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From the Collection: Vito Acconci's Kiss Off

Kiss Off (1971) was made specifically for the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) Lithography Workshop, an innovative program that brought many conceptual artists, including Acconci, along with Dan Graham and John Baldessari, to produce prints as artists-in-residence throughout the program's run from 1969-1976.


The artwork's multilayered status as both a print and a performance allows for it to exist in an ambiguous state, where it is not fully one thing or another, but always in a state of perpetual "becoming." This act ties together performance and its invariable notion of the body as an artistic medium with the traditional printmaking process and its embrace of reproduction as a means to dissolve the rarified, singular artwork. Not just a formal exercise, in his early performance works, Acconci never shied away from attempts to reevaluate what can be known about gender through attempts to transform and alter the human body. From the process of Kiss Off's construction at the NSCAD workshop to the print's exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, this artwork pinpoints a unique moment in Acconci's career. At the same time, it displays motifs common to his other works from the 1970s, including the attempt to dissolve the rigid boundaries between binary oppositions such as male/female.

For this print, one of three that Acconci produced during his tenure at NSCAD (the other two being Trademarks and Touch Stone (for VL)), Acconci coated his mouth with red lipstick and then planted kisses all over his body before rubbing himself onto the printing stone. In this artwork, the body becomes a discrete unit capable of mechanical reproduction, a quality similar to the printmaking medium's ability to produce multiples since an original image can be copied ad infinitum. Beyond printmaking, an interest in the relationship between an original image and its manifestation as a multiple corresponded with this era's interest in serial forms. Most closely associated with Minimalism, seriality was the physical expression of a repeated element in an artwork--think of Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes--exploring ideas of similarity and variance through the lens of industrial mass-production. The critic Robert Pincus-Witten once described Acconci's work as "a fusion of the Minimalist position in sculpture with a refreshed comprehension of the erotic implications in Duchamp's late sexual works...." This exploration of Minimalist concerns collided with Acconci's inclusion of the physical body as an artistic medium.

During the 1970s, Acconci often discussed his performance in terms of a calculated exploration of language systems--he began his art practice as a poet--but the body cannot be easily compartmentalized into a seemingly neutral linguistic component. In an interview with Cindy Nemser for Arts magazine, he described his work's gendered implications by stating, "I'm offering the possibility of constant movement, whether I change from a male to a female category or from a socially accepted position to a socially unaccepted one...I want to build up an idea of life--the idea that people can change from one role to another. People don't have to be limited by roles, they don't have to be rigidly enclosed in categories." Acconci marked his body with traces of the feminine, traces that resisted full erasure since he could not easily rid himself of--not able to kiss off--his sticky, red-stained lips.

Kiss Off was shown at the Sonnabend Gallery for a solo exhibition of Acconci's work which ran from September 16 through October 7, 1972. Run by the European-born Ileana Sonnabend, the gallery was well known for giving shows to a range of emerging American Post-Minimalists and providing opportunities for artists to stage sometimes controversial but frequently memorable performances that fell outside the normal parameters for commercial gallery exhibitions. In 1972 alone, the performances held at Sonnabend included Gilbert and George's Singing Sculpture and Acconci's Seedbed, the latter held prior to the exhibition of Kiss Off.

For Seedbed, a ramplike floor was constructed in the gallery underneath which, for two afternoons a week throughout the exhibition, Acconci crouched while engaged in what he described as a "private sexual activity." Visitors to the gallery could walk over and onto the structure that housed Acconci below, hidden in this ambiguously poised symbolic space for latent desires, a place for the artist's ego to exist away from the presumptions of an audience.

Due to Seedbed's performance at Sonnabend just a few months prior to the exhibition of Kiss Off, as well as sharing the motif of using the body as a site to explore the performative capacity of gender, the critical response consisted of surprise at the seeming lack of ribaldry or potential for violence. In Arts magazine, one reviewer described it as a "tamer version of that really ugly sex change piece" [Conversions, 1971]. In this work, Acconci attempted a variety of exercises to turn himself into a woman. Some exercises incited pain, including one where he burned off his chest hair. In another, he infamously inserted his penis into his partner Kathy Dillon's mouth as she crouched behind him, en effet hiding his genitals from view. Kiss Off similarly reevaluates gender as a thing requiring continuous transformations between what can be revealed and hidden. Acconci's wearing and then wiping off of lipstick enacts a closed system where his repetitive act of self-love can enact no permanent change, only temporary states of being.

More so than Conversions, a work that invokes similar themes (and lipstick) is Applications (1970), a group performance that involved Dillon, Acconci, and the artist Dennis Oppenheim. Dillon covered Acconci's arms and legs with lipstick-stained kisses which Acconci then transferred--or, to be blunt, humped--onto Oppenheim's back. Acconci later recalled about this performance: "And I remember Dennis afterward saying, 'I had no idea the work was going in this direction!' We thought this was about color transfer. Wasn't about color transfer." Indeed.

The dynamic struggle between artist/viewer, male/female, and self/other, motifs repeated throughout the range of Acconci's performance and conceptual works, frequently resulted in audiences assuming he was interested in heedless sadism--think of his 1971 work Claim where, hiding in a basement, he threatened to bludgeon with a crowbar anyone in the audience who dared come near. However, just as his performances were critiqued for their ribald shock value, as well as their potential for sexism, this all created a buzz about his work, resulting in a sort of critical notoriety. It left room for much discussion and many reviews of his early performances. Indelibly, shock value sometimes helps to cement an artist's place in history by leaving a large amount of documentation about the work for later generations to historicize.

In the 1980s, Acconci discussed in an interview how he could no longer negotiate a clear position for himself in regard to his earlier performance works, stating, "On one hand, I want to defend those pieces, and on the other, I have a feeling that they are really sexist...I certainly wouldn't do anything like that again in public and I hope I wouldn't do it in private. I hate maleness and I hate male domination, but because it is so culturally embedded I can readily fall into it." Regardless of whether sexism is a viable critique, what these performances and their respective documentation herald is a rupture in thought regarding the wholeness of a subject, whether male or female, and how the binary terms are unstable constructions through their need to be put on and repeated in order to achieve any validity, like an actor who becomes alive as a character but only during the theatre performance with the help of a costume.

James Meyer, in a discussion of the type of subject produced by Minimalist art practice--a discussion that can also apply to Acconci's early performance works--described the concern with the subject matter as "the momentary plentitude of one who is not whole; a subject who is opaque to himself and others; a self who attempts to communicate in a world where language invariably misfires." As a former poet, Acconci traded the language of words for that of the body, but it remains a language that fails to transcend.


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