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Claes Oldenburg: Early Sculpture, Drawings, and Happenings Films

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: The Music Room

May 7–Sept 6, 2009

Happenings Films

Raymond Saroff, Claes Oldenburg “Happenings”: Ray Gun Theater, 1962. 16mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, silent; 120 minutes. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist 2008.267

Raymond Saroff, Claes Oldenburg “Happenings”: Ray Gun Theater, 1962. 16mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, silent; 120 minutes. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist 2008.267

Happenings—a kind of experimental theater—formed a central strand of Claes Oldenburg’s work in the early 1960s. Until now, our knowledge of them has been limited to photographs and published scripts. A recently rediscovered group of films documenting Oldenburg’s happenings has been restored specially for the exhibition, and offers new insights into Oldenburg’s Happenings and early career. Projected in loops around the walls of the gallery, each film, shot by a different filmmaker—Roy Fridge, Al Kouzel, Raymond Saroff, Alfons Schilling, Stan VanDerBeek, and Vernon Zimmerman—reveals the structure and form of Oldenburg’s approach. Three films, Fotodeath (1961), Injun (1962), and Autobodys (1965), have not been seen since the 1960s.

Oldenburg’s loosely scripted Happenings were performed in locations across the United States, including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, and upstate New York. Staging performances in old storefronts, an abandoned house, a university hall, or in the open air, the artist created sets from everyday materials (such as draped muslin, old furniture, mirrors, and tables) and also incorporated costumes, large colored sculptural forms, and painted words. Accompanied by vinyl records, drums, the radio, and other live noises, Oldenburg performed with artists and friends. The seemingly chaotic quality of Happenings evoked the disjunctive experience of modern urban life, which Oldenburg described as a clamor of “weather, geography . . . home life, crime, products, food, traffic, heroes, entertainment,” all vying for attention. Shown together for the first time, these films reveal the roots of Oldenburg’s interest in collaboration, which emerged more fully in his collaborative projects with Coosje van Bruggen.

Works in the Exhibition

The following works screen continuously in the Kaufman Astoria Film & Video Gallery on the second floor:

Snapshots of the City, 1960
Stan VanDerBeek
16mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, sound; 4 minutes

Fotodeath, 1961
Al Kouzel
16mm film transferred to video, black and white, silent; 12 minutes
Collection of the artist

Injun, 1962
Roy Fridge
16mm film transferred to video, black and white, sound; 12 minutes
Collection of the artist

Claes Oldenburg “Happenings”: Ray Gun Theater, 1962
Raymond Saroff
16mm transferred to video, black and white, silent; 120 minutes 
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist  2008.267

Scarface and Aphrodite, 1963
Vernon Zimmerman
16mm film, black and white, sound; 13 minutes

Autobodys, 1963
Alfons Schilling
16mm film transferred to video, black and white, silent; 20 minutes
Collection of the artist

Birth of the Flag Parts I and II
, 1965/1974
Camera: Stan VanDerBeek, Diane Rochlin, and Sheldon Rochlin
Editing: Lana Jokel
Produced by Rudy Wurlitzer and Richard Wexler
16mm film transferred to video, black and white, silent; each part 19 minutes