The Mo n ac el l i P r es s
NEW YORK, 1958â€“1963
happenings Mildred L . Glimcher
8 Pr e fac e
23 Pr ov i n c e tow n : O r i g i n s
“The Walking Man” / Red Grooms 36 1959/196 0 :
Ope n i n g t h e Spac e B e t w e e n Ar t a n d L i f e
The City Gallery | The Delancey Street Museum | “The Burning Building” / Red Grooms
“The Magic Train Ride” / Red Grooms
Jim and Claes, 1960 / Jim Dine
1960/1961: E motion/E nvironme nt/Pe rfor m ance 126 211 1961/1962: Beyond the Galle ry Space 263 1962/1963: Toward a Wide r Audie nce 298 Epilogue 302 Robe rt r . mce lroy 305 NOTES 000 Chronology 000 Se lec te d Bibliogr aphy 000 Index of Na me s 000 Illustr ation Cre dits
I NTRODUCT I ON
In early October 1959, thirty-two-year-old Allan Kaprow—an artist and professor—presented a performance piece entitled 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. This unique conjunction of visual, aural, and physical events, performed for an intimate art world audience by his friends and colleagues, would change the course of art history. The new genre of artwork that evolved from this debut would become known as “Happenings.”
The years 1958 to 1963 saw the birth of the Happening movement in New York. The
progenitors of this artistic practice incorporating movement and duration were Jim Dine, Simone Forti, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Carolee Schneemann, and Robert Whitman. Their performances/Happenings included material things—paint, cloth, paper, trash, clothes, Christmas lights, plastic sheets, newspapers, sounds, projections, movies, even food—but the most important and ephemeral ingredient was the originality of their creators. The Happenings disappeared after they were performed, and only those who saw them really understand the experience. They became legend and now exist as part of the mythology of the time. What was it like to watch a Happening? What was it like to perform in a Happening? Kirk Varnedoe said that documenting Happenings would be “like trying to catch the wind in a butterfly net.”1 The challenge, then, is to recapture their aura, their meaning and significance, within the history of twentieth-century art.
Were these performance pieces theater in the traditional sense or were they part of visual
culture? That they were created by trained artists and, in the beginning, performed in gallery spaces implies that they were the latter. They had structure but no plot or character development; the players often shared the same importance as the objects, materials, and sounds that constituted the works. While they appeared spontaneous and unrehearsed, they were, in fact, carefully scripted and planned, although the creators were open to improvisation and invention by the participants. Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts was a groundbreaking work in New York, although in Europe the concept of a theatrical event created by visual artists already existed. Following World War I, the Dadaists created performances in Zurich that criticized traditional art and politics. At the Bauhaus in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, Oskar Schlemmer produced theatrical events that combined the talents of the resident artists, designers, and dancers. The environmental threedimensionality of Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau was familiar to the Happenings artists, all students of twentieth-century art history.
In fact, the performance works known as Happenings should be considered part of a worldwide
reexamination of culture and society in the decade following the end of World War II. During the 1950s, humanity emerged from deprivation and scarcity into abundance, self-confidence, and economic security. Yet always present was the possibility of annihilation because of nuclear weapons and the advent of the Cold War. Although the generation that fought the war still held the reins, those who had been adolescents at the time were now in their twenties and beginning a search for a new cultural and political point of view. The world had become smaller with the commercialization of air travel
and communication; television sets were in most American middle-class homes by 1952. Time and Life brought the world to America through photographs and news stories. There was a love affair with speed, with all things new and technological; while rockets could deliver bombs, they could also send humankind into space.
Artists in the United States and around the world were expanding national traditions and
integrating movement and duration into their visual cultures. In postwar Japan, the Gutai group was founded by Jiro Yoshihara. From a wealthy industrial family, Yoshihara exhibited in Europe and America in the late 1940s and early 1950s and was familiar with Surrealism and the dominant European traditions of the first half of the twentieth century. Like their American counterparts, Japanese artists read about the leading Abstract Expressionists in ARTnews and saw their work in an exhibition that traveled to Japan in 1951.2 The earliest iteration of the Gutai group was comprised of young artists living around Osaka. Their work was unified by the use of action and movement, and they employed cameras, both those they engaged and those of the press, to record their “actions,” which were published in their journals.
In the First Gutai Art Exhibition, presented in Tokyo in October 1955, Saburo Murakami,
taking off from the tradition of shoji screens, built three six-by-twelve-foot panels of paper framed by wood, placed them one behind the other, and hurled himself through the panels six times. For the remainder of the exhibition, the torn paper holes stood for that momentary dramatic action. In 1956, the lone woman in the group, Atsuko Tanaka, made Electric Dress, in which fluorescent tubes denoted the physiological systems of the body. The Happeners, and especially Allan Kaprow, knew about these events from photographs in Life magazine; in addition, from September 25 to October 25, 1958, the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York presented the Sixth Exhibition of Gutai Art.
