The Art of Atari

by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

Tim Lapetino’s book The Art of Atari is a celebration of the visual worlds that emerged from Atari’s mission to market their video games. It is also a compendium of a certain time, the nascent culture of video gaming. An unavoidably nostalgic book – one flicks through and is brought into the images, made to ponder, made to relive distant memories. It is now that enough time has passed that a cultural paradigm can be seen and explored in its pages.

The reason why The Art of Atari is so successful amongst its followers is because Lapetino has struck a wonderful balance between image and text. Out of curiosity, I once picked up a book called A Study of Toys. It was a deceptively long-winded book that I did not finish, considering it could be held in my hand. The book’s cover was a mute red and the author, I forget the name, was printed in leaf-gold on the spine. It reminded me of a late Victorian publication – tiny words, much writing on a page. Somehow, as you may expect, the essence of what a toy is, means, or even celebrates, didn’t quite fit in the form presented.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Atari Logo image

Logo of Atari, Sunnyvale, California U.S.A.

It is that the gloom, even solemnity, of that dark print belied the content of the book. A toy gladdens the heart in some inexplicable way, a bridge to wonder and play. Where but in the image of some old toy does this fact ring true? Lapetino’s book is charged with this sentiment. Of course, it is no mere picture book. Respect could, perhaps, be paid by these emotionally charged images alone, but a little text and some history serves to contextualize this world. This is why it is not only a nostalgic book but a celebration of a culture. The cover centers itself with the bold Atari symbol while images of classic games revolve around the unchanging center.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - The Art of Atari

A copy of Art of Atari on the floor of the Carl Kruse office. Gift from Angelo Cioffari.

On to the art. The art of Atari was functional. The media surrounding an Atari game was not decked with screenshots of game play but described with sentences hoping to draw in a viewer’s interest. The art, then, was crafted for the market. If the imagery captured the heart, then so much luck for the company. Atari was special in that it had artists internally working for them – and we can draw the comparison with early twentieth century illustrators and painters working commission for advertisements – much of the work now coveted and esteemed.

This in no manner dampens the craftsmanship of the art. The art was a companion to the game, and artwork for a video game was new aesthetic territory. The artists employed under Atari, such as Cliff Spohn, Susan Jaekel and George Opperman, gave a new distinctive visual vocabulary to Atari’s games – along with the iconic company logo. This new aesthetic helped to steer buyers in Atari’s direction, but it also served as an imaginative directive. It is an incredible thing that the mind can pick up a narrative out of the most abstract shapes – for example, a triangle following a square. Likewise, the artwork of Atari was to match the pixelated abstract games with an imaginative foreground; players don’t see a pixelated duck, they see a dragon.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Millipede image

Artwork for the ATARI game “Millipede.”

The stylistic devices of the artwork, the subtle detail of perspective and attractive colors, forged a language with which to express these strange excitements exacted by game play. It was the infancy of home video gaming that provided this new space to experiment artistically, and what someone takes into their home had to be of some worth. The artwork for Atari games accepted a challenge of individually crafting each game’s image to a high standard, and the art had to endow the abstract geometries of actual game play with an emotional attachment both in and outside of the game. The particularity of each artistic design was a potential particular world that consumers would bring into their homes.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Space Invaders Art

Artwork for the ATARI game “Space Invaders.”

The artists rarely, if ever, actually played the games. Most often, they had a loose understanding of the idea of the game, and after that, the concept was theirs. Tim Lapetino cites the artwork of Atari as one of those prime movers which sets the gears turning, which in his case, was a career in graphic design. For surely as the romanticism of the art wears off to a tinge of nostalgia, one begins to inspect the art from an entirely new perspective. The design, the ability to conjure images to match abstract ideas – a concept.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Image of Missile Command

Artwork for the ATARI game “Missile Command.”

For this was implicitly the message of the art of Atari. It is possible to create, and in that creation, define an experiential activity. The ability to prove the likeness of the art to the game serves as an example in conceptualizing which can enlighten sensitivity to other facets of experience. This is not to say that all the concept art of Atari perfectly reflected the game. I’ve now heard a few people say that the leer of the pirate above the swell of waves has no particular agreement with the squares of flagship. In cases such as these, the effect is comical hyperbole.

