Summary of Happenings
What began as a challenge to the category of "art" initiated by the Futurists and Dadaists in the 1910s and 1920s came to fruition with Performance Art, one branch of which was referred to as Happenings. Happenings involved more than the detached observation of the viewer; the artist engaged with Happenings required the viewer to actively participate in each piece. There was not a definite or consistent style for Happenings, as they greatly varied in size and intricacy. However, all artists staging Happenings operated with the fundamental belief that art could be brought into the realm of everyday life. This turn toward performance was a reaction against the long-standing dominance of the technical aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and was a new art form that grew out of the social changes occurring in the 1950s and 1960s.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- A main component of Happenings was the involvement of the viewer. Each instance a Happening occurred the viewer was used to add in an element of chance so, every time a piece was performed or exhibited it would never be the same as the previous time. Unlike preceding works of art which were, by definition, static, Happenings could evolve and provide a unique encounter for each individual who partook in the experience.
- The concept of the ephemeral was important to Happenings, as the performance was a temporary experience, and, as such could not be exhibited in a museum in the traditional sense. The only artifacts remaining from original Happenings are photographs and oral histories. This was a challenge to the art that had previously been defined by the art object itself. Art was now defined by the action, activity, occasion, and/or experience that constituted the Happening, which was fundamentally fleeting and immaterial.
- The purpose of Happenings was to confront and dismantle conventional views of the category of "art." These performances were so influential to the art world that they raised the specter of the "death" of painting.
Artworks and Artists of Happenings
American Moon by Robert Whitman was first performed at the Reuben Gallery in New York. The piece consisted of six paper tunnels that radiated outwards from the performance area in which the audience would sit to watch piles of cloth being moved accompanied by various sounds. Curtains with grids of paper were then hung in front of the tunnels and a movie was projected onto them while performers made slight movements to the cloth causing distortions in the movie. At the end of the screening the tunnels were ripped down and the curtains removed. Lights flashed as figures rolled on the floor, a giant plastic balloon was rolled around and someone swung on a trapeze, all to a soundtrack of a vacuum cleaner. Whitman called these works "abstract theater" as abstracted sounds and images were a significant aspect of his work. In the variety of frenzied activity, Whitman claimed his work was much like a three-ring circus.
Cloth, paper, clear plastic, wood and cellophane tape
Yard by Kaprow involved the random scattering and piling of tires over the floor and an invitation to visitors to climb over them. This piece was supposedly in response to Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings: the incorporation of chance as a mainstay of the work, but with a certain amount of control left to the artist. Just as Pollock had a certain amount of power over his drip paintings, aesthetics were still very much subject to chance. Here Kaprow used the tires as Pollock used his paint. The result- a haphazard pile of tires nevertheless circumscribed into a semblance of compositional order- is a three-dimensional translation of Pollock's practice. Kaprow's pieces often involved materials from everyday life, including people; Kaprow stated, "Life is much more interesting than art." Yard, like many Happenings, has been recreated several times since Kaprow's initial installation, and each time a unique artwork is produced.
Stamp Vendor involved stamps that artist Robert Watts created and placed inside of actual stamp dispensers that Watts "borrowed" from the United States Post Office. The "borrowing" (stealing) was in protest of certain policies of the United States government at the time Watts deemed oppressive. The stamp dispensers were put on display in exhibitions and viewers could purchase the stamps by placing coins in the coin slots. The stamps, designed by Watts, had different images on them ranging from gas cans to nude women. This piece differs from many other Happenings for the smaller, more intimate scale and for the fact that the viewer was interacting with an object as opposed to a person. Also, unlike many other Happenings that eschewed the traditional art object, it should be noted that by interacting with the Stamp Vendor, the viewer was then able to take with them a work of art: the stamp created by Watts.
Commercial stamp dispenser and paper
Allan Kaprow's Eat took place in the Bronx, in caves that used to be part of an old brewery. Visitors could make one-hour reservations through the Smolin Gallery to view the piece, which was a participatory, sensory, gustatory experience that involved repeated audio. When the viewer walked in he was confronted with a man's voice repeating, "Get 'em!", two girls offering varieties of wine, banana bunches and apples tied to strings and hanging from the ceiling, a girl frying bananas on a hot plate, bread and jam in an enclosure that one could only get to by climbing a ladder, as well as the man (who was repeating, "Get 'em!,") handing out pieces of salted boiled potatoes. The viewer was free to eat any of the food in the exhibit. Not only did the viewer mold the experience to his or her personal choices, but they also had the ability to change the piece for the viewer that came in after them. The complicated imagery, opportunities for participation, and uniqueness of the staging make Eat a typical Happening.
Wine, apples, bananas, hot plate, wood, bread, jam, potatoes
A Chair with a History
A Chair with a History by George Brecht consisted of a chair that he bought and a red leather bound book placed on the seat of the chair. The viewer was invited to add to the "history" of the chair by sitting in it and recording the events taking place in the leather bound book. Brecht was greatly influenced by Marcel Duchamp's views on chance, clearly seen in this piece: whatever is recorded in the book has no relation to the artist's intentions or goals and is entirely in the hands of the viewer. Brecht's projects were often more intimate in scale than other artists who put on Happenings, as seen here with the piece entirely focused on a simple chair, the solitary act of sitting and writing, and the focus on a single person's experience.