In Paris in the mid-1950s, Georges Mathieu inaugurated the practice of painting as performance.
A master of self-promotion, he staged dramatic public events in which he squeezed paint directly onto the canvas, creating enormous, high-style, gestural calligraphic paintings in less than an hour. Simultaneously, the movement dubbed Nouveau Réalisme by its creator, critic, and curator, Pierre Restany, debuted in Paris; it would be most often compared to the American Pop Art movement of the 1960s. The group consisted of César, Arman, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jean Tinguely. During the winter of 1960 Tinguely spent a few months in New York. The most notorious of these artists, Yves Klein, made his paintings by dragging nude, paint-covered models across canvas laid on the floor, always in front of audiences. His theatrics were meant to titillate as well as to break the boundaries of art practice in tradition-bound Paris. Like the Gutai artists, Mathieu and Klein appeared in the pages of Life and Time; thus their work was familiar to their American contemporaries. Similarly radical groups and practitioners included, among others, the Situationists in France, Arte Povera in Italy, and Wolf Vostell in Germany.3
Even as these innovative movements were burgeoning around the world, by the mid-
1950s the towering figures of Abstract Expressionism had brought leadership of the international art world to New York, usurping the dominance of Europe and especially Paris. During the 1940s, the future Abstract Expressionist giants—Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko—struggled to find meaningful subjects for their paintings after the devastation of World War II. Their search led them to existential personal expression and a yearning for the sublime. By the mid-1950s, however, many younger artists believed that the subjects that were so
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important to the Abstract Expressionists were no longer relevant to the optimism of the United States as it moved beyond the privations of the postwar world. In all media—visual arts, literature, poetry, theater, music—artists sought to connect with life as they were living it and to find the means to make their world resonate in their work. These figures included visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, writers Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and musician John Cage. While all were regarded as mentors by the future Happeners, the experimental musician/composer and philosopher Cage played an especially essential role in the genesis of the Happenings.
As early as the 1930s and 1940s, Cage was challenging received ideas about what was and was
not music; he became an established figure in avant-garde circles in New York and Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. His music was based not on harmony but on a structure determined by duration, chance operations, and silence. He allowed the environment in which the music was performed to become part of the piece. Cage was influenced by D. T. Suzuki’s theories and writings on Zen Buddhism: “Since the forties and through my study with D. T. Suzuki . . . I’ve thought of music as a means of changing the mind . . . an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let sounds be themselves.”4 Cage described art as “an affirmation of life . . . to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”5
Starting in the late 1940s, Cage and his partner, dancer Merce Cunningham, became regular
visitors to Black Mountain College, an experimental communal college in rural North Carolina. From its establishment in 1933 as an early countercultural center until its closing in 1957, Black Mountain proposed concepts that would become part of the vocabulary of the avant-garde. Josef and Anni Albers were welcomed into the community when they fled Germany, where they had taught at the Bauhaus. While at Black Mountain, Josef Albers continued the Bauhaus program of combining the arts, giving theater, dance, and design the same significance as painting and sculpture. Like Cage, Albers stressed the importance of the relationship between art and life. Rauschenberg’s statement that he worked in the gap between “life and art” became the oft-repeated mantra of his generation.
During the summer of 1952, Cage organized an event at Black Mountain that would become
foundational for the Happening movement: a theater piece of about forty-five minutes in which the participants would simultaneously carry out unrelated actions of their choosing. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings were hung at angles from the rafters of the dining hall where the event took place, and slides were projected onto them. Rauschenberg played scratchy phonograph records while Cunningham danced around and through the audience. Cage described the piece in his book Silence: The event . . . involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture, which ends: “A piece of string, a sunset, each acts.” The audience was seated in the center of this activity . . .6
Black Mountain College was also vital in the development of Robert Rauschenberg’s
extraordinary artistic production, and his body of work has had immeasurable importance for those who followed. The Happening artists were among the first to pay attention to the introduction of the material world into his work. After Rauschenberg’s Red Painting exhibition at the Egan Gallery in 1954, he began to move his work off the wall and out into space, using materials that included
1959/1960 opening the space between art and life
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1. Anita Reuben
The piece that Allan Kaprow had described to Red Grooms in Provincetown would become 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. Grooms remembers he was impressed that Kaprow was planning to spend $1,500 on lumber and new materials: “That was big money in those days.”1 As early as June, Kaprow had been looking for a location in which to stage what he envisioned as his first public performance. Set in the context of the art world, the event was intended to fulfill the criteria for the new art put forward in his “Legacy of Jackson Pollock” article. He needed at least two months to build the set. While visiting fellow artist Renee Miller, he met her sister Anita Rubin who, at the time, was a young, single, unemployed occupational therapist with an interest in the Tenth Street gallery scene.2 She believed in Kaprow’s 18 Happenings, so she looked for a space near the galleries and found an unheated third-floor loft at 61 Fourth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets.
