March 2012: The Early Happenings: When Performance Met Art in New York

Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath. Image courtesy of the The Pace Gallery.

The Early Happenings: When Performance Met Art in New York by Robert C. Morgan
The Pace Gallery
February 10 - March 24, 2012

Happenings emerged in the late 1950s as a raucous, frivolous, insouciant, provocative, enlightening and delightful series of uncensored events filled with earnest liberation and excessive decorum. As Mildred L. Glimcher, curator of the recent exhibition at The Pace Gallery and author of the text, Happenings, New York, 1958-1963, explains: “Happenings should be considered part of a worldwide reexamination of culture and society in the decade following the end of World War II [in which] humanity emerged from deprivation and scarcity into abundance, self-confidence, and economic security.” The Happenings were born during a period of high transition in New York between two major contemporary art movements: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. These movements – one being a sublimation of inward existential sensibilities, the other an aesthetic compensation questioning the visual icons of consumerism -- might be seen as bookends on either side of this emotionally charged improvisational genre. Happenings might also be understood as a kind of void or Zen satori that offered a necessary bridge to a new consciousness about advanced art that shifted American sensibilities from a deeply interior to an expulsive exterior mode of delivery.

Having studied in the late 1970s at New York University with Michael Kirby, author of the first book on Happenings (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1965), and later becoming acquainted with Allan Kaprow, the alleged theoretician of the genre, I understand this exhibition as both a documentary reconstruction and contextualization of the Happenings within the larger history of Performance Art. The major artists – Kaprow, Dine, Oldenburg, Whitman, and Grooms – could be seen as representing the American counterpart to related works performed in Europe. Historically, these would include the Futurists in Milan, the Dadaists in Zurich (during, not after, World War I, as alleged in the catalog), and members of the Bauhaus, first in Weimar and later (after 1925) in Dessau. By the mid-1950s, within a decade after World War II, the errant Gutai group in Osaka – formed by Jiro Yoshihara -- became a related genre in promoting expressive actions based on traditional cursive-style calligraphy that emphasized space and meditative practices. Three important artists in Europe, concurrent with the New York Happenings, were the German artist, Wolf Vostell, the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, and the Czech artist, Milan Knizak. While the latter two are mentioned in the catalog, Kaprow understood them as seminal figures in the movement as documented in his important book, Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966).

While the major experiments in Performance Art in Europe occurred within the context of the avant-garde at the outset of Modernism, the work of the Americans occurred in direct relation to Neo-Dada and Fluxus after two catastrophic wars. This phenomenon was shared with the Gutai artists in Japan. It offered a kind of exorcist freedom and release from oppression. If Abstract Expressionism was the apotheosis of post-World War II artistic expression, then the Happenings wanted to take this energy and move it in another direction, to take it out of the cellar, as it were, and move it into the realm of everyday banalities and absurd spectacles that would eventually become identified as popular culture in the 1950s and 60s. Kaprow chose to express it as such: “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chair, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, movies, a thousand other things, which will be discovered by the present generation of artists.”

Robert Whitman, American Moon. Image courtesy of The Pace Gallery.

While Kaprow is historically credited with mounting the first public Happening in New York at the Reuben Gallery, titled 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, on the third floor of 61 Fourth Avenue in New York in 1959, Red Grooms may be also cited as presenting the first unofficial Happenings in Provincetown in Cape Cod in 1958 and 1959, titled A Play Called Fire and The Walking Man, respectively. The approaches to performance were quite different in each case as suggested by the kinds of props and photographs in the kinds of staging employed by each artist. Whereas Kaprow was more concerned with the timing, the script, and the divisions of structures within the space of each performance, Grooms – in collaboration with his co-producer, the artist Jay Milder -- was more given to open-ended free forms, delirious rants, strange props, and weirdly distorted actions without any particular intention other than trying to accommodate the unexpected within an expressionist scenario.

Mrs. Glimcher’s exhibition brings together the legacy of the late Allan Kaprow with virtually all the surviving members from the Happenings era. These would include Grooms, Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, Lucas Samaras, Claes Oldenburg, Simone Forti, Carolee Schneemann, Patricia Mucha, among others. Also the “installation art” of Arne Glimcher – husband of the curator and director of The Pace Gallery – recreates the spectacular aura and lingering tremors in of the New York art scene from an earlier time as a feast for the eyes and related senses. The exhibition included a full range of audio and tactile elements. While many of the artifacts and properties have been excavated from another era, others have been recreated according to exact specification. They either hang from or cling to the wall. They droop gently from the ceiling or are stationed discreetly on the floor in clusters without mayhem. In all cases, they resound with a distinct clarity that only someone capable of understanding the larger point of the Happenings would dare to undertake.

Snapshots from the City. Image courtesy of The Pace Gallery.

As I study the photo-documents of events, such as Oldenburg’s Store Days, Whitman’s American Moon, Dine’s Car Crash, Schneemann’s Meat Joy, or Kaprow’s Words or A Spring Happening, I sense the elation and agitated delight of these events – the expectation that something was in the air, and that the air was in the process of transgressing the normative role of the gallery as a static domicile to merely view works of art. These works functioned as a metamorphosis moving through time. The static relationship of the viewer to the work of art was disappearing, and the participant was being born on the premises of the gallery. These pregnant moments were constantly on the verge of redefining art and always on the cusp of another previously unfelt transition. For a brief spell, the price of the work was not the determining factor in the gallery’s existence. Instead it was about artists transforming themselves by way of theatrical experimentation through new forms of artistic media. It was also about pure fun. The moment of the Happenings coincided with the notion of art as an exalted signifier of the quality of life.

Such delight and optimism is felt pervasively throughout this exhibition. At every turn, the delight revolves as the angst falls quietly away. One may wonder how things changed so quickly after the Happenings disappeared. What happened to the delight? Where is the optimism today in the dolorous makeshift corridors of lethargic art fairs? Where is the sensation of feeling joy in the experience of art instead of finding oneself disappearing into anonymity? The timing for Mrs. Glimcher’s Happenings could not have been better. This exhibition is much more than a memento. It is a reminder that art can change people’s lives when galleries function on the level of optical intrigue, positive spontaneity, unpretentious hope, and brilliant effervescence. The Happenings were indeed the necessary bridge that brought optimism into the 1960s and changes into our society through an awareness of life and art that many will never forget.

Jim Dine, The Big Laugh. Image courtesy of The Pace Gallery. 

Jim Dine, Car Crash. Image courtesy of The Pace Gallery. 

Happenings: New York, 1958-1963, Installation View. Image courtesy of The Pace Gallery.  


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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