Vito Acconci: Put Him on Exhibit, but Don't Say, 'Don't Touch'

updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Vito Acconci doesn't like museums, although he has been known to put up with them. "In museums you can't touch," he says. "You have to be quiet, and art becomes precious. I think that's wrong."

Acconci therefore faced a kind of moral crisis this year when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City—the Vatican of modernism—offered him a one-man show. "Sure it's great if the Museum of Modern Art accepts me," he says a bit defensively. "But does that make me an institution? I don't want that."

It's definitely a danger. Reviewing the show at the Modern, a New York Times critic even accused Acconci of mellowing. That might seem strange, given the huge climb-and-crawl-through constructions ("ugly and delightful objects," the critic called them) representing some of Acconci's recent work. But at least these were recognizable as art objects. Back in the 70s he contributed to a show at the Modern by having his mail delivered to a mailbox he installed in the building.

"Some museums look like fortresses, as if art is something to protect," he explains. "The implication is that what's inside the museum is art and everything else is everyday life. What I did was an overly simple way of connecting museum space with the space I ordinarily use. The museum became a part of my house."

Acconci eventually tired of preaching to the committed. "Pieces like that might mean something to someone already entrenched in the world of art," he says. "But to someone else they don't mean too much."

Cut to lower Manhattan, where workers at the newly opened World Financial Center were stopping on their way home last week to check out an amusing but unsettling sculpture erected on the ground floor of one of the center's big office towers. There, on either side of a tall plate-glass window, two concrete-encrusted automobiles arch toward one another like praying mantises. Outside the window a fountain of water sprays from the up-tilted hood of one car and splashes against the glass, blocked from its apparent target, a forest of shrubs sprouting from the uptilted open trunk of the car on the inside.

This is Acconci's latest work, called Garden with Fountain, and he is delighted with it because it makes people look twice. "When something is presented as serious, all you can do is nod," he says. "But once you laugh at something, you can question things you thought you were sure of. Like with these cars. They're concrete like a statue, full of plants like a garden, shooting water like a fountain and rearing up like invaders. So they aren't just cars anymore."

Acconci likes to get people talking, not just about him but to each other. In the basement of New York's cavernous Palladium nightclub, he designed a maze of narrow, winding corridors that force visitors into close encounters in people-size hollows cut into the walls and dotted with mirrors and plants. In a lounge at the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Acconci installed bucket seats, recessed into pillars, which seem to swallow up the people who sit in them. "My pieces don't make sense without people," he says. Observes Linda Shearer, the curator who organized Acconci's show at the Modern: "Vito's work makes us think, laugh, shudder. He takes conventions and literally turns them upside down."

Acconci, 48, traces his involvement in art back to the Bronx, where he was the only child of a struggling bathrobe manufacturer. "My father was totally involved in art," Acconci recalls. "He used to read me Dante at night. He used to play Verdi and Puccini for me. We went to the Metropolitan Museum on weekends. He had no conception of money. To him the highest thing in the world was art and literature and music. That was imbedded in me very early."

As a boy, Acconci produced little magazines on sports and Western themes for his own amusement. After studying literature at Holy Cross, and graduating in 1962, Acconci enrolled in the writers' workshop at the University of Iowa. "My stories were always about some weird sexuality," he says. "The people there thought I was insane."

In 1964, Acconci moved back to New York, where he began teaching English at various colleges and visiting art galleries. Experimental art was beginning to flower, and soon he decided he had to go beyond writing poetry and "jump off the page into the street."

Dismissing the notion of the "hero artist," Acconci decided he wanted to "shorten the distance from art doer to art receiver." At first he rejected the very idea of an art object. In 1969 he undertook a work he called Following Piece, in which he would simply follow, unnoticed, a pedestrian he chose at random until the person disappeared behind a closed door. "Nobody saw it when it was done," he says. "I was the audience." In 1971, during his first show at a gallery, he stood on a pier every night between 1 and 2 a.m. and, as he had promised, told personal secrets about himself to anyone who showed up. To his surprise, hundreds of people did, and he ran out of secrets. "Gradually I started to realize that the piece wasn't so much about secrets. It was more about using secrets as an excuse to have a relationship."

Acconci also filmed himself burning the hair off his chest or crushing cockroaches on his skin, and projected these home movies on gallery walls. "I put myself in a vulnerable state as a way for viewers to come close to me," he says by way of explanation. Ultimately the experiment backfired. "Everything I hated about art—artwork as an altar, the artist as priest—it started to seem as if my work was doing exactly that," he says. Later on he began making objects that people could physically interact with. But this, too, had its dangers. Sub-Urb, an upside-down ranch house sunk underground in Lewiston, N.Y., eventually degenerated into a hangout for druggies. After someone was stabbed there and the house was dismantled, Acconci reined himself in. "The problem with art that offends," he says, "is that some people get so quickly turned against it. You're not starting a discussion."

For one so concerned with communication, Acconci lives a solitary life. He rarely sells his sculptures because they are often unwieldy and made from perishable plants, dirt or junk. He puts what money he earns back into new projects. He lives in a small corner of a Brooklyn loft where he and several assistants sometimes become so obsessed with his constructions that they go for days with little food or sleep. The walls are bare. Soot covers his few furnishings, which are mostly recycled trash. "I sit on the floor a lot," he says. Often he sits by himself. "My longest relationships last about five years, and then I start to question them and I get out. It's very much like my work."

Maybe that explains his fear of museums—the fear of being taken too seriously, of being put under glass and made permanent. "Once something can be touched, it can't be that valuable anymore," he says, leaning back in one of his rickety chairs. "That's why I'd like my work to be in people's hands. Then there is a kind of community between us."

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