Rubin paid the rent for the summer and in early October opened the Reuben Gallery (her
name “made fancier”). During the first season, presenting both Happenings and exhibitions, it would become one of the important incubators for the new art. Anita Reuben (she too took on the modified name) paid the rent and was in the gallery full-time for the first season, but the artists paid their own expenses. The roster of artists, besides Kaprow, was fluid, and included Robert Whitman, Lucas Samaras, George Brecht, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Renee Miller, Martha Edelheit, and others. In 1960– 61, the gallery moved to a ground-floor space at 44 East Third Street. For that season the individual artists would take over the gallery for a month each, transforming the space to fashion a performance piece or Happening.
Kaprow—the oldest of his circle, respected for the intellectual platform of his professorship,
his eloquence, and his clear prose—was able to explain his intentions to artists and others. At that moment, he was perceived—and believed himself to be—the leader of this new group of artists. He was aware that the ground-breaking 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, set to open the Reuben Gallery in October 1959, would define an entirely new genre of art making. Every detail of the complex piece was worked out. The event would include an architectural, if “homemade” set, visual elements, sound, lights, and even smell, as well as poetry, music, and stage directions. This was not theater; there was no narrative, no plot, no dialogue, no characterization. The objects, sounds, and music were just as important as the friends and fellow artists who participated. Even the audience members were given direction. The evolution of Kaprow’s thinking can be traced from his essay on Pollock through the assemblages and environments at Hansa Gallery and then finally to his Happenings. Using what he had absorbed from Cage’s classes, combined with his attention to the way the audience could become a participant, Kaprow was evolving a new direction for art and the role of the artist.
His plan for 18 Happenings began with the building of three separate but contiguous rooms
within the loft space. The walls would consist of the same semitransparent plastic sheeting he had used in his Environment with Sound and Light at Hansa. Simultaneously, he began to delineate a script, stage directions, and scores for sound, action, cast, and duration. For each of the three rooms he planned
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six different sets of simultaneous but different events: slides and movies, speeches, music and sounds. Kaprow drew detailed stick figures for the performers’ prescribed, almost callisthenic-type actions. He insisted that all movements be parallel to or at right angles to the gallery walls—there were to be no diagonal movements.3
In set two, for example, in rooms one and three, speeches were delivered and musical instruments
and a chesslike game were played. In the fifth set, in room one, oranges were squeezed to activate multiple senses. Also in the fifth set, two painters—one making straight lines and the other making circles—made a painting on a piece of muslin hung between rooms one and two. Among the painters were Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Bob Thompson, Jay Milder, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, and Lester Johnson. Simultaneously, Shirley Prendergast rolled out the “sandwich man”—a robotlike construction with a paint can for a head, mirrors front and back, and old bicycle wheels without tires. When she reached room one, a phonograph in its belly played “an old, loud brassy polka tune.”4 Kaprow created complex timed lighting and sound scripts to interact with the performers. He corresponded with an expert about ways to improve the sound qualities he was looking for with filters and a generator.5 Audience members received cards that instructed them to change rooms at the end of each set.
Kaprow’s event was not a play in the traditional sense; rather, it represented the decision by
a visual artist to move his art off the wall and into three and even four dimensions. He sought to connect his art with everyday life, to move away from creating an object and toward capturing the ever-changing quality of life, to force the audience/participants to experience their own lives with greater authenticity. As September approached, Kaprow was even involved with the press release that announced the Reuben Gallery, which noted that reservations were required and that contributions would be appreciated. The guest list for opening night indicates that an effort was made to assure the proper audience for this all-important event, and in the end, it was well attended. A respectful, if confused, press covered the pioneering evening in the Village Voice,Villager, New Yorker, and elsewhere.
Since 18 Happenings was a unique event, there were no performances ready to follow. The next
shows at Reuben were exhibitions by George Brecht, Lucas Samaras, and Robert Whitman. Brecht, Kaprow’s colleague in Cage’s classes and an important influence on Kaprow’s work,6 presented an exhibition titled “Toward Events—An Arrangement.” The show was an assemblage of objects, such as Suitcase,7 that could be rearranged by the viewer along with performance instructions called “event scores” that were designed to acknowledge a quotidian routine or moment of life and thereby turn that moment into art. Performances, however, were not part of the exhibition. Brecht, a research chemist for Johnson & Johnson, continued in this profession part-time until 1965, when he moved to Europe and became a full-time artist. His work—so subtle, yet multifaceted, and ably documented in a 2005 catalog8—was a precursor of conceptual art and was eventually absorbed by Fluxus, a movement named by George Maciunas in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1962 that evolved from the work of musicians and poets.
