Emerging from the theatrical elements of avant-garde movements, such as Dada and Surrealism, the happening was the predecessor to performance art. Its influential figures were interested in bridging the gap between life and art. In most cases, happenings occurred in the environment or as installations created in a gallery. Relying on different elements, such as light, sound, and slide projections, the audience participation was of crucial importance. Public’s involvement for the creation of the work added an element of chance. Due to it, every time a piece was performed or exhibited was unique. Repetition of the same action was not possible, and as such happenings helped to define a new idea of the temporality of an artwork. This period, with its events also encouraged the issue of the ‘death’ of painting.
What started as a rebellion, initiated by Futurists and Dadaists in the 1910’s and 20’s later created performance art. These avant-garde artists introduced their revolutionary ideas through various acts. Through the actions of reading their manifestos and poetry on stage what we know as a happening was born.
The coining of the term happening we owe to an artist and lecturer Allan Kaprow. In spring 1957, Kaprow visited George Segal’s farm. It was due to his attempt to define and describe the art produced at this place, that the term was born. In printed publication, the term was used in his writings The Legacy of Jackson Pollock. Unlike the ideas of the famous critic Clement Greenberg, Kaprow was less interested in the art object and more in the process of creation. His ideas concentrated on the production and promotion of art that used everyday life and everyday objects. Rebelling against the technical aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism, Kaprow emphasized the importance of artist’s action and the process of creation above the finished work.
The challenge to the history of an art object, the happenings achieved by important innovations concerning time. As a temporal experience, events forming the happening could not be exhibited in a traditional sense. The only artifacts that remained were photographs or oral stories. As such, happenings toyed with the very nature of art and created its new category.
A notion of shared style of happenings organized by the artists did not exist. Taking the theatrical elements of the Futurists, and the Dadaist rebellion to what is considered as art, the actions varied in size and sophistication. Similarity did exist between this group and the Fluxus, but the major difference between the two was seen in the organization and complexity of the happening. The events of a Fluxus group were closer to an idea of theatrical improvisation. But, in relation to the later developments and the birth of performance art, the happenings were unique as they relayed more on chance. The repetition and the theatricality of such art, the happenings did not possess.
Depending on the artist’s sensibility, happenings were both large-scale and elaborate, and also intimate. Where they would take place also varied. With the ability to be enacted anywhere, sometimes they were staged inside a gallery, but also on the streets, theater, farms, or even in a cave.
The absence of boundaries between the viewer and an artwork, along with the celebration of chance and the audience participation blurred the boundaries between art and life. Artists such as Allan Kaprow, Robert Whitman, and George Brecht, needed to rebel against the act of painting and wished to create a new space for art and for art’s public. Happenings were reflection of a spirit of one particular time in the history of the 20th Century. As students were attacking the institutions during the 1960s, as philosophers of that period challenged some basic ideas of classic philosophy, so were many artists participating in an open attack against “conventional art”. Happenings from the late 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the United States, are considered as the most famous examples of this important art period. Although the line separating performance art and happening is often invisible, in the list of the most famous happenings, we won’t present those ones that took place after 1970, when performance and conceptual art already had a status of legitimate part of contemporary art.
Presented at the Reuben Gallery in New York in 1959, Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts is a performance divided into six parts, each of them containing three happenings occurring all at once. It is based on the artist’s action painting training and a very scripted score, involving the audience in an unprecedented way.
The instruction cards provided to the participants stated, among other things:
The beginning and end of each will be signaled by a bell. At the end of the performance two strokes of the bell will be heard...There will be no applause after each set, but you may applaud after the sixth set if you wish.
One of the most notable American performance artists is Robert Whitman. He was one of the most important figures of American happenings scene, particularly in New York City. Whitman’s piece American Moon was 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 were hung in front of the tunnels and a movie was projected on them. However, performers were moving which was causing distortions in the movie. At the end of the screening the tunnels were ripped down and the curtains removed. As figures began to roll around the floor, with heavy lights, someone swung on a trapeze with a sound of a vacuum cleaner in the back. Whitman called these types of works “abstract theaters”. As Randal Packer explained the work: This is not anything like traditional theater, but rather more like a sculptural environment, with the performance integrated into the space.