Tim Lapetino’s book, then, unearths the mission that inspired this memorable art. The retrospective glance gives a unity to this cooperative effort to not only sell games, but to create a lasting cultural paradigm. However unified the vision now seems, it is far from obvious why a game comprised of simple geometry should be endowed with companionable art until Atari took the decisive step. It is difficult to unsee the connection. The logical progression of video games has nullified the need for such intricacies between art and the game, for such command of the imagination to link the two worlds. Lapetino’s book is drawing attention to something which is now taken for granted: the investment of imagination and emotion which is part of the gaming experience. Atari brought into the home enduring symbols which were shared by a generation of gamers, laying the foundations for the interactive and immersive spirit that the progression of gaming has supplied.  

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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Fraser Hibbitt include Thinking About Realism and the Museum of Old and New Art.
The blog’s last article was the Legacy of the Satyr.
You can also find Carl Kruse on fstoppers.

The Legacy of the Satyr

by Hazel Anna Rogers

The passing-down of literature fascinates me. I find something utterly awe-inducing in the ability of human language to convey a narrative generation after generation, and for us to have the knowledge and ingenuity to understand the importance of preserving great stories and characters. I suppose the process must be akin, in some sense, to that of a distillation chamber, in that it consists of years of inter-generational storytelling that distill the story to its essence, to the very narrative blocks that birthed it to begin with. And, from then on, the story itself is open to interpretation, thus presenting us with endless possibilities of adaptation. Tales have been pummeled, pressed, and forced into eternally variable forms, starting from anonymous fables and ending in popular animated entertainment. But do we lose something when we carve away all the layers of a story, or a character, and place in it instead our own values, our own narrative, our own words? If we present a character or story to an audience as de facto, that is to say an original work, why need our audience doubt it? I wish to present here the origins and developments of one such character, the Satyr, so as to suggest the true importance of literary and cultural heritage in the modern day.

So…the Satyr. A half man, half beast creature that allegedly emerged in works of Classical Greek mythology, and was most prominently associated with the god of ecstasy and wine, Dionysus (or Bacchus/Liber Pater in Rome), son of Zeus and Semele (the only mortal to father a god, Semele was Zeus’ mistress but swiftly found her death through the wrath of Zeus’ wife, Hera). Dionysus’ artistic importance in Greek society stems from his purported powers – to produce or inspire ecstasy – and many theatrical performances were attributed to him in festivals bearing his name. His legacy was one of exaltation, pleasure, and sexuality, thus many of the ceremonies ascribed to him involved the phallus and the theme of fecundity in the form of spirits such as satyrs.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - 2 Satyrs

Two Satyrs, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1618

The Satyr differs from the Roman ‘Faunus’, Saturn’s grandson who was revered to bring abundance to the pastoral, in that the Satyr is endowed an (erect) phallus along with horse ears and tail, whereas Faunus is half man half goat. However, in the Hellenistic era Satyrs were also presented as being part goat and man, so this distinction can sometimes be arbitrary. Perhaps a more prominent distinction can be observed in ancient Greek artwork, where Satyrs were often painted alongside women (mortals) and nymphs, whom they would attempt to woo. In Classical Athenian theater, the triad of plays performed for the Dionysia would consist of two tragedies proceeded by a bawdy tragicomedy known as the ‘Satyr play’, in which satyrs would take on the role of the chorus. Not many complete plays of this ilk remain from the period, but Euripides’ ‘Cyclops’ is one such play that we have in its entirety. As is characteristic of ‘Satyrs’, Euripides’ play is founded on debauchery and immorality, the main themes of it being gluttony and excessive ingestion (testimony to Dionysus’ title of the ‘god of wine’). The Cyclops’ belly itself is described as the ‘greatest of all divinities’, and Silenus (Dionysus’ satyresque companion) along with his chorus of satyrs are eager for Odysseus to give them his wine in exchange for the Cyclops’ food. It is a wondrous satire of one of the scenes from Homer’s epic The Odyssey. [Carl Kruse: As an aside, Prof. Emily Wilson has released a new, modernized translation of The Odyssey, which I highly recommend).

