PRINT October 1965


Michael Kirby’s Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology

Michael Kirby, Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.),1965.

SOME PORTION OF THE HAPPENINGS, which flourished as a vital movement in New York between 1959 and 1962, has been preserved in a documentary book by Michael Kirby. The major part of the book is devoted to statements, scripts and descriptions of the productions by the five artists represented: Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Whitman. Altogether, thirteen Happenings are described in detail and amply illustrated with photographs. Kirby wrote all the descriptions after what must have been a number of grueling interviews with artists and performers to obtain not only the facts of the performances (including minutiae of objects, materials, costumes, action and audience involvement) but the originating circumstances of each production as well. The descriptions do not make easy reading, but they provide an accurate chronology of the action and an exacting account of the physical situation that the artist “found” and/or created for each Happening.

Kirby’s choices devolved upon a presentation that would illustrate different aspects of the Happenings and upon geographical considerations. Four of the thirteen Happenings described were productions outside of New York—in Texas, California and Chicago. Three of these were by Oldenburg and they might have been excellent (it is impossible to tell how well they “worked” from the description) but since the book could not include all the Happenings, it could also mean that several of Oldenburg’s best works done in New York were excluded to favor a geographic representation. Specifically, Fotodeath and Ironworks (1961) were two of the most powerful, original and coherent works of the 50 or more Happenings presented altogether by the five artists. To choose from the works of Oldenburg, Kaprow and Whitman, the most prolific members of the group, would be difficult in any case, and Kirby’s book is not a critique, but a selective documentation. For Dine and Grooms there was not much problem of choice. Grooms did four theatrical works. One was a simple solo that Kirby mentions in his Introduction. Another was an earlier version of The Burning Building, the subject of a major description in the book, which was presented just two months after the first Happening in New York (Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, October, 1959). It was the first presentation in the Surrealist style common to almost all the Happenings that followed.

Jim Dine also presented four Happenings, the last in 1960. Unlike Grooms, he was a key participant in the first collaborative presentations, at the Judson Memorial Church (The Ray Gun Spex), the old Reuben Gallery on 4th Avenue, and the new Reuben on East 3rd Street, where he gave Car Crash in a series in the fall of 1960. Dine describes his other three Happenings (the first was a 30-second solo) in his personal statement.

Robert Whitman is well represented with one Happening from California (Water, 1963), and three from New York. These exemplify the work of the one artist in the group with perhaps the most consistent and personally obsessive vision. The body of Whitman’s work constitutes a highly individualized vocabulary of images which, in each Happening, were projected in potent associative chains and combinations related always to the central theme of the work (“Mouth,” “Ball,” “Hole,” “Flower,” etc.). Oldenburg was also a master of provocative distortions, but his fertile imagination occasionally led him to sacrifice unity for sprawling quantity. Whitman’s pervading interest in the Environment that he constructed to enclose action and audience was a vital agent of the organic totality of any one work. However, like Kaprow, Oldenburg’s interest in a “found” environment (e.g., the parking lot for “Autobodys”) was a significant aspect of a movement in which found objects, and materials, including the use of people as people or people as objects, played an essential role in the action itself.

Appropriately, Allan Kaprow is the lead-off artist in the book. From the beginning Kaprow was indefatigable in his theoretical apologies for the Happenings. He was in large part responsible for Happenings in the first place, and then for the enthusiasm and practical organization that facilitated the momentum of the movement, which consisted of a milieu of mutual stimulation among the artists, the performances themselves, and the political consequences of public interest. In his statement Kaprow outlines his personal development from the art object to the Environment to the Happening. He does not however, mention his debt to John Cage, with whom he studied at the New School in 1957–58. Kirby takes care of this omission in his Introduction by pointing out that “much of the material and structure of Kaprow’s ‘18 Happenings in 6 Parts’ resulted directly from this work” (with Cage at the New School). Undoubtedly Cage was a pivotal figure in the outbreak o the new theatre of Happenings. In 1952 at Black Mountain College he presented a kind of Happening which was a “simultaneous presentation of unrelated events.” Subsequently, his radical suggestion of music as “theatre” in the deployment of all the senses became a liberating proposition in an artistic climate susceptible to ideas of shattering conventional distinctions between the media. More directly, Cage’s influence was manifest through Kaprow’s assimilation of his attitudes and techniques in the course at the New School.

In his long Introduction Kirby deals thoroughly with this and other matters of historical importance in the emergence of Happenings. The first part of the Introduction tenaciously undertakes to distinguish the Happenings from traditional theatre. To anyone familiar with the Happenings at all, the first and most obvious thing that might come to mind about them as a new form of theatre is that they are beyond and outside the realm of Western discursive theatre, which conventionally deals with psycho-social problems, not exempting the modern Theatre of the Absurd. Kirby probes the essential dissimilarities behind this general perception by analyzing the structural characteristics of the Happenings. Having noted that the Happenings are essentially non-verbal and that they have rejected the proscenium stage and “the conceit that everyone in the auditorium sees the same ‘picture’” and that they have “abandoned the plot or story structure that is the foundation of traditional theatre” Kirby then examines the two features of Happenings that follow from these perversities: 1) a compartmented structure, sequential or simultaneous (clearly related to the collage principle) in which the “arrangement and contiguity of theatrical units are completely self contained and hermetic”—as contrasted with the information structure of traditional theatre based necessarily on the exposition of facts related to a plot development and 2) non-matrixed, or functional performing in which there is no artificial context of time, place and character through which the plot of the traditional theatre is projected. In the Happenings, with few exceptions, performers are themselves executing duties as functional as housekeeping, or they become objects incorporated in the physical design of the Happening.

