Space/Time/Sound at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

5.1 / Half-Century

Space/Time/Sound at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

By Brandon Brown September 11, 2013

It’s the end, the end of the Seventies,
It’s the end, the end of the century.
—The Ramones, “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio” (1980)

So Joey Ramone sings in a song that marks the passing of an era. One might think that May 1980 would have been too close to the beginning of punk rock to wax nostalgic—but, indeed, punk was (and still is, ironically) a morbid art, obsessed with the fantasy of its own death.

But is there something more than a wistful sort of afterlife in the Ramones’s conflation of the fin de la décennie with the fin de siècle? The Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi has located 1977 as the year in which the concept of the future was liquidated. He points to the death of Charlie Chaplin, the founding of Apple, and the jouissance and nihilism of Johnny Rotten screaming “No future!” as articles of evidence.1

These sculptures and performances manifested themselves in a number of emerging art spaces in the ’70s, which Foley generously catalogs along with the work in Space/Time/Sound.

Suzanne Foley expresses a similar sentiment in the catalog Space/Time/Sound—Conceptual Art in the San Francisco Bay Area: The 1970s (1981). She describes the occasion of the Space/Time/Sound exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) at the turn of the decade as having a New Year’s Eve feeling, meditating on the changes she had seen in art in the Bay Area through the decade and considering the future with a skepticism about the lasting power of those changes.2 Her metaphor is apt—after all, isn’t New Year’s Eve a little like the Conceptual art that Foley describes? It’s structured yet theatrical: live actions resemble a social sculpture, and the performance emulates the year’s other 364 days of real life.

Space/Time/Sound was on view at SFMOMA from December 21, 1979, through February 10, 1980, literally straddling two decades. It showed the work of twenty-one artists who had worked throughout the 1970s in what Foley refers to as the “sculpture tradition” inside Conceptual art.3 These sculptures and performances manifested themselves in a number of emerging art spaces in the ’70s, which Foley generously catalogs along with the work in Space/Time/Sound. Indeed, these artworks can’t really be considered outside of the spaces, both the central and alternative ones that they originally inhabited or were performed within. It’s not only the timing of the show at the end of the decade but also the prestige of SFMOMA as an institution that heightens the sense of the exhibit as representing a culminating moment, an adequate furnishing for a New Year’s Eve feeling.

Allan Fish (Tom Marioni). The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art, October 26, 1970; poster.

Fin de la Décennie

Space/Time/Sound capitalized on the changing decade to attempt a retrospective collation of numerous Bay Area art practices under the rubric of Conceptual art. To present a retrospective is to assert a meaningful periodicity, and one of the difficulties faced by the curators of Space/Time/Sound was that the artworks that it aimed to collect were “to many—even in the art world—unintelligible.”4 Part of the task of making the retrospective cohere, to give it some sense of intelligibility, was to affirm a difference between Bay Area Conceptual art and that of other geographic parts: “Most conceptual art in New York focuses on structure defined by systems and language to explicate comparatively object ideas; in the San Francisco Bay Area the structure is based on more personal idioms.”5

The artists whose works were represented in Space/Time/Sound were central figures in the Bay Area art scene in the 1970s. Each artist worked extensively in multiple mediums and in collaboration with many of the central and alternative art spaces that Foley describes. Of course, the curators of the show faced a problem that all exhibitions of concept- and performance-based works face: that of contextualizing works that had originally found their presentation in performance or so-called “non-material” forms. Foley’s 1981 catalog repeats the resolutions offered by the exhibition in the museum setting; she writes in the foreword, “The context offered by a publication on Conceptual art such as [Space/Time/Sound] has to compensate for the absence of first-hand experience with a performance or a temporary installation that is now a piece of history.”6

Foley understood Space/Time/Sound as an exhibition that overflowed the seven weeks of its presentation. The history it attempted to represent included not only the documents of performances and conceptual practices but also the artists’ lives, spaces, and social networks, and was finally compiled in the publication of the Space/Time/Sound catalog, complete with the chronology by Constance Lewallen (which concludes by referring to an article that appeared in the summer of 1980). The idea that these artists and works belong singularly to the 1970s creates a tension between the overflowing and excessive forms of the works and the retrospective impulse for periodizing the artists and spaces.

