1961 Twenty-five Years Ago

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A new art form received some respectful attention in the May issue of ARTnews magazine when the New York artist Allan Kaprow explained: “Happenings are events which, put simply, happen. Though the best of them have a decided impact—that is, one feels, ‘here is something important’—they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point.”

Born in the the counterculture movement of the late fifties and sixties, happenings were staged in small theaters, lofts and garages, in parking lots or on beaches. They were improvisational performances in which players were given only skeletal directions. Dialogue was dispensed with; viewers had to interpret what they could from action, music, and lighting. Players were wrapped in paper, hidden within boxes, or else pranced naked among the spectators, drawing them into the action.

Kaprow illustrates: “Everybody is crowded into a downtown loft, milling about, like at an opening. It’s hot. There are lots of big cartons sitting all over the place. One by one they start to move, sliding drunkenly and careening in every direction, lunging into people and one another, accompanied by loud breathing sounds over four loudspeakers. … A wall of trees tied with colored rags advances on the crowd, scattering everybody, forcing them to leave. … A nude girl runs after the racing pool of a searchlight, throwing spinach greens into it. … You giggle because you’re afraid, suffer claustrophobia, talk to someone nonchalantly, but all the time you’re there , getting into the act. …” For Kaprow, “getting into the act” meant that one would “cast aside for a moment … proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of art and (one hopes) life.”

Happenings increased in variety and impropriety throughout the decade, and now are part of its curiously distant legacy, at rest in the great lumber room of time along with psychedelic posters, wide-wale corduroy bell-bottoms, and the Doors.