On Vito Acconci's Seedbed by Alix Greenberg

On Vito Acconci's Seedbed by Alix Greenberg

Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, performed for three weeks in January 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery New York, is a legendary exhibition and, according to Kate Linker’s monograph Vito Acconci, “may be the most famous artwork of the early 1970s, a piece as notorious for its explicit sexual content as it is significant for the theoretical issues it addressed.”[1] Seedbed constituted a prototypical installation - a constructed intrusion into the pristine white cube gallery space. At the back of the gallery, concealed beneath a ramp, lurked Acconci who masturbated (spreading his seed) urged on by the viewers’ footsteps above him. His onanistic fantasies, spoken into a microphone, were relayed via a speaker in the corner, thereby invoking the viewers’ complicity in his act. “Simultaneously addressing and alienating the gallery visitor, the work speaks of pleasure, contact, and desire, and conversely of invisibility and failure, perhaps as a metaphor for artistic creation.”[2] The one-man exhibition/installation/performance, in its novelty and controversial material, catapulted Acconci directly into the art historical canon and profoundly influenced contemporaneous and next generation performance artists.[3] Due to Seedbed’s enormous impact, it is necessary to explore both the critical reception at the work’s inception and its present legacy. It is important to note that the critical reception does not discuss the success or failure of the entirety of the exhibition, but rather on the work itself and all of its theoretical and aesthetic implications. Also to be investigated is the market function of video art as a material despite its theoretical immateriality. Discussion will also include the recent sale of photographs and ephemera of Seedbed (acquired directly from Acconci in 2005 and sold at Sotheby’s New York on May 13, 2010 for $34,375)[4] and pose reasons for why an artist who initially resisted commodification will later invite it. Thus, the aim of this paper is both to shed light on how Seedbed, as something transient (the issue of transiency is of course inherent to performance art) preserves and maintains its legacy, and to illustrate how this groundbreaking exhibition has shaped our understanding of the performance/video art movement.

Critical Reception at the time

In 1975, three years after Acconci performed his now infamous Seedbed, Roselee Goldberg wrote "Space as Praxis," an article that spoke to the recent 1970s phenomenon of insistence on the body as a means of experiencing space, which leads to spatial notions very different from the ones come to be known through painting and sculpture. Goldberg asserts that in Seedbed, there occurred a curious interaction between Acconci and his audience. Because, she claims, he was constantly physically present (even though the evidence of this was only through his masturbating being audible) the audience was implicated in an act, which would normally be performed more privately, and which in public would normally be considered deviant. Goldberg writes, “[Acconci] relied on the footsteps of his potential voyeurs to provide the fantasy necessary to keep him at his task for hours on end. Being ‘underground,’ the pun on ‘seedbed’ created not only an awareness of place for both him and the audience but also the implied sense of ‘growth,’ which the title inferred. But the wish to create a powerfield – where the audience could experience a new perception of space and their movement in it – could also be created by construction, through the use of model, rather than through direct physical confrontation with the artist.”[5]

Edward Levine’s article, “In Pursuit of Acconci,” 1977, discussed Seedbed in terms of Acconci’s ability to combine an exploration of his masturbation fantasies, and thus of his own psychological space, with further consideration of a union with the audience. Concealed beneath the ramp, Acconci was able to be “in” the piece while not being visible or obtruding into the public arena of the spectator. For all its sexuality, Levine argues that Seedbed is one of the starkest and most sculptural of all of the artist’s works and one of the most completely realized pieces. The article compares the artist to Flaubert as he is removed from the scene while fully present as any writer in his novel. In that, Acconci structured the work to allow for his presence as well as his absence – he is at once the actor who is in the center of attention, and the author who is off the stage. Levine asserts that Acconci has succeeded in exploring and externalizing his own fantasies while involving the audience in his own private world by structuring the environment so that the individual must confront both himself and the artist at a most instinctual level. Thanks to the ramp, the gallery space is transformed into a stage without any actors except to the extent in which the audience/ viewer becomes a participant in the event. The author concludes that “ultimately, [Seedbed]explores ways of breaking down barriers between the artist and the public in order to achieve a new type of communication between himself and the perceiver. From a wider perspective, Acconci’s piece questions the very boundaries of the discipline itself, as he himself questions his own state of being.”[6]

Also in 1977, Arts Magazine reviewed Seedbed, claiming that it would prove to be one of the central pieces leading Acconci in a new direction of becoming more subjective and individualized. The article argues that Seedbed places the artist out of direct contact with the viewer-audience. Although the artist was the focal point, he was not directly present within the viewer’s space – Acconci and the audience were linked through the participation of each other in his fantasies that stimulated his masturbatory activities. Sound has somewhat replaced the image; the response of both the artist and the viewer was to the word, sounds, and metaphors. The author asserts, “Acconci’s artistic decisions no longer follow the system of notions familiar in minimal art when once the first action or decision was made, all others followed with an indefatigable logic.” This article, thus, praises Acconci for breaking out of this artistic norm and commends him for moving toward dealing with responses to specific sites and spaces.[7]

