RoseLee Goldberg


I just feel we’ve got to produce things like these, that you’ll never forget. These ideas just keep bursting out. ROSELEE GOLDBERG

As writer, curator, teacher, and producer, RoseLee Goldberg has been a foremost champion of performance art since before the form had a name. She was the first to write it into the historical record with her groundbreaking 1979 book, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. (Her follow-up book, Performance: Live Art Since 1960, told the story in pictures.) Performa, the biennial she founded in New York in 2004, recently celebrated its tenth anniversary with the November premiere of a collaborative work by Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg, followed by 77 events around the city. Born in Durban, South Africa, when the country was under apartheid rule, Goldberg grew up as a dancer in a middle-class family that enjoyed the privileges accorded to whites, but from an early age, she was acutely aware of the multiplicity of cultures and the boundaries between them. Goldberg gives her age as “the same as my little finger and a little older than my teeth.” An art history and fine art, as well as political science major at the University of the Witwatersrand (or “Wits”) in Johannesburg, she cut her professional teeth as director of the Royal College of Art Gallery in London, a job she held from 1972 to 1975, the year she moved to New York. In 1979, when she was curator of video and performance at the Kitchen, she married the furniture designer Dakota Jackson, with whom she has two children and one grandchild.

Goldberg believes performance to be the linchpin of a visual artist’s creative process. She started with artists who emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, during the heyday of conceptualism, and saw performance as the animation of art that could not be bought or sold. Time and the voracious art market have made a mockery of that utopian idea; today, museums have departments of performance art and colleges list it as a course of study, albeit one independent of the art-historical canon. There lies the rub for Goldberg, who can give one example after another of visual artists whose signature works came out of live actions performed in front of an audience in theaters and cabarets, on city streets, or for a camera. “Even Leonardo da Vinci did performance,” she said, when we met at New York’s NeueHouse this past October, a few days before her sixth edition of Performa unleashed the latest evolution of performance art.

LINDA YABLONSKY: This is Performa’s tenth year in New York. It was a challenging proposition to begin with. Did you ever think you’d get past the first?

ROSELEE GOLDBERG: Yes. I wouldn’t have started it otherwise. The whole idea was to make things different for all of us, or certainly for me, so that I could see things that I wanted to write about, to commission things, and be astonished. It’s about rewriting art history from the performance point of view. From day one, it was like, this has to be.

YABLONSKY: Were you the first to use the term performance art?

GOLDBERG: No. That term was around in the ’70s, but I don’t think anyone has been able to track it down.

YABLONSKY: It seems to me that we didn’t call it performance art for a while. We had Happenings or actions. We had the living sculptures of Gilbert & George. We had dance theater, poetry readings, and Fluxus “scores.”

GOLDBERG: I resisted using the term initially. In 1979, we came up with live art for the first edition of my book. It stuck in the U.K. but was originally just the subtitle. I called it Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present. After that, I started using performance art. I thought, “If I don’t use that, no one will know what I’m talking about.”

YABLONSKY: Live art is pretty descriptive! You were born in South Africa. Weren’t you a dancer as a child?

GOLDBERG: Yes. I started as a tap dancer in Durban, which is on the coast. That was an important part of growing up, turning on the radio in the morning and hearing Zulu singing or the news in Zulu.

YABLONSKY: How do you say “performance art” in Zulu?

GOLDBERG: Angazi. Which means, “I have no idea.” But yes, I grew up as a dancer. I did tap, classical ballet, all of that. I did Indian dancing, or Bharata Natyam, classic temple dancing from Madras, originally. My mother always had the great idea that I should learn it. I had a math teacher who was Indian. And this was during apartheid.

YABLONSKY: I wanted to ask about that.

GOLDBERG: It was very interesting growing up in South Africa then. It was extraordinary. It was multiculturalism before it became an issue. My father was a doctor. He was just a great guy, a gentle humanist, and an old-fashioned GP. He’d get up at three in the morning to see patients in different areas if they needed him.

YABLONSKY: Including the black townships?

GOLDBERG: Sometimes. I was often the only white girl in the Indian dance class. That felt funny, but doing Indian dance was great. I was completely into dance, every day, but I was always drawing and painting, and I did art history from the time I was in high school. I had an amazing art history teacher in the middle of Durban, South Africa.

