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Happenings: Pop Culture

4 minute read

As a self-declared movement, pop art is more than just paint and plaster; it is also a clangor of nonmusic, a babble of tape recorders, and the “happening,” a nonplay which requires one or two small rooms and the tolerance of the spectators. In short, a branch of show business. Last week Washington, earnestly aspiring to be the new cultural capital of the U.S., was deep in something called “The Pop Art Festival,” staged by the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.

First came the neorealist show. On opening night, the confused guests sat down on the armchair that was part of Jim Dine’s painting called Four Rooms, and piled their champagne glasses into the porcelain sink (painted black) that is part of his lesser work, Black Bathroom No. 2. Two days later came a “lecture” by Modernist Composer John Cage, who accompanied his own voice with three tape recordings of his own voice, thus saying four different meaningless things at once. But that only led up to the climactic event, a happening called “Stars.”

Blue Wrench. Happenings are old stuff in the artiest alcoves of Manhattan, but of course that means nothing in Washington square. This one was prepared by Artist Claes Oldenburg, who makes those huge sailcloth hamburgers. Washington society prepared by getting itself puffed, powdered and sloshed. Little dinners were eaten intimately in Georgetown. The jolly crowd then collected at the gallery to see what was going to happen. Nearly everyone sat on campstools—White House Art Adviser Bill Walton, FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby, Mrs. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Those.

A member of the gallery staff announced that she had successfully achieved blue ice cream. She had mixed blue dye and vanilla ice cream with a monkey wrench. The New Frontier moved an inch forward on its stools.

This was obviously going to be some happening.

A cast of 19 performed—21 were listed but two didn’t show up. “You just never know about this sort of thing in a happening,” shrugged Oldenburg. They staged 48 separate events, each a minute long. Everything was sort of idiosymbolic. A huge white tube of canvas came wriggling into view, propelled by somebody underneath. Chuckle, chuckle—it’s the Potomac. The blue ice cream ended up in paper plates on a picnic table, making the point that Washington is a hell of a party town. Two men sprayed the place with Flit guns loaded with a foul-smelling mixture. The sex came a little later. A lively girl with dark doe eyes, dressed in a black oilcloth shift, set up an ironing board that had silver bells hanging from it and began to iron any number of medium-sized replicas of the Washington Monument. No one could miss the symbolism of that. The drama critic of the Washington Post splintered the stool he was perched on and crashed to the ground.

Red Gee String. As the evening wore on, slides of naked women were projected, suggesting that pornography has its place among the neo-Palladian splendors of the alabaster city. Waiters spilled bits of plastic from trays onto the audience. A woman came on wearing a shredded American flag on her head; her spine was as stiff as a flagpole. It had to be, since it was part of the monument to the victory at Iwo Jima, and three soldiers held her at the appropriate tilt. A 14-year-old boy in a Lincolnesque beard entered the room, was shown to his seat, and sat there waiting to be shot. Zow.

For the closing number, Miss Washington, stacked like the melon gallery, appeared in a mass of red taffeta. She pulled her rip cord, and there she stood—after all, it is the nation’s capital—not quite nude. An aw-gee string. A suggestion of red taffeta there-there and there.

She turned and bolted like a moose, followed by official Washington, gurgling hip-hip for happenings.

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