Redoing “18 Happenings in 6 Parts”

André Lepecki (New York)




At the end of a densely scribbled page-and-a-half summary of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts – a summary probably written right before public performances were about to start on October 4th 1959, and which includes last minute cast modifications, new timings for some of the acts, brief sound descriptions, and clarifications of actions -- Kaprow wrote:

“… Each of these parts may be re-arranged indefinitely.”

Thus, at least in October of 1959, as he was about to make history, Kaprow registered his desire for future actualizations of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts – indefinitely opened ones, for sure; but still composed by meticulously arranged “parts.”



When Stephanie Rosenthal invited me to co-curate and direct a re-doing of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts for the Kaprow Exhibition at Haus der Künst, München, I hesitated. At the time, I had not yet seen Kaprow’s detailed choreographic scores, nor had I examined the approximately four hundred sheets of notes, drawings, texts, poems, sketches, manifestoes, fundraising letters, and cryptic technical exchanges with sound engineers. I had not seen Kaprow’s very peculiar fingering instructions for flute and violin (part four, room one), nor had I read his outrageously funny ideas for costumes (he never used them in performance), nor his descriptions of some of the slides to be projected in room three during each “act” or “part” or “set” (Kaprow used these interchangeably throughout his notes). I had not known then that the twenty-four minutes and fifteen seconds of rigorously timed events comprising the six parts were also rigorously framed by a total of thirty-six minutes of timed “non-events” -- intervals and pauses occupying more time in the performance than the carefully planned actions themselves. Nor did I know of Kaprow’s desire to have “Helena Polka” blasting away at a certain point in part five, room one -- exactly when two guest painters simultaneously action-paint vertical and horizontal lines on the two sides of an unprimed canvas dividing room one from room two. I had not read his amazingly beautiful text on time, delivered by Kaprow himself in room one, part two. And, of course, I had not read yet his plan to dispatch 18 Happenings in 6 Parts to unknown futures …



All I knew of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts was pretty much what is generally known about it: that it was a groundbreaking work responsible for bringing that felicitous word “Happening” into the vocabulary of 20th Century performance; that apparently John Cage had disliked it quite a bit (and that Kaprow had been quite disappointed by Cage’s reaction); that Michael Kirby had published a very meticulous description of it (which immediately became, up to today, the discursive proxy for the event); that 18 Happenings in 6 Parts had inaugurated the Reuben Gallery in New York, a venue where soon some budding names of post-modern dance would come to perform; that Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns had participated in it; that Samuel Delaney had stumbled upon it while walking on Fourth Avenue on a October evening and had most probably been the only black teenager among the very exclusive Manhattan art crowd. But most of all, I vividly recalled an influential critical essay by Kaprow, “Happenings in the New York Scene,” published in 1961, two years after he had created 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, and where he clearly defined happenings as “events that, put simply, happen” […] “they exist for a single performance, or only a few, and are gone forever as new ones take their place.”(1)

Because of that clear-cut definition, my first impulse was to refuse the invitation. Indeed, how could anyone return to a piece that was so iconic, but that had also been so radically set aside by its own author? Kaprow had even made the point to create, in 1988, a series of happenings under the same title that had purposefully nothing in common with the original -- a return to the 1959  version, he stated, would be both “dull” and “totally uninteresting to engage again today”.(2) In light of all this, my question was: how to redo a piece when the perception we have of it today is of an extraordinarily innovative idea that somehow did not turn out as well as it should in its first incarnation -- as opposed to other happenings Kaprow would create later, such as A Spring Happening (1961), Self-Service (1966), or Fluids (1967).  Indeed, art critics at the time either ignored it (Kaprow’s papers at the Getty include an unfinished letter to Hilton Kramer asking the art critic to explain his absence from 18 Happenings in 6 Parts); or thought of it as a badly put together entertainment. Fairfield Porter concluded his two-column review for The Nation with these devastating sentences:  “Avant-garde art has the merit of surprise. Kaprow’s avant-garde ‘event’ constantly disappoints one’s expectation of surprise. Like so many science fiction movies about the future, his subject matter is the undigested immediate past.”

So, why eventually accept to direct a redoing of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts? First and foremost: Kaprow’s extraordinarily generous personal consent.  This was the crucial event in my decision-making process. And then, after going over Kaprow’s notes, the realization that what is widely described in the scholarship as “the script” or “the score” for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts is rather a massive textual and visual work, almost autonomous in itself in its prolific poetic ramifications and performative potentialities. One could even say that a significant part of the materialization of those eighteen happenings take place only on paper, they belong exclusively to paper, words and drawings and sketches performing away on dozens upon dozens of pages. On paper, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts is a dynamic, truly rhizomatic collection of virtual ideas, beautiful poems, impossible actions, architectural dreams, sharp short manifestos on art, music, and theatre, hilariously self-aggrandizing narratives, hilariously self-deprecating narratives, brilliantly compact theoretical texts, insightful quasi-ethnographic snapshots of quotidian expressions, acute diagnostics on urban life, heartbreaking confessions of the artist before the huge challenges posed by the project.



