Allan Kaprow
Performance Artist, Founder of Happenings and Environments.
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Allan Kaprow's 1963 "Happening"
entitled "Fluids" - photographed by
Dennis Hopper in Beverly Hills.

Allan Kaprow (1927-2006)

Contents

Biography
Training and Early Writing
Artistic Vision
"Environments" and "Happenings"
Art Teacher
Legacy
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Biography

A highly influential figure in contemporary art during the 1960s, the American artist and theorist Allan Kaprow is probably best known as the leading pioneer of "Happenings", a type of performance art whose aim is to remove the barrier between performer and spectator, leaving only participants. Kaprow also pioneered "Environments" - a forerunner of installation art - typically consisting of rooms filled with assemblages of everyday objects. These two genres - both of which belonged to the broader movement of conceptual art, that accorded more importance to the artist's "message" than his "artwork" - allowed Kaprow to create a dynamic relationship between the viewers and what they were being immersed in or confronted by. In addition to being an artist and art theorist, Kaprow was also an influential art teacher at Rutgers University, the State University of New York, the California Institute of the Arts and the University of California. Kaprow contributed a range of important ideas to the development of postmodernist art in America, creating a number of challenging works along the way, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), and Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008).

 

 

Training and Early Writing

Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he experienced chronic illness as a child which forced him to move to Arizona, but also gave him the time to develop an interest in arts and crafts. He returned to New York in the early 1940s, where he studied art at Hans Hoffman's school (1947-48). Here he developed a dynamic style of "action painting", reflecting the techniques of Jackson Pollock and others of the New York School. (See Jackson Pollock's Paintings.) After this he took a postgraduate MA degree at Columbia University (1950-52), in Art History and Philosophy, under Meyer Schapiro, combining his studies with a part-time career as an art-teacher and part-time painter. Later, he also attended a class in composition at the New York High School of Music and Art (1956-58) taught by the avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-92).

In 1958, he began his prolific career as an art theorist with an an influential essay (published in Art News) entitled "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock", in which he called for an end to craftsmanship and permanence in art, demanding instead that artists refocus their attention on more transitory forms of art using perishable materials. (See also the photos by Hans Namuth of Pollock at work in his studio.) All this reflected his own fascination with the "making" of art - art that was no longer defined as an object to be displayed on a wall, but which could be created out of anything at all (everyday objects like chairs, food, neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, as well as things like movement, sound, texture and scent) and be "participated in" by artist and spectator alike.

See also: Readymades (Duchamp's objets trouvés) and Junk art.

Artistic Vision

Kaprow's artistic vision developed during the mid to late 1950s. In 1953 he began teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he co-founded the Fluxus group, along with faculty members Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Watts and Geoffrey Hendricks, artists George Brecht and George Segal, and students Lucas Samaras and Robert Whitman. These Fluxus activities were already leading him in the experimental direction of Dada, but it wasn't until about 1959, after his essay on Pollock, that he started to create the "Happenings" and "Environments" for which he became famous. (See also the experimental work of Yves Klein, founder of Nouveau Realisme, who shared much of Kaprow's vision. For example, see: Yves Klein's Postmodernist art 1956-62.) In addition he was active as a producer of live and experimental art. He co-founded the Hansa Gallery (1952) as well as the Reuben Gallery (1959), both of which became important venues for the new hybrid genres of the early 1960s, and hosted shows and events for many of the top contemporary artists of the day. (See also: Postmodernist Artists.)

Environments and Happenings

Kaprow first started creating "Environments" - installation pieces typically consisting of rooms filled with assemblages of everyday objects - designed to immerse spectators in multi-sensory experiences: rather like being inside a work of art. Visitors were offered choices (choosing between a fake and a real apple, rearranging words on walls to make sense or just nonsense), which helped to create the work of art and made them "participants" in it rather than mere spectators. One of Kaprow's best-know "Environments" was "Yard" (1961). Although there was a certain amount of overlap, Kaprow's "Happenings" essentially evolved out of his earlier "Environments".

Kaprow's first "Happenings" (the forerunners of what we now call New Media Art) were tightly scripted events, in which the audience followed cues to help them "experience" the art. But it was their reaction that defined the piece itself. This was because one of Kaprow's key aims was to eliminate the wall between artist and spectator. In his view, spectators shouldn't merely observe the "art" - they should also interact with it. In fact they should become part of it themselves.

Kaprow's most famous happening is probably "Eat" (1964), which was staged inside a dimly lit cave in which a variety of food and drink could be sampled, against a background recording of ticking metronomes, set to the tempo of a human heart. As visitors entered, they were offered glasses of wine, while apples dangled from the ceiling and a girl cooked banana fritters on a hotplate. In a small chamber, accessible only via a ladder, another helper cooked and served boiled potatoes. In a separate area there were helpings of bread and jam. Visitors could eat and drink for an hour. "Eat" was designed to appeal to all the senses (mental and physical), and to trigger alarm (at the strangeness and darkness of the cave) as well as curiosity (what is it all about?). As "Eat" shows, Kaprow's "Happenings" were vastly different from traditional museum exhibits. Instead they were designed to occupy the gap between art and life, a gap also identified by Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and Andy Warhol (1928-87).

Other famous "Happenings" created by Kaprow included "Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts", his groundbreaking event staged at the Reuben Gallery in New York in the fall of 1959; "Calling (1965); and "Fluids" (1967). They also featured the construction close to the Berlin Wall of a wall made from bread cemented with jelly, and the creation in San Diego of a set of houses built out of ice.

Art Teacher

In addition to his career as an artist, Kaprow was also a highly regarded teacher. He started out in 1953 teaching art and art history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. From 1960 to 1961 he lectured at Pratt Institute, before joining the arts faculty at the State University of New York, Stony Brook (1961-69), the last few years as Professor. He also lectured briefly at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. From 1969 to 1993 he taught in California - first at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he served as associate dean, then from 1974 onwards at the visual arts department of the University of California, San Diego. Among his many publications are "Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings" (1966), a standard text on performance art; and "Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life" (1993), a selection of his essays on the theory and practice of art.

Legacy

Art critics loved Kaprow. He was iconoclastic, innovative, intellectual and could provide a highly coherent explanation of his vision of low-brow art, made out of ordinary materials, in which the spectator was entangled and obliged to participate. A far cry, perhaps, from the formalistic materialism of Clement Greenberg (1909-94) and his favoured coterie of high-brow painters. In any event, there is no doubt that Kaprow made an immense contribution to performance art, enriched the principles of conceptual art, and paved the way for genres like installation. His work also exerted a strong influence on certain movements of contemporary art, including Pop art and Minimalism, as well as Body art and the ideas promoted by Young British Artists like Damien Hirst (b.1965). However, whether any of this will survive the 21st century is anybody's guess.

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