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Read this now: “Happenings: New York, 1958-1963” by Mildred Glimcher

It’s been a long while since I featured a book review here, but every now and then something really special comes along.

Some ASfwSS readers will be aware that shortly before the dawn of time, I first arrived in New York City as a graduate research student. The topic of my research was precisely the subject of this book. And I mean precisely: I even chose the same beginning and end dates that Milly Glimcher has arrived at.

Robert Whitman, "American Moon" (1960) Full photo credits can be found at the foot of this post

My enthusiasm for this generation of performance artists has been unashamedly obvious on this site and in a number of things I have written elsewhere. I have run interviews with Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Claes Oldenburg, and Carolee Schneemann. I also interviewed Dick Higgins and Bob Rauschenberg in 1979, Allan Kaprow and George Segal in 1980, Simone Forti in 1981, and Bob Whitman repeatedly between 1979 and 1983.

Allan Kaprow, "18 Happenings in 6 Parts" (1959)

Moreover, I have to credit my exposure to the Happenings people for the basis of my own ‘career’ as a performance artist – which has sustained me pretty much ever since. In 1979 Bob Whitman gently persuaded me that we’d both get more out of our relationship if I helped him make new work rather than trying to get him to talk about stuff he’d done twenty years earlier. He then arranged for me to be paid as a studio hand. Then, when I was obliged to return to England to honor teaching commitments in 1982 I started out by leading my courageous students in restagings of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts and The Burning Building. (Significantly enough, when I suggested this to Allan Kaprow, his response was “Why on earth would you want to do that?” whereas Red Grooms was so thrilled that there and then he went and dug out the old lino-cut for the original 1959 poster; and next time I visited he presented me with a beautiful one-off print that he’d pulled for me. I have it hanging here now.)

Red Grooms, "The Burning Building" (1959)

In other words, this is a subject that I know inside out, so I came to this book with particularly high expectations. I was not disappointed.

Jim Dine "Car Crash" (1960)

To begin with I was somewhat reassured that Ms Glimcher didn’t stray too far from the account of happenings that you’ll find in Michael Kirby’s book “Happenings” which was published in 1966, and which she (and I) regard as “a vital source”. (She credits it as early as the sixth line of her preface.) Most obviously she sticks with the same group of core artists: Dine, Grooms, Kaprow, Oldenburg, and Whitman. The only other artists to whom she gives anything like the full treatment are Simone Forti (who gets two illustrated pages in a book that is 320 pages long) and Carolee Schneemann (who gets eight).

Simone Forti "Rollers" (1960)

Carolee Schneemann "Newspaper Event" (1963)

As well as this slight shift in the happenings’ gender balance however , Milly Glimcher makes a number of crucial departures from the details of the usual accounts. The first is to credit Red Grooms, rather than Allan Kaprow, with initiating the history of happenings. Allan will be turning in his grave, I’m sure. He certainly invented the word “happenings” as an art term; he was the only one of their makers who attempted to theorize them; his 1966 book “Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings” is, alongside Kirby’s, probably the most respected account of their history; and his October 1959 18 Happenings in 6 Parts is often cited as the first one. But instead Ms Glimcher takes us back to Provincetown in the late summer of 1958 where Red knocked together a performance called A Play Called Fire at the Sun Gallery.

Allan Kaprow "The Big Laugh" (1960)

Of course the stylistic, practical, and emotional distance between Allan’s work and Red’s pitches us immediately into the most basic question about happenings: What were they? Why does Bob Whitman qualify when George Brecht doesn’t? Why is Carolee Schneemann included (though she wasn’t in 1966) while Yoko Ono for example, isn’t. The truth is that you can’t answer these questions in stylistic terms – even within Kaprow’s own work he gave the title “happening” to a wildly diverse bunch of pieces. The only definition that makes sense is a social one: happenings were the performances made at a certain time in a certain place by a tight-knit group of friends who were willing to recognize one another’s efforts as having kinship with their own. The time was 1958-1963, the place was New York City and its artistic outposts, and most people have tended to assume that the key member of that group of friends was Allan Kaprow. But Milly Glimcher – and this is another of her crucial departures from received wisdom – makes a pretty compelling case for the key individual being Anita Reuben (nee Rubin) in whose gallery a number of the key happenings took place. (This certainly seems to provide the basis for Simone Forti’s inclusion as a core happener.)