YABLONSKY: Weren’t you upset by the divisions?

GOLDBERG: Every minute of my life. Friday nights, we’d go to my grandparents’ for dinner, and I’d beg to go home before curfew. If you drove home during curfew, you’d see cops running after black people to arrest them. It was something you were always very aware of. At the corner store, blacks had to stand in one line, whites in another. And the white child would get served first.

YABLONSKY: My only experience of anything like that was when I was about 8 years old and my family drove from Philadelphia through the Deep South for a vacation in Miami. I remember going to a bathroom and someone pulling me out and pointing to signs over the doors that said “colored” and “white.” I never forgot it.

GOLDBERG: It was very shocking. The massacre at Sharpeville occurred when I was in high school. Sharpeville was a black township outside of Johannesburg. The cops turned on this peaceful protest and killed 69 people.

YABLONSKY: When did you leave South Africa?

GOLDBERG: After university. Wits had a great program in art history and painting that was shared, in the style of the Bauhaus, with the architecture department. So that notion of looking at all disciplines was always what excited me the most. But my other major was political science.

YABLONSKY: Politics were part of your life.

GOLDBERG: My art history papers were really politics. They were about the manifestation of culture through the eye of political events. So there was always that refusal to settle in one place, or one discipline or medium. At the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, I decided to do art history and look for which way to go. Then I discovered the work of Oskar Schlemmer in a big Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. All of his work is about being a choreographer and a painter. So that was when it all congealed. I became director of the Royal College of Art Gallery when I was just out of school.

YABLONSKY: As its curator?

GOLDBERG: It’s funny, because I had no idea what it was about. I was the same age as the students, so they were thrilled, but the staff were English aristocracy, and they were like, “What is she doing here?”

YABLONSKY: So how did you start?

GOLDBERG: I went to the Venice Biennale and to Documenta, to Los Angeles and New York. In the ’70s, England was a very sleepy place for contemporary art. Suddenly, the Royal College of Art had given me this job, and everywhere I went, to everybody I met—Vito Acconci, Willoughby Sharp, Anthony McCall—I said that I was at the Royal College of Art, “Let’s do something.” In Paris, I met Ileana Sonnabend and said, “Oh, can I do a Piero Manzoni show?” And she made it possible for me to do this wonderful little show. Christian Boltanski, I probably met at Documenta.

YABLONSKY: Which Documenta?

GOLDBERG: It was 1972, and I said, “You should come to London,” and he did. I said, “What are you going to do?” And with that cute smile on his face, he said, “It’s in my pockets.” He asked for a vitrine, proceeded to take everything out of his pockets, and put it in the vitrine. That was his exhibition. This was high conceptual art, you know.

YABLONSKY: [laughs] What was in his pockets?

GOLDBERG: Pictures of him or something. The fact is that, from day one, my idea was always to use the gallery as this animated place to discover culture in a much bigger way. And all the things we did were done by working with the artist, creating the next event. I met Germano Celant and Joseph Kosuth that first time I went to Venice and Documenta. I met everyone I probably would know the rest of my life. I met Marcel Broodthaers and drove back from Documenta with, I think, Angela Westwater and Daniel Buren. It was just such an extraordinary time. You enter this world of conceptual art just by being there with all these amazing artists. Mel Bochner and Lawrence Weiner and Dennis Oppenheim, Christo, Joseph Beuys, and on and on. That was quite a time.

YABLONSKY: Did you do live art in that gallery?

GOLDBERG: Yeah. The Kipper Kids were incredible. They used to do a scene where one of them would hit himself in the face till blood would pour. So there was this famous moment where I fainted flat out from watching. Where there is blood, I faint. [laughs] Every Tuesday night we did events, and everybody would come. There was nothing going on in London, so everyone was happy to come to the Royal College of Art on Tuesdays. We did that for three years. This whole incredible London scene was there every Tuesday night. I was close with Brian Eno, so we’d do things with Brian. It was just this incredible thoroughfare. Years later, [artist] Susan Hiller said to me, “Do you know that, every Tuesday, I still have a little bell that goes off and I think I should be going to the college.”

