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Owens' Anthology Spotlights African-American Art

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Clifford Owens:
(score by Saya Woolfalk). Performance still, August 2011.

While recently exploring the bold/often controversial/always original genre of performance art, we came across artist Clifford Owens, who has burst onto the contemporary art scene this year in a big way: The 40-year-old is enjoying his first New York museum exhibition at MoMA PS1. Anthology is the artist's attempt to right a historical wrong and provide a voice to African-American artists, whose performance art has long been underrepresented and largely undocumented. 26 major artists* contributed "scores" -- written or graphical instructions for actions -- for the project, which Owens brought to fruition each week during the summer at PS1.

From the museum's boiler room to its rooftop, on view now are the videos, photographs and remnants of these performances, which range from "vague commands to highly choreographed movements and actions." Take a peek at three of these unique scores, and check out our interview with the artist below.


Score by Senga Nengudi

"Sweep is built on the premise that pretty much most people worldwide, from the age of 2 up, have engaged in the activity of sweeping. Sweeping stuff up is a common thread through all cultures."

Clifford Owens: Anthology (score by Senga Nengudi). Performance still, June 11, 2011 at MoMA PS1. Owens was instructed to use a broom three times to manipulate sand into changing forms/designs, and then to invite an audience member to create a final design.

Score by Dave McKenzie

"Pick a corner of the room and place yourself in it and against it.

Try to conjure up a past that isn't your own.

Get ready to move.

Don't think too long about what you might do.

Now act!


Now think about the future after you.

Make a phone call."

Clifford Owens:
(score by Dave McKenzie). Performance still, June 19, 2011 at MoMA PS1.

Come Clean

Score by Nsenga A Knight

"Using water and at least two additional materials or substances mounting to any odd number, clean everything in one entire room."

Clifford Owens:
(score by Nsenga Knight). Performance still, July 24, 2011 at MoMA PS1.

You can still catch Owen perform live in conjunction with the exhibition -- his final 2 performances will take place on February 11 and March 11. The exhibit at MoMA PS1 closes on March 12.

MutualArt: Explain the concept for this show. How did this idea come about?

Clifford Owens: The idea for Anthology, though not fully formed at the time, came about in 2000. I was researching black American visual artists working in performance art for my graduate thesis paper. Of course, I did not find many references in my research. I realized then that I must somehow invent or imagine my own history of black American visual artists working in the expansive field of performance art.

The concept for Anthology currently on view at MoMA PS1 was to invite an intergenerational group of black American visual artists to contribute a performance art score, an instruction for an action that I would interpret based on my own aesthetic sensitivities and sensibilities.

MA: Why do you think African American performance art is so underrepresented? ?What is unique about this specific genre of performance art?

CO: First of all, there is no "specific genre of [African American] performance art." Perhaps a more interesting question would be: Why are "African Americans" underrepresented in or wholly excluded from all forms and formalisms of contemporary cultural production? Of course, the answer to this question is quite clear to black American artists, at least black American artists who actually have a critical position and a sense of history.

MA: You collaborated with 26 other artists who contributed to this work. What was this collaborative process like?

CO: Anthology is not in collaboration with 26 other artists. Collaboration is a shared intellectual endeavor, a shared experience in the "doing and undergoing" of a work of art. Anthology is based on a kind of "gift economy," an exchange of ideas between individual artists and myself. None of the artists in Anthology appear in the live performances or in the images that comprise the exhibition. In a sense, I function in the project as a kind of conduit between thought and action.

MA: What is the most shocking or challenging act you performed?

CO: All the scores from Anthology were a challenge to perform. On another note, a performance art score is not an "act" (an "act [is] performed" by an insipid actor in an insipid Broadway play.) I'm a visual artist with interests in "visual art performance," to borrow a phase coined by RoseLee Goldberg.

MA: You often work in video, photography and sound, in conjunction with your performances. How does this work with or expand on the idea behind performance?

CO: The videos, photographs, and sound works that comprise the Anthology exhibition at MoMA PS1 are the results from the live performances. Of course, the experience of being present for the live performances is remarkably, in fact necessarily, different from the exhibition. However, both of these elements that comprise the project, the live performance and the exhibition, retain their own potency independent of each other.

MA: What message do you hope to relay to your audience?

CO: I'm much more interested in the messages received by my audience.

MA: What are some of your future projects?

CO: As my friend and influential artist Terry Adkins would say, and I paraphrase: "Artists need to keep some things to themselves."

*Additional artists who contributed to Anthology: Derrick Adams, Terry Adkins, Sanford Biggers, Aisha Cousins, Sherman Fleming, Coco Fusco, Charles Gaines, Malik Gaines, Rico Gatson, Rashawn Griffin, Lyle Ashton Harris, Maren Hassinger, Steffani Jemison, Jennie C. Jones, Glenn Ligon, Lorraine O'Grady, Benjamin Patterson, William Pope.L, Jacolby Satterwhite, Xaviera Simmons, Shinique Smith, Kara Walker, and Saya Woolfalk. (All performance stills above are courtesy of On Stellar Rays.)

Written by MutualArt writer Joanna Bledsoe.