Interestingly, the lewd and sexual nature of the Satyr and the figure of Silenus have been lost to time if we look to references of them in 20th and 21st Century literature and media. Mr Tumnus, the faun-like character in C S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ (1950) is exceedingly tender and tame, despite his appearance being a sort of faun-satyr hybrid (he has a long, horse-like tail but also horns and goatish legs). The ‘Nymph and Satyr’ (1908) painting by Fauvist artist Henri Matisse is distinctly unsexual, aside from the nymph lying in front of him (which I suppose could be interpreted any such way), and with the satyr looking distinctively man-like.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Matisse painting

The Nymph and the Satyr, 1908, Henri Matisse

The satyr Grover Underwood in Rick Riordan’s popular children’s series of ‘Percy Jackson’ novels is also decidedly domestic, acting simply as a loyal friend to protagonist Percy, despite the fact that the series itself is supposedly based on Greek mythology.

Why is this important? Why is it significant that a character that continues to be portrayed in popular culture has lost its defining traits to time? Surely poetic license allows for us to make these changes? Well, yes. I agree. But I also think that this example is perfect in showing us how easily our literary and cultural heritage can fade away. In a few simple sentences, Rick Riordan has replaced the legacy of the satyr with something completely different, and I think it’s a shame to forget where these stories and characters came from in the first place. We are all influenced by what we read, listen to, and watch. As we increasingly rely on fast-paced pleasures such as social media and video games, our interest in the past wanes. Everything is moving faster, everywhere there are new possibilities, all around new futures tempt fewer people to go to university. We don’t need to spend three years learning about one field anymore in the hope of pursuing a career that brings enough money in. We can do short entrepreneur courses or make money through social media outlets. Increasing your intelligence through persistent long-term study is no longer as desirable – it has become a waste of time. You can get all the answers you could ever want through the internet.

I think there’s an alarmingly steep uphill trend of shortening attention spans aligned with the increasing normality of seeing six-year-olds with smartphones, and I find that disarming. Classics and robust tomes of literature were most definitely not shoved down my throat while I was growing up, but the names of such authors as Austen, Lawrence, and Homer were certainly not unknown to me. I loved to sit down and read thick, musty novels through day and night, often becoming so invested in the storyline of a certain protagonist that it would take an almighty level of strength to pull myself away from a book so as to have an agreeable amount of sleep. I used to get reading lights in my stockings at Christmas which only exacerbated my unhealthy night-time habits.

Through our increasing reliance on the internet to solve every question or dilemma, I do believe we have become, or are becoming, quite base thinkers. We are more inclined to rely on the satisfaction derived from a ‘like’ or ‘share’ on a social media post, our primary mode of communication, than to seek it from reading or researching the shelves in a library. Popular classic novels have been turned into graphic novels so they’re easier to ingest, and there is an ever-growing market for pseudo-babble texts that tell you how to improve your life with various methods of spirituality and finance-management. These books employ lists and short phrases to cater to our inability to concentrate on a single idea for longer than a page. Complexity seems unappealing, and ease and speed of ingestion of information is what we now seem to seek.

Reading a long book takes discipline, and time, something many of us don’t have a lot of anymore. But it also takes passion, and with a world endlessly bombarding us with all of the exciting and different things we could be doing with our time we often feel inclined to leave the quiet, secular activity of reading to one side. Even just a hundred years ago, primary and secondary schools often still taught Latin, and reading the ‘canonical’ works was non-negotiable. Though in saying that, there is much to be said about the validity of ‘canonical’ works, and I value the attempts by many university institutions to vary this ‘canon’ to include non-native English writers and literature from marginalized authors.

Why not delve deeper, why not exchange a moment of time you would normally spend binge-watching a television series on something that takes more work, more imagination? Why not pick up a fat book, one that makes you feel when you open it to the first page that it is so impossibly long that you could never possibly finish it? Why not read the books that have influenced timeless authors through the centuries, and see if they inspire you just as much? Why not invest time learning about the history of all of the art and literature around you, all that made us what we are today?

