Happenings - History and Concepts

Happenings Collage
Started: 1958
Ended: Early 1970s

Beginnings 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.

The Dadaists who declared that art did not have to meet expectations about what "art" was supposed to look like also influenced the artists who created Happenings. Additionally, the Dadaist use of the element of chance heavily guided the evolution of Happenings as an art form. The ideas of composer John Cage and the teachings of instructors at Black Mountain College including Josef and Anni Albers, Merce Cunningham, Robert Motherwell and Buckminster Fuller further impacted the views of Happenings artists in their belief that learning should be a continual process, with no distinction between making or learning about art and routine aspects of day-to-day life. There was an emphasis on the perpetual state of learning and creating; an appreciation for the prosaic, which influenced many artists of the time, particularly Allan Kaprow, who coined the term "Happening" while describing performance events that had taken place on George Segal's farm in 1957.

These aforementioned theories and ideas led to the creation of the Happening which was a combination of Performance Art and Installation Art. Happenings fully evolved from Kaprow's "environments," which were installation pieces that involved large sculptural collages. After taking John Cage's class Kaprow introduced the element of sound into his work and from there came the first Happening by Kaprow. It was untitled and performed at Voorhees Chapel at Douglass Campus on April 22, 1958.

Happenings: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

The audience participation in Happenings incorporated the aspect of chance, as anything could happen at any time and each performance would be completely unique from the one before. This was the critical difference between Happenings and other performance art of the time, which emphasized a more theatrical and repeatable ethos. Happenings could be enacted anywhere; sometimes they were staged in galleries, but they were performed just as often in a theater setting, on the street, on a farm or even in one instance, a cave.

Happenings were both large-scale and elaborate or small and intimate depending upon the artist. For example, Allan Kaprow had started out looking for a way to extend the action of painting beyond the canvas and into the space of the viewer. He achieved this by building environments for viewers to be inside of and adding sound and various objects for the viewer to interact with. Robert Watts also created pieces similar in size and scale, utilizing created environments that the audience would partake in.

Happenings artists such as George Brecht worked in a smaller scale, creating games that the viewer interacted with. Brecht wanted these pieces to reflect Zen Buddhist philosophical ideas. Brecht would also write "event scores" where he would leave directions as to what the viewer should do, which then turned the viewer into the performer. As with many movements, Happenings artists each brought a slightly different viewpoint to the table and approached the creative process with their own personal agenda.

Happenings and Fluxus

There was much cross-over between Happenings artists and the Fluxus group; Allan Kaprow and George Brecht especially were involved in both movements. It is therefore difficult to definitively categorize them as two entirely separate entities especially because Fluxus held several events at Rutgers University where Happenings had originated. Happenings usually involved artists who would later become known as the "Rutgers Group:" Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Robert Watts and George Brecht. Fluxus emerged in New York led by artist George Maciunas, and there were also Fluxus groups in Europe and Japan. The Happenings artists were not part of an organized group with a leader like the Fluxus group and the term Happenings is not the name of a movement but the name of certain performance pieces.

Happenings and Fluxus both integrated the use of audience participation to contribute to the outcome of the art, however they differed in several significant ways. Happenings is not the name of a movement but the name of certain performance pieces that were generally more complicated and outlined than Fluxus events, like an improvisational theatrical work that involved the audience. They were more expressionistic and symbolic than Fluxus performances. Fluxus events were usually loosely outlined or not outlined at all. They involved a sardonic sense of humor often leaving the viewer in the position of being the victim of a practical joke. For instance, one Fluxus piece consisted of sending out invitations to nonexistent performances where the viewer would arrive to find nothing.

Later Developments - After Happenings

Happenings culminated with the infamous 1963 Yam Festival, a month-long series of events held on George Segal's farm and in other locations in and around New York. After this event, Happenings began to dwindle in the mid sixties as other new art forms and theories gained prominence, such as conceptual art, body art and feminist art. Nevertheless, most of these newer movements had some roots in Happenings in their emphasis on interaction and embodied experience.

Important Art and Artists of Happenings

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Happenings Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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