When Red Grooms returned to New York from Provincetown after his discussions with
Kaprow and his success with The Walking Man, he rented a studio space at 148 Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. As he had previously, he used it as both studio and gallery and called it the Delancey Street Museum. And Grooms made the space available to his friends and colleagues for exhibitions and even performances, as he had at the City Gallery the previous year.
It was at the Delancey Street Museum that Grooms presented the popular Happening The
Burning Building from December 4 to 11, 1959. It was conceptually different from Kaprow’s 18 Happenings:
whereas Kaprow’s event was supremely controlled and intellectual, Grooms’s was physical, expressionistic, noisy, and spontaneous: The night of the first performance, I didn’t have the thing completely in my mind til the actors came in and I rehearsed them. I was quite nervous and scribbling down some script or something. Then a guy from downstairs came up with two other men and wanted to take their card table back, which was in the set. It was all ready for the performance, deeply buried in the construction, and there was a chair on top of it for the person who played the Soundman. After looking at it they said they weren’t going to take the table—it just shows what a seat-ofthe-pants operation it was.9
There were six people in the cast: Jay Milder and Bill Barrell were Firemen; Bob Thompson
a substitute Fireman and Doorman, ushering people in and handling the lights; Joan Herbst the Girl in a White Box; Sylvia Small the Soundman (the sound effects were a bunch of tin cans on strings and a radio); Grooms the Pasty Man. In both characters and sound The Burning Building was very much a continuation of The Walking Man. Grooms wanted the set, built of old pieces of painted cardboard, to look home-made, to resemble not real life but rather to be an extension of his backyard theater in Nashville. He said, “The structure of my performances came from the idea of building a set like an acrobat’s apparatus. The performer’s actions would be improvised on the rigging around him.”10 He later commented: I wanted to do theater, even in high school. I was sort of a clown for a country music band. I did these diversions for the band, a kind of physical comedy, and that was formative for me, getting on the stage, getting reactions from the audiences who knew I would do some kind of kamikaze-like action that endangered myself, but it made people laugh. I had a sort of persona that I tried to develop through clowning and in a way the Pasty Man came out of that.11
Fire and firemen were a common thread in Grooms’s Happenings. His first, in Provincetown
in 1958, was A Play Called Fire. The Burning Building featured two Firemen. There was no stage, but Grooms created a theatrical atmosphere by arranging rows of seating facing the end of the room, where the set was covered by a muslin curtain. As the lights were turned off and the audience waited, the two Firemen emerged, dressed in baggy old clothes and wearing huge cardboard fireman’s hats, and did a loud and raucous jig or fought and pushed each other or pummeled one another with flour-filled socks. There was no prescribed time for these activities, but when the performers thought the audience had had enough they returned behind the curtain. A woman entered wearing a boxlike construction; her face, like those of all the characters (and like those in The Walking Man), was stark white with her lips painted red. Her slow turning dance was accompanied by low moans, after which she disappeared.
A match was struck, lighting a candle and revealing a shadowy hand that moved toward the
left edge of the curtain. Slowly, the Pasty Man revealed himself. He moved to stage right, knocked at a door, and offered his candle to a hand that came through the portal, then he was hit on the head by a Fireman and dragged off stage left, behind the curtain. The candle was lit again, shadows appeared, and loud noises, the stamping of feet, tin cans, crashes, and a radio were all heard simultaneously. The Pasty Man reappeared and this time slowly pushed the curtain stage right, revealing the set for the first
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time. The complex red, black, and tan construction suggested a burning building with its door half broken in by a cardboard axe. On the right was the Soundman, seated high on a chair; no one else was visible. She began to read from a script that started: “My love . . . my love I am writing . . . My love I am writing to you today . . .” Then the face of the Girl in a White Box appeared where a clock had been, repeating “tick tock tick tock” accompanied by more loud noises. The Firemen reappeared and began to eat a cardboard turkey, while different members of the cast yelled out a list of familiar words. General pandemonium broke out: shouting, clanking, and a noisy chase after the Pasty Man into the audience, which included the Girl in a White Box and the two Firemen. Suddenly the Pasty Man disappeared behind the set, somersaulted through a cloth opening in the burning building, and landed flat on his back. The others froze, all went silent, and a Fireman pulled the curtain closed.12 The performance lasted about ten minutes. Grooms planned a single performance a night for eight nights, but by popular demand it was performed four times on opening night.