Amidst this virtual performance that takes place on paper rather than in space, we can find a couple of dozen pages which are clearly aimed at preserving and transmitting a rigorous performance structure and a rigorous choreographic score (including the page-and-a-half summary invoked at the beginning of this text). Yet, even these rigorous notes were always, and constitutively, slightly “anexact”  -- i.e., not really inexact, but besides or beyond the problem of exactitude. Indeed, Kaprow’s movement and sound scores, despite their meticulousness, were fraught with small inaccuracies and micro-paradoxes. In their rigorous delivery Kaprow had certainly (purposefully?) left some room to play -- a playfulness allowed by the indeterminacy of language, as in the detailed “technical instructions” Kaprow handed to the two technicians running sound and slides in the hidden “control room” right behind the large assemblage in room three. With the heading “TECHNICIANS: INSTRUCTIONS” and the footer “FINIS,” it guides the cadence of slides throughout the performance thus:

Act 1: 16 Slides (rapidly)

Act 3: 13 Slides (rapidly)

Act 4: 11 Slides (fast)

Act 5: 9 Slides (quickly)

Soon I realized that to redo 18 Happenings in 6 Parts would be to constantly delve into problems similar to the one of finding out exactly what could be the difference between doing something “rapidly” from doing something “quickly” -- and then finding out the additional difference between these two from doing something “fast.” Thus, I kept as main dramaturgical guideline the following formula: all instructions and scores, all choreographic details so carefully annotated by Kaprow, were to be approached (precisely) as being “rigorous yet anexact” instructions. That this apparently paradoxical formula is also the one used by Gilles Deleuze to describe the dynamics of organic life, I took as not being just mere coincidence.



The first issue to solve was that of space; rather, that of place – of where to place the redoing. Stephanie and I immediately agreed that we had to rebuild with as much accuracy as possible the precarious architecture Kaprow had created within the Reuben Gallery: three rooms separated by walls of semi-transparent plastic film, connected by openings between the rooms, and by a corridor running along the whole length of the structure. This had some difficulties, the major one being the lack of a ground plan. But very quickly Christin Vahl (the architect that early on became part of our creative team, also responsible for creating all the art work installed in the redoing) and I deduced the dimensions of the rooms from photographs of the 1959 performance. The layering of semi-transparent walls, the opacity and scale of the assemblages in rooms one and three, the reflective surfaces of the five full-body mirrors in two of rooms, the combination of clear, almost modernist lines, with the precariousness and cheap quality of the materials, the vaudeville-like red, white, and blue light bulbs – all proposed an environment that I felt had to be directly related, symbiotically related, to Kaprow’s angular, minimalist, choreography. Architecture was movement and movement was architecture: precise and precarious, orthogonal and simple.

But the true problem in terms of space was neither that of figuring out correct dimensions nor of overcoming the lack of an original ground plan. The real problem was that we would be placing 18 Happenings in 6 Parts inside a museum’s gallery – when it was clear that its original location inside an empty loft on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village was already Kaprow’s critique of how art gets to be framed, consumed, accessed.

So, the problem was how to de-territorialize our room from the institutional frame of the museum. Once I learned that the large Terrassensaal gallery had been assigned for the redoing at Haus der Kunst, I wrote this to Christin: “But I have this vision of building a big wooden box, 8m x 14m x 3m, where someone outside would only see a bunch of cables coming in and out from several places. One small step, a door, and inside the whole atmosphere of 18/6.”  The aim was to create an object in space that would not reveal neither itself nor its contents fully -- nor give itself to be viewed or contemplated at a distance as a work of art. Moreover, I wanted to place this huge box at an angle, so it wouldn’t align with the structure of the building: the redoing could only take place inside a Museum’s gallery as long as it remained slightly misplaced. Christin responded brilliantly to this idea by conceiving a large structure made out of cheap construction materials with porous outside walls, like a skin. Plain wood on the outside, painted white on the inside, roofless. I found her solution perfect. Sitting by the wall near the entrance in room one, looking up, the misalignment of our box with the rest of the building generated a slight sensation of vertigo.

A second problem was that of casting. It was clear we wanted to work with art students.(3) The performers would have to be aware of the fact they would need to unlearn their training (if any) and accept Kaprow’s intelligent simplicity. I asked Noémie Solomon, choreographer and dance scholar, working on her doctorate at New York University on dance and notation, to be responsible for the crucial task of decoding Kaprow’s scores and actualizing them into movement, identifying overall rhythms, movement patterns, and then teaching them. She also performed in the redoing, and was assistant to the director.

