A Brief History of “Happenings” in 1960s New York

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.

“A man dressed all in red feverishly paints the words ‘I LOVE WHAT I’M DOING, HELP’ on a large canvas, pours two jars of paint over his head, then proceeds to dive headfirst through his finished work. A woman, cradled in the arms of her dance partner, takes a bite from a loaf of challah while reading the Sunday comics. A man wearing a nine-foot-tall costume of a foot performs a routine on the floor of a school gym with another man dressed as a human torso. These are scenes that unfolded before audiences in a handful of New York galleries and spaces at the start of the 1960s. ‘Happenings,’ as the performances were known, combined elements of dance, theater, music, poetry, and visual art to blur the boundaries between life and art and forge a path for new methods of artistic practice. But for all their historical significance, this genre of work remains elusive and ephemeral—art historian Kirk Varnedoe once said that attempting to preserve the Happenings would be ‘like trying to catch wind in a butterfly net.’ In October 1959, artist and Rutgers professor Allan Kaprow presented 18 Happenings in 6 Parts at the Reuben Gallery in New York’s East Village. Although he had experimented with the form earlier, this marked the first use of the term ‘Happening.’ (The invitation studiously avoided labels, however, stating: ‘The present event is created in a medium which Mr. Kaprow finds refreshing to leave untitled.’) For the 90-minute 18 Happenings, Kaprow constructed three rooms within the gallery from plastic sheeting and wooden beams, each meant to house six separate but simultaneous actions—such as a woman seated and squeezing oranges, two performers proclaiming a nonsensical series of single-syllable words, and painters emblazoning lines and squares on either side of a hanging canvas. Kaprow orchestrated the events with the help of a meticulously planned script of stage directions and scores. Invitations had been sent out informing spectators that ‘you will become part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them.’ Each audience member was given instructions upon entering the gallery, specifying when to move seats or applaud. …”
Artsy (Video)
When New York Was Really Happening
Telegraph: A party at The Factory, 1965 – Warhol and Lichtenstein: before they were famous
Drinking from the Source

A party at The Factory, 1965

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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