LEARN: Performance Art in L.A.

As Part of the Citywide Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 Collaboration, the Getty Center has Recently Launched an Interactive Web Archive. ForYourArt Asked Claire de Dobay Rifelj to Help Navigate the Archive.

This dynamic site offers a digital snapshot of the art scene in Los Angeles from 1945–1980 via artworks, documentary images, video interviews with artists and a historical map related to its four exhibitions.

In the 1970s, a major artistic development—whose center can arguably be pinpointed to Southern California—was performance. Mining diverse territories such as political activism, spectacle, mass media, and lived experience, performance art confronted and reimagined many of the art establishment’s existing structures. The Getty’s site illustrates the variety of events, actions and artists that helped establish performance as a vital form of expression in the Los Angeles area.

Already in the 1950s L.A. had been home to experimental groups—like Instant Theatre, founded by Rachel Rosenthal—that expanded the notion of what theatrical performance could entail. In New York, meanwhile, artist Allan Kaprow was coining the term “happenings” to describe his live-action art events that directly engaged viewers in an effort to meld art and life (Kaprow eventually moved to Southern California in 1969 to teach at CalArts, where he continued to organize happenings). The social upheavals of the 1960s further contributed to artists’ growing dissatisfaction with an art whose sole context was the gallery or museum.

In response, many artists sought new, more democratic spaces where they could stage provocative actions and voice their shifting political and aesthetic concerns. Some took to the streets, bringing greater public attention to their work. The Chicano art collective Asco performed impromptu costumed parades and satirical dinner parties on the major thoroughfares of East L.A. Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus orchestrated In Mourning and in Rage on the steps of City Hall, attracting the media in order to bring attention to the problem of violence against women. Performance art opened the door to many artists—particularly women and people of color—who had largely been excluded from the city’s artistic spaces and dialogues.

Art schools also became important alternative venues for the development and dissemination of performance art, since they offered space that was both rent- and restriction-free. Wolfgang Stoerchle, for his MFA thesis from the University of Santa Barbara, produced an evening of actions that deployed the artist’s body as a destructive tool, bursting through plaster planks and walls. A gallery run by students from the University of California at Irvine—F-Space—was the site for one of Chris Burden’s earliest pieces in which he enlisted a sharpshooter to graze his body with a bullet. The gunman missed, puncturing Burden’s arm and solidifying Shoot as one of performance art’s best-known examples. This focus on the artist’s body is a common characteristic of performance works, as artist Barbara T. Smith notes in a video.

The ephemeral nature of performance—it takes place at a certain time and place, and it can never be recreated in exactly the same way again—also encouraged artists to explore new ways of recording and preserving their actions. For one month in 1971, Al Ruppersberg established Al’s Grand Hotel, at once an art project and a functional hotel. He produced brochures and a catalogue that co-opted the language of advertising and tourism while also providing a record of the space and its activities. For her performance Full Jar, Empty Jar, Barbara T. Smith arranged for the event to be photographed and created a typescript that outlined how it was carried out. These archival traces are how viewers now experience Smith’s—and all artists’—past performances. The events themselves occurred decades ago, yet still tangible today are the ways in which these Southern California artists influenced how art is experienced, displayed and understood.

To learn more about performance art and other aspects of the Los Angeles art world, visit Pacific Standard Time at the Getty Center. The Getty will continue to add materials to this site, so check back often.


1) Full Jar, Empty Jar performance at Art Gallery, University of California, San Diego, 1974, Barbara T. Smith. © Barbara T. Smith

2) In Mourning and In Rage media performance at Los Angeles City Hall, December 13, 1977, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Starus. Gelatin silver prints documenting the event by Susan Mogul. 7 15/16 x 10 3/16 in. The Getty Research Institute, Lawrence Alloway Papers, 2003.M.46. Photo courtesy of Susan Mogul

3) Ablutions performance at Guy Dill’s studio, with Judy Chicago, Suzanne Lacy, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani (Sponsored by Feminist Art Program at CalArts), 1972. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Art in the Public Interest and 18th Street Arts Center, 2006.M.8.42. Photo courtesy Lloyd Hamrol

4) Announcement for Dead Man performance by Chris Burden at the Mizuno Gallery in Los Angeles, November 12, 1972. © Chris Burden. The Getty Research Institute, Gift of Riko Mizuno, 2010.M.84.4

by Claire de Dobay Rifelj

Check out these itineraries so that you can make the most of this weekend’s Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival!