The Museum of Conceptual Art: A Prolegomena to HipApril 12, 2011
A July 1986 People magazine article dubbed performance art the year’s “hippest form of expression,” and San Francisco as its home.1 The article mentions artist Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA) as foundational to the initial nurturing of a San Francisco performance art scene. The museum, however, had closed down two years before the article was written, and performance art was nothing new to the city in 1986. The article represents one of the few mainstream references to one of San Francisco’s—and the country’s—most important and pioneering, but often forgotten, art institutions.
Marioni states that as an artist he stopped making objects by 1968. Instead he began thinking about the body and working with sound. He sees a linguistic dimension to Conceptual art in New York at the time and an emphasis on light in Los Angeles, but sees a focus on the body in San Francisco. Marioni understands San Francisco’s perspective on performance as coming from “free speech, free love, the hippie era of drugs and rock and roll.”2 The art is tied to the land and the political turmoil and radicalism of the era.
Also in 1968, Marioni became the curator at the Richmond Art Center. He started MOCA two years later out of a desire to do “more radical” things than he could do at the Art Center. The museum opened on 86 Third Street in the south of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, near the current confluence of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. MOCA is considered the first alternative art space in the country.3 As a first-of-its-kind institution, it forged the way for the many alternative spaces that would pop up in the city, such as New Langton Arts (1975–2009) and countless others across the United States.
Central to the structure of MOCA was the fact that it was not a collecting institution. This lent itself to fostering Conceptual art that would be ephemeral and performative. Marioni says that everything that happened at MOCA in its first years was “action by sculptors.”4 In fact, the museum’s first public show was Sound Sculpture As. The April 30, 1970 performance included nine artists: Mit Arbeiten von Arlo Acton, Allan Fish (Marioni’s pseudonym), Terry Fox, Mel Henderson, Paul Kos, Peter Macan, Jim Melchert, Jim McCready, and Herb Yarno.5 Kos’ famous piece picked up the sound of two twenty-five-pound blocks of melting ice with eleven boom microphones. Henderson walked around the gallery space with a 30-caliber rifle, eventually firing a single shot at the image of a projected tiger. For McCready’s piece, four nylon-clad women walked down an ad hoc runway, rubbing their thighs together, creating a swishing sound.6 These abstract performances lacked any clear narrative, but they all took as their medium an embodied or physical aurality.
Later that year, curator Willoughby Sharp put together a video show called Body Works. The October 18, 1970 show included thirty-minute black-and-white videos from Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Keith Sonnier, and William Wegman. Marioni claims that this was the first video-art show in California and the first body-art show in the country. Acconci’s video pictured him burning the hair from his nipples.7 Typical of his work, Nauman’s piece depicted the artist walking around his studio, exaggerating his movements and highlighting the way his body moves through the space. Jerome Tarshis of Artforum described this piece as “an exercise in challenging and possibly torturing the audience.”8 These works foregrounded the artist’s body as both paint and canvas. In doing so, they also utilized the relatively new form of video art, advancing a pairing that would stick around well into the digital age.
By the end of 1970, Marioni decided to make MOCA a nonprofit corporation so that he could receive National Endowment for the Arts funding. The NEA granted MOCA its first grant of $5,000 in 1971.9 This would later serve as the entire budget for the museum in 1973. The museum then began accepting members and even had patrons. At the end of 1972, it moved to a large building across the street at 75 Third Street. Marioni convinced the building owner to give him the space rent-free. A year later, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency bought the building. Due to the agency’s policy of charging tenants the same price as they had been paying their previous landlords, the space remained free for the museum and sustained MOCA for the remainder of its years.10
One of MOCA’s more well-known shows, All Night Sculptures, took place April 20 to April 21, 1973. This show included nine artists, who were all given their own room in which to perform from sunset to sunrise. Visitors came and went as they pleased that night. Barbara Smith’s contribution, Feed Me, was a piece in which she sat on a mattress on the floor of a room, alone and naked. A tape recorder looped the words, “Feed me,” and Smith was surrounded by food, wine, and marijuana, with which visitors could follow this order. Smith states that when she ended her marriage she expected men to see her as something other than a sex object. Disappointed by the illusory nature of this optimism, she performed Feed Me as a means of flipping the male-female sexual dynamic. The artist spent the night eating, drinking, conversing, and having sex with the men that entered the room. She did all of this on her own terms, embracing her sexual vulnerability; she put her back against the wall—figuratively and literally. Smith commanded respect from those who might deny it to her in other settings.11
Kos’ piece in All Night Sculptures required visitors to march toward a red light to the beat of a typewriter. Bonnie Sherk trespassed into a nearby pigeon sanctuary, upsetting the nesting birds. Terry Fox, Joel Glassman, and Mel Henderson each created rooms in the museum that dealt with the manipulation of light. Steve Laub spent the night metamorphosing, leaving, and reentering his room as different identities. Frank Youmans worked as a craftsman, and John Woodall drew his shadow while rotating on his axis.12
The year of 1973 saw several other key performances and installations for MOCA, including the work of Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, and Dan Graham. MOCA’s Free Beer every Wednesday began in 1973; it was a simple social gathering in which beer was served while artist’s videos were shown. From 9 p.m. November 2 to 9 p.m. November 5, 1973, Linda Montano, with Marioni as a collaborator, performed her Handcuffed to Tom Marioni for 3 Days. As the title suggests, the two artists were handcuffed together for seventy-two hours. The two went about their lives as normally as possible, riding the bus, eating, and going to the movies together. That which occurred while the two were inside the MOCA building was documented on video.13 Montano stated that the work was an attempt to redefine marriage through art and that it stemmed from a tension of feeling the ability to be permissive in her work but not in her life.14 As a married woman in the ’70s, she would find herself bound—handcuffed—to the patriarchal institution. This work was a visual manifestation of that reality. The piece preceded the artist’s similar 1983–84 work One Year Performance, in which she spent the entirety of one year tied with a rope to fellow artist Tehching Hsieh.
Beginning in 1974, MOCA saw a sharp decrease in activity. Notable shows included Actions by Sculptors for the Home Audience, broadcast on KQED on February 21, 1974; a 1975 installation and performance by Acconci; and A Tight 13 Minutes, a 1976 showing of thirteen one-minute videos by a variety of artists, including many MOCA regulars such as Fox, Henderson, Kos, and Marioni himself. In a 1976 interview, Marioni stated that the museum was in a “phasing out” period as a performance space.15 MOCA ceased activity in 1981, but did not officially close its doors until 1984, when it lost its use of the building.16
In his autobiography, Marioni laments the “death” of Conceptual art in the ’80s, claiming that it had become academic and institutionalized.17 In other words, it had become hip. In a way, it’s as if a reactionary Marioni gave up on conceptual performance because his involvement with it no longer situated him on the margins of the art world. Nonetheless, during its brief history, MOCA forged the way for future alternative art institutions. It served as an important space in the ’70s that allowed artists to experiment with the use of the body as a medium in-and-of itself. In fact, Marioni claims that the now-seminal performance artists Acconci and Burden both held their first California shows at MOCA.18 At times, important works of feminist performance art called MOCA home.
But the museum can also be seen as a bit of an old boys’ club. During the golden era of feminist art, in a city known for its progressive politics, the vast majority of artists to grace its halls were male. The history written here pays special attention to Barbara Smith and Linda Montano, but, in fact, they are among the exceptions to the norm. It is interesting, and unlikely coincidental, that their works were among the most politically engaged performances at the Museum of Conceptual Art.