YABLONSKY: It’s exciting just to hear you talk about it.

GOLDBERG: It was amazing, but it wasn’t taken too happily by the Royal College of Art senior crowd. When I started, I think they thought it would be a nice little college gallery. When I left, three years later, this little gallery had become quite a conversation piece.

YABLONSKY: It sounds like a mini-Performa.

GOLDBERG: As I look back on it, everything I did there is the same thing I do now.

YABLONSKY: So what brought you to New York?

GOLDBERG: That first visit, in 1972, I had met American artists and just couldn’t believe their energy. London was always such a struggle to get anything going. The first night I was in New York, I went to Max’s Kansas City. Lucy Lippard was there, and Bob Smithson and Nancy Holt. And they said, “Come by for a drink tomorrow.” And it just went on and on. Everybody was available. I did a studio visit with Brice Marden and made friends with John Coplans at Artforum. He had a dinner and I met the who’s who. I went to a performance by Trisha Brown and met Yvonne Rainer. I still remember this Deborah Hay piece where everybody who went had to perform.

YABLONSKY: What happened to your dancing in this period?

GOLDBERG: There’s a moment when you say, “Okay, I’m not going to become a dancer. I’m not going to become a painter.” So in a sense, I ended up writing about those big conflicts that I felt. I did this exhibition on architecture that was called “A Space: A Thousand Words,” with 15 architects and 15 artists, and a few months later I put together a special issue of [the journal] Studio International. The idea was to talk about conceptual art and conceptual architecture. So the first thing I wrote for Studio International was this piece called “Space as Praxis,” where I talked about some of the performers I had met in New York-Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and so on. That was a couple of years after Lucy Lippard’s book on the dematerialization of the art object. So I wrote that performance is the materialization of the art concept.

YABLONSKY: That’s very good, RoseLee!

GOLDBERG: It all rolled from there. I came to New York regularly after that, and I went to these meetings at Lucy Lippard’s loft, and I met all these incredible women—Jackie Winsor and Laurie Anderson, and on and on. And you’d have these nascent conversations about what was going on with women and what to do about it. And when I went back to London, I wrote about it for this very early feminist magazine called Spare Rib, as in Adam’s rib. And then, in 1976, I saw this amazing performance series that Marcia Tucker put together at the Whitney, so I wrote about that. Then in 1977, I wrote my first piece for Artforum—on Oskar Schlemmer and performance.

YABLONSKY: I remember going to the Armory on Lexington Avenue for a performance series in the very early ’70s, when it was just called “avant-garde.” I think actually the whole series was called the Avant-Garde Festival. I remember seeing the topless Charlotte Moorman play her cello in an installation by Nam June Paik. It was so fantastic. I wasn’t in the art world then, but like you, I went to everything: music, dance, theater, film. The late ’60s were great for experimental theater. In the early ’70s, I was very involved in that and worked for a while with a group at La MaMa. But I also loved music. I was kind of a sponge, absorbed everything.

GOLDBERG: For me, it was all new too. I was coming out of art history and had that same sense of wonder at it all. I was invited to these different things. I met Laura Dean, who said, “Come to my loft. Steve Reich is playing.” By ’74 or ’75, Robert Wilson is saying, “Come see a rehearsal of Einstein on the Beach.” Phil Glass is there at his little electric piano, and Dana Reitz is going up and down, and Robert is in front of a slide projector explaining how this is all going to work, saying this is going to be Einstein on the Beach. I mean, it was fantastic. No one else came downtown back then. They were terrified because there were no lights on the street, and it was just nice and dark.

YABLONSKY: Yeah, it was scary in SoHo.

GOLDBERG: It was scary, but it was great because we owned downtown. Nobody came downtown. And we really didn’t go uptown. Remember? I mean, you just didn’t go above 14th Street.

YABLONSKY: No. Going to the Metropolitan Opera to see Einstein on the Beach was quite something—because downtown went up! Is that what made you move to New York?

GOLDBERG: I wanted a loft. I had a loft on Mercer Street, just south of where A.P.C. is now. It was 2,000 square feet for $200 a month.

YABLONSKY: I paid $80 for 1,100 square feet.