Seedbed was also reviewed in the 1980 article entitled, “Dirty Acconci.” The author, Germano Celant discusses the work art historically, especially in relation to Duchamp’s Large Glass. Celant asserts that like the Large Glass, Seedbed is also failed coitus, where the creative act is only a fantasy of pleasure and the other is only a phantom, invisible and unreachable. Acconci, who is on the ground and is therefore “dirty,” dreams of an impossible penetration, which passes through the materials of the ramp and allows him to join with the crowd. The author argues that the inexpressible desire is invisible but attracts because of its unhealthiness. In fact, the artist/public exchange does not exist. The creative act is solitary. The article claims, “As Acconci pays homage to social eroticism, in which his art is pleasurable as an autonomous body, a large public appreciation for the artist has developed who come to speak of the spermatozoa-and-artist.”[8]

Steven Melville’s 1981 article “How Should Acconci Count for Us?: Notes on a Retrospect,” discusses Seedbed as the climax for the artist’s “live, I-you” series, which constitutes his period of narcissistic and psychological self-involvement. The author states, “In Seedbed [Acconci] withdrew from the face-to-face and attempted to recognize his relation to the viewer as fundamentally fantastic (that is, he attempted to force the viewer to recognize him as fantasizing about the viewer, to make that undeniable: the central fantasy appears to be that of the viewer’s fantasy about him) and to recognize the ways in which metaphor is centrally constructive of human relatedness and selfhood.” All this playing with himself, Melville claims, took place apart from the viewer, literalizing an abstraction of the viewer that has always been at work in Acconci’s pieces. “The sexuality Seedbed dares remains simply an insertion of private into public and not an accession to the more complex conditions of publicity.” The withdrawal of the “art star” beneath the platform of behind/before the video camera/screen changes nothing in the structure of Acconci’s pieces. Melville agrees with Rosalind Krauss’ view that the medium of video is narcissism.[9]

In 1994, the first monograph of Acconci was published. Written by art critic Kate Linker, the book discusses all of the artist’s performances, but highlights Seedbed as his most comprehensive, thought-provoking work. She argues that the most radical aspect of Seedbed is its “control over the position of the spectator who, as an accomplice to Acconci’s fantasies, played an essential, active role in the production of the work.” In using his voice to induce a powerfield, Acconci was able to influence those who walked above him. Thus, in involving a minimal intrusion of space, the artist yielded maximum effect – proving that only a small intrusion had the capacity to transform both the physicality and emotionality of a space. Linker also argues that Seedbed constituted a prime instance of verbal play: “Is the aim of the prolific artist, engaged in spreading his seed, to inseminate? To dis–seminate? Produce a seminal work, fertile to the history or ground of art?” The author claims that with all of the work’s verbal and spatial implications, Seedbed was prototypical of, and influential on much 1970s installation art.[10]

More recent scholarship on Seedbed, such as from Claire Bishop’s 2005 book "Live Installation," views the piece/exhibition as a critique of Minimalism, and of its viewing subject. Although Minimalist sculpture foregrounded the viewer’s perception as embodied, this body was not gendered or sexual. Seedbed, the author argues, “brought the visceral corporeality and sensationalism of the more explicit performance art by women [such as Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy 1966-7] into a literalist and anti-expressive Minimalist installation.” When Acconci compared himself to “a worm under the floor,” Bishop affirms, the artist was hinting at the “repressive clinicality” of both Minimalism (with its emphasis on de-eroticized “pure” perception) and the white cube gallery space, in which baser actions, emotions and excretions had no place.[11]


All critical reception- of the period and more recent- acknowledges that the core of Acconci’s vision of Seedbed is the desire to generate an encounter in which the viewer becomes the witness, voyeur or participant, whose presence is integral to the work. Indeed, the visitor was implicated in the installation/performance, and this complicity was soldered by Acconci’s suggestion that without the viewer, he would be unable to “perform” successfully. “It hardly needs saying that this eroticization of phenomenological perception wrought a significant twist in the received understanding of these ideas.”[12] Linker confirms Seedbed’s legacy and impact, when she so aptly states that the work was prototypical of, and influential on, much of 1970s installation art, which “employed alterations in the physical nature of environments to effect changes in perceptions of light and space, as well as in the social and political connotations of regions.”[13] Indeed, Marina Abramović’s reenactment of Seedbed speaks to its legacy. In 2005 the legendary performance piece regained its sensational, fantastical, public power when re-manifested in Marina Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim. It must be noted that Seedbed was the first performance to employ a phenomenological approach – as the work was/is not complete without viewer participation. This novel notion stirred his predecessors, as seen directly in Abramović’s reenactment.

