Art in which the medium is the artist’s own body and the artwork takes the form of actions performed by the artist

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Performance art has origins in futurism and dada, but became a major phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s and can be seen as a branch of conceptual art. In Germany and Austria it was known as actionism.

An important influence on the emergence of performance was the photographs of the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock making his so-called action paintings, taken in 1950 by the photographer Hans Namuth. Performance art had its immediate origins in the more overtly theatrical happenings organised by Allan Kaprow and others in New York in the late 1950s. By the mid 1960s this theatrical element was being stripped out by early performance artists such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman. In Europe the German artist Joseph Beuys was a hugely influential pioneer of performance art, making a wide impact with his ‘actions’ from 1963 on. These were powerful expressions of the pain of human existence, and complex allegories of social and political issues and man’s relationship to nature. In Britain the artist duo Gilbert & George made highly original performance works from 1969.

A major problem for early performance artists was the ephemeral nature of the medium. Right from the start performance pieces were recorded in photography, film and video, and these eventually became the primary means by which performance reached a wide public.