As word spread throughout the close-knit downtown art world, people began calling the
Reuben Gallery to ask when the next Happening would be. In response, and capitalizing on the great success of The Burning Building, in early January Kaprow organized an evening of three Happenings at the gallery; the program would be performed on two successive weekends. This was the first of several occasions when the public would be able to see Happenings by different artists as part of the same program.
First on the program was Grooms, who announced, as his Happening began, that he had
changed the name from the advertised Fireman’s Dream to The Magic Train Ride, inspired by a recent train trip from his parents’ home in Nashville to New York after the Christmas holidays.13 He wanted this new Happening to relate to The Burning Building. It began with Sylvia Small behind the curtain; she turned on a flashlight under her face and declaimed a “poem” about the forest and the wind that Grooms had scribbled on the back of one of the announcements for the evening. Grooms as the engineer and Terry Barrell as the conductor, again in shabby clothes and cardboard hats, chased each other through the audience making lots of noise. Then the curtain was pulled back to reveal a wonderful image of a train that anticipated Grooms’s later depictions of cities and transportation. To represent the train’s movement through the woods, Bob Thompson pushed a baby carriage filled with Christmas trees—Grooms had picked it up from the street on his way to the gallery—past the train.
After the theoretical intellectualism of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, Kaprow’s The Big Laugh was in
a lighter vein. Almost thirty years later, Kaprow would say that his younger colleagues’ work loosened his up, giving it more immediacy.14 The Big Laugh was based on a carnival with barkers, clowns, and pitchmen. Lucas Samaras stood on a chair, holding a medicine bottle and speaking nonsense like a patent-medicine salesman. Richard Bellamy passed out balloons on sticks to the audience. Al Hansen made short Dada-like nonsense announcements: “Trumpet delay in spinach,” “Dressmaker’s butter,” “There is a reporter,” “Ladies and Gentlemen!” Loud sounds from an electric saw behind the curtain punctuated these statements. As Hansen finished, Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg, dressed and made up like clowns, rushed through the audience shouting “Lola Bola.” They climbed ladders and strung signs with the same phrase. As Samaras popped his balloon and climbed off his chair, Dine and Oldenburg descended from their ladders. They all began to laugh maniacally while Kaprow played a recorded laugh tape behind the curtain. The troupe bowed, intoned “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!” and the event was over. Extremely fast paced, it lasted about seven minutes.15
2. Allan Kaprow preparing 18 Happenings in 6 Parts 3. Invitation to 18 Happenings in 6 Parts 4. Program for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts
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18 Happenings in 6 Parts Reuben Gallery October 4, 6 â€“10, 1959 [ cast ]
Allan Kaprow Rosalyn Montague Shirley Prendergast Lucas Samaras Janet Weinberger Robert Whitman [ artists ]
Jim Dine Sam Francis Red Grooms Dick Higgins Jasper Johns Lester Johnson Alfred Leslie Jay Milder Robert Rauschenberg George Segal Bob Thompson
5 â€“6. Guest list for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts 7â€“8. Score for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts
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9. Set for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts 10. Shirley Prendergast, Rosalyn Montague, Allan Kaprow, Lucas Samaras (left to right)
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11. Robert Whitman 12. Lucas Samaras, Robert Whitman (in foreground) 13. Rosalyn Montague 14. Allan Kaprow 15. Bob Thompson, Jay Milder
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16. Red Grooms
The Burning Building Delancey Street Museum December 4 â€“11, 1959 [ cast ]
Bill Barrell Red Grooms Joan Herbst Jay Milder Sylvia Small Bob Thompson 16
17â€“20.â€‚ Scenes from The Burning Building
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Jim and Claes, 1960
The thing about the two years I had with Claes as my colleague and inspiration was that that time in New York was mild and dark. Nobody knew everything except what they knew. A beautiful gray dirt covered the streets (The Street). He showed the way for me to fashion my nascent ambition using the detritus I found on the sidewalk. Claes shared his vast collection of urban aspirations, and I, who had come from southern Ohio, took my Ph.D. in the art world with C.O. as my adviser.
My view of things I built then was very
charged with colored junk and a nonverbal sorrow. His was black and gray and white. He knew how to wrap rags just so and to give a cinema noir feel to every static object. The color of blurred newspaper was how I remember him then, that and paste made from flour and water. He shared his life in Chicago and Yale and then Chicago again, and also his experiences as a cub reporter on the Chicago Tribune. My teenage hardware life was hardly a preparation for talking with him. I listened and we drank a lot of beer and I longed then to be free enough to make the work I had in my head.
