"I can't stand art. I never could," the former artist (now designer) claims
by Fred A. Bernstein
Alone one morning in his studio in DUMBO -- a neighborhood he helped colonize more than 30 years ago -- Vito Acconci is making coffee, answering the phone, and struggling to operate a balky laptop. But that's not the main reason he can't wait for his employees to arrive. Until they do, he says, he'll have nobody to argue with. And arguments, according to Acconci, still an enfant terrible at 72, have led to some of his most memorable designs -- building-sized projects that have rivaled, in their ingenuity and dedication to ideas, the work of top contemporary artists.
But don't tell him that. "I can't stand art. I never could," Acconci, says, as if the 1960s and 70s -- decades in which he was a much-admired conceptual artist - never happened. In case he hasn't made the point clearly enough, he says, his voice soft but forceful: "I haven't done art in 30 years. It wasn't right for me."
Acconci wanted to reach the broader public. "This many people go to galleries," he says, holding two index fingers close together, "and this many people experience architecture" -- he stretches his arms outward. .
The result was Acconci Studio, which he founded in Brooklyn in 1988, and which is responsible for everything from an artificial island in the Mur River in Graz, Austria, which was completed to great acclaim in 2003 when that city was Europe's capital of culture, to glass walls packed with layers of sediment that turn a community center in Colorado into a kind of geological formation. One of the latest pieces is in Toronto, where he helped enliven a development called WaterParkCity by teasing strands of steel into trellises, windscreens and giant free-form chairs. As one Toronto critic observed after seeing the piece, "Several hundred black steel ribbons have just taken my heart."
Now he is working on projects for an apartment building in Washington, D.C., an airport terminal in Austin, and an arena in Indianapolis. In Washington the assignment was to create a timepiece for an entry court: figuring people didn't need an actual clockface in an iPhone age, Acconci imagined a maze of waterfalls, one flowing at a drop per second, one at a drop per minute, and one at a drop per hour. And In Indianapolis, he is working on a project in which a passageway is illuminated by LEDs that seem to follows visitors around. "If another person is walking towards you, it'll be like a swarm of fireflies," Acconci says, adding that his goal is to create "an architecture of pixels and particles."
When Acconci shows photos of his work, the shots invariably have people in them -- it's the users who inspire him. (And he insists that every project be attributed not to him alone, but to Acconci Studio.) That focus on collaboration is surprising for a man who once seemed destined to fly solo. Born in the Bronx, he attended Catholic schools, then made his way to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He emerged in the early 1960s as an experimental poet; from there, it was an easy transition into conceptual art, much of it dependent on words. Acconci's most infamous piece, ''Seedbed,'' took place in 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery, where, beneath a sloping floor, he spoke of sexual fantasies while performing what the New York Times politely called "self-stimulation."
But it wasn't long before he began seeking to do work that didn't come with "do not touch" signs. His first designs were furniture-like pieces (he is fond a ladder that folded into a chaise longue). In a gallery for the blind at Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum, he created a furniture labyrinth, called MazeTable, but used clear glass so that the sighted wouldn't be at a significant advantage.
In 1993, he and Steven Holl, then a little-known architect, collaborated on what is still Acconci's most visible project, the facade of the Storefront for Art and Architecture on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "Not surprisingly, Steven wanted to do art and I wanted to do architecture," Acconci remembers. What they came up with was a series of panels, cut into the facade and hinged, that pivot into a variety of positions -- a kind of vertical MazeTable -- and his clearest blurring yet of the line between architecture and furniture, indoors and out, permanent and temporary.
Since then, he has done many other pieces in New York, from a plaza at Queens College, where large stone balls (derived from the campus's neoclassical details) become street furniture, and a subway station at Coney Island that suggests the famous Cyclone rollercoaster (or perhaps a caterpillar). In 2000, he designed a Greenwich Village gallery for the collector Kenny Schachter, installing a multi-faceted Mobius maze of doors, walls, seating, shelving, and work surfaces, which used Frederick Kiesler as a jumping off point. Like most of his creations, it was joyful and a bid nerdy, as if Kiesler had come back to design a playground.
He has been around long enough to be asked to revisit some of his projects. In 2006, when the Storefront facade, which had weathered badly, needed to be rebuilt, Acconci toyed with proposing something entirely new. He eventually agreed to a restoration of what had become a beloved part of the cityscape. Now the government of Graz would like to put a roof over his amphitheater, which Acconci says would spoil his conception -- so he has proposed rooflike "clouds" that will remain on shore, to be lifted onto the island with cables when needed. Graz officials are seriously considering the proposal, and why wouldn't they: It was Acconci's building helped put Graz on the cultural map.
It's no surprise that Acconci has had some of his biggest successes in Europe, where the competition process makes it possible for radical design ideas to get their due. Back in the U.S., his clients tend to be developers, who in many cases are required to set aside "1% for art" (that is, 1% of their construction budgets). Acconci accepts the commissions, though he doesn't make things easier for himself by insisting that he isn't doing art. (The clients probably don't believe him. Schachter doesn't, commenting, "Duchamp said the same thing for decades.")
Thanks to the "1% for art" commissions, Acconci often finds himself improving the work of more established, but almost certainly less talented, designers. In a just world, Acconci would design the 99%.