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McElroy (Robert R.) Photographs of Happenings and Early Performance Art
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical / Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Separated Materials
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Robert R. McElroy photographs of happenings and early performance art
    Date (inclusive): 1959-2012
    Number: 2014.M.7
    Creator/Collector: McElroy, Robert R.
    Physical Description: 34 Linear Feet (72 boxes, 1 flatfile folder, computer media: 1.37 GB (67 files))
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Abstract: Robert R. McElroy's photographs document performance art and exhibitions by New York artists that took place during the late-1950s to the mid-1960s. Included are prints, contact sheets, negatives, and slides. The collection features photographs of works by Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman.
    Request Materials: Request access to the physical materials described in this inventory through the catalog record   for this collection. Click here for the access policy .
    Language: Collection material is in English.

    Biographical / Historical Note

    Robert R. McElroy was an American photographer who documented happenings and performances in New York during the late-1950s through the mid-1960s by artists including Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman. Their works developed a new genre of art that was meant to be fleeting and ephemeral, but by capturing these early performance pieces through his lens McElroy provides a glimpse into the development of this art form.
    McElroy was born in 1928 to an Irish Catholic family in Chicago. His interest in photography began when he was part of his high school's camera club, and in 1946 he enlisted in the U.S. Army with the goal of joining the photographers of the Signal Corps. McElroy was stationed in Vienna, where he became part of the 63rd Signal Battalion's movie team and produced short documentary-style films. While in Vienna, McElroy became adept at using hand-held movie cameras such as the Eyemo and Arriflex, and honed his photographic skills on a Leica, which he would continue to employ well into his career. In 1948, he was sent to a school for combat motion picture and photography where he learned to document unpredictable moments and to remain outside of the action. This training would later contribute to McElroy's skill at capturing the spontaneous movements of performance art. Four years later, McElroy enrolled in Ohio University's photography program where he met the artist Jim Dine.
    McElroy moved to New York in June 1958 and worked several commercial photography jobs. During this time he began to attend performances in Greenwich Village theaters and reconnected with colleagues, including Dine, from Ohio University. Soon after Dine and artists Marcus Ratcliff and Tom Wesselman established Judson Gallery, McElroy began documenting exhibitions and performances. In January 1960, he photographed his first event at the opening of Reuben Gallery's Paintings exhibition featuring Red Grooms, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, and Robert Whitman.
    From 1960 to 1965, McElroy photographed happenings at various gallery and event spaces including Judson Memorial Church, Martha Jackson Gallery, and Sidney Janis Gallery. He captured seminal performances including Oldenburg's Ray Gun Spex (1960) at Judson Memorial Church, Kaprow's Yard as part of the exhibition Environments, Situations, Spaces (1961) at Martha Jackson Gallery, and Whitman's The American Moon (1960) at the Reuben Gallery. McElroy was given access to spaces both during rehearsals and at final performances which allowed him an opportunity to determine the vantage points that would best translate the immediacy of the events into two-dimensional form. He used straightforward shots and close-ups, and captured views of the installations from various angles.
    McElroy photographed Oldenburg's works extensively and was often invited to shoot not only his performances, but also Oldenburg at work in his studio. McElroy documented the production, installation, and the opening night for The Store in 1961; and also captured Oldenburg and his wife, Patti, creating his well-known soft sculptures at his 14th Street studio in 1962. He was present for many of Oldenburg's performances from his early project, Ray Gun Theater, to one of his final works, Washes, in the spring of 1965.
    While McElroy photographed these happenings and exhibitions, he also worked as a printer in the darkroom for Newsweek beginning in 1962, and was promoted to staff photographer by 1963. His activities in the art world lessened after his promotion and by 1965, he focused his time at Newsweek documenting a range of events from cultural movements to political campaigns. He followed John Glenn in his fight for the presidential nomination from the Democratic Party; covered Ronald Reagan at his summer home in Santa Barbara; and shot images of Brooklyn's streets from the air during the fiery 1977 blackout. McElroy continued to work for Newsweek until his retirement in the late 1980s.
    McElroy's images have been frequently used in accounts of postwar art and represent some of the most significant documentation of happenings that took place in New York during the late 1950s to mid-1960s. McElroy passed away at the age of 84 in 2012.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers, except audiovisual materials which are unavailable until reformatted.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Robert R. McElroy photographs of happenings and early performance art, 1959-2012, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2014.M.7

    Acquisition Information

    Partial gift of Evelyn R. McElroy in memory of Robert R. McElroy. Acquired in 2014.