Our performances were built with stuff we
picked up in the gutter. Snow seemed to caulk everything. He spoke of Céline and Dubuffet and the super in his building, Dick Tyler, a rather famous, in those days, underground tattooed madman obsessive on the Lower East Side. Because of Tyler and Dubuffet, we looked at kids’ art and nut art and art made by people who never heard of art or dollars or lies. Claes showed me his mother’s drawings at that time. Somehow they made sense in this context. He talked about how, as a child, he collected license plates from all forty-eight states. A real immigrant’s badge of honor. All this friendship allowed the explosion in my dramatic brain to find a matrix for performances and poetry. I couldn’t have been me without Claes.
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40. Anita Reuben and Jim Dine in the basement of the Judson Church during construction of The House 41. Anita Reuben visiting Claes Oldenburg in his studio
49. Jim Dine in front of The House 50 –53. Scenes from The Smiling Workman
The Smiling Workman Judson Church February 29, March 1–2, 1960 [ cast ]
1. Press release for Reuben Galler y announcing Car Crash, Amer ican Moon, and “Varieties” 2. Rehearsal for Car Crash
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To inaugurate the 1960–61 season, the Reuben Gallery moved from its third-floor loft to a groundfloor storefront with large glass windows at 44 East Third Street, just off Second Avenue. The new space was approximately twenty by fifty feet and had a small front section that could be used as a lobby or a backstage area.1 The artists, Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman, decided that during this season each would have the space for a month; within that time, they would develop, rehearse, and perform an event, usually over several nights. Anita Reuben no longer had a financial interest in the gallery and came to help on weekends and when there were performances. The first was Jim Dine’s Car Crash in November, his only performance that included a cast. His theatrical events were all about personal expression: “They were like paintings. I wouldn’t have let anyone paint on my paintings. I couldn’t trust them to do it. It was like a rhythm you have in a dream yourself.”2
The walls of the new space were lined with shelves that held rolls of felt, linoleum, and cork
left behind by the previous tenant, and Dine chose to leave them as a backdrop. According to author Michael Kirby, “Paint had been splashed and splattered on the walls, and sections which were not solid white were covered by a fine white grid of vertical drips. Even the floor was white.”3 Forty or fifty folding chairs filled the floor space, leaving a U-shaped aisle through the audience. Dine hung lights and silver, white, and red crosses from the ceiling—crosses like those on an ambulance or hospital. In the lobby, Dine exhibited a small group of paintings and drawings related to the event, many with the same crosses. The supporting cast of Car Crash included Pat Oldenburg, Marcus Ratliff, and Judy Tersch, but Dine was the main character—the car. He had a clear vision of what he wanted, and the cast needed only one hour of rehearsal on each of three nights to be ready.
After the audience entered, the lights went out. Honking and street noises were heard, and
Dine entered wearing a raincoat and rubber hat that had been sprayed silver, topped by a golf cap with two small flashlights attached. His face was silver with black lines and red lips; the lights remained off. Tersch and Ratliff entered, also with two flashlights each; he wore a dress, she wore men’s clothing. Each wore a papier-mâché mask with holes for eyes and mouth; they swept their “headlights” over the audience, and every time the lights grazed Dine he would grunt and moan, as if in great distress; then he left the performance space. With the background noise rising, the two “cars” wove through the audience until they turned off their lights and exited. The house lights came on; Dine reentered without his headlights hat and moved back and forth, honking. Pat Oldenburg, who had been standing quietly on a ladder—her long white dress hung to the ground, so she appeared eight feet tall—began to speak random car-related poetry written by Dine. The car and traffic noises continued and then changed to a car starting, shifting into gear, speeding up, and skidding out of control, with the sound level increasing all the while.
