Pat Muschinski and Claes Oldenburg in Claes Oldenburg’s Snapshots from the City, performed during Ray Gun Spex at Judson Church, February 29, March 1–2, 1960. (image © Martha Holmes / TIME & LIFE Images / Getty Images; © Claes Oldenburg, Courtesy Pace Gallery)

Pace Gallery has mounted a world class mini-museum show on the art of the Happening using its vast holdings as well as supplemental gleanings loaned from the Whitney, MOMA and Getty museums. Accompanied by a heavyweight catalogue née book by Mildred Glimcher containing historically important essays, this exhibit documents the beginnings of Happenings as well as the seeds of post- and post-post-modernism, interactivity, audience engagement, relational aesthetics and, well, you name it.

Jim Dine (center) in Allan Kaprow’s “The Big Laugh” performed at the Reuben Gallery, January 8–11, 1960. (image via © Fred W. McDarrah/Premium Archive/Getty Images) (click to enlarge)

The show and its collection should belong not to the highest bidder of the individual artists oeuvres, but to a national repository like the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, to be kept in perpetuity for the nation’s history. The real question is why aren’t said museums mounting a show like this instead of a commercial gallery who represents many of the artists and their lucrative estates.

Beginning in 1958 a handful of New York creative types enacted performances using balls of twine, coarse burlap, crumpled newspaper, chicken wire, buckets of paint, plastic wrap, cardboard, cheap clip lights, aluminum foil, clown white facepaint, wooden sticks, ladders, clothespins, underwear, bandages, bed sheets, folding chairs and utter trash. These hijinks revolutionized the art world. Almost no one witnessed it, and almost no one cared. If not for the discerning eye of photographer Robert McElroy, as well as photographers Fred McDarrah, Martha Holmes, John Cohen and I.C. Rapoport, the interviews of Michael Kirby or the films of Robert Whitman, Raymond Saroff and Stan Vanderbeek, these ephemeral legendary Happenings would be even more ephemeral — and unrecorded. As Kirk Varnedoe says, it was “like trying to catch the wind in a butterfly net.”

The exhibit begins with Red Grooms first debacle in 1958 at the Sun Gallery on Commercial Street, in Provincetown, “A Play Called Fire,” which was performed during the nadir of a Cape Cod summer. By the fall Grooms opened the City Gallery in his New York studio, drawing in a distinguished downtown crowd. The Hansa Gallery (named after painter Hans Hoffman), the Delancy Street Museum (also in Grooms’ studio), Judson Gallery and the Reuben Gallery followed.

Robert Whitman in preparations for An Evening of Sound-Theater-Happenings (image © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York)

There are pictures of Grooms scampering across the avenue on his way to his next production wheeling a wicker baby carriage with a canvas prop jutting out. A young Anita Rubin opened her Reuben Gallery using a taped sign over a “Anchor Steel Rule Die Company” logo. A guest list from Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts written on neatly ruled paper has neat little check marks next to the names of attendees Meyer Shapiro, Leo Castelli and Robert Motherwell among others, and it is exhibited inside a glass case. A photo of the gritty basement gallery in Judson Memorial Church is displayed next to faded film clips by Stan Vanderbeek of Claes Oldenberg’s “Snapshots From the City” Happening. Photos of the wacky artists yucking it up are juxtaposed against pictures of savvy dealer Ivan Karp looking like a perspicacious cognisanti.

Claes Oldenburg’s Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath, performed at the Reuben Gallery, February 21–26, 1961. Cast photo: Edgar Blakeney, Max Baker, Tom Wesselmann, Claes Oldenburg, Henry Geldzahler, Clifford Smith (seated, left to right); Gloria Graves, Carl Lehmann-Haupt, Olga Adorno, Pat Oldenburg, Marilyn Jaffee, Judy Tersch, Claire Wesselmann, Chippy McClellan, Lucas Samaras (standing, left to right). © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York.

Those who worked in the deeply corroded and rusted hand to mouth environments are legendary and too numerous to list; George Brecht, Allan Kaprow, Richard Marxfield, Red Grooms, Dick Higgins, Jim Dine, Claus Oldenburg, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. Robert Whitman, who created an evening of “Sound Theater – Happenings” on June 11, 1960 at the Reuben Gallery explained the need for disarray:

“The manufacture of those early pieces was very physical. I wanted the image to be expressionistic, personal and passionate.”

These artists jumped from the canvas into the world, a move Kaprow presciently grasped when he wrote “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” a 1956 article for ARTnews (which editor Thomas Hess delayed publishing until two years later). Emphasizing the need to “utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch,” Kaprow extolled the use of ordinary, everyday objects. Artists popped out from their sculptures wrapped up in sheets of paper to roll over the bodies of prone, giggling girls whose skirts were demurely hiked up exposing their pert cotton panties. This was certainly not an exercise in staid studio sculpture.

Lucas Samaras and Allan Kaprow in Allan Kaprow’s “Yard,” which was performed in “Environments, Situations, Spaces” at the Martha Jackson Gallery, May 25–June 23, 1961. (image © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York)

There are photos from Kaprow’s “Tree Happening” of May 19, 1963 on George Segal’s farm in New Brunswick for the Yam (May) festival where anybody and everybody participated immersing themselves out of the gallery and, considered by many, out of their minds.

There are photos of “Words,” Kaprow’s September 1962 performance at Smolin gallery that used two continual rolls of cloth with words from poems, newspapers, comic and telephone books. The audience was asked to tear off the words, staple them together, write notes, even attack and hack them. It was the first time this form of audience participation was ever presented in an art gallery context.

This expansive exhibit even contains a fragile yellowed newspaper clipping from the New York Times by Allen Hughes reviewing “A Concert of Dance #3” at Judson Church. It reads, “Crazy or Not Innovations Have Impact.” Crazy indeed, Hughes describes the young Yvonne Rainer as “The sort that makes Merce Cunningham look like a stuffy reactionary.” Hughes comments on Steve Paxtons and Rainer’s dance collaboration “Words Words,” performed totally in the buff and noting “ … at the end the performers might as well have been wearing fur coats for all the difference their lack of apparel made.”

This exhibit is not about nostalgia, but about real guts, the guts to be, the guts to gamble it all and the guts it took to be wacky nobodies so far outside the ken of the conventional art world they singlehandedly redefined it.

Happenings New York, 1958-1963 is taking place at Pace Gallery (524 W. 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until March 17.

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.

One reply on “When New York Was Really Happening”

  1. This exhibition at Pace is fantastic! A broad smile crossed my face as I entered the gallery, and the warmth stayed with me all night.  This was a very special time in the art world in New York City.  Full of playful exploration and joy. Thanks for posting. 

Comments are closed.