galleries are struggling to protect the legacy of their artists

Performance art is a medium intrinsically linked to the moment. But as its practitioners mature and the art world they occupy professionalizes and expands, the question of their legacy grows larger. For some late-career performance artists – and those already deceased – this is where a market for ephemera and documentation of their work emerges as a way to sustain their practice and sustain interest.

This is the case of Kembra Pfahler, a 61-year-old American filmmaker and performer represented exclusively by the Emalin gallery in London. Pfahler was the subject of a recent exhibition organized for the third edition of Performance Exchange, an annual London initiative that organizes trade exhibitions with partner galleries of performance-based artists. Key to Performance Exchange’s mission is to elucidate the practicalities of performance buying for both private and institutional collectors.

However, Pfahler’s exhibition in London did not involve any performance element because the artist was unexpectedly unable to travel to London, said his gallery owner Leopold Thun. This was partly because she was also having a performance in Florence that same month; the likelihood of performers being able to hold multiple international shows decreases as they get older, Thun adds.

Rising Value of Instants

Thankfully, since signing to the gallery in 2016, Pfahler has seen a surge in sales of ephemera and documentation of her performances with her death-rock band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Previously, Pfahler worked with Jeffrey Deitch Gallery but was not signed to its list. For its recent exhibition at Emalin, the gallery exhibited a series of unpublished collages made in the form of posters or advertisements for the artist’s performances in the 1990s on the New York underground scene, between 5,000 and 15 000 dollars. Photographs of the artist’s most recent performances are also for sale in the gallery and were exhibited there for an exhibition in 2019. These bodies of work are the only material means by which collectors can purchase aspects of the performances of Pfahler, as it does not allow sales or even recreations of its live actions. Thun says the move reflects an element of a “generational divide,” as Pfahler comes from an era of artists who weren’t used to seeing their performances as stand-alone or marketable works. But that decision, he adds, is also intrinsic to the unique nature of his performances.

There is not a single banner [by Ana Mendieta] left; they were probably all destroyed

Marie Sabbatino, Lelong Gallery

Of course, not all performance-based artists who emerged in the second half of the 20th century were averse to recreating their work live. Some actively sought it out, as in the case of Ketty La Rocca, an Italian artist who performed from the late 1960s until 1976, when she died of brain cancer. Her estate is managed exclusively by British dealer Amanda Wilkinson, whose eponymous gallery also participated in this year’s edition of Performance Exchange, featuring a work by La Rocca that was never performed during her lifetime. The work (In principio era verbumc.1970-72), sold for €15,000 in triplicate, contains a set of instructions allowing participants to communicate with each other through physical gestures.

At this year’s edition of Performance Exchange, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery staged a show choreographed by Ketty La Rocca but never performed in her lifetime Courtesy of Amanda Wilkinson, London and Ketty La Rocca Estate

La Rocca’s performance work can be bought and recreated, but it comes up against another problem: there aren’t many of them. Although she was prolific during her active years, her work is small. This is why the photographs that La Rocca took of his performances have found a significant market with private and institutional collectors such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Center Pompidou in Paris. These photographs, sold for around €7,000 and published by the artist’s estate, are not only less expensive than buying a performance or a collage, but are also one of the few ways to access his performances, acting as a window into “a rare and increasingly critically acclaimed work”, says Wilkinson.

“La Rocca’s artistic practice relied heavily on a generosity of interpretation, which lends itself to recreating performances. But not all artists are like that,” explains Rose Lejeune, founder of Performance Exchange. LeJeune, also an adviser, says this could be the biggest divide among late-career artists thinking about their succession. “It boils down to how one should think of an artist’s performance element in their larger work once they’ve passed away,” she says. “Do I want to make a purely archival heritage, or do I want the performances to live beyond me?

