetition parallels the visual ones of Judd and Warhol); Project for Pier 17, where he stood at the end of a ruined West Side pier at night, confessing to anyone who came to see him (his so-called “blackmail piece”); and Following Piece, in which he followed strangers until they went into private spaces. There are other pieces on view in which Acconci bites or rubs himself, tucks his penis between his legs, plucks the hair from his belly, or squeezes his breasts trying to become a woman.
Because of all this maleness or seemingly dirty-old-man stuff, some might think, “Right, another sexist pig.” And it’s true: Acconci did a lot of weird things to and with women. He had a woman cover him with kisses, and another take his penis in her mouth while he attempted to run away; he tried to block a naked woman from being seen by an audience, and tried to pry open another woman’s closed eyes. Yet, throughout you feel that Acconci is vulnerable and protective. He’s always trying to get inside other people’s skins and psyches. Acconci was a perfect counterweight to many of the female artists mentioned above, some of whom were as trailblazing with their bodies as he was with his.
Also on view is Seedbed. In this legendary sculpture/performance Acconci lay beneath a ramp built in the Sonnabend Gallery. Over the course of three weeks, he masturbated eight hours a day while murmuring things like, “You’re pushing your cunt down on my mouth” or “You’re ramming your cock down into my ass.” Not only does the architectural intervention presage much of his subsequent work, but all of Acconci’s fixations converge in this, the spiritual sphincter of his art. In Seedbed Acconci is the producer and the receiver of the work’s pleasure. He is simultaneously public and private, making marks yet leaving little behind, and demonstrating ultra-awareness of his viewer while being in a semi-trance state. This extraordinary artistic marker, left 32 years ago this January, is still on the outer banks of the aesthetic perimeter.