PRINT February 2012


Judith F. Rodenbeck’s Radical Prototypes

Allan Kaprow, A Spring Happening, 1961. Happening, Reuben Gallery, New York, 1961. Photo: Robert McElroy/VAGA.

Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings, By Judith F. Rodenbeck. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011. 312 pages. $35.

FEW COULD QUIBBLE with Allan Kaprow’s laconic definition of Happenings in 1966, when he spoke of them simply as “collage[s] of events in certain spans of time and in certain spaces.” But at the time, the question of what a Happening actually was—eight years after the term had been coined by Kaprow in his groundbreaking essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”—had become something of an obsession. In 1965, Al Hansen had spoken of the “confusion about the very definition of Happenings” as one of the strengths of this “rather unique art form”; that same year, a special issue of the Tulane Drama Review—one of the key publications covering the expansion of theater and its hybridization with other art forms—was dedicated to parsing the related phenomena of Fluxus and Happenings. The aesthetic and discursive struggles surrounding the meaning and direction, the semantics and politics, of Happenings reached their peak in the mid-1960s, and they form the background to, and in many ways the heart of, art historian Judith F. Rodenbeck’s ambitious, densely written book on “the invention of happenings.”

In the TDR’s winter 1965 special issue, the urge to define and theorize the Happening seems largely a response to the fear of co-optation or expropriation: a fate linked, in the words of Ken Dewey—himself a “happener,” in early-’60s New York underground lingo—to the “shallow response” of the mass media. Along with Dewey’s (awkwardly titled) essay “X-ings,” the issue featured a piece by Richard Schechner, TDR’s chief drama and performance theorist, who made it clear that Happenings had for him radically reconfigured both the scene of (Abstract Expressionist) painting and that of traditional (including absurdist) theater “by forcing on the receiver the job of doing the work usually done by the artist/educator/propagandist” and by choosing “everyday objects and people for material” as well as by “destroy[ing] the figurative by confronting it, not by distorting or ignoring it.”

Schechner’s understanding of the Happening was in line with Michael Kirby’s influential theorizing in Happenings: An Illustrated Anthology, which appeared the same year. Kirby argued that in such artworks, “the performer frequently is treated in the same fashion as a prop or a stage effect,” since “as the individual creativity and technical subtlety of the human operation decreases, the importance of the inanimate ‘actor’ increases.” Beyond that, Kirby struck a common note in his concern regarding the “dissemination of information about Happenings”: As he put it, journalists had been seduced by the “peculiar, bizarre and titillating,” which seem “more worthy of space in the mass media . . . than are serious creative works whose originality makes them difficult or even obscure for many people.”

Reductive readings of both kinds—the media’s problematic depiction of the ’60s Happenings scene as an orgiastic and violent spectacle of junk and noise, and the objectification of the subject through the concept of an “inanimate actor”—are addressed in Rodenbeck’s study. One of her central aims is to rehabilitate the critical function of the Happening, as part of a more general “turn to a (problematized) ‘theatrical’ mode.” For a long period, our understanding of the avant-garde arts of the 1950s and ’60s seemed almost inescapably distorted by three factors: sensationalizing mainstream journalism, the resentful defiance of modernist anti­theatrical criticism à la Michael Fried, and an “uneasy art historical silence about happenings.” All of these sometimes played into the common assumption that (much like what is deemed “relational aesthetics” today) Happenings are merely a paradigm for one or more pseudopolitical attitudes in art, not to mention the sign of an irredeemable splintering of modernist medium-specificity into the heterogeneity of “theater.” To demonstrate how “advanced” (one of the attributes more frequently deployed in the book) an art form they actually were, Rodenbeck invokes Bruno Latour, the philosopher of a politics of things, to posit that a kind of object-oriented ontology underlay the very formulation and enactment of Happenings. In other words, Happen­ings should be seen less as a “collaboration without objects,” as art historian Johanna Drucker once dubbed them, than as a “relation between objects.”

The title of Rodenbeck’s book is derived from a remark Kaprow made in the early 1990s, when he said that Happenings were “radical prototypes” given “retardataire” form in performance art. Along such lines, Happenings are here presented as powerful modes of critique, at once astonishingly precise and unsettling, upturning preconceived notions of the place of art as well as complicating any unequivocal definition of form or experience. Rodenbeck thus seeks to rescue Happenings from the wild mix of clichés that has all too commonly typified their reception as a populist art form. As she convincingly argues, the reading of Happenings as naive, utopian, or, worse, fraudulent has to this day prevented their acceptance as a “viable” contribution to postwar art history.

So while the book’s subtitle may fuel expectations of another Kaprow monograph (the first and so far the last being Jeff Kelley’s invaluable 2004 Childsplay: The Art of Allan Kaprow), Rodenbeck has set herself a far more complex task. Her goal, as she puts it, is to reconstruct the genealogy of a “participatory form and ethos in art” in the contemporary modes of “‘relational’ or collaborative aesthetics” and to reconsider the history of Happenings and their critical appraisal or neglect as “a concrete if also theoretical object lesson.” This endeavor entails not only a discussion of the development of Happenings by Kaprow, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, and others but also an exploration of the “suppressed linkages” between Happenings and theater or performance theory/practice, ranging from Brecht (alienation, distancing) to the Living Theatre (intensity) and Fluxus (collaboration, humor, music). It extends to a deployment of trauma theory—particularly in relation to Dine’s Car Crash, 1960—and reflections on the role of the photographic image, and goes on to consider the debates of late-modernist urbanism and city planning linked to David Riesman et al.’s sociopsychological best seller The Lonely Crowd (1950), arriving at a theory of postwar subject formation constructed around the figure of the (black) box. The latter—so significantly esteemed by Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, and other neo-avant-garde artists—Rodenbeck invokes as an allegory of Cage’s ’50s chance operations and the “model of radical exteriority” they implied.

