David Levine, Spectator, Paul McCarthy, Los Angeles, 1971, 2010
The main characters of David Levine’s series, Specters, are not camera-ready. They are incidental evidence of this formative moment when the visual arts cannibalized all art disciplines and called it, Performance Art.
Levine says, “The idea is to think about the audience, who are at once constitutive of the main event—this was the breakthrough of performance art—and yet are completely disposable relative to the ‘main event’ itself. They are forgotten actors, straining to learn a new part.”1
They did not come dressed to be photographed; to be forever preserved as The Witnesses. They gather in the shadows of iconic performance art documents, endlessly circulating as the primary visual memory representing an event made history. In Specters, the audience is isolated from the ‘art spectacle.’ Their complexions are mottled by the moiré of the art history books from which Levine lifted them; their lack of focus deepens their mystery.
David Levine, Spectators, Valie Export, Vienna, 1968, 2010
Levine brings new attention to these characters whose role was indispensible to the formation of contemporary art audiences. It seems he is motivated partly by nostalgia for this critical turn in art history, coinciding with his early childhood. He was too young to be there.
Yet there is also irreverence to Levine’s motivations. Specters questions the emergence of the ‘Performance Art Document’ as an orchestrated object in and of itself, for which the audience is instrumentalized, coached and socialized to represent the spectacle and its reception to subsequent art audiences who missed out—or who are not yet born. Decades later, the earnest gazes and unselfconsciousness of the 1970’s audience seem almost quaint, as they reflect and absorb the tension of this experimental moment.
David Levine, Spectator, Marina Abramovic, Amsterdam, 1977, 2010
Yet I presume that many of these characters know who they are. With the exception of some unsuspecting street audiences, I imagine these self-satisfied individuals are able to identify themselves as accessories to the iconicity: “I was there.” Imagine a lecture at the Guggenheim, say Joan Jonas is showing slides of a mirror performance in downtown Manhattan. “Look, there’s Robert,” Roselee says. “And that’s me in the puffy coat.”
Audiences have become primed for all photographable events. They, too, perform for the Document. They are aware of being there. Recently, I shared with a curator a photograph of a performance of mine in Berlin. He noticed a figure in a dark coat behind the two women caught in an embrace, transferring a mouthful of milk from one to the other. “Oh look,” he said, “there’s David Levine.”
David Levine, Spectator, Joan Jonas, New York, 1970, 2010
1. From e-mail correspondence with the artist, 01.11.11.
David Levine lives and works in Berlin and New York. He is represented by Feinkost Gallery, Berlin and Francois Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles.