It’s possible that incoming students at SUNY-New Paltz are unaware that the art world holds their professor Thomas Albrecht in high esteem. Perhaps that’s because Albrecht focuses his creativity on work that disappears. Performance art occurs. And then it’s gone. It’s like a really good joke: You have to be there to experience its full impact.
“Students in art school often believe there’s a specific intention the artist has in a painting,” Albrecht explains. “What they discover quickly is that meanings are very fluid… One of the things about performance art is that somebody can view it and walk away, and have a radically different experience than I’ve intended. I’ve had this happen, where someone’s walked up or contacted me afterward and said, ‘This is what this evoked in me.’ And it wasn’t in my sphere of making at all. But I think what they took from it was completely valid and important for them – especially if it challenged or provoked them, and they were able to care beyond that present moment and have it continue to live. That’s how the work lives.”
Albrecht received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale University and his MFA from the University of Washington. At SUNY-New Paltz, he serves as assistant dean in the School of Fine and Performing Arts and associate professor in the Art Department.
In one of his recent performance pieces, Albrecht dressed in full business regalia and prostrated himself on a busy sidewalk. His performance took him from a hotel room to the ocean, where he lay down in the sand, then walked into the water and out again, and on up the beach…
Ann Hutton: What are you up to in that piece?
Thomas Albrecht: I was officially trained and am credentialed as a painter. When I was in grad school, I became more interested in materials – how materials would be used in making large-scale drawings, in particular. My artistic practice was to do very long durational drawings that were about covering up previous work and then uncovering it, like an excavation process. I’d work on a seven-by-seven-foot drawing for a year, reduced down to very elemental materials I’d used since the beginning of my artmaking: gesso, graphite and paper, with the addition of some wax. I continued doing these beyond grad school and into my first teaching position, which was in the Midwest. The drawings became much more about time and were done on walls on a daily basis, with almost a ritual aspect.
There was also the intention that people would witness these activities by me coming in at a designated time and literally marking the wall. We were heavily involved in Iraq, and the US military was very good at documenting how many deaths we had on our side. And then there was a website that attempted to track, with some sort of scientific accuracy, the number of Iraqi deaths – both civilian and people in the military – based on reports from the area and newspaper outlets other than the US. So you had this complicated and messy side, and the US military deaths, which were very precise.
I decided to do a piece called Us and Them on two walls in a gallery space. I would go in daily and very systematically, with a ruler, track the US military deaths. On the opposite side, I did the typical [four strokes and a slash], and those would get erased and drawn over. It was very messy. There was a separation between the two walls, but they stood side-by-side for several months. And when the exhibition closed, the walls were painted over and that was gone. The local YMCA wanted me to continue the practice, and I continued for a year. That led to other wall drawings that were tracking bits of information.
That’s the element of time you’re talking about? It’s not a one-shot deal?
Yeah, it was less about the drawing than the marking of time… I was just trying to negotiate the things I felt couldn’t be done in a painting or in drawing…
When I arrived in New York, my intention was to return to painting. I was doing performative experiments on public streets, which were very different than the ones in galleries and museums. On the public street, you have an expectation about how things are going to play out, but there’s no control and you’re incredibly vulnerable. You’re a human being acting in the world, but in a very specific way. And you’re dealing with passersby and have no idea how people are going to react. So for me, coming from the Midwest with a Midwestern mentality [in which] you don’t disrupt things; you keep your head down and…
Yeah, be nice. And now you’re disrupting public space… There was one early performance in front of the Whitney Biennial in 2006 where I lay down in a beautiful suit on the pavement, and had a quick response from security, who called the police. They were concerned that I had somehow fallen down, or I was mentally ill. They were very kind. But those pieces, in retrospect, were very psychologically difficult because of the way I felt, not only during, but after. It was disrupting public space, and it was disrupting my own ideas about my place in the world as well – who I was and how I was acting.
Don’t you get confronted by that all the time? You’re doing this in a much more demonstrative way, but I’m thinking of responses I get from people about something I’ve written. It makes me stop and think, “Who am I really in this matter?” Is that what you intend to provoke, or are you just exploring?
Early on, I was posing questions for myself. There was a nice aspect of being unskilled and not knowing what I was doing. The actions were very intentional and specific, but you find out very quickly that you must adjust to the situation, adjust your intentions. It’s the nature of identity, how one constructs identity constantly. We’re performing, right? What I’ve discovered is that, while I’ve never wanted my artwork to be overtly about myself, as if I have something so important that I need to say to the world, I don’t think you can escape yourself in the making of your work, whether it’s something you write or say. I want the work to move well beyond my own body, which is the basis, the materiality of performance art: the presence of the artist. The art is not on the wall; it’s not the object or surface. It’s not even the idea. It’s the live, physical body in time.
It’s not even the idea? When you conceive a performance, do you have a narrative in mind, something that you want to say? Or is it all up for grabs?
Anybody working in this form of art has different ways work comes about. For me, it is about a specific idea that will develop into a working title. From that, it will expand out greatly, and then I pare it down. This is the way I work. Other performance artists are much more concerned with the idea of spectacle and largeness. I’m trying to condense a certain kind of experience in a moment in time to its most essential. What can be communicated in a gesture, in what one says, in the most minimal way?
My working methods are very different than a lot of my colleagues. It varies from one artist to another, but from what I know about the people that I really respect making work right now, there’s always an essential idea that the artist works from: knowing that, once they are in a place with other human beings, those intentions are going to get mixed up in the messiness of life and in what people bring from their own emotional experiences. They begin to interpret the work and basically pull it apart. That’s not a horrible thing.
I’m obligated as a professor to document my performances. That’s my proof that I’ve made work. I would love it sometimes if it wasn’t. It’s a completely different thing. The photographs are beautiful, and it’s nice to have a record as an archive, but it’s not the thing… We exist with so many images. Our identities are constructed in very curated ways. My pushback as a performance artist is this: the image is not the thing.++
– Ann Hutton
Experience Thomas Albrecht’s performance art when you can catch it; but if you can’t, check out his website at www.thomasalbrecht.com for a full bio and CV, along with a few intriguing shots of performance documentation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.