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Contact: carl At carlkruse DOT com.
Other articles by Hazel Anna Rogers include When Did We Stop Criticizing Art and Paper Books, E-Book Dreams.
The blog’s last post was on Brunelleschi’s Dome.
Carl Kruse is also on the Goodreads book site.

Filippo Brunelleschi and his Dome

By Asia Leonardi for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), architect and engineer, sculptor and painter, is universally considered the pioneer of the Italian Renaissance and the creator of an approach to architecture that would dominate the European art scene, at least until the end of the 19th century. Through a passionate study of antiquity that brought him several times to Rome starting from 1402, he reacted to the anti-classicism of late Gothic architecture and artistic culture, referring consistently to the language of the ancients and proposing new design systems based on modular structures. The keystone of this cultural and technical turning point was the invention of the vanishing point perspective in which the great technological tradition of Tuscan architects and masters was combined with the new trends of scientific thought, all converging towards the ever-increasing use of mathematical tools in the study of reality.

By unifying all orthogonal lines towards a single vanishing point, the scientific rules were built to objectively measure the decrease in depth of bodies inserted in space. The  Florentine artist was among the first to elaborate and use rules and numerical relationships in the architectural construction of space and figurative representation. And this, together with the effort to identify the geometric principles used to organize the reproduction and creation of space, was the basis of a return to antiquity.

Architecture was for Brunelleschi a tool for mathematical control of design. Classical architecture is understood as an example of the exact measurability of space, as a clear example of the concrete possibility of subjecting the whole substantial reality of architectural space to rigorous mathematical formulas.


With Brunelleschi, a new system of organization of the construction site and of construction work came about and the new social figure of the architect was born.

The architect was no longer a superintendent of works, endowed with equal dignity concerning workers to a large extent operating on an autonomous level concerning him, as was the case in the Middle Ages, but an intellectual, cultured, an updated figure, who conceived and prepared the project and the details of the building, to which the activity of the workers, artisans, and contractors engaged in the work had to be instructed.

It was the end of the ancient organization of building activity, which had supported and achieved the great Florentine, and more generally Tuscan urban expansion of the 12th and 13th centuries. In a new relationship with the client, the new artist, as was outlined in the Bruneschellian experience, was a well-defined figure in his individuality, who ventured into the field of artistic innovation with a new, freer and more secular spirit.

But the figure of Brunelleschi would still be unclear if we did not put him in his historical context, in his place, that is, in Florence at the height of its territorial expansion and closely linked to its republican institutions. In the first sixty years of the fifteenth century Filippo Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Beato Angelico, Donatello, Nanni di Banco, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Filippo Lippi, Leon Battista Alberti, Luca Della Robbia, and other artists lived and worked in Florence, all animated by the same effort of cultural transformation, all converging in outlining the contents of new art and a new artistic figure.

Why, we might ask, did this constellation of artists come together in Florence? The early Renaissance artists, like few other examples in history (and the comparison with the Athens of the 5th century BC, although abused, may be useful), was configured as the expression, in the work of artists, of a cultural renewal that affected the entire city.

Thus, the desire of the artists to revive the noble classical prototypes was linked to the fervor of literary and humanistic studies and above all to the investigation, the enhancement of the virtues of the ancients, to the awareness that they could relive – indeed, that they were living – in contemporary Florence.

The Search for Measures and Proportions: Inspiration From the Classic

The trip to Rome (between 1402 and 1404) with Donatello was decisive for the formation of Brunelleschi’s architectural ideas. While his friend was more interested in the still visible examples of ancient sculpture, Brunelleschi studied the proportion of buildings and construction techniques. From Rome he returned with the idea that the architect should invent the overall structure of the building in proportional terms: concentrate on those, as the value and beauty of the work depended on them, and abolish the superstructure of the decorative elements, so dear to Gothic architecture. The assumption of ancient orders served this purpose: to limit the structural and decorative uncertainty of the Gothic to a reduced and correlated case study, according to ancient rules. The distance between two columns, to give an example, does not determine the height of the pointed arch thrown above them but instead defines the height of a round arch that joins them and allows to proportion the measures of the base and those of the height of the arch. The column, the pillar, the pilaster, the entablature, the round arch were the indispensable ingredients of an architectural practice that had, as its primary purpose, the creation of modular structures and the geometric rationalization of the plans and elevations. This is the radical innovation of the architectural practice made by Brunelleschi, who gave concrete proof of it in the buildings, secular or ecclesiastical, entrusted to him by the Florentine public groups and, more rarely, also by some private clients.

