The Artistic Influence of Abramović: “The Grandmother of Performance Art”

Today Marina Abramović is known as “the grandmother of performance art,” due to her role as a pioneer of the use of performance art as a visual arts medium. Abramović began her career in performance in 1973, when she was already in her late twenties. Before that, as a student of painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, Abramović explored her interest in the body through paintings influenced by the abstract forms of Picasso (image 1). However, Abramović quickly found herself frustrated by the limits of expression in painting, and upon her exposure to the performance art medium while at school in Zagreb, her works became increasingly immaterial.

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Image 1. Abramović at the opening of an exhibition of her abstract cloud paintings. c. 1970, Belgrade, Serbia. During this time she painted primarily abstract works of clouds, voluptuous women, and car crashes.


Image 2. More information on Marcel Duchamp is available here.

Abramović cites Marcel Duchamp and Dada (image 2), as well as the Fluxus movement, as being immensely influential on her work. In the 1960s George Maciunas started Fluxus, also directly influenced by Duchamp’s ready-mades, and Dada performances. Fluxus called for  a living art outside the traditional gallery setting.

Fluxus and Dada both advocated art of experience, in which the embrace of chance, and an emphasis on audience interaction was crucial towards ridding the world of the “dead” art found in galleries and institutions.


“I have arrived at the conclusion that…the performance has no meaning without the public because, as Duchamp said it is the public that completes the work of art. In the case of performance, I would say that public and performer are not only complimentary but almost inseparable.”

-Abramović on the influence of Duchamp in her emphasis on audience interaction.

Yoko Ono is one such Fluxus artist who was working in New York in the 1970s, and whose emphasis on the role of the audience, and challenge of passive viewership, is paralleled in Abramović’s Rhythms series of 1973-74. In particular, Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) (image 3) and Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974) (image 4) emphasize a shared interest in the use of their own bodies as victims to chance to enforce active instead of passive viewership.

Image 3. Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964. Performance. Yamaichi Concert Hall, Kyoto, Japan.  Video from this performance available here.


Image 4. Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, 1974. Performance. 6 hours. Studio Mona, Naples, Italy. Video about this performance available here.


Since Abramović began her performance career forty years ago, she has become one of the most influential performance artists in history for her use of her own body as both the subject and the medium in performances which test her physical end mental endurance, while also emphasizing audience interaction.

For more information about Dada or Fluxus, follow the links below.

Learn more about Dada here.


Learn more about the Fluxus movement and Fluxus Happenings here.


Abramović in The Context of the 1960s and 1970s

Performance and Body Art in the 1970s:

From the end of the 1960s forward, an interest in “body” art emerged, in which both male and female artists turned to the “isolated physical self,” sacrificing themselves to risky and distressing actions as a means to shock their audiences and to challenge commodification of art by museums and galleries. During this period of political and social activism, Marina Abramović, along with Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci, Yoko Ono, and other artists, turned to the physical presence of the body in performance and body art as an attempt to jolt the viewer from their traditional role of passivity. Performance through the medium of the body became a place to acknowledge issues linked to women’s agency, as well as issues of race, sexuality, and otherness. This heightened interest in performance emerged along with the influence of Fluxus, started by George Maciunas in the 1960s, in which artists embraced chance and audience interaction as a means to “purge the world of dead art.”


Durational works  became increasingly popular in the 1970s for their rejection of traditional authorship or regularity, in direct opposition to the commodity culture related to the gallery or institution. These durational works were continuously in flux and therefore unpredictable and did not fit within a traditional gallery setting. Since the 1970s, Abramović has been a pioneer for the use of performance as a visual art form, using the body and duration as a means to test her mental and physical limits. In these durational works, such as her Rhythms series (1973-74) or Lips of Thomas (1975) (video available here), the long periods of time are used to push Abramović’s mental and physical limits, while also challenging the passivity of the viewer, who is made increasingly uncomfortable in watching the artist’s own suffering.

For more details, an informative, concise overview of performance in the 1960s and 1970s is available on the Walker Art Center’s website here.

Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0 (1974): In this performance Abramović stood passively in a gallery for 6 hours during which time her audience had the opportunity to do whatever they wished with her body, using any of 72 objects she provided. Over the 6 hour period her audience became increasingly aggressive, finally ending when one member placed a gun to Abramovic’s neck.


Marina Abramović, Lips of Thomas (1975). In this piece, over two hours, a naked Abramović, eats a pound of honey, drinks a liter of red wine, carves a five-pointed communist star into her abdomen, then whips herself until she can’t bear it. The brutality of the piece forces the viewer to suffer along with the suffering of the artist.


