How Happenings Happened

In 1959, a clique of New York artists tried to crack their whole world open. Abstract Expressionism was beginning to feel played out, and they were constantly thinking about what would come after that. This group, which had coalesced around an artist and Rutgers professor named Allan Kaprow, started to wonder about taking the painting out of “action painting”—to try doing what Jackson Pollock had done, but without a canvas. They were asking basic questions: why an artist’s actions must be in service to a physical thing; why poetry, music, and theater were such separate worlds; and why the studio and everything that happened in it (whether wild or banal) couldn’t be fodder.

That October, Kaprow put these theories to the test. He staged a six-night-only production called “Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts” at the loft that housed the new Reuben Gallery, in a neighborhood that nobody had yet called “the East Village.” He hung plastic sheeting to divvy up the space into three rooms, and shifted audience members through at predetermined intervals. Artists were set up at stations to press oranges into juice, partake in games, give speeches, and (attempt to) play musical instruments. Other participants—including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—were charged with painting circles and lines, over and over again, on both sides of a canvas stretched vertically in the middle of the main room. The vibe was gritty, if faintly ridiculous; the largely art-world crowd was game.

“There was some magic to the grime, to that kind of air, odor, and color,” remembers Lucas Samaras, a student of Kaprow’s and a lead performer that heady week. “They would say, ‘Wear this suit,’ and it was a crummy suit they had gotten from the Salvation Army. You wondered, ‘God, who wore this thing?’ But you wore it anyway. You became transformed. Plus,” he adds, “you had the incredible gift that all of them were young and good-looking in their own particular way”—Samaras, a handsome young Greek, being no exception.

Kaprow, it turns out, was exactly right. Genre-mixing and examination of process became defining characteristics of the next half-century’s art. Soon, Happenings were happening everywhere below 14th Street, and everyone from Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic to the kids doing flashmobs in the mid-aughts owes something to them.

Ephemeral events don’t lend themselves to the retrospective treatment, but on February 9, the Pace Gallery will open “Happenings: 1958–1963” with a selection of never-before-seen photographs by Robert R. McElroy as well as related artworks by the movement’s key proponents, Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Whitman, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Simone Forti, and Carolee Schneemann among them. And, of course, Samaras, who had been shuttling back and forth between art and theater and even enrolled in the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting in 1959. As Oldenburg said, “Lucas was the perfect performer actually for these things. Whatever he did he did very slowly, obsessively, calculatedly … When I started doing these performances I wasn’t too clear about what I wanted them to be. Lucas sort of defined them for me.”

“For a professional actor, one of the gifts is keeping out of the way,” recalls Whitman today, speaking from his home in ­Warwick, New York. “Not to generate a persona of their own in the situation. But Lucas had an idea and an aesthetic. That’s what you got when you got Lucas.”

He’d do almost anything interesting. In Whitman’s 1960 Happening titled American Moon, Samaras was alternately crushed on the ground beneath a giant balloon and suspended above the audience in a makeshift swing. In Oldenburg’s Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath from 1961, he played a narcissist whose prescribed action was to admire himself in a series of different mirrors. Strangely, he says he had no interest in producing a Happening of his own. “I was snooty in that respect—I expected perfection in a way, and I didn’t know how to control people, while [Kaprow, Whitman, and Oldenburg] were willing to take whatever was possible. I was a fantasy man.”

The Happenings ultimately gave Samaras the confidence to leave theater and focus on his artistic practice, turning himself into the perfect subject and tool. In 1969, he got his hands on a Polaroid camera and started photographing himself obsessively. He preened and emoted for the camera in full makeup and wigs, and wearing nothing at all. He started manipulating those photos in the early seventies—first by painting on them, then by futzing with the gooey emulsion itself. He’s still at it, too: For Ecdysiast and Viewers, a work shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, Samaras taped friends and colleagues as they watched an iMovie of him stripping.

Today, on the 62nd floor of a midtown skyscraper next to a tricked-out iMac—on which Photoshop has replaced Polaroid—Samaras, 75, couldn’t seem further from the old loft scene, although his walls are adorned with dozens of beaded necklaces and self-portraits dating back to high school. He’s hesitant to credit his Happenings experience with everything that’s come since, but he does admit to its reach. “Everything I’ve done,” he says, “is connected to everything else I do.”

Happenings: New York, 1958–1963
Pace Gallery.
Through March 17.

Lucas Samaras and Patty Oldenburg in a scene from Claes Oldenburg’s Voyages I, 1962. Photo: © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Samaras in Oldenburg’s Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath, 1961. Photo: © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York; © Claes Oldenburg/Courtesy of Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio.

Samaras (on swing) in Robert Whitman’s American Moon, 1960. Photo: © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Samaras (center) and Robert Whitman (right) at Allan Kaprow’s The Big Laugh, 1960. Photo: © John Cohen/Courtesy of L. Parker Stephenson Photography.

How Happenings Happened