A few weeks ago, “Happenings: New York, 1958-1963” opened at one of Pace Gallery’s 25th Street locations in lower Manhattan. It’s an exhibition of photographs, objects, and film from the various “happenings” created by the art faculty of Rutgers University and artists living in downtown New York during that period: Red Grooms, Lucas Samaras, Jim Dine, Carolee Schneeman, Alan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Patty Mucha, and others. Unquestionably, it was a New York scene.
With one exception. One set of images in the exhibition shows a party. In one photograph, Jim Dine descends a stair case. In another photograph, Robert Rauschenberg dances on a tile floor with Olga Adorno (then the wife of engineer Billy Kluver) while Andy Warhol looks on. There’s a photo of a crowd of onlookers appearing to have a good time. One of them is Alice Denney. “It was taken at the opening of ‘The Popular Image’ at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1963,” she says. She should know: She curated it.
Washington had a moment of relevance in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s—-and thanks to “The Popular Image,” one bonafide happening and a handful of happening-like events.
The short-lived Washington Gallery of Modern Art was established in 1962 at a time when D.C. had fewer than five art museums. The idea for WGMA was cooked up at a cocktail party; within a couple years Washington’s first museum of contemporary art had taken shape in a four-story town house near the Phillips Collection, with Alice Denney as the assistant director under director Adelyn Breeskin, the former museum director at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“The Popular Image,” one of the first exhibitions at the gallery, was among the first exhibitions in the country that featured “the new art,” as Alan Solomon called it in the catalog essay. The new art was also labeled New Realism, Neo-Dada, and Pop. Pop was a common name at the time, and it stuck.
As the gallery director of The Jefferson Place Gallery, Alice Denney had tried on several occasions to schedule a show of Robert Rauschenberg’s work through Leo Castelli Gallery, according to the gallery’s records. Unquestionably, Rauschenberg was in mind as an anchor for the exhibition of contemporary art Denney was planning for WGMA. Though she was knowledgeable about the contemporary art scene in New York, Denney received some input from Castelli and Solomon, as well as gallerist Ivan Karp. Many of the artists selected fit the vein of the new art (Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Dine, Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, Tom Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, John Wesley, and the phony Vern Blosum), but not all were strictly Pop (George Brecht and Robert Watts). She was also interested in avant-garde film and performance. “The Popular Image” was a title Denney thought encapsulated the variety she intended to bring to WGMA. It was also a frank title that kept pace with the times and the trends. As she indicated in an interview with Hardy George, she had to call it something. Alongside the exhibition, she organized a festival of events that included a lecture performance by John Cage, performances by The Judson Dancers in a Kalorama skating rink, the films of Stan Brakhage, and a happening by Ray Gun Theater (Claes and Patty Oldenburg).
Defining a happening in 1960 is no easier today than it was then. For instance, John Cage’s lecture involved three tape recordings of him speaking that he played simultaneously while he spoke. During the lecture/performance, some of the 100 chairs that were rented by the gallery for $5 began to collapse. “Some people thought that was part of the performance,” recalled Denney. As a result, some accounts labeled it a “happening.”
More memorable was “Concert #5,” a suite of performances by the Judson Dancers: four hours of dancing interspersed throughout America on Wheels, the Kalorama skating rink, on May 9. In an email, Steve Paxton, a member of the Judson Dancers, recalled that the rink was vast, with “each choreographer choosing a site, and the audience would migrate from piece to piece as the evening progressed.” Performances included Trisha Brown‘s “Trillium,” Yvonne Rainer‘s “Terrain,” and about a dozen other dances (described in greater detain in Sally Banes‘ book, Democracy’s Body). The only work that required the entire skating rink was Rauschenberg’s “Pelican,” which never would have happened had the artist not mistakenly been included among the choreographers. “Pelican” involved Rauschenberg and Swedish artist Per Olaf Udvelt skating after Carolyn Brown—-who traversed the rink in toe shoes—-while restrained by parachutes. “The parachutes rendered this progression visible only in brief glimpses through a channel between them,” recalled Paxton. Imagine two discs criss-crossing, only to reveal glimpses of the female form on pointe.
As for a real, capital-letter Happening, the only one promoted as such by WGMA was organized by Claes and Patty Oldenburg. It was initially called “Cleaners,” because it was intended to happen in Star Rug Works on P Street NW; the title changed to “Stars” once the performance was moved to WGMA.
“Stars” was performed three times between April 24 and 25. Responses to the performances were mixed, with only those in the scene proclaiming its success. Taxi mogul-turned-collector Robert Scull told the Washington Post that is was “one of the best Happenings Claes Oldenburg has done,” and Pasadena Museum director Walter Hopps wanted to fly the whole thing to the West Coast. Others were less enthusiastic. The Washington Daily News columnist Tom Donnelly noted that the only good thing about the performance was that most of the exhibition had to be cleared out of the gallery to make room for the happening. “The audience sat in two rooms. The place was filled, and no one left until “Stars” was over. Such a display of mass cowardice I never hope to see again.”
Magazines like Time and Newsweek, in addition to all of the local papers, attempted to make sense of the event. Blue ice cream was served on plates. A performer dressed as Abe Lincoln was assassinated several times. Patty Oldenburg and Alice Denney’s son wore roller skates and waltzed. A young woman cleaned her face vigorously; another ironed a flaccid Washington Monument among other monuments. The whole work ended with Olga Adorno descending a staircase in a red dress and stripping down to a bikini before making a mad dash out of the room. “Some people thought she represented Jackie Kennedy,” Ms. Denney recalls. “And then there was a popsicle, and people thought that represented the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Maxine Cheshire likened the happening to a wacky nightmare in the Washington Post, and Newsweek generally labeled all happenings a “three-ringed circus with undertones of group therapy.” In other words, chaos.
Ms. Denney’s daughter, who was a kid at the time of the happening, doesn’t recall chaos. “We did rehearsals. There was a plan.” All of the 19 performers had a script about how each of the 48 actions in 48 minutes would break down, with one exception. “We didn’t know it would end with Olga stripping,” she recalls.
To prepare for the happening, Claes and Patty Oldenburg took tours throughout the city, making notes along the way. In Raw Notes, published by Claes Oldenburg in 1973, he writes that his work is “the result of experience, not ideas.”
The artists had such fun in D.C. that in 1966 several of them gathered again to perform in the Now Festival, also organized by Denney, who left the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1964 to be the Vice Commissioner of the Venice Biennale. It was also fraught with some problems, chief among them was The Velvet Underground accidentally unplugging all of the extension chords for Robert Whitman’s “Prune Flat,” causing audience members to wonder what happened. Though, if The Daily News or Washington Post accounts were any indication, they likely would have asked that even without the technical difficulties.
Happenings: New York, 1958–1963 is on view at The Pace Gallery, 534 West 25th Street to March 17.