Artist as subject

Arnulf Rainer, ‘Untitled (Body Language)’ c.1973
Arnulf Rainer
Untitled (Body Language) c.1973
Tate
© Arnulf Rainer

During the late 1960s and 1970s artists began to use their own bodies as both subject and material. The work often took the form of public or private performances, which were recorded and later shown as documentary photographs, films or videos. For many artists, documentation increasingly became as important as the original action, as an integral or sole mode of communicating the work.

The artist as subject has its roots in the theatrical elements of Futurism, Dada and Surrealism, with more immediate influences in the gestural art of Jackson Pollock and the ‘Happenings’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were staged events focused on the actions of artists. 

By the late 1960s many artists were taking a conceptual, less theatrical approach. Motivations varied enormously. For Dennis Oppenheim, the feats of physical endurance he put himself through were part of his interest in ‘testing’ the materiality of the artist’s body. Bruce Nauman, however, started to use his own body simply because he had no other material to work with, and found in doing so that, ‘At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.’

For many artists, working with the body was a means of conveying an idea or universal truth rather than creating an object. Artists such as Carolee Schneeman, concerned with issues of gender and identity, saw the rejection of conventional materials as a denunciation of traditional values, and used the artist as subject to reclaim the female body in a series of radical performances. For Keith Arnatt the turn to the body not only signals the disappearance of the object from art, but also, paradoxically, the rejection of the artist’s ego.