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The Ken Dewey Collection
All images were used with permission from the Dewey estate.
Picture this: it is April 1963, and you are in Stockholm at the Moderna Museet. Currently on display is the American Pop Art Show. You walk into the museum and are instructed to sit in one of the galleries in a section of chairs arranged to mimic the seats of a subway car. Other people are in chair arrangements that resemble boats, a helicopter, and a tank. Over the next two hours the following events take place: a woman holds forth a conversation with a trumpet; actors and musicians perform tributes to people they admire; excerpts of a play are performed; a grand piano is slowly pushed across the floor as it is played; a scaffold full of people reading newspapers aloud rolls by; dancers undulate across the gallery floor; and a woman wearing a long patchwork veil marries a Messerschmidt car. After the performance you walk into the museum's main entrance and see one final act, dancers rolling down the stairs as electronic music plays. You just experienced Museum Piece, a Happening by the American artist Ken Dewey, whose papers have recently been opened to the public at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Dewey, born in Chicago in 1934, came to performance art from a theater background. As a young man, he had wanted to be a playwright. He began his serious study of theater while attending Columbia University as an undergraduate, studying play writing with Theodore Apstein. While at Columbia he also began dabbling in the visual arts and took sculpture with Oronzio Mandarelli.
When Dewey graduated in 1959, he moved to San Francisco and studied mime with R. G. Davis and dance with Anna Halprin. He became an assistant director of the Actor's Workshop of San Francisco. These early writing efforts are represented in his papers with notebooks and typescripts containing drafts of plays, short stories, and poems, as well as production material for the plays he helped direct for the Actor's Workshop.
Dewey became interested in Happenings when he saw the Robert Whitman piece American Moon performed in 1961. He had always felt that theater was constrained by the frame of the stage. The term Happenings, which may sound dated now, was often an unsatisfactory term even to those producing such works in the early 1960s, at the height of the Happenings scene. It was difficult to define these performances, that could include film, dance, literature, music, and theater in what artist and writer Michael Kirby called "a compartmentalized structure, and making use of essentially non-matrixed performance." Dewey himself used the term Happenings, but his own work became known as Action Theatre, a phrase he coined that contained both a nod to action painting and the inclusion of theatrical elements into his work.
Dewey's early work was focused on and in the European cities where he lived and worked from 1963 to 1964. During this time he produced over twenty events—musical performances, theater pieces, and Happenings—in Croatia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Italy, and Sweden. Often his projects centered on a particular city and used geography, social sciences, architecture, and technology to comment on that city's infrastructure, history, and culture. One such work was Street Piece (1963), where he had eighteen events scored to take place over one hour in the center of Helsinki. This included a ballerina arriving to a square in a taxi and a musician arriving by tram, each performing together for an hour without acknowledging each other. In his article "X-ings," written for the Tulane Drama Review in 1965, Dewey wrote, "All ideas were generated by working with the spaces and considering the city of which they are part."
Dewey rehearsed his work, often extensively, and provided his performers with detailed instructions, scores, and choreographic notes. Much of this material can be found in his papers, including large, hand-drawn diagrams that provided a visual mapping of the various elements and chronology of the Happening.
While the above elements could be planned and rehearsed, another important element remained unscripted. This was the participatory role of the audience members. Their interaction with and response to the work made each Happening a singular event and the results could be unpredictable. Two of his Happenings, Breathing Piece Lund (1964) and Through Some Changes (1964), in Sweden and Finland respectively, resulted in near riots. He achieved notoriety when he had a piece at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival Drama Conference that challenged Britain's nudity laws by having a nude model pulled across the stage. Dewey, and his collaborators Charles Lewsen and Mark Boyle, developed the Happening as a direct reaction to the talks and presentations they observed at the conference. Dewey embraced the idea that these types of performances might be controversial, writing in "X-ings" that "[A] piece is at its best when two agons are working at once—the first between people and themselves and the second between the whole group and something beyond itself."
In the catalog for the posthumous retrospective of Dewey's work (Action Theatre: The Happenings of Ken Dewey at the Franklin Furnace Archive in 1987), curator Barbara Moore states that his focus on Europe may be why Dewey was not better known in the United States. "These activities on foreign soil," Moore says, "generating reports often in other tongues, gained him only a vague and understandably distorted American reputation." Dewey did not produced a work in New York City until 1965, when he divided audience members into two teams who played a giant game of tug-of-war (Without & Within) at the Palm Garden Ballroom. Moore elaborates on the second reason why Dewey may not be more recognized: by the time Dewey arrived in New York, "the local excitement surrounding the new forms had largely dissipated or been channeled elsewhere."
In 1965, Dewey officially incorporated Action Theatre as a business entity through which he could initiate and produce his projects. In an interview in Staffan Olzon's documentary Happening at the Arctic Circle, Dewey said that creating Happenings was "95% organizing [and] 5% composing." Dewey transitioned the skills he developed producing his own work into facilitating the work of others when he became a staff member at the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) in 1966.
While at NYSCA he held the positions of director of program development and director of research. Here, he produced projects like Intermedia '68, an exhibition that toured New York state and included Allan Kaprow, Terry Riley, Carolee Schneemann, and Dewey himself; and Hudson Troubadour, another state-wide tour, this time by musician Don McLean who performed songs about the Hudson River.
In 1970, he was appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to serve on the New York State Commission on Cultural Resources, a temporary commission created to study the current and long-range fiscal needs of cultural institutions. That same year he was also director of Planning Corporation of the Arts, a one-year research project, partially funded by the NYSCA, on the role of arts in a democracy. Moore writes,
As his life centered more and more on administrative and consulting duties, Dewey produced fewer full-length pieces. But nothing to stop his active engagement, often under the most unprepossesssing circumstances. One day he might tour New York State as a Council official, the next organize—at the height of the Vietnam debacle—a red, white and blue demolition derby for July 4th at an artists' commune in Woodstock.
Both Dewey's artistic career and his work in arts administration were cut short in 1972 when he died in a plane crash at the age of thirty eight. The Ken Dewey collection contains writings, project files, photographs, and sound and video recordings that reflect the entirely of his life's work, of which this post merely scratches the surface, and the Action Theatre: The Happenings of Ken Dewey exhibit. This collection will be a useful tool to researchers interested in researching and recontextualizing this important and under-recognized artist.