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Frieze Week New York 2024

Hand-in-Hand: How Commercial Galleries Are Embracing Performance Art

Cassie Packard explores the changing status of live art in the white cube

BY Cassie Packard in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine | 01 MAY 24

It is not new for commercial galleries to present performance art. A number of early works that are now considered part of the canon debuted in such settings. New York witnessed the premieres of Simone Forti’s See-Saw (1960) at Reuben Gallery, Allan Kaprow’s Yard (1961) at Martha Jackson Gallery, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) at Sonnabend Gallery and Joseph Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) at René Block Gallery, to name but a few examples.

However, in recent years, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns and the hunger they spurred for live events and communal gathering, there has been a shift in the extent to which commercial galleries are emphasizing live performance in their programs. Among blue-chip and mega galleries—which are accustomed to playing a producer role on a grand scale (of exhibitions, publications, public programs, culinary experiences and more) and capable of financially supporting work that is not only difficult or impossible to sell, but also potentially expensive to produce—this shift has manifested in the formation of dedicated performance programs, the commissioning of new pieces and even the creation of residencies. Consider Pace Live, launched by Pace in 2019. This performance and event program, which was initially housed at the gallery’s New York headquarters but has since become rhizomatic, is led by Mark Beasley, formerly curator of media and performance at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. “The gallery is grounded in the early days of performance and happenings in New York,” Beasley tells me via email, highlighting its representation of Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras and Robert Whitman.

Miles Greenberg, Fountain II , 2023, performed at Pace Gallery, New York, as part of “Hermann Nitsch: Selected Paintings, Actions, Relics, and Musical Scores, 1962–2020.” Courtesy: Pace Gallery
Miles Greenberg, Fountain II , 2023, performed at Pace Gallery, New York, as part of “Hermann Nitsch: Selected Paintings, Actions, Relics, and Musical Scores, 1962–2020.” Courtesy: Pace Gallery

Pace Live mounts reperformances of historic works—last year restaging Whitman’s American Moon (1960) amid a recreation of the original set—as well as new, responsive works, such as Miles Greenberg’s Fountain II (2023), which is inspired by Hermann Nitsch’s oeuvre and was presented alongside Pace’s exhibition of the Viennese actionist’s work last spring. “Often these performances are one-off events,” says Beasley. “However, sometimes we plan a restaging or the event develops over time. There’s a natural fluidity that allows for the work to move beyond the gallery and into other spaces, from public venues to biennials.”

Russell Salmon, director of public programs at Hauser & Wirth, likewise points out that performance is in the gallery’s DNA, with artists like Kaprow and Paul McCarthy. Hauser & Wirth’s West 18th Street outpost in New York, which opened last year, features an amphitheater for public programs including performance. The gallery also launched The Performance Project in a dedicated space at its Downtown Los Angeles location in 2022; projects have ranged from Martin Creed’s Life Is Soft (2022–ongoing) to Autumn Breon’s Protective Style (2023). Hauser & Wirth additionally invites artists to respond to exhibitions. For example, painter Pat Steir’s passion for poetry and music led to poet Anne Waldman and composer and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis being commissioned to perform in dialogue with her 2022 exhibition in New York. Such an approach occasions new work and fosters cross-disciplinary dialogue while drawing more visitors to the shows themselves.

Sarah Michelson and Nora Turato are both predominantly known for their experimental performance work: Michelson as a choreographer and dancer whose work engages with architecture, dance history and dance-as-labor, and Turato for performances that grapple with the voids, slippages and elasticities of language. Last year, they joined the rosters of David Zwirner and Sprüth Magers, respectively.

“What I think is being recognized with wider gallery representation of artists who work with performance,” says Turato by email, “is that, while performance may not fall into a category of traditional object-based art and any marketable connotations that may hold, it can—and often does—bring people into the gallery, create engagement with the program and draw in a diverse audience. I also think galleries that see value in supporting these ways of working are committed to and trusting of their artists, beyond market persuasions.”

Nora Turato, Cue The Sun , 2023, performed at the New York Society for Ethical Culture as part of the Performa Biennial. Courtesy: the artist and Performa; photograph: Walter Wlodararczyk
Nora Turato, Cue the Sun, 2023, performed at the New York Society for Ethical Culture as part of the Performa Biennial. Courtesy the artist and Performa; photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk

Michelson showed the multimedia performance Oh No Game Over (2021) at David Zwirner in New York for five days in 2021, having developed the piece on site for several months beforehand. The year prior, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis acquired Michelson’s first “object-based artwork,” the expanded environment /\ March 2020 (4pb) (2020), made specifically for their spaces. As a newly represented artist, she is helping to build a residency program for other dancers to work and perform in David Zwirner’s galleries, and premiered a work of her own at the Los Angeles gallery this January.

From Yves Klein’s “Anthropometry” paintings (1960) to Yoko Ono’s written event scores, “performance was always hiding in plain sight” in museums and galleries, says RoseLee Goldberg, who founded New York nonprofit Performa in 2004, when we spoke by phone. Noting that artists have historically been attuned to the relationship between performance and objects, she underscores that when Performa commissions artists—some of whom are primarily painters or sculptors—to make performances for its biennial, the undertaking should feed, rather than interfere with, any object-making practices.

Turato, who presented Cue the Sun (2023) at last year’s Performa, views her performances as inextricably linked to her broader body of work, which includes enamel panels, wall paintings and videos based on performance scripts. While Turato’s performances themselves cannot be sold, when artists do elect to sell their performances, what collectors receive can take a variety of forms, including photographic and video documentation, archival ephemera and props, written and verbal instructions, and intellectual property rights agreements—a discussion of the work’s parameters and production requirements is often involved. The growing interest in collecting performance has even catalyzed focused art fairs, such as Performance Exchange in London and A Performance Affair in Brussels.

Around the same time Performa was founded, London’s Tate Modern introduced a live performance program, in 2003, and made its first performance acquisition, Roman Ondak’s Good Feelings in Good Times (2003), when the piece was re-enacted at Frieze London in 2004. A few years later, New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired Tino Sehgal’s performance Kiss (2003), inaugurated a workshop on performance in institutions and grew its media department to include performance. Such assertions of the art-historical significance of performance have likely encouraged galleries to double down on the genre, as did a post-lockdown drive toward the live, the expanded role of the gallery in the experience economy and, most importantly, galleries’ commitments to the interests and practices of the artists whom they support.

“The whole framework of the art world is changing so much,” says Goldberg. “Performance brings people together, has a direct relationship to the public, and allows the issues of our age to be aired in an immediate way. I really think it’s the future.”

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “Key Performance Indicators.’'

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Main image: Nora Turato, Cue the Sun, 2023. Installation view of digital work at Fulton Transit Center in Lower Manhattan. Performa Commission for the Performa Biennial 2023, presented in partnership with MTA Arts & Design. Courtesy the artist and Performa; photograph: Walter Wlodarczyk

Cassie Packard is a writer and assistant editor of frieze based in New York.