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Happenings Collage


Started: 1958
Ended: Early 1970s
Happenings Timeline
"The line between the Happening and daily life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."
1 of 4
Allan Kaprow Signature
"My art is the result of a deeply personal, infinitely complex, and still essentially mysterious, exploration of experience. No words will ever touch it."
2 of 4
George Brecht Signature
"Words, sounds, human beings in motion, painted constructions, electric lights, movies and slides - and perhaps in the future, smells - all in continuous space involving the spectator or audience; those are the ingredients. Several or all of them may be used in combination at any one time, which permits me a great range of possibilities."
3 of 4
Allan Kaprow Signature
"It was a dissatisfaction with the limitations of pure abstract painting. Nobody knew what the work could or should look like. Each individual's freedom was encouraged. Since nobody knew what the new art should look like, each of us was free to invent our own solution."
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George Segal Signature

Summary of Happenings

What began as a challenge to the category of "art" initiated by the Futurists and Dadaists in the 1910s and 1920s came to fruition with Performance Art, one branch of which was referred to as Happenings. Happenings involved more than the detached observation of the viewer; the artist engaged with Happenings required the viewer to actively participate in each piece. There was not a definite or consistent style for Happenings, as they greatly varied in size and intricacy. However, all artists staging Happenings operated with the fundamental belief that art could be brought into the realm of everyday life. This turn toward performance was a reaction against the long-standing dominance of the technical aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and was a new art form that grew out of the social changes occurring in the 1950s and 1960s.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • A main component of Happenings was the involvement of the viewer. Each instance a Happening occurred the viewer was used to add in an element of chance so, every time a piece was performed or exhibited it would never be the same as the previous time. Unlike preceding works of art which were, by definition, static, Happenings could evolve and provide a unique encounter for each individual who partook in the experience.
  • The concept of the ephemeral was important to Happenings, as the performance was a temporary experience, and, as such could not be exhibited in a museum in the traditional sense. The only artifacts remaining from original Happenings are photographs and oral histories. This was a challenge to the art that had previously been defined by the art object itself. Art was now defined by the action, activity, occasion, and/or experience that constituted the Happening, which was fundamentally fleeting and immaterial.
  • The purpose of Happenings was to confront and dismantle conventional views of the category of "art." These performances were so influential to the art world that they raised the specter of the "death" of painting.

Overview of Happenings

Happenings Image

Happenings were inspired by the performances of Futurists who would enact short avant-garde plays and read their manifestoes and poetry on stage. The Futurist tendency to break the "fourth wall" and elicit audience participation became a central idea in the Happening: the absence of boundaries between the viewer and the artwork meant the artwork became defined by the action as opposed to the physical, or resulting, object.

Key Artists

  • Allan Kaprow was an American painter, collagist, assemblagist and performance artist. Kaprow was best known for trailblazing the artistic concept "happenings," which were experiential artistic events rather than single works of art.
  • John Cage was an American composer and conceptual artist who incorporated chance, silence, and environmental effects into his performances. An important art theorist, he influenced choreographers, musicians, and the Fluxus artists of the 1970s.
  • Carolee Schneemann is an American visual artist, known for her discourses on the body, sexuality and gender. Her work is primarily characterized by research into visual traditions, taboos, and the body of the individual in relationship to social bodies. Schneemann's works have been associated with a variety of art classifications including Fluxus, Neo-Dada, the Beat Generation, and happenings.
  • American sculptor and painter George Segal is best known for his life-size plaster cast figures, often in monochromatic white. He also worked with artists such as John Cage and Allan Kaprow at Rutgers University in the 1950s and 60s; Kaprow's famous "happenings" performances first took place on Segal's farm in New Jersey.
  • George Brecht's artworks and musical compositions offered a different edge than the artists of the time and Neo-Dada peers. And he made important works constructed from everyday objects designed for viewer interaction.

Do Not Miss

  • Fluxus was an international network of artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin 'to flow,' Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
  • Neo-Dada refers to works of art from the 1950s that employ popular imagery and modern materials, often resulting in something absurd. Neo-Dada is both a continuation of the earlier Dada movement and an important precursor to Pop art. Some important Neo-Dada artists include Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Morris and Allan Kaprow.
  • Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.

Important Art and Artists of Happenings

American Moon (1960)

Artist: Robert Whitman

American Moon by Robert Whitman was first performed at the Reuben Gallery in New York. The piece consisted of six paper tunnels that radiated outwards from the performance area in which the audience would sit to watch piles of cloth being moved accompanied by various sounds. Curtains with grids of paper were then hung in front of the tunnels and a movie was projected onto them while performers made slight movements to the cloth causing distortions in the movie. At the end of the screening the tunnels were ripped down and the curtains removed. Lights flashed as figures rolled on the floor, a giant plastic balloon was rolled around and someone swung on a trapeze, all to a soundtrack of a vacuum cleaner. Whitman called these works "abstract theater" as abstracted sounds and images were a significant aspect of his work. In the variety of frenzied activity, Whitman claimed his work was much like a three-ring circus.

Yard (1961)

Artist: Allan Kaprow

Yard by Kaprow involved the random scattering and piling of tires over the floor and an invitation to visitors to climb over them. This piece was supposedly in response to Jackson Pollock's "drip" paintings: the incorporation of chance as a mainstay of the work, but with a certain amount of control left to the artist. Just as Pollock had a certain amount of power over his drip paintings, aesthetics were still very much subject to chance. Here Kaprow used the tires as Pollock used his paint. The result- a haphazard pile of tires nevertheless circumscribed into a semblance of compositional order- is a three-dimensional translation of Pollock's practice. Kaprow's pieces often involved materials from everyday life, including people; Kaprow stated, "Life is much more interesting than art." Yard, like many Happenings, has been recreated several times since Kaprow's initial installation, and each time a unique artwork is produced.

Stamp Vendor (1961)

Artist: Robert Watts

Stamp Vendor involved stamps that artist Robert Watts created and placed inside of actual stamp dispensers that Watts "borrowed" from the United States Post Office. The "borrowing" (stealing) was in protest of certain policies of the United States government at the time Watts deemed oppressive. The stamp dispensers were put on display in exhibitions and viewers could purchase the stamps by placing coins in the coin slots. The stamps, designed by Watts, had different images on them ranging from gas cans to nude women. This piece differs from many other Happenings for the smaller, more intimate scale and for the fact that the viewer was interacting with an object as opposed to a person. Also, unlike many other Happenings that eschewed the traditional art object, it should be noted that by interacting with the Stamp Vendor, the viewer was then able to take with them a work of art: the stamp created by Watts.

Useful Resources on Happenings

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Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Happenings Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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