The sober joy of thieving

I’m happy to have my review of Judith Rodenbeck’s Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings published in the current issue of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts. Rodenbeck’s framework for conceptualizing happenings is central to the discourse surrounding art and the everyday in the 1960s. An excerpt from the review here below:

With her narrative, Rodenbeck deliberately sidesteps the dualism of formalism and the avant-garde that has dominated many of the art historical narratives of the 1960s. If happenings are best characterized as intermediary, open-ended, relational, and interdisciplinary, then their historicization would do well to reflect this, she reasons. Her book calls for and models a scholarly “matrix through which to approach a generation of postwar artistic efforts” (27). Her contribution lies in a series of individual “material, rhetorical, and discursive” histories (18) that enhance ourunderstanding of what happenings were and what they aspired to be. The wealth of material on the sociological climates, the architectural practices, the technological metaphors, the theatrical methodologies, and the photographic conditions that surrounded happenings acts like connective tissue, shaping and securing them within art history.
In this sense, then, the art historical matrix to which Rodenbeck contributes should be thought of as a sort of expanded field for happenings where the artworks of Kaprow and company are no longer contrasted with painting alone but with all other experimental intermedia and the areas of inquiry intermedia shares: the everyday, the aleatory, and the participatory. Measured and formal in tone, preeminently readable at the same time, Rodenbeck’s book is often like an unexpected treasure hunt amidst the presumed familiar.
“Let’s look for traces of civilization!” the trio in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) exclaim delightedly to one another as they wander through a wooded area to the beach. Readers of Rodenbeck’s histories are led to wander, too, finding known documents, theories, and artworks linked freshly and illuminatingly to one another.