Suddenly, silence. Dine moved to a blackboard, above which was a clothes wringer. He unrolled
paper towels with the word “help” written again and again. Dine began drawing anthropomorphized cars on the blackboard, cars that were sketched in such haste and agony that the chalk kept breaking,
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forcing him to continually start the drawings over. His face was contorted in pain, and he grunted and made other sounds. The cast members joined him, creating more and more noise. Eventually Dine stopped drawing and abruptly walked out of the front door; the noise continued for a short time and then stopped. It took a few moments for the audience to realize that the theater piece was over. For years, a legend grew that Car Crash was provoked by a real accident Dine experienced. In the catalog for his 1999 exhibition at the Guggenheim, he explained the true circumstances, which in fact involved two car crashes. In July 1959, on the way to his uncle’s cabin in Kentucky, Dine was involved in an accident; about a month later, driving to Cleveland with wife Nancy and son Jeremiah, he had a second crash. These events inspired paintings and drawings that were related to the theater piece, but the piece itself was primarily about the inability to communicate pain and distress through language. It must have been extremely moving to observe someone in such pain, especially someone capable of sharing his passion with the audience in a direct and immediate way. Each of Dine’s earlier theater pieces had been compact and intense, revealing a strongly held personal emotion. Dine, unlike Kaprow, wanted no audience participation, nor did he intend to base his works on any theory, or offer a revelation about some aspect of society. Rather his “theater” was about himself, a catharsis or selfrevelation. Dine explained: It was a way for me to be an actor. I was really interested in acting and expressing myself through acting, and at the same time it was a precursor to my poetry. It included of course visual. It was all about visual. But in fact, it’s not the way I would have done it if it wasn’t a performance. If it had just been visual, I paint much better than that. Even then I painted much better than that. This was more literary, even though there were not many words except in Car Crash. It was related to me exposing my dreams probably, and much more to do with poetry. They were poetic events I thought . . .4
Robert Whitman’s American Moon, performed about ten times from November 29 to early December, followed Car Crash. Whitman wanted the piece to have a romantic feeling and has pointed out that many songs have the word “moon” in the title. In addition, the idea of humans traveling to the moon was beginning to surface.5 John F. Kennedy had just been elected—the first glamorous, mediasavvy president—and hopes were high for a new approach to culture and world relations. Whitman developed his theater pieces by making notes and annotated watercolor sketches rather than by creating a script or a score. Much of the action would be inspired by the creation of the space. Some of the complex ideas he planned never came to fruition, usually because they could not be accomplished with the limited technical means Whitman had at his disposal. Unlike Kaprow, and like Dine, Whitman wanted no audience participation; his intention was to re-create through his performance an experience that might infer a primal narrative. The suggestive event in real time was most important to him. For American Moon, Whitman spent three weeks clearing and rebuilding the interior of the gallery. The shelves of flooring materials were removed. He created an intricate interior with scrap lumber, large amounts of old cloth, used upholstery fabrics, and construction paper.6 Whitman believes the homemade, rough quality of the construction gave the work an organic and authentic quality.7 He prepared a central oval space; the audience would sit in three tunnels on each side, facing each other and close to the action. Each tunnel could hold only eight or ten spectators, so during the performance the audience members were isolated from each other; they could see only those directly facing them
and had a limited view of the action in the central space. Dine has described the space Whitman created for American Moon as threatening and claustrophobic.8 The interiors of the tunnels were painted red; the roofs were constructed to open at a point in the performance to momentarily relieve the feeling of oppression. Loud and unexpected sounds from an unseen source were an important element of the work. Performers and stagehands used catwalks, accessible by ladders and unseen by the audience, that circled the oval space above and in front of the tunnels. The performance began as spectators were led to their seats in the dark tunnels with flashlights. A loud tape-recorded buzzing noise was heard, and the central space was illuminated. Burlap curtains obscuring the scene were raised and thrown over the catwalks, blocking the audience’s view of the stagehands. Underneath the burlap curtains were clear plastic ones covered in an irregular grid of sheets of typing paper. The plastic curtains were pulled up too, revealing heaps of colored fabric on the cardboard-covered floor. A “mushroom” and two other heaps began to sway, pulled by ropes: shortly they rose, revealing three separate figures that began to move around the central tunnel. A short “mouth” figure with teeth darted back and forth like a crab, a tall cylindrical shape rocked and swayed, and a heap of fabrics moved and shook, dropping pieces and fragments. They went to the ends of the central tunnel, where they were out of view of the spectators. The lights were extinguished, the plastic curtains were lowered over the tunnel openings, and six projectors were turned on, introducing a significant amount of noise and light. The film shown was the same on all the projectors and could be viewed on the grid of paper on the curtains only in fragments. It portrayed the costumed figures just seen, but now cavorting in the woods. The contrast between the natural setting in the film and the spaces inside the tunnels intensified the feeling of claustrophobia. As the films ended (not exactly at the same moment), the plastic curtains were raised once more, and the projectors illuminated another heap of fabrics, mimicking one of those just seen in the film. It was swinging in the central space and emitting soft