Experimental composer and theorist John Cage shared a studio at the Living Theatre with dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he collaborated for performances at Judson Memorial Church and elsewhere.
Experimental music composer John Cage is perhaps best known for 4’33”, a “composition” that instructed musicians to sit in silence for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It was a kind of art prank that also expanded the sonic possibilities of music-making by integrating ambient and environmental sounds into the performance. “Pretty soon you begin to hear chairs creaking, people coughing, rustling of clothes, then giggles,” said Cage’s future collaborator David Tudor, who attended the second performance at Carnegie Recital Hall. “Then I began to hear the elevator in the building. Then the air conditioning going through the ducts.” Eventually, as Tudor recalled, the audience began to realize, Oh. We get it. Ain’t no such thing as silence. If you just listen, you’ll hear a lot. 4’33” represented a clean break from the past. Painting, dance, theater, literature, and music were moving away from romanticism, realism, and sequential narrative into more abstract forms throughout the 1950s. Cage and his longtime partner, choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham, were closely involved in the overlapping downtown arts scenes. The two rented a studio on the third floor of the Living Theatre, which accelerated the cross-fertilization of scenes. It wasn’t unusual for Cage to compose a musical piece for a Cunningham dance performance, with set pieces designed by their painter friend Robert Rauschenberg. “They became immersed with that world—the New York school of painters, the San Remo bar, the Cedar Tavern,” Larry Kornfeld said. “We’d go from our living rooms to the theater, from theater to bar. It was a triangle.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Off-Off-Broadway director Larry Kornfeld honed his skills at the Living Theatre before directing dozens of shows at the Judson Poets’ Theatre throughout the 1960s. “Judith Malina, Julian Beck, and I hit it off right from the beginning because we saw eye to eye about aesthetics,” he said. “We were breaking away from commercialism in New York theater and were influenced by Brecht, the Berliner Ensemble, and the new movements in avant-garde theater.” Since its founding, the Living Theatre remained itinerant. After its West Ninety-Ninth Street location was closed, Kornfeld joined Malina and Beck when they were preparing to open their final location on West Fourteenth Street, on the northern edge of Greenwich Village (where The Connection debuted). The Living Theatre was also part of the broader antiwar and civil rights struggles during this time. “We marched on the White House in the fifties to ban the bomb,” Kornfeld said. “So that kind of political reaction to the status quo fell in line with the artistic reactions—you can’t separate them. It all fit together by the end of the fifties into the sixties, when there was the beginnings of an anti-bomb, anti-war, anti-middlebrow movement. My experience at the Living Theatre was a five-year period in which every day I was stage managing, directing, acting, learning—soaking it all in. And also being part of the many artists, dancers, and people who came to the Living Theatre—like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and so many others.”
Andy Warhol’s connection to the underground poetry world intensified when Gerard Malanga, a poet who also had a background in commercial printing, became his primary printing assistant in the summer of 1963. The two began working together in an uptown studio near Warhol’s brownstone home until the artist needed a larger studio, leading to his acquisition of a space in a midtown industrial building that became the Factory. By this point, Warhol had shifted from creating paintings with brushes—as he did with his famous Campbell’s soup can series—to his mass production–inspired silkscreened prints. By many accounts, Warhol was inspired by the amateur techniques used to make the experimental films, mimeographed poetry zines, and Off-Off-Broadway theatrical productions he was taking in. He then applied this DIY approach to his own messily printed silkscreens. “The spirit of the aleatory, that is, of John Cage’s chance operations, which Cage featured in his compositions, came into play in these early silkscreens, when talent overwhelmed technique,” recalled Ed Sanders. “I was friends at the time with Warhol’s assistant, poet Gerard Malanga, who told me about some of the casual and accidental silkscreen results.”
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Billy Name’s mentor Nick Cernovich worked at the time in a Zen bookstore, another big influence. Buddhism was all the rage among downtown artists such as Ray Johnson, and Warhol surely absorbed Zen’s penchant for repetition in his own silkscreen prints. “You can’t really understand Andy Warhol or any of these people—John Cage or any of them—without understanding Zen,” said Bibbe Hansen. “All these people who were interconnected were going to Zen classes, and even people who weren’t regularly practicing, like my dad, Al Hansen, would drop in once in a while.” Zen practices informed John Cage’s Untitled Event, a proto-Happening produced in the summer of 1952 at Black Mountain College. Standing on a stepladder and wearing a suit and tie, Cage read passages on “the relation of music to Zen Buddhism” as David Tudor played a “treated” piano and Merce Cunningham danced through the aisles. The space was also decorated with Robert Rauschenberg’s provocative White Paintings (in a Zen-like gesture, the canvases were completely painted white). “Rather than being predetermined,” art historian Judith F. Rodenbeck wrote, “the interactions of any given set of actions with any other was the result of aleatory juxtaposition of performances as perceived by an audience at a particular moment, creating a temporal collision. Thus anything that happened, according to Cage, ‘happened in the observer himself.’” By the late 1950s, Cage and his partner Cunningham would incorporate these strategies while working in their studio in the Living Theatre building.