When Abramović was asked by Karen Rosenberg of New York Magazine, “So how on earth did you, as a woman, perform [Seedbed]?” Abramović replied: “I have a lot of respect for this piece… the whole idea of him producing seeds, a metaphor for creation, for me it was extremely important to know what the woman is producing. Having orgasms publicly, being excited by the visitors steps above me… I concentrated on the sounds, and on the idea that I have to have orgasms as proof of my work. And so I did…the problem for me, with this piece, was the absence of public gaze: only the sound.”[14] In its broadest terms, the aim of Abramović’s Seven Easy Pieces was to keep the history of performance art in tact and to give credit to those most influential to her practice. More specifically, Abramović’s reconstitution of Seedbed, which had not been experienced as the artist intended since its execution in 1972, functioned to reinsert a most influential performance into the dialogue of contemporary art.

Perhaps this revitalization would explain the recent sale of Seedbed paraphernalia sold at Sotheby’s New York for $34,375 in May of 2010.[15] The lot, signed, titled and dated Sonnabend Gallery, NY –Jan. 1972, was comprised of a photograph and a chalk and mixed media collage on paper.  It seems as though the absence of the audiotape and video footage of the performance/installation did not affect the buyers desire to own Seedbed, even though the lot lacked its essential, working components. Another interesting layer this sale presents is that the lot was acquired directly from the Acconci in 2005. Seemingly going against all of his initial anti-commodification rhetoric so embedded in his work – a 1960’s notion of challenging conventions and valuing process over product - the present-day Acconci is now more concerned with keeping his legacy alive, thus foregoing his original ideological principles. This concern would explain unleashing one’s art into the secondary market, which ostensibly promises to sell to an eager Acconci-loving buyer.

Video Art: “Immaterial in Theory, Material in the Market”[16]

It must be noted that historically, the commercial success of video art is reliant on the sale of tangible goods such as photos and ephemeral materials – this makes sense when attempting to understand the purchase of Seedbed without its video element. Moreover, in the past, the market has been hostile to video art, having no real commercial support in the beginning. Especially with earlier video works that suffer from degradation, bad sound quality, graininess, and a general lack of industry standards, these pieces have a much larger obstacle to face when functioning in the market. We can assume that Seedbed, due to its 1972 production, is not immune to the aesthetic and technical flaws that overwhelm early video art. Seedbed’s supposed difficult aesthetic coupled with the general weak demand for uneditioned artworks and the lack of a resale market for the medium, sheds light on why only the ephemeral materials associated with the work were purchased.

With all of video art’s impediments, it is curious that the – then and still - distinguished Sonnabend Gallery was so willing to allot almost an entire month to a single performance that had little or no potential to be bought, sold, or commodified. This is telling of the gallery as a support system for new modes of art making, as a nurturing body for the most avant-garde, controversial artists, and as an institution privy to the preoccupations of the time. A little history of the gallery should illustrate its foresight and daring: Not only was Ileana Sonnabend the first to bring American Pop to Europe, she also became a champion of Minimalism abroad very early in the game. After opening galleries in SoHo- heralding the arrival of the SoHo gallery scene- in the fall of 1971, Ileana Sonnabend (then married to Leo Castelli) gave the first or early New York shows to a range of American Post-Minimalists as well as European conceptual artists. The Sonnabend gallery’s very first show was Gilbert & George’s radical Singing Sculpture, which featured the two men coated in bronze paint singing the music hall standard “Underneath the Arches.” Shortly thereafter, when Acconci, one of the gallery’s central artists, explained that he planned to spend three weeks in the gallery masturbating below his installation, it should come as no surprise that Ileana Sonnabend replied, “You do what you need to do.”[17] In pushing the envelope, the gallery would attract a larger audience who wanted to witness the confrontational spectacle.  

It is evident that Sonnabend and Castelli were responding to a strong engagement with film and video by the new generation of Post-Minimalist artists. Not only did they commission several films and videotapes, which premiered at the gallery – like Seedbed, but also opened a production wing on Greene Street, SoHo, called Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films in the early 1970s.[18] This anthology, assembled for distribution, encompassed many of the most influential video works of the 1960s and 1970s made by American artists. Although there was limited demand for such works at the time, due to the (then) lack of prestige and status of the medium, numerous aesthetic difficulties (as discussed above), and considerably high costs, the notion that Sonnabend and Castelli had the prescience to promote such an advanced, untested medium demonstrates their confidence in the system of video art in particular.

It is necessary to note that at the time Seedbed was executed, Acconci had no interest in selling his work, overtly rejecting the notion that art could be a commodified product. Thus, due to the un-commodifiable nature of the piece coupled with the fact that it was the only work in the gallery, the exhibition, in its shocking content, was not a market maneuver to lure people in, but an attempt to bring an otherwise subversive work to the forefront. With the support of Sonnabend, Seedbed achieved immediate notoriety. Although its explicit sexual content was difficult to swallow, within the context of a distinguished, blue chip gallery, the installation/performance was immediately elevated to highbrow culture.