 The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Brunelleschi’s meditations on radial harmony developed during a long gestation resulting in one of his most daring and complex projects, the very symbol of the Florentine Renaissance and one of his best-known works in the world: the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

He was involved in it from 1417 until his death, through successive phases in which the various components of the colossal project were progressively developed: the huge converging caps raised in the void upwards, above the drum; the final lantern, keystone of the dome (completed around 1460, after the artist’s death); the dead stands, decorative elements but also buttresses of the formidable lateral thrusts caused by the large dome. Brunelleschi’s genius in this undertaking, as has been repeatedly noted, did not consist so much in the conception of the pointed arch shape of the dome, which was forced by objective requirements (for such dimensions it was not possible to think of using a hemispherical shape ), as in the ability to prepare the tools to complete the work (construction systems, machinery) and in the correct planning of the work phases.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - diagram

Problems Posed by Construction.

The conclusion of the large apse tribune of Santa Maria del Fiore, by Arnolfo di Cambio (1367), and the subsequent erection of the massive octagonal drum (1413) with its four meter-thick walls, had left open the difficult problem of completing construction of the cathedral through an enormous dome, already foreseen by the original Arnolfian project. The opening that was intended to be covered by the dome, almost forty-two meters in diameter, was slightly smaller than the largest dome of antiquity, the Pantheon.

Following the competition launched at the Opera del Duomo in 1418, the construction of the dome was entrusted to Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, who were proclaimed winners after their joint a model of the project. The work began in 1420 and with that also disagreements between the two artists, and in 1426 Brunelleschi found himself with sole responsibility, something new for him, of the direction of the works.

The great innovation he introduced in the construction of the brick dome, supported by eight large white ribs, was the use of a load-bearing structure in every major phase of the work. The choice was a must: at this distance above the ground, it was not conceivable to use wooden reinforcements (ribs), as the traditional technique required.

Project and Organization of Works.

By adopting a double cap, internal and external, Brunelleschi simplified and strengthened the construction, placing the external one, parallel to the first, on twenty-four supports raised above the segments of the internal dome. The external dome was designed for practical and aesthetic purposes, to better protect the building from water, and to make it appear, as the work of the cathedral demanded, more magnificent and spacious.

It was up to Brunelleschi to think of the mechanical devices necessary to solve the complex problems of installation. For example, to lift the building material on the scaffolding he provided platforms for the workers; he even designed special boats for the transport of marble and bricks along the Arno. He designed every aspect of the dome covering, a first in the history of modern architecture, the position of sole manager.

Religious Significance and Earthly Significance.

After sixteen years of intense work, the dome was consecrated on 25 March 1436 by Pope Eugene IV. From a symbolic-religious point of view, it represented the triumphal crown of the Virgin to whom the Florentine cathedral was dedicated. But far more important was the earthly, social, and political significance of the work. Emblem of a city that had expanded its borders, the dome rose, with its expanded volume, over the roofs of the medieval city, detaching itself from the underlying body of the basilica, demonstrating a new way of considering history and space. Admired from afar, against the background of the hills that surround Florence, the dome, for the essentialness of its lines, for the visual effect induced by the contrast between the red brick of the caps and the white curvilinear ribs, becomes the pulsating center of a large urban system; dominating the entire region. The effect it had on his contemporaries must have been great because, as Alberti wrote, it seemed to “cover all the Tuscan peoples with its shadow”. It is a work still linked to the spirit of the Gothic because it is based on the  calculation of structural forces in equilibrium, but the result of a new mentality as it redefines and re-proportioned the underlying building redesigns and subdues the surrounding area. However, it is a Renaissance work because, as the architectural historian Leonardo Benevolo wrote, it is the first “where the architect is not only a high-level consultant for a collective body of executors, but the only one responsible for the form, decoration, structure, and construction site organization”.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Sketch of Dome


Construction Techniques of the Dome

The size of the dome that was to be built forced Brunelleschi to adopt new solutions to solve extremely difficult technical problems, also aggravated by the considerable height. The work was entrusted to him not because he had presented a particularly compellingly shaped dome model, but because he had provided a coherent work plan for its construction.

