Happenings: New York, 1958-1963 at The Pace Gallery
February 10 to March 17, 2012
534 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, (212) 421-3292
The beauty of performance—or its weakness, if your perspective is financial— is that, in its most pure form, it is as an artwork in time, divorced from objects, fleeting. There is sometimes, in special instances, a greater sense of recognizable aliveness, or beingness imbued in participation or presence. Historical accounts of performances, in this case Happenings, are exciting as stories themselves, as art world mythologies. But recreation is not art; I say this despite recent pushes to have works live forever. To me, the majority of straight re-performances (as if performance art were repertory theater!) recall Cindy Sherman’s intentionally plastic-looking face, in fairly recent work, mimicking surgical attempts to recreate youth. Try as some might to slow down the inevitable, humans just don’t live forever. Neither do performances.
Paintings and sculptures, however, last. So do photographs and films. “Happenings: New York, 1958-1963”, now at The Pace Gallery, is effective and interesting in its multi-room layout because it is first a photo and art object show, and second, through these objects mostly, an historical accounting of the live visual art scene in Provincetown and New York in that period. Five photographers – chiefly Robert R. McElroy, but also Fred McDarrah, Martha Holmes, John Cohen and I.C. (Chuck) Rappaport – captured events by Jim Dine, Simone Forti, Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, Carolee Schneemann, and Robert Whitman. The “Happenings” artists were also working in tangible media alongside and in conjunction with performance. Viewed together, the photographs, art objects, multimedia and ephemera develop a convincing storyline in this show about the time of the first Happenings as new, free, special, raw, and developed, without agenda, for the existential sake of its participants.
Schneemann’s Quarry Transposed (1960), a mixed media assemblage —painted wood, a broken red glass goblet dangling from wire, a photograph of a woman, and messily hammered in nails—creates more atmosphere than photographs and wall text ever could alone. Specifically, this piece is arranged in the gallery to animate the artist’s Newspaper Event at Judson Church in 1962, though one could argue that the memory of the event and the object actually enliven each other. Glued to the wall behind the assemblage and photographs is a series of New York Times pages from 2012, there as if to remind us of the tactile quality of newsprint. The affect is aesthetically successful from far, but stories about current events are distracting in this context, and they make the installation feel more superficial than it should.
Certain nitpicky design details aside, “Happenings” is a good example of the ever-increasing ability of private interests to mount successful museum-style shows. It is to curator Mildred L. Glimcher’s credit that the show does not rely too heavily on video, which is sparingly installed no more than one monitor per room, some of which are silent. The show also successfully avoids the question of re-performance all together, and doesn’t attempt to sincerely recreate original spaces. We might have walked into slick versions of Kaprow’s Words (1962) or Oldenburg’s Sports (1962), for example. Instead, visitors glimpse the originals through signed photographic prints by Robert McElroy. In the photograph of Sports, Pat Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, and the artist roll around on the gallery floor in sweat suits and with painted faces amid a mess of what looks like packing material, linens, and plastic bags. Andy Warhol, John Chamberlain and Richard Bellamy stand aside and look on, in suits, from the audience.
From major pieces like Grooms’s Painting from ‘A Play Called Fire’ (1958), which is on loan from the Greenville County Museum of Art, to ephemera like Kaprow’s Poster for ‘Apple Shrine’ (1960), there is a surprisingly lot to admire in work that was ostensibly done at the service of an ephemeral event. Handmade, lasting, and beautiful, the work makes one wonder if it weren’t actually the other way around. Whitman’s Inside Out (1963), also helps to elicit this sentiment. The artist filmed a meeting of his friends talking and smoking around a table; the grainy black and white images are projected on four walls and a ceiling in a private room, with a sound loop the artist added in 2009. Surely the meeting was interesting for the participants at the time, but is there any reality that doesn’t look better in retrospect, captured through the keen eye of an artist? Pace is correct to celebrate not just the history of performance events, but the things and images that were left behind.
The exhibition is accompanied by a monograph of the same title, by Mildred L. Glimcher, published by Monacelli Press at $65. 320pp, many reproductions, ISBN: 978-1-58093-307-0print