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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Real Space, Real Time: Environments, Happenings, and Fluxus Events

Painter, printmaker, and occasional sculptor. The iconic abstract expressionist, he forged a singular style of great expressive power. Skeins of dripped, poured, and flung paint dominate his key all-over paintings of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act- rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." 
- Harold Rosenberg in The American Action Painter

"The most powerful painter in contemporary America and the only one who promises to be a major one is a Gothic, morbid, and extreme disciple of Picasso's Cubism and Miró's post-Cubism, tinctured also with Kandinsky and surrealist inspiration. His name is Jackson Pollock." - Clement Greenberg in 1947

By Alexandra A Jopp

Allan Kaprow, in the 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” formulates the standards for the style in art that became known as “happenings.” Kaprow employed the term to describe what was occurring in given surroundings. The term appears toward the end of the essay in which Kaprow suggests two ways in which Pollock’s legacy might continue to develop: “One is to continue in this vein. Probably many good ‘near-paintings’ can be done varying this esthetic of Pollock’s without departing from it or going further. The other is to give up the making of paintings entirely – I mean the single flat rectangle or oval as we know it.” In other words, Kaprow suggests that the possibilities are to continue to develop an action type of painting (as Pollock did; however, Kaprow notes that while Pollock created some magnificent paintings, he also “destroyed painting”) or to “hop right into real life.” Kaprow writes that, to do this, new materials and new subjects should be used: “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies … they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies, seen in store windows and on the streets, and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents.” This is reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp and other Dada artists, for whom any material and subject could be turned into art.
Jackson Pollock aka "Jack the Dripper" painting in his East Hampton studio.
Jackson Pollock. Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950.
August 8, 1949 issue of Life Magazine
In Assemblages, Environments, Happenings, Kaprow suggests that “environments” and “happenings” are similar, that “they are the passive and active sides of a single coin, whose principle is extension.” While most early happenings were caught in a routine that suppressed change, Kaprow argues that “the use of standard performance conventions from the very start tended to truncate the implications of the art.” He offers an explanation for the evolution of happenings, explaining that they grew out of action painting to “assemblages” and extended into environments, which marked the shift in outlook toward a rejection or sense of abandonment of the experimental, Modernist position which had prevailed up to the end of the 1960s. Kaprow’s attempt to define happenings as an art form, similar to theater, that takes place in a specific time and location with an arrangement and content that are logical extensions of the environment stands in opposition to Michael Kirby’s definition. In his introductory essay on happenings, Kirby states that happenings are a new form of theater, a “purposefully composed form of theatre in which diverse alogical elements, including nonmatrixed performing, are organized in a compartmented structure.” Thus, he suggests that happenings are not plastic arts, and he expands the term beyond environmental sculpture, action painting, etc. In addition, he proposes that happenings are events that include both the creator and the viewer.
by George Maciunas, 1963.
In “Fluxus: A Brief History and Other Fictions,” Owen Smith writes that, with the increase of information on Fluxus and its growth, the history itself must remain open. According to Smith, the term was introduced by George Maciunas in 1961 to describe an avant-garde group of artists and composers centered around John Cage. Fluxus, Owen asserts, was interested in “originality, fresh thinking, not imitations or overworked forms.” Fluxus became an experiment of ideas, and, in this sense, it set itself apart from Pop art and aided the move toward Conceptualism.
Taking its name from the Latin word for "flow," the international Fluxus movement advocated purging the world of bourgeois, commercial, and professional art. The interdisciplinary movement included books, boxes, manifestos, posters, photographs, films, and performance relics: art that crossed boundaries between painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and performed events. In 1989, the Walker Art Center acquired a remarkable collection of more than 500 objects and documents related to Fluxus.

"Fluxus is not: a movement, a moment in history, an organization. Fluxus is: an idea, a kind of work, a tendency, a way of life, a changing set of people who do Fluxworks."—Dick Higgins
Artist: various
Institution: Walker Art Center

Fluxus artists often collaborated in the creation of artworks, valuing the idea of community and collective spirit over the individualism of an artist in traditional art. The group produced many multiples, books, and publications such as newspapers, which enabled them to work together and produce something that expressed their philosophy of anti-art while serving a social function. Many of these editions were hand-assembled; the Fluxus artists, unlike other artists at the time, did not outsource production to external fabricators. These editions were unlimited, intended for mass production, and sold at low prices to underscore the ideal of accessibility while condemning the market-driven art world.

cc V TRE (Fluxus newspaper # 1)
Artist: George Brecht, George Maciunas

Date: 1964
Medium: Other, Newspapers
Size: open 23.0625 x 36 inches
Institution: Walker Art Center

single sheet from Fluxus Vacuum TrapEzoid (Fluxus newspaper # 5)
Artist: George Maciunas
Date: 1965
Medium: Other, Newspapers
Size: sheet 21.9375 x 18 inches
Institution: Walker Art Center
Artist: Christo (Javacheff)
Date: 1965
Medium: Mixed Media, Multiples, Other
Size: overall 3 x 15.5 x 4 inches
Institution: Walker Art Center

Artist: Robert Watts
Date: 1965/1969
Medium: Mixed Media, Multiples, Other
Size: overall 4.75 x 4 x 1 inches
Institution: Walker Art Center

Fluxus artists, like Pop artists, were interested in making artwork, performances, poetry, music, and films using the ephemera of everyday life. They celebrated the banal and the mundane in direct opposition to the subjects traditionally considered worthy of “high” or fine art.

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