Brunelleschi found solutions to thousands of practical questions, capturing the wonder and admiration of his contemporaries. Vasari lists some of these measures: Brunelleschi had organized a lighting system for the stairs and corridors that run, at various levels, between the internal and external envelope of the dome and had placed the iron support points there to make it easier go up and walk through those tunnels; he had arranged the support points for the scaffolding of whoever, in the future, would have wanted to decorate the inner shell with paintings or mosaics, as in fact happened.

 He had designed an elaborate rainwater drainage system; on the outside, he had even provided for “holes and several openings, so that the winds break, and the vapors together with earthquakes could not cause damage”. He went to the kilns to check that he was supplied with flawless bricks; he chose the stones one by one, making sure they weren’t cracked. He provided the stonecutters with models in wood and wax, and even carving them in turnips, in order to show them how the joints were to fix one stone to another. Nor could he overlook the problem of the organization of work. When the construction site gradually moved to higher altitudes, Vasari writes again, “workers lost a lot of time in going to dinner and drink, and they suffered great discomfort due to the heat of the day. It was therefore established by Filippo the order that taverns should have been opened in the dome with the kitchens, and wine should have been sold; and so no one would left work, except in the evening; which was to their convenience”. But the workers needed solid scaffolding to work safely at such high altitudes. At the beginning of the work, when the dome wall was still almost vertical, the scaffolding was supported by beams inserted into the wall, both inside and outside the building: but lastly, given the strong inclination of the masonry, he had to think of a different system. Filippo Brunelleschi designed a scaffolding suspended in the void, located in the center of the dome, probably supported by long beams on platforms fixed at lower altitudes. these platforms were also to serve as warehouses for materials and work tools. Brunelleschi had to take steps to lift the heavy bricks to the height of the installation.

He partly used traditional machines, derived from the construction practice of Gothic cathedrals, but he had to invent new ones, applying the multiplier system, invented for the manufacture of watches, which was able to increase the effectiveness of the strength of winches and pulleys. In such machines, the engine was driven by a couple of horses. By walking in circles, animals could rotate a vertical shaft. This, in turn, impressed it on a horizontal shaft from which the ropes that supported the loads, fixed at a height to pulleys, rolled and unwound. In this way bricks and stones could rise and fall through a difference in height of tens and tens of meters.


Homepage: Carl Kruse
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Asia Leonardi focus on Maria Abramovic, Frida Kahlo and Forgotten Places.
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For those interested in green building construction find Carl Kruse at the USGBC here.

Marina Abramović, Grandmother of Performance Art

By Asia Leonardi for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

This story begins with a woman standing motionless in a room. Half-naked, a trickle of blood dribbles on her breasts, her eyes swollen with tears, and a gun is aimed at her while surrounded by a group of men. This is not the scene from a crime film, but one of Marina Abramović’s best known performances. 

The performances of the Serbian artist make noise, scandalize, and are often frightening in their ability to dig into the darkest caverns of the self, playing on the border between life and death. Her works are cathartic rituals that push the viewer into the abysses of their soul and then bring them back to the surface, purified. Maybe better. 

Everything has been said about her, for better or for worse. What is certain is that regardless of the judgments, Marina Abramović has revolutionized the world of performance art, making each of her works an event to be told to others, like an adventure, a journey into the depths of oneself. 

Marina Abramović (Belgrade, 1946) is a Serbian artist, naturalized in the United States, and active artistically since the 1960s. She is famous for performances that explore the most instinctive (and often obscure) traits of the human soul. She defined herself as “Grandmother of Performance Art” to underline the revolutionary significance of her way of understanding artistic performance which, in her case, often involves the participation of the public, both mentally and physically. 

