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Allan Kaprow Happening: the canvas of the performance

In 1959, Allan Kaprow involved the spectators with his 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. Unlike Black Mountain College experiments such as the famous Untitled Event of 1952, the audience is no longer seated, but receives precise instructions directly from the artist.

The beginning and end of each part of the happening is marked by the sound of a bell and the audience is invited not to applaud at the end of each episode of the event. The actions that took place there had no apparent meaning, just as the name itself “happening” simply hinted at something spontaneous that just happens. However, the situation was felt in the two weeks before the realization with the audience and the performers had memorized the directions of Kaprow.

Happening: the audience from user to co-author

From a performance point of view the Happenings were carefully constructed and left very little to the chaos and indeterminacy dear to Cage, but they have a double interest in the history of performance. Firstly, they testify to the interest in the active involvement of the public, which becomes part of the action and of the work of art itself; secondly, they testify to the methodological rigour that will be dear to some performers of the 1970s.

It is important to underline in this regard the contradictory character of the performance with respect to its definition and identity. If, in fact, for some artists performance is pure improvisation, for others it derives from a method, which involves a “trained” action, even if not predetermined, and for others it is studied and performed faithfully respecting a program, it is evident how it escapes definitions, conventions and remains always unpredictable and provocative, keeping unchanged the subversive nature against the conventions established by the art system and the society with which it was born.

Allan Kaprow according to Susan Sontag

In her essay, Susan Sontag underlines how the happening was born to shock the audience. Its unexpected duration, as well as its equally unpredictable content, keep in the public the tension that, in the absence of narrative and climax, manages to arouse attention and participation.

The origins of the happening can be traced back to the action painting of the fifties and to the American painting of that period, which produced large canvases, starting to use materials other than painting. The most famous example are the frames taken by Hans Namuth at Jackson Pollock in 1950, which immortalize the painter in the act of painting, smoking and inserting objects into the canvas.

The painter says he is comfortable painting on large canvases, resting on the ground, around which he can turn, observe the painting from different angles and feel inside the painting. Later, the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and other artists experimented with many objects in painting (glass, machine parts, clothing, etc..) or as new supports of painting as an alternative to the traditional canvas, famous remains Bed Rauschenberg (1955).

From painting theatre to happenings

For Sontag, therefore, the next step to this “painting theatre” is the happening itself, where the painting becomes an environment, full of chaotic objects, coming mainly from the rubbish of urban-industrial civilization, among which there are also the participants. The use of ready-made objects in an unconventional way and the distortion of meanings through the typical juxtaposition of collage would derive, finally, from the typically surrealist taste for shock.

To move the audience from the anesthesia of their existence, the happening uses essentially anesthetized actions, carried out with diligence by people who constantly repeat futile and meaningless gestures, often even in slow motion, with little attention to the word and a strong interest in sounds and especially noises.

Susan Sontag underlines how the observation of these actions provokes hilarity, just as we are led to laugh in the comedy while we watch the characters suffer, knowing well that they can’t really prove what they’re acting: “as in tragedy, every comedy needs a scapegoat, someone who will be punished and expelled from social order represented mimetically in the spectacle […] in the happening this scapegoat is audience”.

The happening manifests the anesthesia of life and tries to exorcise it together with the apathy of the public through shock, violence and unpredictability of the situation. This surrealist taste for shock will also be typical of performance and will translate into the rebellious spirit through which performers will question the political, social and cultural values of their reference systems, affirming the presence of the artist in society.

The forerunners of Performance Art

Gutai, Klein, Manzoni, Kaprow have been chosen as examples of the buds of performance, because with their works have highlighted some aspects that will be of interest to performers from the late sixties onwards.

Starting in the 1960s, performers were born to deal with performance with method, helping to make it no longer an isolated and intermittent experience within the history of art, but a defined artistic practice, though elusive in nature and recalcitrant to definitions. For the present argument, performance can be defined as an experience in which the performer is the artist, who establishes his or her presence within society. Within this definition are included all the contradictions it carries with it because of its free and unconventional character.

Sixty years have passed since the 1960s. What has been the path of performance? Continue to follow my blog 🙂

"Sensing vertebra by vertebra. Art is a vulnerable hunt."


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