Works Cited

Acconci, Vito. Interview, Avalanche, fall 1972, p. 72

Acconci, Vito. "Some Notes on Illegality in Art." Art Journal 50.3 (1991): 69-74. Print.

Bishop, Claire. "Live Installation." Installation Art: a Critical History. New York: Routledge, 2005. 66-68. Print.

Celant, Germano. "Dirty Acconci." Artforum 19 (1980): 76-83. Print.

Contemporary Art Day Auction: Exh. Cat., Sotheby’s, New York, 13 May 2010, No. 448, (illustrated).

Goldberg, Roselee. "Space as Praxis." Studio International 190 (1975): 130-36. Print.

Levine, Edward. "In Pursuit of Acconci." Artforum 15 (1977): 38-41. Print.

Levine, Edward. "Vito Acconci." Arts Magazine 51 (1977): 6. Print.

Linker, Kate, and Vito Acconci. Vito Acconci. New York: Rizzoli, 1994. 44+. Print.

Mar, Alex. "Sonnabend - Galleries - New York Magazine." New York Magazine -- NYC Guide to Restaurants, Fashion, Nightlife, Shopping, Politics, Movies. Web. 03 June 2010. <http://nymag.com/urr/listings/attraction/sonnabend/?sort=recent>.

Melville, Stephen. "How Should Acconci Count for Us?: Notes on a Retrospect." October 18 (1981): 79-89. Print.

Rosenberg, Karen. "Provocateur: Marina Abramović." New York Magazine 4 Dec. 2005. Print.

Salle, David. "Vito Acconci's Recent Work." Arts Magazine 51.4 (1976): 90-91. Print.

Saltz, Jerry. "Vito Acconci: Diary of A Body 1969-1973." Village Voice [New York] 28 Apr. 2004. Artnet. 28 Apr. 2004. Web. 29 May 2010. <http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/jsaltz/saltz4-28-04.asp>.

Smith, Roberta. “Vito Acconci’s Art of Opposition and Provocation.” New York Times 1 Jan. 1988.

The 20th Century Art Book. London: Phaidon, 1996. Print.

"Whitney Museum of American Art: Film & Video." Whitney Museum of American Art. Web. 03 June 2010. <http://whitney.org/FilmAndVideo/FeaturedResources>

[1] Kate Linker and Vito Acconci. Vito Acconci. New York: Rizzoli, 1994. 44+. Print.

[2] The 20th Century Art Book. London: Phaidon, 1996. Print.

[3] Marina Abramović performed Seedbed as part of her Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2005. Acconci’s performance was one impetus for Abramović’s work – she felt a strong need to preserve the memory of performances that influenced her as an artist. This will be discussed more in depth.

[4] Contemporary Art Day Auction: Exh. Cat., Sotheby’s, New York, 13 May 2010, No. 448, (illustrated).

Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Sold for: $34,375 PREMIUM.

[5] Roselee Goldberg. "Space as Praxis." Studio International 190 (1975): 130-36. Print.

[6] Edward Levine. "In Pursuit of Acconci." Artforum 15 (1977): 38-41. Print.

[7] Edward Levine. "Vito Acconci." Arts Magazine 51 (1977): 6. Print.

[8] Germano Celant. "Dirty Acconci." Artforum 19 (1980): 76-83. Print.

[9] Stephen Melville. "How Should Acconci Count for Us?: Notes on a Retrospect." October 18 (1981): 79-89. Print.

[10] Linker, 44.

[11] Claire Bishop. "Live Installation." Installation Art: a Critical History. New York: Routledge, 2005. 66-68. Print.

[12] Ibid. 68.

[13] Linker, 44.

[14] Karen Rosenberg. "Provocateur: Marina Abramović." New York Magazine 4 Dec. 2005. Print.

[15] Contemporary Art Day Auction: Exh. Cat., Sotheby’s, New York, 13 May 2010, No. 448, (illustrated).

[16] Noah Horowitz, PhD. “Collecting Time: The Market for Immaterial Art Since the 1960s,” Christie’s Education, May 26, 2010

[17] Alex Mar. "Sonnabend - Galleries - New York Magazine." New York Magazine -- NYC Guide to Restaurants, Fashion, Nightlife, Shopping, Politics, Movies. Web. 03 June 2010. <http://nymag.com/urr/listings/attraction/sonnabend/?sort=recent>.

[18] "Whitney Museum of American Art: Film & Video." Whitney Museum of American Art. Web. 03 June 2010. <http://whitney.org/FilmAndVideo/FeaturedResources>.


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