Artful Acts That Changed The Definition of Art

'Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979" looks at performance-based art fanning out from such epicenters as the United States, Japan, Italy, and Germany in the 1950s to touch in one way or another most art made today.

On view at the Geffen Contemporary site of Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, the show samples contributions to this avant-garde, art-as-action movement by 150 artists from 20 countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North and South America.

Until the far-sweeping conceptual changes highlighted by this show, art was seen as a finished, specialized object - a painting, a sculpture. These objects of art were made to fit certain expectations dictated by 500 years of tradition and the tastes of an elite class. The value of such artworks was (and still is) determined by supply and demand, being bought, sold, and sought much the way other prestige luxury possessions are.

The 1960s, by contrast, were woolly times: free love, drug culture, the cold war, nihilism, our first hint of ethnic diversity, and a spirit of pushing boundaries in everything.

In this atmosphere, artists began to question their role as producers of merely attractive and marketable surfaces. A select group began to equate art with the creative process itself, and art came to include any creative, interactive, or subversive act taking place in real time, in real (rather than depicted) space that actively involved maker and viewer.

The fascinating philosophic, economic, and political implications of this thinking are all developed in an accessible way in "Out of Actions." If art is an action - not a thing - no one may buy, own, or market it because it is intentionally ephemeral: When it is over, it is over. The best one can do is make a film, photo, or video record of the creative act as it unfolds, always knowing the record is not the art.

These ideas have resulted in some equally interesting, liberating, and wacky results: An artist could stroke a dead hare in public for days (a famous performance-art piece by the brilliant German Joseph Beuys). An artist could pile tons and tons of earth into a temporary jetty to be eroded by nature and time (executed by the American earth artist Robert Smithson).

Or he could nail himself to a Volkswagen (internationally noted conceptual artist Chris Burden), or drape cellophane across a gallery entrance that artgoers struggled through (one of the first Manhattan art Happenings by Allan Kaprow). As long as some creative underpinning marked that act - and the artist was the sole judge of that - it counted as viable art.

In a final twist of irony (certainly not missed by the best of these action artists), the documents recording these art acts have themselves become marketable fodder for collectors, auction houses, and major museum exhibitions. This show is a case in point.

Video, film, and photographic records, as well as full re-creations of '60s and '70s Actions and Happenings (as these art acts were dubbed), form the meat and potatoes of the venue.

You'll see things like beautiful working drawings and photos of Atsuka Tanaka wearing her 1956 electric clothing, made from light bulbs and wires designed to suggest traditional geisha dress and an external nervous system. You'll see a room strewn with strange accouterments, by Carolee Schneeman, which viewers were forced to move through, and a terrific snapshot of one of Kaprow's wilder '60s interactive events consisting of a sea of old tires piled high for folks to romp in. You'll see Claes Oldenburg's "Store," a fictitious tongue-in-cheek replica of a selling space where viewers peruse and purchase fake copies of usable things.

A good deal of today's best art gets its conceptual sophistication and in-your-face immediacy from ideas bred by performance art. "Out of Actions" goes a long way toward casting a historical line from the '60s to the present.

* 'Out of Actions' is showing in Los Angeles through May 10. It will then travel to MAK-Austrian Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna (June 17-Sept. 6); Museu d'art Contemporani, Barcelona, Spain (Oct. 15-Jan. 6, 1999); and Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (Feb. 13-April 11, 1999).

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