Robert Whitman, Preparatory Sketch for American Moon Performance (1960), 1959 © Robert Whitman


‘A Whole New World of Art Making’

Milly Glimcher and Mark Beasley on New York’s Legendary Happening

Published Friday, Jan 13, 2023

Artist Robert Whitman, known for his collaborative and deeply experimental work across performance and installation, was a major figure in the Happenings presented by artists in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. A hybrid, ephemeral art form spanning installation, performance, and other mediums, the theatrical and often scrappy Happenings eschewed plot and character development in favor of explorations into the imaginative potential of movement, sound, material, and time.

Happenings staged by Whitman, Claes Oldenburg, and other figures have helped shape the history of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. To mark Whitman’s latest presentation with Pace in New York—a multifaceted program that includes an in-person exhibition and Pace Live performance series dedicated to his seminal 1960 Happening American Moon—Milly Glimcher, author of Happenings: New York, 1958-1963, and Pace Live Curatorial Director Mark Beasley discuss the profound and enduring legacy of the Happenings as well as the state of performance art today.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. To learn more about Whitman’s new exhibition and Pace Live’s presentations of American Moon, please visit (opens in a new window) pacegallery.com/exhibitions/robert-whitman-american-moon.

Mark Beasley: I think the Happenings were really the beginning of something, at least in America. It led to the beats, it led to 1980s performance in downtown New York, it led to museums’ interest in performance today. How would you sum up what the Happenings were?

Milly Glimcher: When I did my research, I wanted the artists to be able to speak for themselves because a lot of writers were using Happenings to prove a point that didn't necessarily have anything to do with what the artists were thinking. So, I had seen an exhibition in 1984 called BLAM! at the Whitney by Barbara Haskell, and it was a kind of overview of Pop art, Happenings, and Minimalism. It was an amazing exhibition, just touching the top of all those things. And I saw Whitman’s home movies of his Happenings, and Oldenburg hired a professional moviemaker to take pictures of his Happenings … all these artists started thinking about this idea that art could contain movement, sound, and duration.

For Whitman, it was the idea of action and movement. He wanted his Happenings to be filled, I think, with danger and confusion. He wanted people to be set on edge. There was all this unexpected action in the Happenings, and I think that’s what he was looking for.

Whitman at Stonypoint

Photograph courtesy of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)

MB: There’s this idea of time as a material and as a lived experience, a physical experience, and a felt moment that took in all the senses. The Happenings in New York seemed to be a kind of celebration. I love speaking with Bob [Whitman] because he still believes in this idea of chaos. It’s this awesome moment of art that just fixes in your body.

I’m fascinated by the things I didn’t experience—for me it’s musicians like the Sex Pistols who I never saw perform. They were part of the parent culture that fascinated me, and it still does. I’ve met some of them and it’s like meeting my heroes. Your book finishes in 1963 when you arrive in New York from Boston. What was the impact of the Happenings in terms of the scene and community at the time?

MG: I have to say, when we arrived in New York I had a three-year-old and a one-year-old and no money, so I didn’t get out much. But in 1965 I did see an Oldenburg Happening that was in a swimming pool—that was the first Happening I actually saw. I was amazed by it. I didn’t include that in my book and wanted to end it in 1963 because by 1964 everyone was doing these performances. They were doing them outside in parks, on beaches, in upstate New York.

I think the Happenings were the model for the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. That was a kind of unintended consequence because I think that the Happenings that I was studying were not particularly political. They were only political in the sense of anti-Abstract Expressionism. They wanted to move away from the grand existential questions that the Abstract Expressionists were asking and come back to everyday reality, interpersonal relationships, and uses of materials—trash, food, plastic—that were not available during the war.

I do think these artists had a sense of freedom with JFK’s election, and I think they felt a whole new world was opening up to them. We all felt that in the ‘60s.

MB: It seems like the beginning of a certain kind of social realism, the sublime of the everyday. As we’ve been speaking to Bob in our recreation of American Moon, he’s very particular that it’s a kind of drabness that becomes something fantastic in the work. The set is made from the stuff of the everyday—of the streets—and it’s also this sort of social material of friends engaging in collaborative exchange. It was about working with people around you and pulling something real and material from those conversations. How did it feel to be a member of the audience in 1965? There’s this new idea with socially engaged practice that the audience completes the work—did you feel part of that at the time?

