Robert R. McElroy Documentary Photographer Dies

He documented the world of ‘Happenings’ the precursor to ‘Performance Art’

Robert R. McElroy, the photographer who was on the scene documenting numerous happenings in downtown Manhattan galleries with artists like Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow ,Lucas Samaras and Claes Oldenburg has died at the age of 84. From the time he left the Army in 1946 where he was assigned to be a military photographer in the Signal Corps, McElroy worked in the photo department Marshall Fields, a Chicago department store. He than attended Ohio University,  before moving to New York following graduation finding a job as a commercial photographer in a small studio. Newsweek which was the number 2 weekly news magazine and a competitor to Time,hired him as a darkroom assistant in 1962 and later promoted him to staff photographer covering presidential campaigns and disasters. He retired in 1988.

Allan Kaprow first coined the term “happening” in the spring of 1957 at an art picnic at sculptors George Segal’s farm, to describe art pieces that were emerging as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. The first appearance in print of the term was in Kaprow’s famous “Legacy of Jackson Pollock” essay that was published in 1958 but primarily written in 1956. “Happenings emphasize the organic connection between art and its environment. Kaprow supports that “happenings invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature  of the art and life. It is a rough and sudden act, where one often feels “dirty”, and dirt, we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything including the visitors can grow a little into such circumstances.” Secondly, happenings have no plot or philosophy, but rather is materialized in an improvisatory fashion. There is no direction thus the outcome is unpredictable. “It is generated in action by a headful of ideas…and it frequently has words but they may or may not make literal sense. If they do, their meaning is not representational of what the whole element conveys. Hence they carry a brief, detached quality. If they do not make sense, then they are acknowledgement of the sound of the word rather than the meaning conveyed by it.” Last, due to the convention’s nature, there is no such term as “failure” which can be applied. “For when something goes “wrong”, something far more “right”, more revelatory may emerge. This sort of sudden near-miracle presently is made more likely by chance procedures.” As a conclusion, a happening is fresh while it lasts and cannot be reproduced.”(Wardrip-Fruin, 86) Happenings were the precursors of the Performance Art movement .


Lucas Samaras and Allan Kaprow in Allan Kaprow’s Yard, performed in Environments, Situations, Spaces at the Martha Jackson Gallery, May 25–June 23, 1961. © Robert R. McElroy/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York


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