Painter Robert Rauschenberg was associated with the Pop Art movement, but he was also involved with performances at Judson Memorial Church—designing sets and collaborating with his friends John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
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
The Living Theatre’s Monday Night Series, held during the acting company’s night off, hosted many kinds of artists: musicians John Herbert McDowell and Bob Dylan, painters Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, poets Diane di Prima and Frank O’Hara, dancers James Waring and Freddie Herko. In his memoir Fug You, Ed Sanders recalled that the Living Theatre “was an important place in my personal world. I had heard historic poetry readings there; I had first seen Bob Dylan perform as part of the General Strike for Peace in February ’62 . . . [and] I had typed the stencils for the recent issue of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts.” It was this latter endeavor—his infamous mimeographed poetry zine, Fuck You—that established Sanders as a ubiquitous downtown presence. When the Living Theatre staged Paul Goodman’s The Cave, the group was fully prepared to go to jail. One scene contained three uses of the word fuck—something that was unheard-of—but these ahead-of-their-time punks staged it anyway.
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.
From Chapter 3 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.)
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
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.”
It was at Max’s Kansas City that the pioneering electronic rock duo known as Silver Apples made a name for themselves downtown. Consisting of keyboardist Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor, Silver Apples regularly performed in Max’s second-floor room starting in 1968. Coxe said they were the only band that Ruskin would allow to play there at the time (turning down overtures from the Band and other high-profile artists). “We were just wild and crazy enough to fit his whole concept of the restaurant,” he said, “so we became the house band up there for the longest time, pretty much for a whole year.” Coxe grew up in New Orleans, and around 1960 he decided to move to New York City and become an artist. “Back then, the whole Lower East Side was pretty much inhabited by artists, writers, musicians, poets, and actors,” Coxe said, “and there were all kinds of part-time jobs available.” He recalled working at the American Kennel Club proofreading dog certificates along with up-and-coming painter Robert Rauschenberg and future members of the Velvet Underground. He first played rock ’n’ roll covers around Greenwich Village in the Random Concept and later joined the Overland Stage Band, which included drummer Danny Taylor. “Silver Apples were way ahead of their time,” said Ruby Lynn Reyner. “They were the original electronic band who had a huge, bulky, humongous piano-sized computer.” Coxe’s primitive synthesizer looked like a DIY spaceship control panel with several oscillators mounted on plywood. Taylor’s unique, pulsating drumming style developed because it was hard for Coxe to use his electronic equipment to play bass lines, which was the traditional way drummers locked into an instrumental groove.
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
One of Suicide’s earliest shows was in 1970 at OK Harris, one of the first galleries to open in SoHo. It was owned by Ivan Karp, an art dealer who played an early role in promoting Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. “I told him Suicide should play at his gallery,” Vega said, “and to our surprise he said yes, and they printed up postcards and everything saying Punk Music by Suicide. It was a pretty intense show, but we got invited back, even though we freaked everyone out.” The OK Harris show flyer contained the first use of the word “punk” by a band, one of the many ways in which Suicide was truly cutting edge. “I remember seeing Alan Vega around the scene very early on,” said Chris Stein. “Suicide was so groundbreaking, it’s hard to convey how far ahead they were in relation to what was going on at the time.” Debbie Harry added, “As a performer, Alan was sometimes a baffling struggle of danger, drama, pathos, and comedy. He held nothing back from us, and the interaction with audience hecklers was fundamental.” Not only was their music radically different from the New York Dolls, so was their look. “We were street guys, we took what we could get, sometimes from the garbage,” Vega said. “I remember Marty [Rev] went through the trash and other thrift store or Salvation Army type stuff, mainly out of necessity. We didn’t have any money, so what became the punk look was born out of necessity. I cut holes in socks so that my fingers went through and I stretched the socks up to my elbows and had a cutoff pink jacket. That was really something, man! Basically, I just wore what I could afford. I’m not sure really what the fuck I was thinking.”
From Chapter 27 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore