Marina Abramovi´c’s “The Artist Is Present,” the Museum of Modern Art’s first performance-art retrospective, heralds the discipline’s arrival as mainstream museum fare. It is something of an uncomfortable fit. The genre’s long marginalization reflects its tendency toward extremism, often in the service of politicizing the body. Also challenging for a conventional museum is the critical imperative that performance art take place in real time before a live audience. While Abramovi´c’s retrospective is deeply informative, it reveals the museum’s—and the artist’s—struggle with the question of how to preserve the form and give it broad appeal.

Organized chronologically, the show provides a comprehensive picture of Abramovi´c’s elusive career. It begins with her work as an art student and provocateur in her native Yugoslavia in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Photographs and videos track her path from Belgrade to Amsterdam to New York, and her work’s transition from a spare if demanding vocabulary of physical actions to the theatrical sensibility of the last 15 years. The conditions of life in Communist Yugoslavia inform her early career, and the residue of its constraints is reflected throughout. Among early work documented is The Airport (1972), in which speakers installed at the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade announced the arrivals and departures of fictional flights, underscoring the restrictions on travel under Tito.

Abramovi´c’s first foray into live performance was a series called “Rhythms” (1973-74), which concluded with Rhythm 0. In this infamous piece, the artist sat unresponsive at a table arrayed with food, weapons and intoxicants, and invited viewers to apply these items as they wished, promising that she would “take full responsibility.” The now legendaryevent, presented at Studio Morra in Naples and never restaged, became an early instance of “participatory” art: audience members were pressed to police each other’s behavior when (according to slightly murky accounts) the artist was threatened with a knife and a gun.

Abramovi´c met the German artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen) in Amsterdam in 1975, and over the next 13 years they collaborated on rule-bound but unrehearsed performances, the durations of which were limited by physical or emotional exhaustion. Their most notable joint performances distilled the strengths and tensions of powerful relationships; the impossibility of intersubjective experience is the lesson of Talking about Similarity (1978), in which Ulay sewed his mouth shut and Abramovi´c attempted to answer questions for him. (It ended when she failed to capture his intentions.)

At MoMA, performers trained by Abramovi´c work in two-hour shifts to continuously enact several of these collaborations (those chosen are among the few that don’t involve serious risk of bodily harm). The effect is largely to convert high-stakes undertakings into empty spectacles, abstracted from their original historical and personal circumstances. The most successful is Imponderabilia (originally presented in 1977 in Bologna),in which two nude performers, one male and one female, stand opposite each other in a narrow doorway at the exhibition’s entrance. Passing through this threshold—sideways, by necessity—entails the flash negotiation of one’s attitudes toward personal space and gender, since a choice must be made of which person to face.

After her collaboration with Ulay ended in 1988, Abramovi´c’s performances grew increasingly ritualistic, sometimes relating to Balkan culture and history. For Balkan Baroque (1997), first performed at the Venice Biennale, Abramovi´c laboriously scrubbed 6,000 pounds of bloody and malodorous cow bones; the mountain of clean bones in its re-creation is dramatic but hardly suggests the power of the original. Vastly different in tone is Balkan Erotic Epic (2005),a video piece in which the enactment of folkloric fertility rites renders them absurd.

Abramovi´c is performing a new piece, The Artist Is Present,her longest yet, for the entire run of the retrospective. Every hour that the museum is open, she sits silently under klieg lights at a simple wood table in the museum’s atrium. Museumgoers are invited to sit across from her. When I visited, her meditative quiet was genuinely transformative. Teenagers stopped texting; chatty groups paused to . . . look at art. More viewers will witness this performance than have seen Abramovi´c to date—and their narrative accounts of it will, as always, be the work’s most vivid documentation.

Photo: Marina Abramovic: left, The Artist Is Present, 2010, live performance. right, Balkan Baroque, 2010, re-creation of 1997 performance, 3-channel video, bones and mixed mediums. Both at MoMA.