As was often the case throughout his career, Andy Warhol was more a popularizer than a pioneer. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jasper Johns and his boyfriend Robert Rauschenberg were already pushing back on the art world’s informal ban on real-world objects by painting familiar things like flags, targets, and maps. They made their work under the influence of their friend John Cage, who encouraged others to incorporate chance methods and mundane materials from mass culture into their work. During this time, Sally Banes noted, artists turned their attention to everyday life: “It had become a symbol of egalitarianism, and it was the standard stuff of avant-garde artworks and performances.” By 1962, the term Pop Art was being applied to work produced by the likes of Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and its poster man-child, Warhol. Pop Art’s buzzy, glowing sheen fit the cultural mood of the day, when the consumer economy exploded with color and abundance. This public interest intensified after Warhol’s first solo show at the Stable Gallery in November 1962, which featured his silkscreened Marilyn Monroe portraits, Coca-Cola bottles, and other works that became iconic. Pop Art ran counter to the serious sensibilities of Ab-Ex painters, who treated commercial culture with contempt and thought Warhol’s work was vapid and commercial (he was happy to be guilty as charged). For some of the chest-beating, chin-massaging painters whose work was quickly being supplanted by Pop Art’s new guard, Warhol’s persona was too fey to be taken seriously. (This was another criticism Warhol never bothered to counter.)
By the mid-1960s, Yoko Ono had collaborated with John Cage, Ornette Coleman, and other prominent composers and musicians, as well as important visual artists, dancers, and poets. She eventually moved on to more established venues such as Carnegie Recital Hall and London’s Indica Gallery, but it wasn’t always easy. “I feel that even in the avant-garde world, what I was doing was seen as a little bit out of line,” she said. “They had their own set of rules, you know? ‘You can’t do that! You can’t do certain things!’ ” For Ono’s Cut Piece in 1964, the audience was invited to cut off bits of her clothes until nothing remained. She sat onstage with her legs folded in a traditional Japanese pose of feminine submissiveness, embodying the kind of vulnerability women experienced in Asian and American societies. “That was a frightening experience,” she recalled, “and a bit embarrassing. It was something that I insisted on—in the Zen tradition of doing the thing that is most embarrassing for you to do, and seeing what you come up with, and how you deal with it.” Ono entered the underground film world in 1966 with Bottoms, a brazen but playfully cheeky work featuring several naked buttocks and no recognizable narrative. After she met John Lennon, they baffled audiences by crawling into a large sack and staying inside for long stretches of time. She called it “bagism.” Yoko’s absurdist sensibility was also on display in her conceptual piece Questionnaire, 1966 Spring, which included lines such as “Happenings were first invented by Greek gods” and “The word ‘manila envelope’ comes from a deeply-rooted racial prejudice.” Her Do It Yourself Fluxfest Presents Yoko Ono and Dance Co. instructed its audience to “Face the wall and imagine throughout the year banging your head against it: A) Slowly until the wall collapses B) Violently until your head is gone.”
From Chapter 8 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Multimedia artist Yoko Ono organized downtown Manhattan’s first loft events, the Chambers Street Loft Series, in what is now called TriBeCa (the triangle below Canal Street). This area was her home base from the late 1950s until she moved in the mid-1960s into the same West Village building where Harry Koutoukas lived. Unlike more traditional venues that limited the length of individual pieces, Ono’s series had no such limitations, which helped change the course of modern composition by opening up new possibilities that were free from temporal constraints. The wide-open spaces in Ono’s industrial loft also created interesting spatial opportunities for the artists who participated in the Chambers Street Loft Series. John Cage and pianist David Tudor attended the first performance on a snowy day in December 1960—along with Dadaists Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp, a kind of avant-garde passing of the torch. “I met John Cage towards the end of the fifties through Stefan Wolpe,” Ono recalled. “What Cage gave me was confidence, that the direction I was going in was not crazy. It was accepted in the world called the avant-garde. . . . It was a great feeling to know that there was a whole school of artists and musicians who gathered in New York at the time, who were each in his or her own way revolutionary.” This was an epiphany, for Ono had spent much of her life up to that point feeling as though she didn’t belong. She studied philosophy at Gakushuin University in Tokyo and, later, composition at Sarah Lawrence College, but found both educational experiences constraining, so she forged her own path in downtown New York.
