A Brief History of Performance in long form.

The history of performance art as it is known in the US is written in very Eurocentric terms. There is a case for the spread of performance art (as we know it) throughout the world, so I will be following that line of thought for most of this little history. If and when possible, I will be looking for regional influences, both historic and contemporary to examine the complexity of work from around the world.

1900 – 1920s.

The general timeline of influences tends to start in the 20th century with the Futurists and Dada which formed at least in part as a response to World War I. (ArtNews has a timeline from the 1700s this idea is less new than people tend to believe) These forms went out of their way to shock, either on the basis of rejecting the past and embracing a more ‘modern’ approach, in the case of the Futurists, embracing speed, youth ,and misogyny and Fascism (oops). Dada rejected the logic and reason of the modern capitalist society, instead embracing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. (at this point in philosophical thought there was a heavy tendency towards logic and reason from Immanuel Kant to Bertrand Russell so this rejection ran both against capitalist thought and the major philosophical trends). The shock performative aspects of these two groups closely mirrored some of the performance art later in the US, UK and Europe. Urination, deification, and other bodily acts onstage all appeared in performance (I know mostly of this in DADA) 50 years before body art became a named art genre. Besides shock value, the benefits of challenging the assumptions of music (music Concrete), poetry (Hugo Balls ‘Karawane’ for example), and theater/ opera opened up new explorations beyond Futurism and DADA.

1920s – 1940s

Surrealists were heavily influenced by Dada, and started after WWI. Mainly producing visual arts and literature, but also film and music. Less a performance art, but the idea of merging dream and reality into one reality, a super-reality – Surreality – offers new space (much like DADA and the futurists) for thinking about the arts and performance.

At roughly the same time, Bauhaus, started by Walter Gropius was started in Germany. While the surrealists brought together dreams and reality, Bauhaus sought to bring all the arts together to make Gaemtkunstwerk, or a more comprehensive artwork. The form working in architecture and design, fonts and involved stage performances. The influence of Bauhaus extends, still, through design, architecture, and typography, but in the US the influence was compounded after the movement ended by many of the lead artists moving to the US to escape Nazi Germany. John Cage, Anna Halprin, Merce Cunningham and many others were directly influenced in their work by the Bauhaus artists.

Now we have Living Art. It is suggested that its time encompassed from 1933 (with the advent of refugees from the European war as we saw with Bauhaus) to the 1970s. Black Mountain College in North Carolina started in 1933 with 22 students and 9 faculty. Joseph and Anni Albers (Bauhaus artists) were invited to be on faculty. His idea that, ‘ art is concerned with the HOW not the WHAT; not the literal content, but with the performance of factual content. The performance – how it is done – that is the concept of art” could be seen as a basis of performance or live art as we encounter it today.

Beginning in the 1940s, Arte Informale / Tachisme incorporated gesture, spontaneous execution, time based work, and audience dependent work and performance. Originally a French form, it spread around the world. As the name might suggest, was not entirely informal, but lack of form. Similar to Abstract Expressionism but not entirely the same. Abstract expressionism (1940s) tended to be a bit more aggressive, with Arte Informale more drips and dabs, and Abstract Expressionism – well think Jackson Pollack. Action art.


By the early 1950s, also showing up and influenced by Bauhaus artists Black Mountain College, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham adding notions of chance and indeterminacy to their art work. Cage and Cunningham influenced heavily not only legions of composers, but the entire post modern dance scene, Fluxus, and the performance art scene. News of what they, Rauschenberg, and others were doing reached New York where The New School for Social Research was started in 1956. This included Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and slightly peripherally, Jim Dine, Larry Poons and George Segal.

Around the same time in 1954, the Gutai group formed in Japan. The first radical, post-war artistic group in Japan, they staged multimedia events, interactive environments and stressed physically engaging with their materials. They interacted with Kaprow, Arte Informale, Tachisme, and the Dutch Nul collective.

–side note– Japan had significant influence from Europe, specifically Germany in and around World War II. Artists like Mary Wigman taught and influenced artists in Japan (and vice versa). Japanese artists were then connected to and through their European counterparts. —

Live Art. Kaprow started a series of ‘Happenings’ in which the audience was to become part of the happenings. The artwork that interested him most was work that ‘enclosed the observer…that overlapped and interpenetrated different art forms’. Kaprow defined happenings as an event that can only be performed once.

On the West Coast around the mid 1950s, Anna Halprin was staging a series of live art works of her own. Anna also interacted with Bauhaus before moving to the West Coast and becoming pioneer in post modern dance, and influencing a huge percentage of dance artists and artists. By the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Anna’s workshops, studio, and dance deck had become multimedia/ cross-pollinating laboratories that drew into collaboration many of the great innovators, psychologists, poets, dancers, musicians and designers of the day. Among them were Lamont Young, Meredith Monk, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Trisha Brown, Kei Takei, John Cage, Terry Riley, and Morton Subotonik; the sculptor Charles Ross; visual artist Bruce Connor; the great beat-generation poet Michael McClure; Alan Kaprow of the Environmental Happenings movement; Merce Cunningham; Butoh dancer, Min Tanaka; and singer, Odetta.