Marina Abramović’s biography offers interesting insights right from the start. Her parents were partisans during the Second World War while her grandfather, a patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, was even proclaimed a saint. 

There are three key cities to tell her story: Belgrade, Amsterdam, and New York. 

Belgrade is her homeland, where she took her first steps in the world of art, attending the Academy of Fine Arts from 1965 to 1972; Amsterdam is the city where she met the German artist Ulay, a fundamental partner in her creative activity and life; finally, New York, the city of consecration, where the artist still resides today. 

But what is performance art? 

Performance art is an exhibition consisting of an artist who presents themself in front of an audience and creates something unique. The term that defines this new art form was born in the 1960’s and places the event at the center of the whole performance: this art intends to live a unique experience that the artist shares with their audience. 

Hic et Nunc: this is how performative art can be defined. “Here and now”, an event that must be fully enjoyed at the moment, its aspects, meanings, and sensations must be grasped before these vanish at the end of the performance. 

Performance art is not just the work that speaks to the public, it is a dialogue that is established between the performer and the audience. It can involve multiple disciplines and can also be improvised or studied in every detail, enjoyed through media or live. The fact is that without an audience this form of art would lose much of its deepest meaning. 

The artist’s own body is often the bridge between artistic experimentation and the public. The performative turn makes contemporary art an event, a social, ritual, and spectacular act; in this relational art, the experience of the world becomes embodiment, not only mental but above all physical. The body becomes a canvas, testimony, and artistic medium. The importance of the body in performance art is such that it deserves a definition in itself: when we talk about performance art we are also talking about body art, art through the body, and of the body. 

Among the most famous works by Marina Abramović is the series of performances entitled Rhythm or the series Freeing The Body, Freeing The Memory, Freeing The Voice, performed in the 1970s. 

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Marina Abramovic 1

In particular, the Rhythm series was striking for the violence that the artist inflicted on herself, bringing her body to the extreme physical limit. Emblematic is the case of the performance Rhythm 5 (1975) during which Abramović risked her life.

The artist stretched out in the center of a five-pointed wooden star, positioned in the center of a room which was then set on fire. In this prison of fire, however, the air soon became unbreathable, so much so that Abramovic passed out, though luckily, bystanders noticed the problem and helped the artist escape.

However, the performance Rhythm 0, held in Naples in 1974, aroused even more of a stir. Here the artist stood in the center of a room where various objects were present (knives, feathers, ropes, scissors, even a gun) and explained to the spectators that for six hours she would remain motionless as an object and everyone could do with that body what they wanted. With impunity.

 After a couple of hours of hesitation, the spectators began to rage on the artist, in a violent and uncontrolled way: they cut her clothes, shredded her skin with a razor blade, pointed the gun at her. At that point other spectators intervened and a heated discussion arose that almost led to blows.

The performance, all in all, had worked. It had shown the worst of human beings who, if sure of impunity, risk giving vent to the worst sadistic fantasies. However, Abramović’s work ended with faint hope. Someone, in the end, had opposed that senseless violence.

In Amstrerdam in 1976 Marina Abramović met the German performer Uwe Laysiepen (aka “Ulay”). A profound artistic and sentimental union was born immediately. 

The series of works made in pairs is called Relations works: complex and disturbing performances, functional to explore the physical and psychic limits of human resistance and the theme of the man-woman relationship. 

Carl Kruse Art Blog AAA-AAA

 Their intentions are described in the Art Vital manifesto: “Living art: no fixed abode, permanent movement, direct contact, local relationship, self-selection, overcoming limits, risk-taking, energy in motion, no evidence, no set end, no replication, extended vulnerability, exposure to chance, primary reactions “.

The first performances that are conceived early in their relationship are physically extreme. In  “AAA-AAA”, “Relation in time” and “Breathing in / Breathing out” the two artists make visible the sufferings, contradictions and needs of the couple bond: they present themselves as an androgynous being, capable of containing male and female energies simultaneously.

