Robert Whitman Pioneer of Happenings Dies Aged 88

Robert Whitman: 61, Pace Gallery, New York, Oct 26 – Dec 21, 2018 © Robert Whitman

Robert Whitman, a central figure in the realms of performance and multimedia art has passed away at the age of 88 at his home in Warwick, New York. The news of his death was confirmed by Pace Gallery, his long-standing representative, though the cause of death remains undisclosed.

Hailing from the vibrant art scene of 1960s New York, Whitman, alongside contemporaries like Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg, gained prominence for orchestrating avant-garde events known as Happenings in Downtown Manhattan. These ephemeral art pieces, some lasting only for a single night, incorporated elements of performance and sculpture, presenting a stark departure from the enduring nature of traditional art exhibitions.

Installation view, Robert Whitman: 61, Pace Gallery, New York, Oct 26 – Dec 21, 2018 © Robert Whitman
Installation view, Robert Whitman: 61, Pace Gallery, New York, Oct 26 – Dec 21, 2018 © Robert Whitman Courtesy Pace Gallery NY

In a quest to dismantle hierarchies between artists and technicians, Whitman later collaborated with engineers, co-founding Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1966, alongside Fred Waldhauer, Billy Klüver, and artist Robert Rauschenberg. In a 2008 statement to Artforum, Whitman reflected on their collective mission: “The common ground was our social mission, that commitment to some sort of social energy that went beyond just any one thing.”

Born in Manhattan in 1935 to Robert Sr. and Cynthia Sainter Whitman, he grew up in New York and later moved to Englewood, New Jersey, after his father’s death. Whitman initially studied literature at Rutgers University, considering a playwriting career. His involvement with influential figures like Allan Kaprow and John Cage led him to the world of Happenings, with Whitman participating in the first one at the Reuben Gallery in 1959.

Throughout his career, Whitman explored the manipulation of temporal constraints in performances, expressing in 1965, “The thing about theatre that most interests me is that it takes time. Time for me is material.”

His most renowned work, “American Moon,” staged in 1960, involved filling a makeshift theatre with debris while amateur performers, acting as puppets, enacted mysterious scenes against a backdrop of plastics, paper, and cardboard. Projects like “Prune Flat” (1965) and “Bathroom Sink” (1964) showcased Whitman’s experimentation with projected images, using performers as both subjects and screens.

Even later, Whitman remained active with New York institutions, showcasing his work. In 2011, as part of a collaboration with Dia Beacon in New York and Montclair State University in New Jersey, he sent a flaming rowboat down the Hudson River, a poignant example of his enduring impact on the art scene.

Dia’s then-director, Philippe Vergne acknowledged Whitman’s significance, stating, “Whitman is part of our DNA.”

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