PRINT March 2023



Robert Whitman, New Worlds #105, 2023, NFT, digital image. From the series “New Worlds,” 2023.

FIRST PRESENTED IN 1960 at the Reuben Gallery in New York, Robert Whitman’s Happening The American Moon was restaged in January at Pace Gallery’s small 508 West Twenty-Fifth Street space. Viewers were catapulted into a temporal rabbit hole. The work, now simply titled American Moon, encompassed five live performances; the prop-strewn set where the restaging had “happened,” viewable throughout the exhibition’s three weeks; a series of drawings from 1960 that had functioned as notations for the Reuben staging; a bulbous, exuberantly reconstructed fabric wall; and three unique, “generative” NFTs, displayed on framed digital screens hung side by side. These images were from a 2023 series of five hundred titled “New Worlds,” which sold out within the first forty minutes of availability. Whitman was and is acutely of his moment.

In Michael Kirby’s 1965 anthology Happenings, Whitman wrote: “The thing about theater that most interests me is that it takes time. Time for me is material. . . . It can be used the same way as paint or plaster or any other material.” In college, Whitman had considered becoming a playwright, but he grew interested in Abstract Expressionist painting and found a way to put the two together in an amorphous genre of time-based visual art that took its name from Allan Kaprow’s 1959 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. In addition to Kaprow, his compatriots included Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and, tangentially, many Fluxus artists and several Judson Dance Theater choreographer-performers. Simone Forti, whose early dance constructions anticipated Judson, was married to Whitman and performed in The American Moon. One might also think of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) as a Happening staged over many nights during which Smith and the actors were both participants and audience, and of which the forty-three-minute film itself is the documentation made public. The same might be said of Warhol’s Silver Factory circa 1963–66 in its entirety. But of all the artists who engaged in Happenings, only Whitman and Kaprow made them their primary expressive medium for decades. The economics were next to impossible when the world of museums and galleries had no use for time-based forms. The works were not monetizable. These priorities have only begun to change in this century and just slightly.

Robert Whitman, American Moon, 1960. Rehearsal view, Pace Gallery, New York, January 17, 2023.

I had just graduated from Sarah Lawrence College when, in the company of my now ex-husband Richard Foreman, I happened upon the first performance of The American Moon at the Reuben. What I remembered most about it throughout the decades was the feeling of being returned to childhood dreams and hallucinations—to a shared primary source of poetic expression. I recalled few of the details until my memory was jogged by the revival performance at Pace, where, oh yes, there were performers rolling on a floor that became cluttered with crumpled paper and fabric and, late in the piece, a giant balloon of transparent plastic that was inflated so that it took the shape of, perhaps, the whale that hangs in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Whitman’s whale was one of the only significant objects in American Moon that wasn’t hung or hoisted from platforms just above the heads of the viewers, from which crew members also directed spotlights. Seated or standing in boxlike enclosures, viewers peered through sheer drop cloths that sometimes looked like windowpanes, as if one were spying through the curtains on shadowy goings-on lit by the moon and the stars. Everything happened very slowly; events did not build or develop or climax. They simply piled up in space, in time, in memory. There were no words with which to make connections. Almost all of Whitman’s Happenings, visually sophisticated as they are, take one back to a primal, prelinguistic way of being.

Even as he is devoted to essential elements—to the composition of paint, plaster, fire, water, time, and space—Whitman also has been a technology tinkerer. He and Rauschenberg were the principal artists associated with Experiments in Art and Technology, a collaborative project initiated by Billy Klüver of Bell Labs. Whitman’s piece for EAT’s 1966 9 Evenings at New York’s Sixty-Ninth Street Regiment Armory used film projection combined with live video feeds. Thus his involvement with NFTs is not a complete surprise. However pristine the images in the “New Worlds” series, they are works of Whitman’s imagination—a childlike vision of time and space—produced purely by an algorithm, which can generate almost infinite variations. It is art for and of our time, as ephemeral as any Happening and much more fascinating as a token of that history. And, thank the heavens, monetizable at last.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.