Carl Kruse Art Blog, Relation in time

In the first performance, “AAA-AAA”, they sit opposite each other, emitting a monotonous sound that becomes more and more intense as the minutes pass, until it turns into a scream and one of the two gives up exhausted.

In the second performance, “Relation in Time”, made in Bologna, the artists influenced by Asian meditation practices sit back to back with their hair tied tightly together for sixteen long hours. The public is allowed to watch the last hour when overwhelmed by fatigue, the two begin to let themselves go physically.

“Breathing in / Breathing out” reaches an even higher level of suggestion: Abramovic and Ulay close their mouths with each other, plug their nostrils with cigarette filters and breathe the air expelled from the other for 17 minutes. until they collapse to the ground practically poisoned by the carbon dioxide emitted by the other.

In June 1977, in the midst of the sexual revolution, Abramovic and Ulay created “Imponderabilia” at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Bologna. The performance is still part of the collective imagination due to the audacity and intelligence shown through the execution of a simple and impactful gesture. They position themselves opposite each other at the entrance to the Gallery, completely naked, thus forcing the public to pass between their bodies. The exhibition puts a strain on the Italian visitors, forcing them to deal with feelings such as shame and modesty, in a historic moment of transition from a puritanical society to a more sexually free and uninhibited one.

“Rest Energy” then raises the degree of difficulty of their artistic experimentation to the point of making them risk their safety: showing the public that the strength of their art lies in living it to the extreme, in order to create a fracture in the sensitivity of the beholder. The two place a bow between them: the arrow is pointed at Abramovic’s heart while Ulay pulls the string back. The center of gravity of the two is abandoned, only the arch keeps them standing. The microphones record the heartbeats and the labored breathing of both: her life is at the mercy of the balance that is created between them: a slight failure could kill her. The performance lasts four interminable minutes, in which they manage to represent the concepts of time and trust in a single gesture.

Carl Kruse Art Blog, Rest/Energy

Abramovic and Ulay shared twelve years, loving and working together. In a recent television interview, she confessed that the last three years of the relationship were horrible: betrayals, misunderstandings, accusations. The more their fame grew, the more the couple’s relationship deteriorated. Ulay could not stand celebrity, while Abramovic manages to regulate it and benefit from it to make her ideas known.

In 1988 they decide to leave each other in their own way: a painful and private decision is transformed once again into an artistic act and a suggestive gesture for every couple who have decided to put an end to a great love. Their latest performance is “The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk”. The last epic act of a love that tried to make itself intelligible to everyone, so much so that it reached the degree of universality and of total sharing. With an action reminiscent of the one that inaugurated the beginning of their history, to honor the end, they choose the Great Wall of China. Walking each from the two opposite ends of the Wall, they decide to meet halfway after ninety days and end, with great emotion, their story.

Marina Abramovic and Ulay from that moment will no longer have contact for 23 years, until, on the occasion of the performance organized by her at the MOMA in New York entitled “The Artist is Present,” which forces her to remain seated for seven hours a day at a table with one empty chair in front of her, and anyone can sit down and watch her in silence for two minutes. To everyone’s surprise, one of the visitors is Ulay.

Carl Kruse Art Blog - Artists Together

Unexpectedly, there is her old partner in art and life sitting n that chair, giving life to a moving moment: a performance in the performance – extemporaneous, unrepeatable – which, born in the age of social networks, will be subject to destiny of sharing by reaching the widest possible audience.

“I am half, he is half and together we are one,” Marina Abramovic said of herself and Ulay. Over the years, many critics and detractors have accused them of not having made true art, but however you view it, it cannot be denied that their works have created suggestions whose effects still reverberate in the eyes and conscience of those who decide to see their performances. Together they investigated the strength of an instant, the precariousness of the couple’s relationship, with its poisons and inexplicable balances and demonstrated the instability of the concept of time, giving in their way an essential contribution to human expression.

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Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Asia Leonardi include exposes of Frida Kahlo, Charlotte Salomon, and Jackson Pollock.
Her last article focused on Pop and Optical art.