Follow the links below to learn about other major body art and performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s: 

Carolee Schneemann:
In Schneemann’s 1975 Interior Scroll Schneemann, after applying paint to her face and body, and enacting a series of “life model action poses,” slowly drew a scroll of paper from her vagina and read aloud from it. By embracing core imagery through the presentation of her naked body, Schneemann rejected the phallus in favor of female sexual empowerment: “Using my body as an extension of my painting-constructions challenged and threatened the psychic territorial power lines by which women, in 1963, were admitted to the Art Stud Club, so long as they behaved enough like the men, and did work clearly in the traditions and pathways hacked out by men.”

interior scroll
Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975. Performance.

Vito Acconci:
In 1971 Vito Acconci lay hidden under a wooden ramp in New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, and intermittently masturbated, basing his sexual fantasies off of the sounds of the gallery visitors above him. Acconci expressed these fantasies aloud, where they were then projected through speakers into the gallery space. The piece emphasizes the vital role of the viewer, whose actions directly influence the development of the work. The visitors are taken out of a role of passivity and instead are unexpectedly objectified by Acconci’s actions below the ramp.

Vito Acconci, Seedbed, 1972. Performance. Sonnabend Gallery, New York. 10 minutes.

Yoko Ono:

Another female artist who was incorporating the viewer as a vital component in performance art in the 1960s and 1970s is Yoko Ono. In 1964 Ono performed Cut Piece, in which Ono sat passively on a stage, fully clothed, and invited her audience members to mount the stage and cut off a piece of her clothing using the scissors she placed on the floor beside her. This performance reflects Ono’s participation in the Fluxus movement, through her emphasis on audience interaction. The performance is dependent on the actions and reactions of her viewers, and therefore is unpredictable and constantly in flux.

Yoko Ono Cut Piece
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964 Performance. Yamaichi Concert Hall, Kyoto, Japan.



My Personal Favorite Work by Abramović

Marina Abramović and Ulay, Imponderabilia, 1977, Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna, Italy


My personal favorite performance by Marina Abramović: Imponderabilia (1977):


In 1976 Abramović met Ulay, and over the next decade they collaborated in a series of relational performances during which they referred to themselves as a collective, androgynous being called “Ulay-Abramović.” In these works Abramović and Ulay questioned the socially defined identities of both femininity and masculinity, while also continuing to test their limits. These performances by Abramović and Ulay were not meant to be pleasing spectacles, but rather to disturb the viewer from a role of passivity.


In their 1977 performance, Imponderabilia, Abramović and Ulay stood as human doorposts on either side of the narrow entrance to the Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna, in Bologna, Italy. The narrowness of the space forced visitors to squeeze sideways between them, forced to choose whether to face the naked Ulay or naked Abramović in order to enter the museum. Upon viewing the filmed footage from this performance, one notes that what stands out the most in this piece is not the vulnerability of the two naked artists, but rather the vulnerability and uncertainty of the visitors. Each person, upon reaching the entrance, was forced to decide first, whether they would enter the museum, and next, whether they would face the naked Abramović or the naked Ulay. By placing these decisions in the hands of the viewer, Imponderabilia becomes a performance of reflection on the subsequent reactions and interactions of the spectators. This piece also reflects Abramović and Ulay’s shared interest in duration, as the piece was performed in shifts, repeated throughout the exhibition, for a total of 700 hours.

Marina Abramović and Ulay, Imponderabilia, 1977.


Video of the Imponderabilia performance is available here.

Annotated Bibliography

Below is a list of the top ten most relevant print and online resources that I have found in researching the life and performance art of Marina Abramović, as well as about performance and body art in general:

  1. Abramović, Marina, Biesenbach, Klaus, and Museum of Modern Art. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010.

This exhibition catalogue was published in conjunction with Marina Abramović’s performance The Artist is Present, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. The catalogue includes essays by Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art, Klaus Biesenbach, as well as four other scholars who analyze Marina Abramović’s performances through the themes of time, duration, and risk. The book covers over forty years of Abramović’s career, from her early sound environments and installations, to her current body art performances.

  1. Jones, Amelia.Body Art/performing the Subject. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

This book by Amelia Jones is a seminal text about performance and body art from the 1960s and 1970s and their influence on the body art of the present. In her discussion, Jones applies feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary theory in order to provide a diverse perspective to the history, influences and goals of body art performances from the 1950s onward.

  1. Dezeuze, Anna.The ‘do-it-yourself’ Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media. Rethinking Art’s Histories. Manchester, UK: New York: Manchester University Press; Distributed in the United States by Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

This anthology by Anna Dezeuze emphasizes the crucial role of the spectator through a discussion of various practices including happenings, installations, and performances from the 1950s to today. These essays provide a thorough historical background to the development of performance art from the 1950s to present, while also discussing theory on viewership and identity. Frazer Ward’s essay “Marina Abramović: approaching zero,” and Anna Dezeuze’s essay “Play, Ritual, and Politics: transitional artworks in the 1960s,” are particularly useful in their discusses of the themes of Abramović’s performance art, as well as work of other artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

  1. Westcott, James.When Marina Abramović Dies: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010.

This biographical history of Marina Abramović thoroughly covers Abramović’s life from her early beginnings in Yugoslavia; to her increasing success as one of the contemporary art world’s most influential performance artists. Westcott discusses not only Abramović’s seminal performance works, but also thoroughly covers Abramović’s influential beginnings in Yugoslavia from 1946 to 1975, with particular interest in her tremulous relationship with her parents.