    Processing History

    Processed by Sheila Prospero under the supervision of Kit Messick from July to December 2014. Selected digital material was processed by Laura Schroffel in 2018. Further processing is required on remaining digital content. Tif files were normalized to the JPG format for access.

    Digital material

    Selected moving image and born digital material was processed in 2018 and is available online: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/2014m7 and here http://hdl.handle.net/10020/2014m7av

    Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

    Born digital content will be made available through the digital preservation repository. Material will be available on-site only.

    Separated Materials

    Three serials were transferred to the library. These publications can be found by searching the library catalog for the Robert R. McElroy Collection.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The archive is largely comprised of McElroy's photographs documenting happenings, performances, and exhibitions by New York artists from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Included are vintage black-and-white prints, negatives, and contact sheets, as well as a smaller group of color prints and slides. It also contains a number of prints created by Pace Gallery in 2012. A significant portion of the collection features photographs of works by Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman.
    The artist files in Series I form the bulk of the archive and contain photographs of artists' performances and exhibitions. These also include images of artists at work, rehearsals, exhibition openings, and works of art. The majority of the prints, contact sheets, and negatives are black-and-white but some color prints and slides are also included. Notable performances found in this series include Dine's Car Crash (1960), Kaprow's Service for the Dead (1962), Carolee Schneemann's Chromelodeon (4th Concentration) (1963), and Whitman's American Moon (1960). A large portion of the series features Oldenburg's work and includes performances such as Circus: Ironworks/Fotodeath (1961) and Ray Gun Theater (1962), as well as one of his last performances, Washes (1965). This section also contains images of Oldenburg working on pieces for The Store (1961) and sewing his well-known soft sculptures with his wife Patti at his 14th Street studio in 1962. The photographs in Series I include both vintage and modern prints. Some artist files also contain image CDs of McElroy's photographs or DVDs of artists' works and performances.
    Also in this series are photographs of events, performances, and group shows organized by galleries such as Ray Gun Spex at Judson Memorial Church (1960), Environments, Situations, Spaces at Martha Jackson Gallery (1961), and New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery (1962). There is extensive documentation of the Reuben Gallery, founded by Anita Reuben in 1959. This includes images of the first event McElroy photographed, the group exhibition, Paintings in 1960, as well as photographs of Rosalyn Drexler's solo exhibition of that same year. McElroy's involvement with the New York art scene can be seen through the various events that he photographed such as the conferences, artist parties, and exhibition openings that are filed in this series. Also included are image CDs of various events and performances photographed by McElroy; some discs were created by Pace Gallery.
    The third section of the series contains prints from McElroy's negatives created by Pace Gallery for the exhibition, Happenings: New York, 1958-1963 (2012). This includes both black-and-white and color prints organized chronologically by event.
    Lastly, a small number of photographs of happenings taken by other photographers are filed at the end of the series. Included are later prints of photographs taken by John Cohen, Scott Hyde, Fred McDarrah, and Lucas Samaras.
    Series II is comprised of McElroy's personal papers including correspondence, clippings, and ephemera. Correspondence ranges from 1963 to 2008 and contains both personal and business correspondence. Included are letters from artists such as Dine, Drexler, Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Whitman. The majority of the correspondence is business-related and pertains to image requests for publication or exhibition, and to copyright issues. Some files also include loan agreements, receipts, and notes written by McElroy. Clippings contain articles about artists, galleries, or performance art, and some feature McElroy's photographs. This series also contains a small quantity of artist or gallery ephemera and miscellaneous papers.


    Arranged in two series: Series I. Photographs and media, 1959-1970, 1981, 2003-2012; Series II. Papers, 1960-2010.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Schneemann, Carolee
    Dine, Jim
    Samaras, , Lucas
    Kaprow, Allan
    Whitman, Robert
    Oldenburg, Claes

    Subjects - Corporate Bodies

    Martha Jackson Gallery
    Sidney Janis Gallery
    Judson Memorial Church
    Reuben Gallery

    Subjects - Topics

    Art, American -- 20th century
    Conceptual Art
    Happening (Art)
    Performance art

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Gelatin silver prints -- New York (State) -- 20th century
    Black-and-white negatives -- New York (State) -- 20th century
    Black-and-white photographs
    Color slides
    DVDs -- United States -- 21st century
    Color prints (photographs)
    Photographs, Original


    McElroy, Robert R.