When the Pace Gallery opened its “Happenings” exhibition earlier this month, the crowd packing the 25th Street gallery space entered a time machine. Industrial tin walls packed chockablock with photographs and artifacts transported viewers back to the Reuben Gallery in the East Village, where Allan Kaprow staged his seminal 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in 1959. Plenty of the artists who participated in the original happenings were on hand -- Red Grooms, Robert Whitman, Carolee Schneemann, Lucas Samaras, Jim Dine -- and Kaprow (who died in 2006) was certainly present as well, if only in spirit.
Leave it to Pace, the bastion of saleable art, to aim for the impossible goal of documenting and celebrating a movement that was the antithesis of market-driven.
The show is organized by Milly Glimcher, wife of Pace president Arne Glimcher and an art historian in her own right, who spent the past five years reconstructing a history of Happenings. The book accompanying the exhibition documents over 30 events, including Grooms' Burning Building (1959), Dine's Car Crash (1960), Claes Oldenburg's Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath and Schneemann's 1963 Newspaper Event. These events come alive in the photographs of Robert McElroy, which fill the exhibition and the book.
A week after the opening, Glimcher spoke about her commitment to these art performances that, according to her, "transformed art, the perception of art, and its reception by the public, which itself had been transformed by these actions."
What originally got you interested in Happenings?
In 1984, Barbara Haskell did an exhibition called “Blam” at the Whitney Museum that surveyed the early years of Pop, Minimalism and performance during 1958-64. It included Red Grooms' film, Burning Building (which we have in the gallery) and also home movies that Robert Whitman had taken to help him remember what he had done for the Happenings. I saw those two films and I thought to myself, “This is so crazy. What is this? I have to learn more about it.”
So I began to do research. I went to California and I interviewed Allan Kaprow. I knew that I had to get the photographs of Robert McElroy. I contacted him and he just wasn't interested in having them exhibited or having anyone have them. So I had to give it up. I had spent two or three years doing research. Then I didn't think about it again until 2005.
How did you finally get access to McElroy's pictures?
I had carpal tunnel surgery and Anita Rubin, who used to run Reuben Gallery, was a hand therapist and I just happened to be sent to her for therapy. And we just started talking about the old days and her gallery and I told her how I wanted to do that show. Three or four years later, she called to tell me that McElroy had Alzheimer's and his wife wanted him to show his photos at the gallery. So that's how I got the photographs.
Anita Rubin was a therapist?
The Reuben gallery only existed for two seasons, from 1959 to 1961. She was an out-of-work occupational therapist and a friend of Kaprow’s and her sister was an artist who was a friend of Kaprow’s, and she believed in what he was doing so she basically opened this gallery to let him and his colleagues do Happenings and exhibitions.
When you finally got the photographs, how were they organized?
They were just in a mess. So we spent two or three years just organizing them. During that period I learned so much, the photographs taught me so much. And the artists were so helpful. They spent hours talking to me with the photographs and of course, the photographs brought back memories that they had forgotten.
Was there one artist most helpful to you?
They were helpful in different ways. Jim Dine has a really good memory and when we looked at the pictures he was able to tell me who everyone was. Lucas Samaras, when he looked at the pictures was able to give me the feeling of what it was like to be there. Patty Oldenburg was extremely helpful -- I think women have better memories for details than men -- so she was able to identify people, especially the women in the pictures, and told me details about the way Claes went about creating the happenings. Claes didn't talk to me too much but he let me use his archives, which are amazing. Bob Whitman, his memory isn't too good but he is very poetic and romantic, so his descriptions also helped to paint the picture. So each one helped in a different way.
Was Pace the right place to do this show? Wouldn't a museum have been better?
Well, we do historical exhibitions all the time. Marc [Glimcher] did a show called "Logical Conclusions" about rule-based art. There were things for sale but many things were borrowed. Arne did a show called “Reinhardt and Mondrian,” which had almost nothing for sale. We did a show that compared late works by Dubuffet and de Kooning, and most of the things were borrowed.
But I think this show took it to another level. It is an exhibition that no one was doing and nobody could do. Dia director Philippe Vergne said, “We should have done this show,” and I told him, “You couldn't have let a curator work for five years on an exhibition like this and it couldn't have been done in a shorter time.”
I thought it was important to do the show, and it was wonderful of Arne to let me!
Was there one happening you really wish you had been to?
Now that’s a question that would get me into trouble with the artists. They are like family, because we do represent them all, except Red Grooms, who was so helpful and so great. When you are working with living artists, you want to be a little more careful. So I do have one, but I better not say.
“Happenings: New York, 1958-1963,” Feb. 10-Mar. 17, 2012, at the Pace Gallery, 534 West 25th Street, new York, N.Y. 10001.
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).