MG: The way the Oldenburg Happening was staged, no. There was a building on the Upper East Side where Whitman and Rauschenberg and other artists working in the organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) used to put on these chaotic evenings. But, again, I was always taking care of two kids. I think that’s probably why I was so fascinated by Happenings—it’s like what you said with music. I missed it. I was sorry I missed it, and I wanted to figure out what it was all about. I’ve been trying to understand my fascination, and that was it. I was there and I missed it, so I wanted to figure it out.

Robert Whitman 21

Two Holes of Water—3 by Robert Whitman, presented as part of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York, 1966. Photograph courtesy of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)

MB: I think it always happens. You hear through myth and story of what these things were. What was the makeup of the audiences at the time?

MG: I think that there was a loyal audience that came to all of them, and it included artists. There were a few collectors that were very interested in Pop art … So, there were some collectors, there were critics, and there were artists. Artists were certainly an important part of it.

The difference between Happenings and theater is that, in Happenings, there’s structure, but there’s no character development and there’s no plot—and it’s made by artists. That always was the question: how is it different from theater? Happenings were very structured and planned and rehearsed most of the time, but the people were as important as the materials—not more important. I think that was how they were different.

Michael Kirby’s book on the Happenings was my bible during my research, and it was the only clear description of the Happenings as they were happening. He was there, and he talked about the rehearsals and the decisions that were being made as they were happening.

MB: This is something that Bob often refers to—there was no script but there were sketches and thoughts. There was no character development or any three-act structure. You lived in this abstraction. It wasn’t a moment of sublime realization—you were in the grain of the experience.

Let’s talk a bit about American Moon, which obviously you’ve written about. We have our six performers; we have a set; we have an audience in a claustrophobic situation in these tunnels; and we have junk as an animated material. How did you understand the importance of this work at the time it was created?

MG: Bob was the first person who made Happenings that I met. He did a show at our West 57th Street gallery in 1967, and there was a red laser that described a line around the room and then erased itself. That was a kind of performance. He had come to the gallery I think because of Lucas [Samaras], who had a show of a mirrored room at the gallery in 1966. That was a kind of performance. But Bob was the first person who made Happenings that I met. His conversations were different from other people—I can remember that. He saw life as a Happening or a performance.

MB: Where he’s coming from seems like an attempt to break through structures and strata, and to see some truth through that breaking. And I love that laser piece—Solid Red Line. It seems so epic now. It’s so incredibly ahead of its time.

MG: The police closed the show down because they said the laser was going to damage people’s eyes. But it was above head height…

MB: Well, part of what we’re doing restaging American Moon is creating an archival record. Bob can speak to the work, he can author it again, and he can rethink it. I know from your book that there was this photographer Robert R. McElroy, who produced the photograph of Lucas swinging in American Moon.

Part of Pace Live is about rethinking and archiving these histories as well as supporting new practices. Straightforwardly, this restaging of American Moon at Pace is a quest for knowledge of a relatively recent history—to not have that disappear and to understand the lineage of thought and expression that has led us to 2023. It’s been amazing watching the rehearsals because each of the six performers has something different to bring to the piece, even though it's authored by Bob. My greatest hope is that Bob can revisit some part of his history and, in doing that, he can tell us what’s changed as well.

I’ve done restagings before, and people are against them or for them, but I only see them as an incredibly positive thing to consider.

MG: Yes, especially with Bob involved. I think it’s a great thing. Another reason why I wanted to do the book is because I really do believe that the Happenings were an inflection point between traditional art making and a whole new world of art making that has come since then. They were the moment that changed things.

MB: Right. And I think one of the reasons for restaging American Moon, for me, is that it’s still not completely understood or finalized.

MG: Nobody knows what the Happenings were about. You don’t know what the Happenings were about. I don’t know what the Happenings were about, and that’s why I wanted to do the research. You made this so clear to me!

  • Essays — ‘A Whole New World of Art Making’: Milly Glimcher and Mark Beasley on New York’s Legendary Happenings and the History of Performance at Pace, Jan 13, 2023