The book’s longest chapter is primarily dedicated to the black box as “discursive formation.” Interlacing the figural and literal meanings of the black box that range from the blank architectural space of the experimental theater to Leo Steinberg’s comparison of Minimal art’s hollow boxes with the computer’s “faceless housing of invisible functions,” Rodenbeck contends that the emergence of Happenings was preconditioned by the Duchampian readymade (another black box) joined with the strategies of appropriation, process, and indifference deployed by Cage, Rauschenberg, and others. By radically de-essentializing the self and rendering the human body itself a black box, Happenings effectively shifted the paradigms of artmaking away from personal expression and toward machinic processes, creating unpredictable Futurist assemblages of bodies, both human and nonhuman.

Radical Prototypes can be said to concur with a great many recent revisionist explorations of postwar American art elaborating on the increasing interdisciplinarity and intermediality of the arts since the mid-’50s, including Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (2008), Branden W. Joseph’s Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (2008), and Liz Kotz’s Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (2007). Some might argue that the various strands of Rodenbeck’s multiply layered reasoning could have led many places in the history of the arts of the ’50s and ’60s, and that Happenings, and Kaprow’s formulation of them in particular, are carrying a theoretical weight they do not fully deserve. But one might respond by contending that the range of Rodenbeck’s multifocal study simply attests to the complexity of her subject—to the fact that “there was a tough nut to crack in the Happenings,” as Kaprow put it in the 1966 essay “Assemblage, Environments & Happenings.” The “confusion as to what a happening was” offers a specific take on and creates an ideal context for Rodenbeck’s own interpretation of the “impurity” of postwar artistic practices.

Allan Kaprow setting up the exhibition “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” Reuben Gallery, New York, September 10, 1959. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.

The differences between the theater world’s attempts to claim Happenings for a revitalization of American theater and Kaprow’s ultimately post-theatrical project of “art-life” and “life-art,” of performances without performers and ultimately without stage or spectators in any conventional sense—a project, moreover, involving dirt, play, impermanence, and chance, and one dispersed in the city or landscape and scattered in time—have a clear relationship to the return of participation and performance as alleged counterpoints to “mainstream” art practice today. Yet the emphasis and the historical problems are also quite different, as the postwar situation of aesthetic experimentation and confrontation entailed a set of strategies to deal with the legacies of Expressionism and abstraction that have since been thoroughly incorporated into an institutionalized idea of critical contemporary art. When Rodenbeck mentions Kaprow’s 1961 claim that Happenings are “a moral act, a human stand of great urgency,” such an existential claim appears outrageous from today’s perspective, if also strangely appropriate in an era of continuous crisis. And though Kaprow stressed the “values embodied in the Happenings,” any “security” provided by the category of art itself was to be disregarded and defied. Indeed, central to Kaprow’s endeavor was that it wasn’t “moral certainty” he sought, but a (re)searching “moral intelligence”: In his words (from 1967), Happenings “resemble the best efforts of contemporary inquiry into identity and meaning, for they take their stand amid the modern information deluge.”

There is an enduring appeal in this idea of “taking a stand” amid contemporary capitalism’s spectacle via a practice or activity that constantly evades the notion and the institutions of art. It has obvious resonances when it comes to the “genealogical” relationship of Happenings with the participatory art practices of the present. Rodenbeck argues that the work that today operates in modes of social interaction and audience mobilization relies on previous struggles that usually go unacknowledged. The protagonists of the neo-avant-garde, she claims, and Kaprow and Cage in particular, “had asked harder questions, probing the parameters of art as practice.” Here, the title Radical Prototypes suddenly gains in meaning. Happenings were always proleptic, Rodenbeck implies: If they enacted and seized on the present, on real time, they were in fact harbingers of the very reification of being and time that would increasingly come to characterize contemporary experience. The relentless questioning posed by Happenings may be their richest legacy, which is to say that their searingly critical projection of the future might help us to contextualize current anti-institutional, performative, and participatory aesthetics. Moreover, as elaborated by Rodenbeck, the history of Happenings can be seen as proposing the ultimate impossibility or, more trenchantly, the plain undesirability of art. In our present moment, the paradigms to be shifted or deconstructed are no longer as discernible as during the late-modernist confrontations, when the integrity of work and medium was challenged by the disintegrating modes of process and chance as well as by the specific “moral intelligence” examining the category of art itself. Nonetheless, the debates around Happenings will continue to offer strategic inspiration for disputes about the legitimacy of art, which show no sign of abating so long as contemporary art fails to contest the chilling norms of an aesthetic regime informed by neoliberal notions of “freedom” and defined by an ostensible dissolution of normativity.

Rodenbeck is a probing writer. She approaches her subject again and again, in circular fashion, from different angles and with different questions, refraining from any diachronic narrative while engaging instead the fundamental problems Kaprow and the Happenings scene faced. Even if the phenomenon is put into service as a lens through which to consider a staggering range of issues, and even if the book’s focus could be aided, for instance, by a more expanded view in terms of Happenings’ global reach in the ’60s, Radical Prototypes fully justifies its title. In reading Happenings and their neo-Dada allies as models of artistic practices that embody the “urgency” of contesting institutional discipline and media manipulation, and as means of addressing the uncannily interrelated obsolescences of “subject” and “experience” in the society of control, Rodenbeck elevates the status of Happenings, turning a once suspicious spectacle into a dialectical endeavor of great strength.

Tom Holert is an art historian and critic based in Berlin.