One detail required a major decision to be made in terms of casting. In Kirby’s description of the performers, we learn they were

“Dressed in ordinary street clothes (a Negro girl wore a black leotard)…”

This anachronistic mode of reference to one of the performers took me directly to the very specific historical period of the late 1950s in US history. Given the way Kaprow controlled with absolute precision every single detail of the production, the differentiation between the “Negro girl” in her skin-tight leotard, and the other performers, in street clothes, was certainly purposeful -- in contrast with the others, we could see her physical presence as being more like a “human figure,”(4) pictorially reified throughout art history as male and white. This could not be taken as a small detail in the work of a sculptor and a painter so invested in critiquing the history of Western art (a critique that 18 Happenings in 6 Parts partakes fully). It was quite a statement in 1959 at the height of the civil rights movement, and given the lack of visibility of black women in avant-garde circles of New York (and, in part, in the visual arts, of black men – see Delaney’s account in his memoirs). In casting the redoing. I would have to take into consideration the ways Kaprow was approaching the politics of racial visibility and invisibility.(5) In the redoing, the “Negro girl” could not be replaced by just anybody whatever.

Another performance element corroborated this decision: a mechanical toy. Kirby describes how a man “entered the second room [part 4], put the mechanical toy on the table and set it in motion. About one foot high, it was the brightly colored figure of a Negro dancing on a drum; the legs jiggled and swung frantically when the toy was started.” Throughout his notes, Kaprow calls this toy “Black Sambo” -- a crucial character in the history of that foundational form of US popular entertainment, blackface minstrelsy, and in the history of US racism. Again, the inclusion of this Sambo dancing mechanically to the cacophony of an avant-garde orchestra playing in the next room in an environment lit by red, white, and blue light bulbs was not an innocent gesture in 1959. For the redoing, a decision had to be made about what mechanical toy to use. For a while I considered buying an antique (there are plenty tin toy Sambos available on e-bay). But this would be as if the visual economy of racism and of blackness as mechanized subjectivity always ready to provide pure entertainment, were a thing of the past. Walking on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, I stumbled upon the solution, literally on the evening before taking my plane to Munich. The colorful, one foot tall “Rap Brother” faced me from behind a window in a toy store in Ipanema -- thick red lips, maniacal grin, gloved hands. Just press his wrist and he hip-hops endlessly, upon command. It flew to Munich with me and performed the redoing with us every night.

Last element to solve: sound. Kaprow’s notes mention that the whole environment was crossed by a quadraphonic system, rendering a complex electronic composition. But without any detailed information other than Kaprow’s loose description of his electronic music in different annotations as “high pitched,” or “very compact,” or “jumble of words,” it was very hard at first to imagine how to redo the sound score. We did have the unfinished three-page manuscript text addressed “TO THE THEATRE PEOPLE,” (subtitled, “Innovator”) where Kaprow described (in the third person) the sound work for 18 Happenings in 6 Parts as “pure essences rather than ‘music’ in the conventional sense.” In another fragment, Kaprow describes his music work as based on the principle of treating sounds not as notes but as self-contained “events”, thus allowing him to create music that was void of any “compositional” concerns. I asked composer Shawn Greenlee, working at Brown University on his doctorate on the relation between electronic music and image, to be responsible for the sound design of the redoing. Then, we got lucky. Peter Kirby contacted us. He had found a box containing the five tapes used by Kaprow in 1959. Our task of decoding Kaprow’s intentions became easier – even though the discovery of the tapes also made clear that all sounds had to be constantly arranged and re-arranged in real time throughout the performance: the tapes were to be played like an instrument, which resulted in a more dynamic sound environment. In performance, Shawn played with Kaprow’s “pure essences” every night.



Each of these parts may be re-arranged indefinitely.




André Lepecki is Associate Professor in Performance Studies at New York University.

Der Text ist zuerst erschienen in: Allan Kaprow. 18 Happenings in 6 Parts: 9/10/11 November 2006. Barry Rosen, Michaela Unterdörfer (Hg.). München 2006: 45 – 50.

Der Wiederabdruck wurde vermittelt durch Frau Sylvia Bandi, Galerie HAUSER & WIRTH, Zürich und erfolgt mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors und der Herausgeber.


1 Kaprow, A. and J. Kelley (2003). Essays on the blurring of art and life. Berkeley, University of California Press.

2 Quotes taken from a sound file, courteously provided by Peter Kirby, of a preparatory meeting for the 1988 version of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in New York. In that file we can hear Kaprow briefly discussing the 1959 version.

3 We were helped in this process by Professor Jörg Von Brincken, from Lüdwig-Maximilians-Universität München. The performers were: Judith Hummel, Mathilda Legemah, Jaume Villalba Sanchez, Serkan Salihoglu, Noémie Solomon, Maximilian Specketer. Coryl Kaprow replaced Noémie in parts four and five on two evenings. We were very fortunate to have worked with them.

4 In 1959, that “Negro girl” was Shirley Prendergast.

5 In the unpublished letter to Fairfield Porter mentioned above, Kaprow accuses the reviewer of being incapable of properly see what surrounds him. Kaprow phrases his accusation by making an analogy between the art critic and “… the British who goes to Hong Kong for the first time and sees his house-boy everywhere he goes, on every street corner, tens of thousands of examples of this poor wretch – concluding that the Chinese are all alike…”


Kaprow, A. and J. Kelley (2003). Essays on the blurring of art and life. Berkeley, University of California Press.