The late 1950s also saw the rise of Butoh in Japan, a response to the horrors of the war, by the choreographers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Ankoku butō” (暗黒舞踏) (“dance of darkness”), was built on a vocabulary of “crude physical gestures and uncouth habits… a direct assault on the refinement (miyabi) and understatement (shibui) so valued in Japanese aesthetics.” [Sanders, Vicki 1988]. The earthbound orientation of the weight and movement styles changed and challenged movement assumptions in dance as well as performance and performance art ( I don’t have a direct causal link here besides Kei Takei who studied Butoh and was part of the NY post modern dance experimentation scene.I am looking for more).

The Zero Group started in 1957 and lasted to about 1966. Formed in Dusseldorf (Germany) by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene, this informal group grew and connected to artists and movements around the world including Gutai, Yayoi Kusama, Nouveaux Réalistes, Nul, and others. Zero Group emphasized light, space and movement (materials) over the role of the artist in creating. Uecker wrote, “Immediate experience comes only when we ourselves participate. To obtain widest participation, the production of art must cease to be limited to the individual, as it has been until now.” Collaboration among the German and world wide artists was key. Art merged installation and performance with visual arts as in the case of Yves Klein.


The Fluxus movement of the 1960s and 1970s was interdisciplinary, experimental and produced “events”. The idea of creating art (often time based art) without already knowing the end goal, and the work being an interaction between the artists and audience (both of these were espoused by John Cage) was key. Process over product. Many of the artists were against commercializing art, some just anti-art. Composers designers, poets… were creating ‘intermedia’ artworks (coined by Dick Higgins), or inter-disciplinary work. The movement had roots in Dada, but apparently never coalesced around George Maciunas’ manifesto. As befits a group of artists who are actively experimenting, the meaning or focus could change. Yoko One, Nam June Paik, John Cage, Joseph Beuys and many more were creating ‘events’ and body artworks that overlapped and informed the performance art world.

Post modern dance. This genre traces through Black Mountain College, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Anna Halprin, Robert Dunn, and Fluxus. There are, of course, many other influences, but most of the original artists worked with some or all of these groups at one point or another. Post modern dance incorporated happenings and minimalism in dance (Yvonne Rainer’s manifesto “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic…” encompassed thoughts of Halprin, but back to Joseph Alpers from Black Mountain (‘The performance – how it is done – that is the concept of art’). The post modernists changed the trajectory of compositional and choreographic dance especially in the Modern tradition. They also incorporated multimedia (Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer), Different spaces and sites (Trisha Brown, Kei Takei, and many more), and develop new forms (Steve Paxton’s Contact Improvisation). This was period of great experimentation in what constitutes dance.and included collaborations between the Fluxus artists, happenings, experimental music and even the scientists at Bell Labs.

Nouveax Realistes, 1960 through 1966, took reality as their primary medium and argued against the preciousness of art. Artists revived the readymade as seen in Duchamp’s work, wrapped things (Christo), and monocramatic performance of body art (Klein). The artists questioned the idea that art had to elevate, politicize, or idealize any subject and argued that there should be little or no gap between art and life, art and public. Some of the artists dovetail into performance art, also in the way some used violent means to create – including machines, fire and guns. This, along with the inclusion of audience in art is directly part of the performance art scene.

In Peru, Grupo Arte Nuevo, a Peruvian avant-garde movement that lasted from 1966–68, Theresa Burgo, Jaime Dávila, Gloria Gómez-Sánchez, Luis Arias Vera, and a few others founded Grupo Arte Nuevo, a collective that brought new artistic movements—such as Op, Pop, Minimalism, and happenings—to the Peruvian scene. In1968, In 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado overthrew the democratically elected President Fernando Belaúnde and the acceptance of avant-garde art changed.

Other groups:

  • Azimuth – italian zero group
  • Nul – dutch
  • Arte Povera – late 60s

Performance Art! Finally the term is used. But as we see, it has been going on since the beginning of the century. accepted pioneers in performance art include some of the accepted influential artists of performance art including Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramović, Ana Mendieta, Chris Burden, Hermann Nitsch, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Yves Klein and Vito Acconci. More recently Tania Bruguera, Abel Azcona, Regina José Galindo, Tehching Hsieh, Marta Minujín, and Petr Pavlensky. This list does not include the breadth of performance art around the world – or even in the European diaspora, but that is what this site is for.

Is performance art site specific? Not necessarily. The term Site Specific started in the 1970s (credited to Robert Irwin) and denotes artwork that can not exist as the same artwork outside of the space it was created for. This could mean a dance created for a certain space, Serra’s Tilted Arc (which was removed, but never installed somewhere else), of Oppenheim’s Two Jumps for Dead Dog Creek, where he jumped across a stream twice. In that case, one could argue it was site specific performance art. Not all performance art falls into this category however.

Artistic Groups and Artists who Influenced and continue to influence Performance Art:



Zero Group



Anna Halprin

Links and Bibliography

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