"A Poetic 'Report' on Life"

The twenty-one artists in Space/Time/Sound are occasionally described in relation to one another, and collaborations and group shows (even traveling group shows) are features of the social scene. Both the exhibition and the catalog suggest that this complex arrangement of working artists have a leader in Tom Marioni. They intimate that while there are many nuanced, sophisticated, and countervailing aesthetic ideas in specific works, the broad precepts for the art practices in the exhibition are in line with Marioni’s work.7 Fittingly, Marioni’s turn from minimalist sculpture to conceptual and performance works took place at the end of the 1960s. This departure was accompanied by the development of his alter ego, Allan Fish.

Central to so many of the works in Space/Time/Sound is the notion of the artwork’s relation to activity within time and place.

In 1970, Marioni founded the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA), a physical but non-collecting museum that kept its doors open until 1984. One of the initial events at MOCA was the debut of a serial piece called The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970–ongoing), in which Marioni and his friends drink beer together. In the 1970 show, the debris from their conviviality (that is, beer cans) constituted a historical trace of the work. In the piece’s 1971 variation, Allan Fish Drinks a Case of Beer, Marioni sat in the Reese Palley gallery in San Francisco, playing a tall drum with his hands and drinking a case of beer. As Foley describes Marioni’s work in Space/Time/Sound, Allan Fish Drinks a Case of Beer “combined the two aspects of Marioni’s art that continued to evolve in his work: the social definition of activity in time and place, and the abstract definition of space through sound moving in it.”8

Indeed, central to so many of the works in Space/Time/Sound is the notion of the artwork’s relation to activity within time and place, which frequently determine the formal properties of a given work. For instance, Linda Montano’s performance pieces are often structured by duration (many based on the number 3), such as Garage Talk (1974) in which she opened her garage to the public for three days in order to have a conversation with whomever entered. And for all the proliferation of alternative art spaces at the time, many of these pieces took place in public spaces, from street corners to Ocean Beach, drawing in or purposefully alienating passers-by.

But in addition to these formal properties that clearly anticipate those of contemporary participation art, Space/Time/Sound depicts Marioni as having speculated about the relationship of art not only to the categories of space and time but also to the stakes of human life.9 In an interview in 1978, he said, “What I’m trying to do is make art that’s as close to real life as I can without it being real life.”10 The way that Marioni differentiates this realistic simulacrum from more or less similar tendencies in New York and Los Angeles—what makes these works particularly of the Bay Area—is their insistence on the body and the life of the artist, and he describes this commitment as “a poetic ‘report’ on life.”11

Space/Time/Sound seems to be part of the same effort, a set of such reports on life. One of its findings is that it is useful to assume alter identities in order to get as close to real life as possible. The tactics include developing aliases, like Tom Marioni’s Allan Fish, or more elaborate performances, such as Bonnie Sherk’s The Waitress, Act V: Andy’s Donuts, in which Sherk became a waitress at a Castro diner in 1974. Many of the artists in Space/Time/Sound used personae and performance to transform the conditions of their experiences and introduce improvised acts into their particular reports on life.

Lynn Hershman Leeson. Roberta Multiples Looking at Roberta’s Construction Chart Seen From Behind, 1978; chromogenic print; 24 x 29 3/8 inches framed. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco.

Social Scupture, Social Reproduction

Looking back, it’s easy to conceive how this play with identity both counteracted other forms of experimentation with the body and performance in the 1970s as well as anticipated so many contemporary questions about subjectivity, the viability of narrative, and American identity politics. As such (and in consideration of the sophistication of these engagements with the body and politics), it’s dismaying to realize the enormous disparity in gender among artists in Space/Time/Sound.12 Of the twenty-one artists whose work appeared in the exhibition, only three are women.

It’s impossible to read Space/Time/Sound and miss the masculine atmosphere not only pertaining to the sex of the practitioners but also inherent in the works. Photographs of Marioni’s Beer pieces from the period typically depict only men.13 And other pieces feature themes of masculine aggression and sexuality, such as Howard Fried’s Seaquick (1972), a video showing two nude men attempting to keep their balance on a greased teeter-totter.

In the context of the overwhelmingly male scene represented by Space/Time/Sound, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Bonnie Sherk, Linda Montano, and Lynn Hershman all made works that raise the stakes of identity and gender inequality. In radically different ways, their works anticipate contemporary crises within those same issues. From addressing the under-diagnosed, theatrical schizophrenia of social networking to the urban farmer who both reinstates a commons and gentrifies a neighborhood, their projects questioned the traditional roles of women as providers of nourishment for men (for examples, as cooks, planters, and sex objects).

Of the twenty-one artists whose work appeared in the exhibition, only three are women.