GOLDBERG: There you go. Robert Motherwell’s daughter was on the top floor and Blinky Palermo was on the bottom floor. And Katharina Sieverding was staying in somebody’s loft there too. Everybody was in everybody’s loft, and up and down the stairs. Then, in 1978, I finished the book and then went to work at the Kitchen. That was the next step.

YABLONSKY: The Kitchen was still in SoHo then—in a loft.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman had come to see me around ’76. They had been reading my articles—they followed everybody. At that time, Robert was working at the Kitchen and wanted to get out to do his own thing. He said, “You should really take over as video curator.” So in 1980, I did the first Cindy Sherman show. She put up the original Untitled Film Stills.

YABLONSKY: I thought Cindy showed those pictures first at Artists Space!

GOLDBERG: She was working at Artists Space, but her first one-person show in New York was at the Kitchen. I had to beg people to buy her photographs for $50 each.

YABLONSKY: Oh God. Where was I?

GOLDBERG: It was amazing. The Kitchen was really a continuation of London. I invited the Kipper Kids and Brian Eno—that whole crowd—for a show called “Imports.” Then I did “New West,” with all the different characters from California, including the lady with the boots, Eleanor Antin; and these guys called Bob & Bob. This was the first time the Kitchen actually had a curator who was not an artist. Up to then, it had been artist-run. Eric Bogosian was doing the dance program. Rhys Chatham was doing the music program. I was brought in to do video, but I added performance. And then we added the gallery and put in a video viewing room. So there was this whole turnaround.

YABLONSKY: Didn’t people just come by and hang out, and not have to book tickets in advance?

GOLDBERG: They bought tickets, but they were five dollars. And yeah, you could just show up. I remember we did a Fluxus evening and got a call from John Cage, who said he was at the corner and couldn’t get in, and asked if I could please come down to get him? [laughs] I curated another exhibition called “Made for TV?” This was at the beginning of cable television, when we were all going to have our own cable stations.

YABLONSKY: But you could only get cable if you lived uptown!

GOLDBERG: We’d all be in a back room piled high with televisions watching The Gong Show. It was a pretty amazing time.

YABLONSKY: How long were you at the Kitchen?

GOLDBERG: Two intense years. I brought “Record as Artwork,” a show that I’d done in London. It was all about the vinyl record as artwork. In the beginning, a lot of what I was doing was bringing things. Artists were going to Europe, but there weren’t so many people coming here in the way they do now.

YABLONSKY: This kind of energy doesn’t seem to exist now, even among people who were here then.

GOLDBERG: That’s what I wanted to do with Performa—to find a way to make this happen in New York again.

YABLONSKY: In those days, when everybody lived downtown, we saw each other every day, or showed up in the same places or for the same events every night.

GOLDBERG: And went to Fanelli’s to hang out afterwards, or to the Spring Street Bar.

YABLONSKY: There was this constant exchange that stimulated a lot of activity. Now it seems more segregated and less spontaneous. I’m not sure why. Maybe because we connect by computer. But it’s not like the spirit of creativity doesn’t exist.

GOLDBERG: I really think cheap rent was a huge part of it. But starting Performa was to say: There’s got to be another way to revive—not revive, I’m not a sentimental person—but to ask how we create that community, have these conversations again. By 1999, people were moving to Berlin. I said, “I’m staying here. I’ve got to make this place work. Otherwise, it’s just too boring.”

YABLONSKY: [laughs] That’s it in a nutshell.

GOLDBERG: The first thing I did was a commission with Shirin Neshat. That’s a whole story.

YABLONSKY: In 2001, with her Logic of the Birds at the Kitchen, you became a producer. How did that happen?

GOLDBERG: In ’99, I’m in Venice watching Turbulent, the film with the men on one side and the woman on the other. It’s in the biggest space imaginable, in the Arsenale, and I’m thinking, “This is incredible.” It’s men and a woman, black and white. It’s a beautiful film with incredible sound. It’s politics. It’s powerful. I had been going to see all this performance on the Lower East Side, where everyone was doing a monologue. And I’m starting to feel that if I see another monologue, I’m going to take my shoe off and throw it.

YABLONSKY: Forgive me for laughing. So true.