Judson Gallery entrance (1960)

The revision of Anita Rubin’s surname to Reuben (which in 1979 I assumed must come down to nothing more than a typo somewhere along the line) is revealed here to be deliberate: “Her own name ‘made fancier’” is how she explained it to Ms Glimcher. And it is at this level of personal detail that the book really is a treasure trove. We get a fascinating account of the clearing out of Judson Church basement – which when it was renamed the Judson Gallery would be another key location for happenings – by a group of Cooper Union students that included Eva Hesse and Tom Wesselmann. We also learn that it was Richard Tyler, Oldenburg’s “friend from Chicago … an intense eccentric” (!) who not only brought him into the Judson circle, but who introduced him to Antonin Artaud’s essay “The Theatre and its Double” which was translated into English in 1958 and which added a key dimension to the happeners’ ideas about collisions between art and life.

Claes Oldenburg "Snapshots from the City" (1960)

Perhaps most touching are Jim Dine’s words about Claes Oldenburg: he was “my colleague and inspiration … ” Jim says, “and I, who had come from southern Ohio, took my Ph.D. in the art world with C.O. as my advisor … I couldn’t have been me without Claes.”

Jim Dine, "The Smiling Workman" (1960)

I believe the decline of happenings was due to the simple fact that the artists became too famous to attract only the tiny audiences that their performances often depended upon. When I spoke to Claes Oldenburg a little while ago, he put it like this: “The performances that we were doing very in the early sixties quickly became over-discovered, instead of a few friends showing up for a happening … you’d have a lot of limousines with seekers of thrills. So, like everything in New York, it doesn’t take long before it becomes too known, so it loses its charm.”

Claes Oldenburg "Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath" (1961)

Milly Glimcher’s explanation is even simpler: “The artists who had created the first performance and theatrical events began to expand their practices in various directions.” In other words they started doing other things. She is utterly convinced of the happenings’ major significance however, and quite rightly concludes in her Epilogue that, “This vital series of performances was part of a worldwide reappraisal of art and the role of the artist in accepted art practice. The happenings artists personified the collapse of the hegemony of painting and sculpture … These events transformed art, the perception of art, and its reception by the public … The happenings artists … destroyed the boundaries between art and life.” They changed the world a little bit, in other words, and we can’t ask more of art than that.

"Happenings: New York, 1958-1963" Installation View, Pace Gallery

This really is a splendid and vitally important book. You cannot properly understand the art of the last fifty years unless you recognize the significance of happenings. Whether or not you saw the Pace Gallery show that coincided with this book’s publication, you probably should get your hands on a copy and read it now.

Photo Credits:

An American Moon: Lucas Samaras (on swing); Martha Edelheit, Martha Jackson, Steve Joy, Rolf Nelson (in audience) in Robert Whitman’s American Moon, performed at the Reuben Gallery, November 29–December 4, 1960. © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York

Car Crash: Jim Dine and Robert Indiana (lower right) in Jim Dine’s Car Crash, performed at the Reuben Gallery, November 1–6, 1960. © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York

Snapshots from the City: 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. © Martha Holmes / TIME & LIFE Images / Getty Images; © Claes Oldenburg

The Big Laugh: Jim Dine (center) in Allan Kaprow’s The Big Laugh, performed at the Reuben Gallery, January 8–11, 1960. © Fred W. McDarrah / Premium Archive / Getty Images

Installation view of Happenings: New York, 1958-1963 Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy The Pace Gallery

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