In 1959, the Judson Gallery was founded in the church’s basement at 239 Thompson Street, which displayed work by Pop and conceptual artists Robert Rauschenberg, Yoko Ono, Claes Oldenburg, and Red Grooms—and was home to several Happenings. Happenings were often unpredictable and provocative, like Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance piece Meat Joy, which featured nude performers who played with paint, sausage, and raw chickens, and was presented at Judson Gallery. The seeds of Happenings were planted in the early 1950s at Black Mountain College, when John Cage and his peers began developing mixed-media spectacles that emphasized live performance. Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins, and Al Hansen were early Happenings innovators who attended Cage’s influential, consciousness-raising class at the New School for Social Research in 1958. Kaprow started out as a Jackson Pollock–inspired action painter, then began incorporating aluminum foil and other matter. Like many artists who became part of 1960s avant-garde art movements, he developed an expanded approach to painting, composition, poetry, and, eventually, performance. Kaprow’s classmate Al Hansen also performed Happenings at Judson Gallery—such as his 1964 piece, Oogadooga—and in 1965 was the first to publish a book about the subject, A Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art. However, his idiosyncratic nature doomed any possibility of a “career” in art.
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
At the same time that these adventurous playwrights were presenting their work at Caffe Cino and Café La MaMa, an unlikely outlet opened its doors to Village artists of all kinds. “Judson Memorial Church was so pivotal to the foundation of downtown because they were so open to freedom of expression,” said Agosto Machado. “They encouraged expression and let so many people in all the art movements do their thing. They took away the pews. They had Happenings. There was dance, movement, song. Gender preferences did not matter to the church.” For example, Al Carmines, Judson’s openly gay minister (who was also a musician), staged material that could’ve gotten him arrested for obscenity elsewhere. “The painters, the sculptors, the actors, the playwrights,” director Larry Kornfeld said, “everybody at Judson were involved in exploring and extending mediums and the blending of them.” Kornfeld—who saw himself as “a sculptor of space”—was deeply influenced by Merce Cunningham’s and John Cage’s spatial and temporal explorations. “Space was being explored by painters who were at the theater, people like Rauschenberg, who did sets for us. People were always at each other’s shows, recitals, performances. They were drinking together, screwing together. There was a vast interchange of information and activity. It was a community, an anarchic community.”
Larry Kornfeld left the Living Theatre in 1961 to join Judson Poets’ Theatre. He had been hanging out at the Cedar Tavern, one of his regular Village haunts, when poet Joel Oppenheimer approached him about directing his play at Judson. Oppenheimer had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the early 1950s, crossing paths with Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. Back in New York, the Black Mountain group grew closer while spending time at the Living Theatre—where the interdisciplinary Monday Night Series was held and Cage and Cunningham also had a studio. This environment inspired Oppenheimer to write a satirical play, The Great American Desert, which Kornfeld agreed to direct despite his concerns about censorship. (One character exclaims, “Damn this fuckin’ desert anyhow. All this sweat over water, goddamn when I was a boy back home in Illinois they used to talk about the plains.”) Kornfeld told him, “Joel, it’s a church. You’ve got ‘fuck’ all over the script, and ‘fuck’ is not even said in the theater these days.” Oppenheimer assured him, “Oh, no. The church board read it, and they approved. They gave me their word that they will not interfere.” The church did not interfere, even though the play contained the type of language that caused Lenny Bruce to be arrested for obscenity three years later when the comedian performed his material just two blocks away at Café Au Go Go, in 1964. “We were very ethical, and inevitably broke the law,” Kornfeld said. “There was a lot by cursing, nude performances, but nothing salacious—like Yvonne Rainer dancing with Bob Morris naked on stage at the church.”
Fillmore East lighting designer Joshua White had seen Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia shows, but he was much more impressed by what was happening in a venue that opened on St. Mark’s Place, in the basement space where the Dom had previously been located. “It was now remodeled as the Electric Circus,” White said. “Now, when you say remodel, what it really means is they put stretched nylon over the space inside, changing the space by throwing light all over the place. Even though it was just a ratty ballroom, it now had a shape, and they brought in an older light artist from the San Francisco scene named Anthony Martin who filled the place up with psychedelic-type projections based on the San Francisco ballrooms. They did very good stuff there.” The Electric Circus featured acrobats, go-go dancing, and even John Cage playing chess. In 1968, the experimental composer asked a young electronic musician named Lowell Cross to create a chess board with sixteen different audio inputs that triggered sounds whenever a piece was moved. Cage first played this aural game of chess against Dadaist Marcel Duchamp in Toronto, then recreated the conceptual performance at the Electric Circus later that year. “It was a discothèque,” Cross recalled. “There was a whole lot of cigarette smoking, and other kinds of smoking, and acid going on. It was very casual, not very structured at all. And that fit right into what Cage liked.” Although John Cage was in his mid-fifties by this point, he remained open to new things and continued to circulate in a variety of New York scenes until his death in 1992.
From Chapter 19 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore