Two Happening Concepts: Allan Kaprow and Wolf Vostell



Two Happening Concepts: Allan Kaprow and Wolf Vostell underscored the importance of performative, interdisciplinary pieces widely known as “happenings,” which came to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s. The exhibition featured the work of two seminal figures of this new media art, presenting Allan Kaprow’s (American, 1927–2006) site-specific piece Moving (1967) as well as photographs of previous performances by Kaprow and Wolf Vostell (German, 1932–2006), an originator of the European happening.

In 1959, with the piece 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, Kaprow coined the term “happening” to describe his own works, which were inspired by theater, painting, and assemblage, as well as the chance-based work of his professor, John Cage (American, 1912–1992). Through his happenings, Kaprow strived to dissolve the limitations of medium specificity by creating “concrete art” composed of everyday objects and situations. Happenings emerged around the US and Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s, eventually becoming a flexible concept used to describe a wide array of performative pieces that combined visual, olfactory, and auditory material.

The first major performance in the history of the MCA to be completed at an off-site location, Kaprow’s Moving strived to be structurally nuanced, externally determined, and participant dependent modes of creation. From November 29 to December 2, Kaprow and participants gathered various home furnishings from a thrift store in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood and pushed them through the streets to three apartments, where participants and the general public could live for the course of the performance. In a series of distinct, scripted events, a room of each apartment was furnished by the performers over the course of the happening, with a corresponding event occurring in each room after it was furnished. Through these processes, Moving eschewed traditional modes of artistic presentation by integrating everyday life into artistic practice.

Some critics claimed that Kaprow’s less confrontational performances failed to address the tense socioeconomic and political circumstances of the late 1960s. The work of Vostell, Kaprow’s contemporary and sometimes associate, exemplifies an explicitly political version of happenings. For Two Happening Concepts, the museum presented documentation of some of Vostell’s performances, including photographs, preparatory drawings, and written scenarios. In performances such as 9-NEIN-dé-coll/ages (1963) and Dogs & Chinese Not Allowed (1966), Vostell treated his audience as spectators to destructive, shocking, and symbolic events that interrogated issues such as mass media, consumerism, and the Vietnam War. In contrast to Kaprow’s participatory happenings, Vostell treated his audiences as spectators to destructive, shocking, and symbolic events, which were designed to place them in a heightened state of political and social consciousness.