Allan Kaprow was a pioneer in establishing the concepts of performance art, and one of the main theoretician of the concept of “happening”. Yard was a piece conceptualized as a response to the Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings. The piece involved the random scattering and piling of tires over the floor, while the visitors or participants were invited to climb over them. What the paint was for Pollock, the tires were for Kaprow in this piece. The final result of the happening is a three-dimensional “replica” of Pollock’s action painting. The piece has been recreated several times and every time an original artwork was created – a completely new pile of tires.
Stamp Vendor by Robert Watts might be called an “unusual” happening, because the final result of the piece is an object. This happening involves stamps that artist created and placed inside of actual stamp dispensers that Watts took from the United States Post Office. The stamp dispensers were eventually put in an exhibition space, and viewers could purchase the stamps by placing coins in the coin slots. But, what was the difference between Watts’s stamps and the original ones? Watts put different images on stamps, such as nude women or gas cans. This is a unique, and unusual happening because the viewer did not interact with the artist, but with objects. In addition, the piece was criticizing traditional art objects, because every viewer after the show would leave with an original piece of art – Watts’ stamps that were bought for less than ten cents.
One of the key members of Fluxus, George Brecht was also a prominent composer and printmaker. He also conceptualized one of the most recognizable happenings in the 1960s that is called The Thousand Symphonies, and that has many elements of performance art. This piece is a portion of compositional paper that has been shot with a machine gun at a rifle range. The bullet holes eventually became notes that were played by orchestra. The original orchestra performance of The Thousand Symphonies was conducted by Philip Corner at Douglass College, the women's residential college at Rutgers. As in every happening, here we also see the elements of chance or unpredictability. It is manifested by the unpredictable placements of the bullet holes as well as the decisions made by the conductor when the piece was performed. A huge influence on this work had Futurist and Dadaist work that were inspired by music.
This is the third happening by Allan Kaprow in this list, but his contribution to the great influence of happenings to performance and conceptual art is simply too important to be ignored. His piece Fluids from 1967 gathered local residents in and around Pasadena, California in order to build huge ice structures in various locations across the town. This collective action resulted in melting of the ice symbolizing the intrinsic nature of human labor – the result is nothing. This happening is one of the most striking attacks against traditional art. As human labor and its products annihilate due to processes of capitalism and consumerism, so do art objects as well – eventually they become nothing.
Happenings climaxed with the notorious Yam Festival in 1963. This one-month series of events were organized at George Segal’s farm, and other locations in and around New York City. After this event, happenings slowly started to dissolve as other art theories became dominant. Influencing conceptual art, performance art, body art, and feminism art, happenings and their original ideas towards the time and space relationship continued to shape the art of the 20th-century.
Today, in famous festivals, such as Burning Man one can sense the importance of the audience participation that was strongly promoted by the happening artists. This we can also relate to the Flash Mob and Oregon Country Fair events as well. Yet, we must understand that the most important legacy happenings left us with is the world of performance art. In this arena, various artists merge the real life and the virtual, combine theater with the visual art, and examine the limits of the human body. Such experimentation was more than evident in the performances of Ulay and Marina Abramovic. Yet, the true spirit of happenings, that emphasized interaction and embodied experience is today more apparent in music festivals and other similar events than in the world of contemporary art. In its eclectic nature, contemporary art today holds a legacy of almost every influential modern art movement. Shaped by the revolutionary ideas of the past, happenings today linger in their original ideas of audience participation, and the ephemeral quality of the artwork they left us with.
Editors’ Tip: Critical Mass: Happenings, Fluxus, Performance, Intermedia, and Rutgers University, 1958-1972
The book Critical Mass chronicles the events and performances that happened at the influential Rutgers University. The Fluxus movement, happenings, and performances are presented in this book through various photographs that depict the organized events. Alongside the photographs are also essays by the famous art historians and scholars that further illustrate this dynamic movement. Seen to influence a new understanding towards gender issues, sex, race, and war, the happenings illustrated in the book showcase an important part of American history as well. If you ever wanted to learn more about the ephemeral works on the Rutgers and in the New York City this book is a must have.
All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Marta Minujín participating in the destruction of collective work in Paris, 1963, via Wikipedia.