Photographer documented landmark performances in 1960s New York
Photographer Robert McElroy (American, 1928–2012) was the go-to photographer for artists such as Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman, becoming a permanent fixture in avant-garde art spaces where he photographed Happenings and performances that reimagined and revolutionized what might constitute a work of art. The early ephemeral works that McElroy captured are now considered groundbreaking moments in modern art.
The acquisition comprises approximately 700 vintage prints developed by McElroy; 10,000 negatives and contact sheets, most of which were never developed and have never been available for research; 2,000 recent machine prints produced by Pace Gallery for research for the 2012 exhibition “Happenings: New York, 1958-1963”; and a small paper archive, including posters, ephemera and correspondence with artists such as Oldenburg, Kaprow, Carolee Schneemann and Richard Serra. The acquisition is part donation by McElroy’s widow Evelyn McElroy, and part purchase.
“Although many of McElroy’s images are familiar from articles on the art world of that era, the vast majority of his photographs have never been seen, and have never been available to historians,” said Thomas Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “This acquisition will greatly expand access to his work and enrich our understanding of this pivotal moment in art history.”
McElroy grew up in an Irish working-class family in Chicago, and developed a passion for photography as a member of his high school camera club. He enlisted in the Army in 1946, before graduating high school, in order to join the photographers of the Signal Corps, where he became part of a team producing short documentary-style films. In 1948, McElroy returned to Chicago to complete high school, and was soon called back into service in the Korean conflict. He attended school for combat motion picture and photography, training that no doubt contributed to McElroy’s deftness in capturing the unexpected movements of Happenings and performances.
Thanks to the GI Bill, McElroy enrolled at Ohio University in 1952, where he joined fellow students Paul Fusco and Jim Dine in one of the only photography programs in the United States, headed by Clarence White, Jr. In 1958, McElroy moved to New York where he worked as a commercial photography studio assistant (along with Ron Galella, who would later become one of the city’s most notorious paparazzi).
He began spending time in Greenwich Village and by 1960 he had become a permanent fixture at avant-garde art spaces downtown, including the influential Reuben Gallery, where gallerist Anita Reuben showed radical installations and Happenings by artists who transposed the actions and gestures of abstract expressionist painting – then much in vogue – into the physical space of the gallery, incorporating the bodies of performers into a mix of rehearsed and improvised scenarios, often accompanied by sculpted props or painted texts.
Between 1960 and 1965, McElroy documented several landmark events in the art world, including Dine’s Car Crash and Smiling Workman; Oldenburg’s Store Days I and II, Nekropolis I and II, and Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath; Kaprow’s Apple Shrine, A Spring Happening, Words and Service for the Dead; and Robert Whitman’s American Moon and Mouth. McElroy also shot Kaprow’s celebrated Yard installation at Martha Jackson Gallery and documented the birth of Oldenburg’s now-iconic soft sculptures as well as the dozens of radical performances he presented in 1962. He captured Concert #3, one of the momentous evenings of performances at the Judson Dance Theater that included Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer dancing a nude duet in Word, Words, as well as Newspaper Event, an early Carolee Schneemann performance. He also recorded the new phenomenon of pop art, photographing work by Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol, Arman, Christo, Yves Klein and others.
In 1963, McElroy became a staff photographer at Newsweek, and became less involved in the art world. Although he stayed in touch with several artists, particularly Oldenburg and Whitman, McElroy focused full time on his work at Newsweek, following John Glenn in his campaign for the presidential nomination, and photographing President Reagan at his Santa Barbara summer home.
“McElroy’s name is not as well-known as those of his contemporaries like Claes Oldenburg or Jim Dine, but his photographs have come to define our understanding of their early work,” said Glenn Phillips, acting head of the department of architecture and contemporary art at the GRI. “He captured the iconic moments and the rehearsals and processes that led to them. In that way, McElroy’s is one of the most fascinating photographic archives of the postwar period.”
Top:Allan Kaprow, Words, Smolin Gallery, New York (1962). Photo: Robert R. McElroy. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
Bottom:Jim Dine, Car Crash, Reuben Gallery, New York (1960). Photo: Robert R. McElroy. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
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