Bonnie Sherk’s work, for instance, frequently aimed to transform urban environments. But in the 1970s, these transformations increasingly involved her body. In a series of works called Sitting Still (1970), Sherk sat and performed in locations around San Francisco, including eating in an empty cage next to the big cats at the San Francisco Zoo. A more explicitly feminist critique is offered in her 1972 Traditional Pieces, in which she set up a cage for a rat that had just given birth; the nurturing, protective gesture of the artwork is nuanced by the abjection of the rat and the confines of the cage, itself within another cage near a dead rat. All of this tenderness and abjection takes place within the confines of the gallery, a cage for art.

If, following Marioni, the conceptual work in Space/Time/Sound attempted to be as close to real life without being real life, then Linda Montano actually dramatized the difference between real life and its proximate simulacra. A former nun, Montano highlighted the masochism demanded by patriarchal structures and how that masochism related to human couples. Her career as a nun seems relevant to the fact that her work often takes the form of exaggerated confession. Foley writes in Space/Time/Sound that “[Montano] found she was more permissive in her art than she was in her life.”14 That permissiveness ironically took shape as a series of (ostensibly) masochistic exercises in constraint, such as the untitled performance in 1973 in which she handcuffed herself to Marioni for three days.

A key effect of Montano’s project is that her life became a sort of living laboratory and her works the experiments conducted therein. By developing a set of more permissive, expressive identities, she experienced a series of changes in the narrative of her identity and politics. Those changes—such as getting a divorce from her husband and seeking out new sexual experiences—are centered in the realm of gender inequality and became the theme of her later works.

Whereas Montano emphasized performance as a way of challenging normative behaviors and ideologies, Lynn Hershman’s creation of an alter ego, Roberta Breitmore, questioned the limits of performance itself. From 1974 to 1978, Hershman created situations (such as advertising for a roommate) for Breitmore’s life and played them out in reality. Hershman constructed a rich tableau of documentation pertaining to Breitmore as the piece developed, including psychiatric reports of and journals written in the person of Breitmore. But as the piece became more developed and eventually overdetermined, the non-personhood of Breitmore ironically began to shed light on the personhood of Hershman.

The risk of these works by Hershman, Montano, and Sherk is in the artist offering up her body to potentially transformative experiences. Given that no absolute prediction could be made for the outcome of these experiments, these artists made works that problematized patriarchal definitions of their identities—they refused to inhabit the existing sites of social reproduction. In some sense, the same could be said of Marioni and many other of the artists in Space/Time/Sound whose works reinterpreted sculpture in somatic and social terms. But, to put it very simply, the men had much less to lose.


These artists made works that problematized patriarchal definitions of their identities.

New Year’s Eve is such a special night; it’s a time when normative behaviors can be inverted and sentiments towards those around you can be heightened without shame. It’s a time frequently characterized by the drinking of beer with friends. The eschatological countdown towards midnight gives way to a celebration of simply being alive and being with others.

And yet, New Year’s Day brings the too-bright lights of a hangover and the realization of a performance that will have changed us forevermore. In many ways, the gloominess of the Ramones, Berardi, and Foley is rather prophetic: if the end of the 1970s didn’t coincide with the end of rock (or the future, or dematerialized art practice), it did herald major regime shifts in industrialized countries toward the right.

And if what made Space/Time/Sound a particularly Bay Area exhibition was its emphasis on the questioning and vulnerability of life, the promise of such work was to be severely tested. The decade ended, not the century, and yet many lives would soon end—falling victim to the AIDS plague, to colonial violence and wars worldwide, and to increased economic austerity and rampant incarceration. If 1980 promised a New Year’s Day feeling, that new year heralded catastrophes that we endure today.


Download "Extracts of a Decade" by Janice Ross in Artweek, Volume 11, Number 3, January 26, 1980.


  1. Franco “Bifo” Berardi,  After the Future (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 46–50.
  2. Suzanne Foley, Space/Time/Sound; Conceptual Art in the San Francisco Bay Area: The 1970s (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1981), 50.
  3. Foley, 9.
  4. Foley, 8.
  5. Foley, 8.
  6. Foley, 6.
  7. Foley, 54–57.
  8. Foley, 54–57.
  9. Foley, 54–57.
  10. From a 1978 interview with Tom Marioni by Robin White, reprinted in Foley, 57.
  11. Foley, 57.
  12. For a similar take on the art scene around Marioni, see Matthew Harrison Tedford, “The Museum of Conceptual Art: A Prolegomena to Hip,” Art Practical, issue 2.15 (“Performance: The Body Politic”).
  13. I am not suggesting that these performances were solely attended by men but am responding to the evidence of the show’s catalog.
  14. Foley, 88.

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