GOLDBERG: I feel it was better done when Karen Finley did it. Why are we still looking at people doing that? Yet in the art world, we were seeing people like Steve McQueen, Douglas Gordon, and Gillian Wearing doing these gorgeous, glorious film installations, all that late-’90s work that brought film into a gallery space. This work is so beautiful. It’s visual and it’s powerful and it’s political. And that’s what you want an artwork to be. So why am I still going to see this performance stuff that seems to be repeating itself and not giving me this visual excitement?

YABLONSKY: And Shirin pointed the way?

GOLDBERG: I came back from Venice and said, “Shirin, would you ever think of doing a live performance and having people walk off the walls into the space?” That’s how I became this producer.

YABLONSKY: So your role expanded beyond curatorial.

GOLDBERG: It expanded dramatically. When I left the Kitchen in 1980, people would say to me, “You’ve got to start your own place.” And I said, “I couldn’t possibly raise the money, do the business, all these things.” With Shirin, I had a kind of beginner’s luck, because I was in L.A. about a month after this conversation with her, and I called up the Peter Norton office and described this project. And they said, “How much do you need?” And I said: “Mmm … $25,000.” So I learned the first lesson.

YABLONSKY: Ask for more.

GOLDBERG: You can ask for more. Because they immediately said sure. “And can we also do the after-party?” It was like my dream come true: People walked out of the film and into the space. So the idea of commissioning performances from visual artists was the trigger for Performa to commission new work that we’ve never seen before and maybe take performance in other directions. And that’s really what changed things.

YABLONSKY: But wait—what happened in your life between 1980 and 2004? Didn’t you have a family?

GOLDBERG: Precisely. I met Dakota in 1978, and we got married in 1979. He watched this scene grow from way before I was here. We had two kids. And I was writing and teaching at SVA and then NYU. I’ve been teaching at NYU for almost 30 years.

YABLONSKY: Teaching what? Performance?

GOLDBERG: Contemporary art. As far as I’m concerned, the 20th century was performance-driven, but for some reason, the critics and historians didn’t know how to integrate that. I mean, Marinetti’s first Futurist manifesto, in 1909, basically said, “Get out of your garret.” Artists need to be activists. We need to deal with the new century, and we want to take people from different disciplines to talk about this. Then you come to New York in the ’60s and ’70s, or even the late ’50s, and it’s the same thing. It’s what my book was saying: New ideas come out of a kind of activism. I was looking at a history that I felt was left out.

YABLONSKY: Why was that? Because performance didn’t have a market?

GOLDBERG: I think it was more a question of how to explain this stuff. What are these relationships between language, poetry, sound, and theater about? One problem is that very few people see enough performance to feel comfortable writing about it. But I think there’s been an intellectual shift. Performance art is really about the sociology of the artist, where ideas come from, and the confluence of those ideas. Who is just a performance artist? Joan Jonas works in video and in drawing, and happens to work in performance as well. In the early years, Cindy was doing performances. She would show up at a party in Matt Mullican’s loft, and you wouldn’t know it was her. You’d think someone brought their grandmother from New Jersey.

YABLONSKY: In those days, people in some kind of costume were always in the streets and interacting with the public. Which is what Performa does, only indoors and planned ahead.

GOLDBERG: For me, starting Performa was three things: I wanted to produce new work that I’d never seen before and have the miracle of working with artists who would make things of wonder. The second was to deal with this history. I wrote that book 36 years ago, and it’s never been out of print, but the question still comes up: What is performance art? People are doing their Ph.D.s on it. The third thing was to slow down and think about what culture in the 21st century is. I started the Performa commissions because I wanted work that reflects this moment and gives you things to talk about.

YABLONSKY: I’ll never forget Mike Kelley’s performance in the third Performa.

GOLDBERG: It’s tragic that he’s no longer with us. Everybody thought that performance was the most brilliant thing imaginable. People who saw the Ryan McNamara piece also said, “I’ll never forget that.” Francesco Vezzoli’s piece at the Guggenheim was amazing. And Marina Abramovic’s. Adam Pendleton’s blew everyone away. I just feel we’ve got to produce things like these, that you’ll never forget. These ideas just keep bursting out.