Kirby’s explanation of Happenings within the context of theatre is a useful point of departure in defining both what the Happenings are and what they are not. Yet the modern forms of Western theatre evolve from their own traditional locus, and the Happenings developed from another tradition altogether; thus the interpretation of Happenings in terms of the familiar forms of Western theatre tends to convey the misleading implication that Happenings are a rebellion from, an improvement upon, or an extension of, traditional theatre. This suggestion is made extremely palatable by an appeal to the ideas of two great theoreticians of the theatre proper in this century: Artaud and Stanislayski, both of whom envisioned a theatre beyond the strictures of text and the realistic depiction of life and the confinement of the proscenium stage. No doubt both men would find some embodiment of their ideas in the present day Happenings. Moreover, the Happenings might be considered a blessing to many theatre and non-theatre people who feel that no development at all is possible within the format of the play as a plot or as a depository of human anguish and a catalyst for social change. Nevertheless, the theatre continues to work out its dead end variations from these premises.

Artaud and Stanislayski may have contributed to the climate of thought that made a theatre like the Happenings possible in our time, but the background for Happenings consists chiefly of the painting collage assemblage construction environment issues of 20th-century art. In the second part of his Introduction Kirby methodically presents the origins and antecedents of Happenings, including, of course, the tradition of painting from its earliest efforts, by way of the collage, to extend the picture into a “real space.” Within this tradition, Kurt Schwitters was the voice of the future as he outlined a program of action that would embrace all branches of art in one artistic unit. Although Schwitters never produced an example of his “Merz” theatre, he documented, as Kirby says, the progression from painting to collage to Environment to Happening. But Schwitters and other precedents in art notwithstanding, Kirby traces an “historical progression to Happenings basically unrelated to painting, collage or assemblage.” In the Dada performances (beginning in 1916) he finds the origins of the nonmatrixed performing and compartmented structure basic to the Happenings. Other characteristics of Dada related to Happenings were the use of chance methods, noise music, the “found” environment and what Kirby calls an expressive spectator presentation relationship, meaning the increased immediacy of the work through various types of physical intimacy among action, environment and audience. However, stylistic precedents notwithstanding, the Dada performances were programmatic, collaborative, rebellious exhibitions, of some political motivation and consequence, not essentially undertaken by individuals in a serious framework of artistic development.

For Kirby the collage theory of the generation of Happenings is inadequate to explain the diverse influences shaping the “composite work of art”—which Happenings, and most theatre represent—and the relevance of such a work to all the other arts. An Environment, for example, considered in the tradition of collage, is generally defined as a material creation that surrounds or encloses the viewer on all sides, a definition which does not include the “found” or mixed environments typical of certain Happenings. Yet since the Environment, no matter what kind it is, has been used, as Kirby illustrates, to alter the “audience-presentation” relationship of the work, its usage would appear quite consistent with the collage tradition. The extension from the picture frame into a real space has assumed so many different forms that seen just as a static object, the Environment as an enclosure is simply one more form.

As a theatrical event the Happenings naturally exhibit stylistic similarities to aspects of contemporary music, dance and literature as well as to painting and sculpture. The mobilized environment immediately becomes noise (music) and movement (dance) even before sound and motion are deliberately injected as isolated factors, self-sufficient elements, contributing to the entire effect. The five artists in Kirby’s book are, or have been, painters and sculptors. Properties, objects, etc., including people, are their primary tools of projection. Kirby’s definition of Happenings (“a purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure”) may successfully differentiate the Happenings from all other forms of theatre, but it doesn’t account for the physical structuring of Happenings based upon the extension of a material assemblage into a time-space continuum. Claes Oldenburg’s definition (included in a catalog and guide to an exhibit in Philadelphia, 1962) says nothing about the style and form of Happenings, although he makes the fundamental assertion that his Happenings “are an extension of (his) other work as a painter, sculptor and involve the same principles.” Also that the Happenings are, in one way or another, an expansion of the material of the artist to include events in time and people.

Kirby’s view of the formative background of Happenings is so broad as to tend to obscure the main line of continuity from painting to Happenings, yet his knowledge and understanding of the clearest precedents in collage, Dada, Surrealism and action painting does not deprive the reader of any essential facts. His serious academic treatment of the subject appropriately parallels the seriousness of the Happenings themselves as a distinctive and influential new medium. The descriptive anthology is an invaluable historical document and the Introduction is the first attempt to systematically analyze the structure and components of Happenings in a historical frame of reference. Kirby’s allusions to specific works by the five artists are always by way of illustrating his generalities concerning style and structure. Another book, certainly based somehow on Kirby’s fine essay, might be a critical evaluation of the work of these artists, supported by an interpretive analysis of individual styles, which differ considerably, even as they have worked in a medium of obvious common concerns.

Jill Johnston