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.
- 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.
Overview 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.
Important Art 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.
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.