noises. The projectors were turned off and on again as the heap shook off its fabrics, revealing a person on a swing; again the lights went out. The sounds around the audience increased and the roofs of the tunnels opened, revealing a yellow cone overhead and momentarily drawing the spectators’ attention from the central space to the tunnels. Next the light of roving flashlights revealed two figures. Whitman and Simone Forti (invited to participate due to her appreciation of E.G.) rolled toward one another on the floor from the ends of the central tunnel, bumped, and rolled out of view again. On the third pass, they rolled right over each other and kept on rolling. They repeated this set of movements and then started “heaping” in crablike motions on their elbows and toes across the floor. New unexpected noises began, provided by four unseen vacuum cleaners blowing up a huge balloon made of plastic sheets; the balloon eventually filled the central space. Forti and Lucas Samaras placed themselves under the balloon, and Whitman pressed himself against it for several moments. No one moved. Then the lights went out again. The balloon was quickly deflated in the darkness; when the lights came on, Whitman asked everyone to enter the central space. Above the audience’s heads was Samaras, suspended on a swing, prone and motionless; at the ends of the space, two colored cloth balls bounced and danced and again the lights went out. Those on the catwalks, level with Samaras, began flashing their flashlights and bobbing up and down behind the catwalks. Then the flashlights were turned off and American Moon was over. Also during December, Kaprow created an environment at the Judson Gallery that likely reminded viewers of his final exhibition at the Hansa Gallery. Entitled Apple Shrine, it required viewers to negotiate a “modern labyrinth” of passageways constructed of chicken wire, torn cardboard, rags,
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tar paper, straw, and “quantities of torn and crumpled newspapers stuffed into the wire from ceiling to floor.”9 In the center of the labyrinth was a sanctumlike room with a three-tiered altar that contained both real apples and painted ones that had fallen off his Rearrangeable Panels (1957–59); these had been recycled from a Hansa exhibition and later were used in 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. As viewers reached the altar, they were given a choice: a real apple to eat or a fake apple—a “real” work of art by Kaprow—to take home. The ecclesiastical atmosphere in the church basement, as well as the reference to Eve’s biblical choice, enhanced the psychological content. But here audience participation required making a choice rather than following directions, as it had in 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. After American Moon, Whitman invited Simone Forti to participate in an evening of Christmas Happenings, “Varieties,” staged at the Reuben Gallery on December 16, 17, and 18. In addition to See Saw, the work listed in the press release, Forti presented a second one, Rollers. Also on the program were Dine, who called his work A Shining Bed, and Oldenburg, who, within the title Blackouts, included four short works: Chimneyfires, Erasers,The Vitamin Man, and Butter and Jam. Together his four performances (no documentation exists) lasted for about half an hour. Oldenburg considered the group a pendant to Snapshots from the City;10 like Snapshots, the overall mood was dark and grim. Simone Forti Morris was the only woman to present an event in the Reuben space. The art world at the turn of the 1960s was a male domain. Forti was born in Florence but grew up in Los Angeles. She met the artist Robert Morris at Reed College, where they were both students, and they married in 1956, before they finished school. The couple moved to San Francisco where Morris painted and Forti studied dance with Anna Halprin, who had recently broken ties with modern dance conventions and set up her own school focusing on natural non-dance movement. Forti studied with Halprin for four years at her outdoor studio. The program included free improvisation, “kinesiological analysis”—which, Forti explained, “has to do with sensing movement in your own body, sensing your body’s changing dynamic configurations”11—and vocal work.12 Halprin’s studio was a locus for collaboration between the arts on the West Coast, and Forti worked with composer La Monte Young, actor John Graham, dancer A. A. Leath, and others. She was also interested in Surrealist films and the work of Kurt Schwitters.13 The Morrises moved to New York in 1959. Forti took some classes with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, but it was not until she joined the workshop of Robert Dunn that she felt at home. Dunn had been one of the members of John Cage’s experimental music class at the New School. He was an accompanist at Cunningham’s and other modern dance studios. Dunn was influenced by Cage and other cultural preoccupations of the moment, such as Zen Buddhism and Existentialism. Historian Sally Banes has noted, “So many of the ideas circulating in the various artistic and social networks around Greenwich Village found their way into the dances and discussions in Dunn’s classes.”14 Perceptions of time and space, as well as an emphasis on the way the body moved, became the focus of those who attended his workshops. By the spring of 1961, Forti brought these interests with her as she separated from Morris and participated more and more with Whitman on his theatrical works. See Saw was about twenty minutes long. The prop was constructed from a sawhorse and a long plank; large elastic bands attached to hooks on the wall stabilized the plank and continued the visual line of the seesaw. As the plank went up and down, the geometry of the plank and the elastics would change. Attached to the bottom of one side of the seesaw was a child’s “moo” toy; it made a noise whenever it tipped.15 The cast consisted of Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer.
An Apple Shrine Judson Gallery November 30 â€“December 24, 1960 14
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14–16. Views of installation
17–19. Preparatory watercolor, notes, and sketches
American Moon Reuben Gallery November 29–December 4, 1960 [ cast ]
George Bretherton Kamaia Deveroe Simone Forti Lucas Samaras Clifford Smith Robert Whitman
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20 –23. Preparations for American Moon