The Sky Is the Limit: Princeton's Happening

Just before noon in the middle of a New Jersey winter in 1969, a twelve-by-one-hundred-foot sheet of polyethylene plastic dropped over the heads of Rutgers University students attending their weekly assembly in Douglass College’s Voorhees Chapel, signaling the beginning of Geoffrey Hendricks’s Happening The Sky Is the Limit. As the event unfolded, several performers infiltrated the audience, wrestling each other, wrapping each other in toilet paper, and rearranging a stack of one hundred white boxes. This fall, in tribute to that performance, as well as to numerous other Happenings staged in the Garden State, the Museum commissioned Hendricks to choreograph the piece anew in conjunction with the exhibition New Jersey as Non-Site, which examined the ways New Jersey was a catalyst and laboratory for breakthroughs in avant-garde art from 1950 to 1975.

Hendricks joined the art faculty of Douglass College in 1956, and, together with Allan Kaprow, Robert Watts, and others, he helped turn the New Brunswick campus into a center for artistic and pedagogical innovation. Like many of the early Happenings that occurred in New Jersey, The Sky Is the Limit embraced ideas of play, improvisation, and the transformation of seemingly ordinary environments—such as the sky above us—into ephemeral works of art. These Happenings became the precursors to experimental performance art and, in particular, to the Fluxus art movement—an international group of avant-garde artists and composers working in a range of media who embrace an “anti-art” aesthetic often requiring the participation of spectators. Both Happenings and Fluxus trace their antecedents to the work of composer John Cage, whose classes at the New School in the late 1950s were attended by several members of the Rutgers faculty, including Hendricks. Associated with the Fluxus movement since its inception, Hendricks has styled himself as a “Cloudsmith,” in reference to his extensive use of sky imagery in paintings, on objects, and in installations and performances. In rescoring The Sky Is the Limit for Princeton, Hendricks incorporated several new elements into the piece. As he  reflected, “My 1969 Happening certainly provided the armature for the performance at Princeton, but with a totally different kind of space—a small, dark proscenium theater in contrast to a large, open light chapel—and with forty-four years having elapsed, so that I too am a different person, it became something else.”

Two days before the reperformance, held in Murray-Dodge Theater, participants met each other and the artist for the first time. Unlike the student group from 1969, the Princeton performers ranged in age and experience and included Princeton undergraduates; members of the Museum’s curatorial and education staff; former students of Hendricks’s turned artists and college professors; a high school student; and an energetic group of Museum docents with backgrounds in ballet, photography, and storytelling. The core group of performers was later joined by a Princeton postdoc and his wife, participating in the performance in celebration of their third wedding anniversary.

As the audience poured into the theater at 5:45 p.m. on October 10, they were greeted by people stamping “Cloudsmith” cards with names of clouds—stratus, cumulus, cirrus, nimbus, or Fluxus—and a “cloudcatching machine” made from a lime spreader filled with flowers. On stage, the brilliant blue-and-white light of three simultaneous projections threw images of the sky onto participants dressed from head to toe in white, who silently constructed white boxes, filling them with large white balloons tied to images of Fluxus artists. The performance began with the sounds of Fluxus artist Joe Jones’s “Music Machines” enveloping the theater as the cloud-catching machine, with its autumnal bouquet, was rolled down the aisle and up to the stage. Performers carefully began arranging towers of white boxes as clouds were projected upon them. As several audience members later remarked, the machinelike movements of box making conveyed the sense of people working in a “cloud factory.”

In the midst of construction, several performers launched white beach balls of various sizes into the audience. Instantly the room was filled with the laughter and energy of the spectators. After several minutes, in a dramatic sweep, a white sheet was unfurled over the theater. Small ping-pong balls, as well as the beach balls, were then tossed on top of this “sky,” which extended from the back wall of the theater to the front of the stage. Lit from above, the fabric was pushed and pulled overhead, activating the various small objects as “planets” and “heavenly bodies” circulating over the audience. As the objects’ movement began to calm, two performers walked the cloud machine to the center of the stage, gently covering the wildflowers with billowing clouds of shaving cream and adorning the contraption with white balloons. In the final moments, under strobe lights, the boxes on stage were hurled, tossed, and circulated into and around the audience. The juxtaposition of such chaos overlaid with the serenity of the cloud/sky projects, according to performer Allegra D’Adamo, “mirrored life’s unexpected twists and turns . . . . No matter what was going on in the foreground—bouncing balls, shifting boxes—there was always the hum of life in the background.”

The audience then gathered up all one hundred boxes, slowly carried them to the Museum’s lobby, and began to open them, releasing dozens of “Fluxus saints” into the glass entryway so that their spirit and energy magically hung in the atmosphere. As Hendricks’s former student Keary Rosen remarked, “it was a beautiful and poetic expression of some of the key elements of Geoffrey’s work, a great example of a Fluxus performance, and a sensitive, yet fun, tribute to key figures of the Fluxus movement.” Breaking through the limits of a replay of the original, Hendricks’s The Sky Is the Limit provided a unique opportunity for the Princeton community to be incorporated into the tradition of New Jersey’s avant-garde.


Monica Barra

Doctoral student, Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center; Andrew W. Mellon Research Assistant