New York Art and the Happenings

THE HAPPENINGS: AN INTERACTION OF ART AND LIFE

The so-called “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock may have “broken the ice,” as Willem de Kooning put it, and put American art on the map, but the most lasting legacy of the artist was not his large abstract canvases, but a series of photographs and a short film. In 1950 Hans Namuth filmed Pollock in the act of painting, slinging arcs of paint through the air as he moved with surprising grace around the edges of the fabric on the ground. Two years after his tragic death “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” was published in Artnews in 1958. Written by the artist Allan Kaprow, this article is arguably one of the best descriptions of Pollock’s art. Kaprow took note of Pollock’s use of unorthodox materials and expansive kinetic movement: “With Pollock however, the so-called dance of dripping, slashing, squeezing, daubing and whatever else went into a work placed an absolute value on a diaristic gesture…”

Indeed, Harold Rosenberg, one of New York’s leading art writers, had already written about the concept of “art as act” in 1952. In “The American Action Painters” Rosenberg stated,

At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or “express” an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.

While the art cticic, Clement Greenberg emphasized the object, Harold Rosenberg put stress on the artist as an actor. The physical, that is kinetic, aspects of art making on the part of the artist, were foregrounded. The painting was the mere outcome of the action and the marks on the surface bore the imprint of the artist’s psyche. Although today, it is assumed that the essay was about Jackson Pollock, the artist Rosenberg had in mind was almost certainly Willem de Kooning. In 1952 when Rosenberg was writing, Pollock was deep in decline and deKooning was the most respected artist in New York.

Rosenberg and Greenberg (Red Mountain and Green Mountain) were rivals with rival points of view and championed rival artists: Rosenberg supported deKooning and Greenberg supported Pollock. Nevertheless, thanks to Namuth’s iconic film, “Action Painting” and “Pollock” were inescapably linked. Rosenberg envisioned the artist as a kind of warrior, stepping into the arena of art to do battle with painting. Art was an existential act. Art had become performance and process. In the end, it could be said, with hindsight, that it was not the paintings of Pollock that had the lasting impact upon art but the films of the painter’s performances.

This combination of photographs, films and critical articles about Pollock as a dancer who performed shifted attention away from the finished product, the painting, to the process of painting. The young generation of art makers were interested in art-as-process. If art was a process, then there was no particular reason to produce an object—the action alone would be sufficient. On the heels of Pollocks’ death his legacy, as Kaprow put it, there was a shift to “process,” which had a number of names—Actions, Events, Happenings—became known as Performance Art.

In New York, the performances were called “Happenings,” and were singular events, planned but unscripted, acted out but unrepeatable, performed by non-actors, artists who made no attempts towards theatricality. The Happenings were “preformed” by artists such as, Allan Kaprow, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg at the Green Gallery and at the Hansa Gallery, 1952 in New York. Inspired by the current literary Beat culture and its casual poetry readings, Allan Kaprow created environmental installations as a total work of art with common and informal materials, ephemeral arrangements, and a participatory aesthetic.

One of Kaprow’s most famous events, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, 1959, appeared to be based upon chance but was actually a scripted and staged event, determined in a advance. The audience was given a number of a cubicle to enter where certain actions had to be enacted until a bell rang and then the individual had to move to another section of the installation. The event, like the others that followed, could not be replicated, nor, as a February 2012 article, “What Happened at Those Happenings?” noted, were they well remembered. “It is now known as the first Happening, a mythical event that knocked painting and sculpture from their previously unassailable perches and paved the way for performance art,” Carol Kino stated. She continued, “But what actually happened at the Happenings? Because they were so ephemeral, and documentation is so patchy, art historians have spent decades trying to figure that out. So have their creators.”