  1. Crow, Thomas (1996).The Rise of the Sixties: American and European art in the era of dissent(Perspectives (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)). New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams.

This book by Thomas Crow provides an extensive overview of the art and major social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s both in the United States and in Europe. Crow leads the reader along a timeline following formative events and movements of the period, and neatly parallels this history with artists and artworks whose evolutions reflect their historical context.

  1. Thurman, Judith. “Walking Through Walls: Marina Abramović’s Performance Art.”The New Yorker. March 8, 2010.

This fascinating article by Judith Thurman was written in preparation for Abramović’s then upcoming MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present (2010). However, this article not only discusses the upcoming exhibition, but provides an in-depth account of Abramović’s background (both her personal history and performance history), starting with her upbringing in former-Yugoslavia under strict Partisan war-hero parents, and moving forward to give a detailed overview of Abramović major performances from 1973 to present (2010).

  1. Reckitt, Helena, and Phelan, Peggy. Art and Feminism. Themes and Movements. London; New York, NY: Phaidon, 2001.

This book is a monumental resource for anyone interested in learning not just about Marina Abramović, but also about over 150 other major female artists. Art and Feminism is organized thematically, and includes images, brief essays and interviews, as well as an entire section dedicated to social, political and theoretical essays by a variety of top feminist scholars.

  1. Jones, A. (1997). “Presence” in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation.Art Journal, 56(4), 11-18.

This article by art historian Amelia Jones, focuses on the issue of ephemerality in performance art, and its subsequent reliance on documentation. Jones, in her overview of performance art from the 1960s to present, includes detailed case studies of major performance and body artists including Marina Abramović, Carolee Schneemann, and Yayoi Kusama, in which she analyzes their performances in relationship to issues of agency, objectivity, presence, and documentation.

  1. Goldberg, RoseLee.Performance: Live Art since 1960. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1998.

In this survey of performance art from the 1960s to present (1998), RoseLee Goldberg provides an in-depth analysis of major movements and artists definitive of performance art. Thematic sections cover topics relevant to the work of Marina Abramović (who is discussed in detail, however, is not the sole focus of the book) such as body, politics, theater, feminism, and multiculturalism, and Goldberg pairs her discussion of these themes with fantastic photographs that illustrate her case studies.

  1. Abramović, Marina, Thompson, Chris, and Weslien, Katarina. “Pure Raw: Performance, Pedagogy, and (Re)presentation.”PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 28, no. 1 (2006): 29-50.

In this extensive interview with Abramović, Chris Thompson and Katarina Weslien begin by providing a concise but detailed biography of Abramović, followed by an in-depth discussion with the artist in which they discuss her attraction to performance as a living medium, the use of her own body, the element of risk and chance, as well as the defining element of duration recurring in her performance works. The dialogue is grounded in examples from a multitude of Abramović’s performance works from the 1970s to today.




Marina Abramović (Brief Biography)

Marina portrait

Marina Abramović (b.1946, Belgrade, Serbia)

Marina Abramović was born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Her parents were Partisan war heroes who helped fight the Nazis in World War II and held high positions in the communist government. Abramović’s upbringing by her parents was extremely strict, enforcing a 10 pm curfew for Abramović into her twenties.  She began her career in performance art in the early 1970s, when she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, and many of her early works were a form of rebellion to her oppressive communist upbringing. Abramović’s desire for unrestricted expression of her mental and physical self led her into increasingly conceptual work, gradually moving into sound installations before enacting her first performance piece, Rhythm 10 at the Edinburgh Festival in 1973. Over the next year Abramović performed four more pieces, in a series called Rhythms, in which she tested the psychological and physical limitations of her own body, as well as the consciousness of her audience.

Marina Abramović, Rhythm 10, 1973, 1 hour. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Villa Borghese, Rome.

Over the past forty years, Abramović has used her body as a tool to test both physical and emotional limits. At the same time that Abramović explores her own physical and psychological limitations, she also challenges passive viewership. Abramović’s performances are characterized by endurance and pain, as well as by repetition, duration, and an emphasis on audience interaction.



Today Abramović is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of performance art, and has been dubbed “the grandmother of performance art.” She is currently in the process of opening her very own Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson, NY. At the MAI, Abramović’s long-durational approach to performance (defined on the MAI website as 6 hours or more), called the Abramović Method, will be taught to the public in order to preserve the legacy of performance art. It is estimated to officially open in 2015. You can visit the official MAI website here.

Architectural rendering of the Marina Abramović Institute in Hudson, NY. Currently under construction.