Chair and book
The Thousand Symphonies
The Thousand Symphonies by Dick Higgins is a portion of compositional paper that has been shot with a machine gun at a rifle range. The bullet holes became the "notes" that would be played by an orchestra. The original orchestra performance of The Thousand Symphonies was conducted by Philip Corner at Douglass College, the women's residential college at Rutgers. The element of chance is represented here by the unpredictable placements of the bullet holes as well as, to a smaller extent, the decisions made by the conductor when the piece was performed. Music was an element of Futurist and Dadaist work and had an obvious influence on this piece.
Machine-gunned music paper
Beginnings of Happenings
Happenings were inspired by the performances of Futurists who would enact short avant-garde plays and read their manifestoes and poetry on stage. The Futurist tendency to break the "fourth wall" and elicit audience participation became a central idea in the Happening: the absence of boundaries between the viewer and the artwork meant the artwork became defined by the action as opposed to the physical, or resulting, object.
The Dadaists who declared that art did not have to meet expectations about what "art" was supposed to look like also influenced the artists who created Happenings. Additionally, the Dadaist use of the element of chance heavily guided the evolution of Happenings as an art form. The ideas of composer John Cage and the teachings of instructors at Black Mountain College including Josef and Anni Albers, Merce Cunningham, Robert Motherwell and Buckminster Fuller further impacted the views of Happenings artists in their belief that learning should be a continual process, with no distinction between making or learning about art and routine aspects of day-to-day life. There was an emphasis on the perpetual state of learning and creating; an appreciation for the prosaic, which influenced many artists of the time, particularly Allan Kaprow, who coined the term "Happening" while describing performance events that had taken place on George Segal's farm in 1957.
These aforementioned theories and ideas led to the creation of the Happening which was a combination of Performance Art and Installation Art. Happenings fully evolved from Kaprow's "environments," which were installation pieces that involved large sculptural collages. After taking John Cage's class Kaprow introduced the element of sound into his work and from there came the first Happening by Kaprow. It was untitled and performed at Voorhees Chapel at Douglass Campus on April 22, 1958.
Happenings: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The audience participation in Happenings incorporated the aspect of chance, as anything could happen at any time and each performance would be completely unique from the one before. This was the critical difference between Happenings and other performance art of the time, which emphasized a more theatrical and repeatable ethos. Happenings could be enacted anywhere; sometimes they were staged in galleries, but they were performed just as often in a theater setting, on the street, on a farm or even in one instance, a cave.
Happenings were both large-scale and elaborate or small and intimate depending upon the artist. For example, Allan Kaprow had started out looking for a way to extend the action of painting beyond the canvas and into the space of the viewer. He achieved this by building environments for viewers to be inside of and adding sound and various objects for the viewer to interact with. Robert Watts also created pieces similar in size and scale, utilizing created environments that the audience would partake in.
Happenings artists such as George Brecht worked in a smaller scale, creating games that the viewer interacted with. Brecht wanted these pieces to reflect Zen Buddhist philosophical ideas. Brecht would also write "event scores" where he would leave directions as to what the viewer should do, which then turned the viewer into the performer. As with many movements, Happenings artists each brought a slightly different viewpoint to the table and approached the creative process with their own personal agenda.
Happenings and Fluxus
There was much cross-over between Happenings artists and the Fluxus group; Allan Kaprow and George Brecht especially were involved in both movements. It is therefore difficult to definitively categorize them as two entirely separate entities especially because Fluxus held several events at Rutgers University where Happenings had originated. Happenings usually involved artists who would later become known as the "Rutgers Group:" Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Robert Watts and George Brecht. Fluxus emerged in New York led by artist George Maciunas, and there were also Fluxus groups in Europe and Japan. The Happenings artists were not part of an organized group with a leader like the Fluxus group and the term Happenings is not the name of a movement but the name of certain performance pieces.
Happenings and Fluxus both integrated the use of audience participation to contribute to the outcome of the art, however they differed in several significant ways. Happenings is not the name of a movement but the name of certain performance pieces that were generally more complicated and outlined than Fluxus events, like an improvisational theatrical work that involved the audience. They were more expressionistic and symbolic than Fluxus performances. Fluxus events were usually loosely outlined or not outlined at all. They involved a sardonic sense of humor often leaving the viewer in the position of being the victim of a practical joke. For instance, one Fluxus piece consisted of sending out invitations to nonexistent performances where the viewer would arrive to find nothing.
Later Developments - After Happenings
Happenings culminated with the infamous 1963 Yam Festival, a month-long series of events held on George Segal's farm and in other locations in and around New York. After this event, Happenings began to dwindle in the mid sixties as other new art forms and theories gained prominence, such as conceptual art, body art and feminist art. Nevertheless, most of these newer movements had some roots in Happenings in their emphasis on interaction and embodied experience.
Useful Resources on Happenings
- Off LimitsOur PickEdited by Joan Marter
- Child's Play: The Art of Allan KaprowBy Jeff Kelley
- Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of HappeningsBy Judith F. Rodenback
- 18 Happenings in 6 PartsBy Andre Lepeke, Eva Meyer-Hermann, Stephanie Rosenthal, Allan Kaprow