Happenings moved art out of the White Cube. Some of these early Happenings took place at the City Gallery with Red Grooms, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenberg, who then moved to the Judson Memorial Church, a Baptist church expanding its ministry to artistic community. Claus Oldenberg’s The Street and Snapshots from the City, featured his alter ego “Ray Gun,” an outlaw fantasy character. “Ray Gun” reappeared in his Ray Gun Manufacturing Company installation in a real storefront for his art in 1961. Kino’s article in The New York Times quoted Claes Oldenberg as remembering:

“The audience was made to suffer. At one performance the only person allowed to sit was Duchamp. He said, “I am very old, and I cannot stand, please let me sit down.” I thought, “Maybe it’s a trick. But then again, he was very old.” I think Duchamp went to everybody’s performances. “Nekropolis I” ended with us all becoming mice, dressed in burlap bags. We crawled out into the audience slowly; we couldn’t see. Then we were supposed to just drop somewhere and not move until they went home. According to the story I wound up on the feet of Duchamp. But I couldn’t see who it was. It’s a good story, but as time goes by you wonder, “Did this really happen?”

Wedged in between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, the moment of the Happenings was as brief and as ephemeral as the performances themselves. Red Grooms explained Happenings as “It was like a sandlot sports game or something, where you just choose sides. Somebody’s the director and makes up the plays, like in football. It’s very improvised, but it’s been directed a bit.” Inheriting the idea from the Happenings that art was life and that life was art, Pop Art was always Concerned with the vernacular environment, its ordinary Facts, and its humble Objects. But Pop Art was a style of objects, paintings and hybrid sculptures that were bought and sold on a now-burgeoning art market.

The significance of the Happenings was that there were no objects that could be collected. Ephemera could be produced but it was not well understood at the time that the flotsam and jetsam left floating in the wake of chaos might have some numerical value in the future. The late fifties were the last years before the art market in New York was able to support a substantial art production. The Happenings were as spontaneous as Abstract Expressionism but unlike the solemn and serious painters, the antic artists of the out law actions were exploring something new, anything else. Ellen Pearlman noted in “When New York was Really Happening” that, “These hijinks revolutionized the art world. Almost no one witnessed it, and almost no one cared.” Only years later did it become obvious that the Happenings opened the door to a new way of thinking about art—not as a single object but as an activity.

In 1958 Allan Kaprow defined this new way of thinking as “a total work of art,” not in the Wagnerian sense but as in the way the Happenings merged life and art. In the opening paragraph of “Notes on the Creation of a Total Art,” he noted that “Conscious thoughts about a total art did not emerge until Wagner and, later, the Symblists. But these were modeled on the earlier examples of the church…” He continued, “Paradoxically, this idea of a total art has grown from attempts to extend the possibilities of one of the forms of painting, collage, which has led us unknowingly toward rejecting painting in any form,without,however, eliminating the use of paint.” Kaprow concluded by noting that the “success” of art such as his “Happenings” resulted in total immersion of the spectator and thus depended upon that very person’s comprehension and participation.

In looking back over the days of the Happenings in a short statement in 2002, Kaprow stated the the Happenings were a reaction to the “overrefinement” in painting (Abstract Expressionism) in the fifties. In this brief reflection, the artist recalled that his “Notes” was written to accompany his own art exhibition and, in retrospect, he realized that “art” itself needed to be interrogated and the concept of “exhibiting” “art” should be reexamined. “Bypassing art had to be systematic. Art itself was the problem” and he noted that he came to the conclusion two years later to give up galleries. In his conclusion he asked, “What is everyday life? he asked. “What is life of any kind?…this is the central questioning from the Environments and Happenings of 1958.”

The Happenings came and went, because, as Kaprow pointed out, the “events” happened in relation to the gallery system and were catalogued as “art” by historians. Indeed, Claes Oldenberg and Jim Dine became object makers and Lucas Samaras who wandered into the Happenings as a refugee from the world of New York theater became a visual artist. The world that the Happenings created, carved out from something they called “life,” was translated by galleries and museums into “Installation Art.” Although the phenomenon of the Happenings may have been tamed, the memory of the anarchy of the Happenings would linger in American art and in the 1970s, its descendent would emerge: Performance Art. Meanwhile in Europe, Performance art would become the central defining raison d’être of Fluxus, the child of Dada.

 

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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