This question is relevant when considering Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019), whose Barbican show, Body Policy (until January 8, 2023), put the artist back in the spotlight. The exhibition presents Schneemann as a radical figure who used his body to make political statements. At the heart of the exhibition are a number of his most famous performances such as joy of meat (1964), in which eight participants covered in paint, paper and brushes crawled and twisted together, playing with raw fish, meat and poultry, and Inner Scroll (1975), in which she takes a roll of paper out of her vagina. These are documented via Super 8 film and some photographs from the artist’s estate, which are not sold.

Carolee Schneemann with Venus Vectors (1987) Photo: Victoria Vesna; Courtesy of the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and Galerie Lelong & Co., Hales Gallery, and PPOW, New York and © Carolee Schneemann Foundation / ARS, New York and DACS, London 2022

It was, according to Wendy Olsoff of PPOW Gallery in New York – the main dealer working with the artist’s estate – because Schneemann was determined not to be considered a performance artist. “Carolee wanted to be known as a painter. In his eyes, everything about his practice came down to painting,” says Olsoff. The gallery will feature three early paintings by Schneemann on its Frieze booth, dated between 1959 and 1962 and priced at $150,000 each. While Schneemann didn’t make it clear that her performances couldn’t be recreated, she preferred to focus on the legacy of her painting, says Olsoff: “Everyone wanted to recreate joy of meat Where Inner Scroll; I think she had enough of that.

For this reason, ephemera were rarely preserved by Schneemann and what remains, such as the paper of Inner Scroll, are kept by the estate and “will never be sold”. Still, there are instructions for performances that are pulled and “turned into art pieces” that PPOW also sells, Olsoff says. But due to the gallery’s focus on Schneemann’s painting practice, they make up a smaller share of its market. Similarly, the performance work of David Wojnarowizc (1954-1992), another artist whose estate is managed by PPOW, has not been well documented because “he was about to die when he did them”, said Olsoff, referring to his AIDS infection from which he died. Exceptions to this are photographs and a voice recording made by musician Ben Neill in 1989, which were purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Julia Stoschek Collection, and the Zabludowicz Collection.

Ambivalent performers

The ambivalence toward performance by some artists who, ironically, are better known as performers is exemplified by the late Cuban-American artist, Ana Mendieta. According to Mary Sabbatino, vice-president of Galerie Lelong, which looks after the artist’s estate, there are very few ephemera and objects from Mendieta’s well-known performances. A series, body tracks (1982), sees the artist soaking his arms in blood and then solemnly stepping on a silk banner. “There is no longer a single banner; they were probably all destroyed,” says Sabbatino. “When I spoke to Mendieta’s collaborator and frequent friend, Hans Breder, he said, ‘We didn’t think it was important to keep them.’ Can you imagine how historically significant they would have been had they been preserved?”

Nonetheless, photographs of Mendieta’s Land artwork, in which she would form silhouettes of human figures in the ground, arguably make up the largest part of her market. The gallery is selling a 1980 photograph of her Silueta series for $65,000 at Frieze London.

Sabbatino was largely responsible for building Mendieta Market, having begun working with the artist’s estate shortly after his death in 1985. At that time he was “nascent”, says Sabbatino, and the one of its biggest projects has been to digitize the large body of films. that Mendieta shot – about two-thirds of which contain “performance elements” and live action. So far, the archives are about 75% complete and have toured several US museums; Sabbatino hopes to establish a market for these works in the future.

Retroactively documenting performance practices, while necessary, is an onerous task. Olsoff says she hired two full-time employees just to work on the archives. This is something young performers face less of due to the increased availability of digital technology, but also due to a change in attitude towards documenting and marketing a performance. “Performing artists today have fewer qualms selling works wholesale,” says Lejeune. “There are many factors at play here, but the most important is that it is no longer possible to live cheaply in big cities, rent large spaces for shows and live well. These days are long gone.”

But as with their predecessors, one size doesn’t fit all of today’s performers. For example, Paul Maheke, who showed Performance Exchange last year a choreographed dance centered on his personal experience of sexual abuse, says he has declined several offers to acquire or even document his performative works that he considers “impossible to collect: “Their nature is very much related to improvisation and when they existed,” he says. “These works live in them and nowhere else.”

Mildred D. Field