Allan Kaprow: The Retread

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William Pope.L,YARD (To Harrow), 2009“reinvention” of Allan Kaprow’sYARD, 1961

 

Part One: Art By the Yard

Allan Kaprow’s Yard, now in its 15th reincarnation, celebrates the new quarters (32 E. 69th St.) of Hauser & Wirth, formerly only of Zurich and London. From beyond the grave, Kaprow (1927-2006) is still posing questions of authority, authorization, and notions of the artist as author rather than maker.

 

The Hauser & Wirth exhibition (to Oct. 24) is by our esteemed forebearer because the gallery has commissioned three celebratory reinventions of his historic environment. There is also an entire room of documents. This is the kind of exhibition that in a better world we might expect a museum to launch. But a gallery can turn on a dime; museums take years to come up with their usually boring, unimaginative exhibitions.

 

If we delve a bit into Kaprow’s post-Happenings oeuvre, we see that the inauguration of what he called “reinventions” was both a solution and an ongoing problematic. He allowed and perhaps required the reinvention rather than the re-creation of his “activities” and his ephemeral sculptures such as Yard (1961) or Fluids (1967), the outdoor structure made of — and to be remade of –  blocks of ice.

 

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What is important about Kaprow is that he actually accomplished what the wimpy postmodernist academics of the past three decades never actually did — or did in word only. He de-centered art. And I don’t mean he decentered it by moving to California to take advantage of teaching opportunities.

 

Which he did do. Which he could do, because he was famous, even only as the inventor of Happenings.

 

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Allan Kaprow:18 Happenings in 6 Parts (detail), 1959.

Kaprow playing musical instrument.

 

 

Part Two: California, Here I Come

 

In the past I have found fault with the “activities” because they suggest the therapeutic, and to this day I am wary of Kaprow’s exploitation of participation and collaboration.

 

For instance, here is a short section of an activities score for Match, 1975:

 

(in light)       A and B. silently exchanging

                    each other’ others clothes

 

                    continuing exchanging

    

                    until clocked signals

                    15 minutes have passed

 

(in dark)       A. and B. lying on floor

              on opposites side of room

             

              A.     occasionally saying

                     “It’s a perfect fit.”

 

              B. precisely copying A.

 

                     until clock signals

                     30 minutes have passed

 

I am, however, relieved that his papers have ended up in the archives of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. That, not some museum, is the major repository of his work. A 2008 traveling exhibition called “Allan Kaprow: Art and Life” seems to have been mostly drawn from the Archive, and indeed the accompanying tome weaves together ephemera, media manifestations, photos and scripts; it is an invaluable resource.

   

Provisos notwithstanding, Kaprow is, as he hoped to be, Jackson Pollock’s true successor — not those painters of merely pleasing paintings that critic Clement Greenberg pushed. In Kaprow’s hands (sic), theater became a positive value once again. He is also the legitimate successor to de Kooning, whether he would have liked that or not. Without Action Painting and de Kooning’s violent expressionism there would not be messy Happenings, messy Environments.

 

Now, however, Kaprow seems merely the heir of Futurist and Dada “theater” and even Surrealist games and installations. It was not that these precedents were off his radar, but at the time they weren’t a well-considered aspect of the art discourse. Happenings and other time-based inventions have nowadays made them essential.

 

Kaprow accomplished this antiformalist but not necessarily antimodernist coup by finding new heroes, such as composer John Cage, and in spite of his friendships with Pop artists, by going against the grain of received art-world wisdom.

 

That is why he had little or no critical support. How could he? He was not yet even indirectly tied to the art market.

 

Painter Fairfield Porter, then a critic, wrote in the Nation about Kaprow’s first  Happening, called 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, staged at the artist-run Reuben Gallery in 1959:

 

If he wants to prove that certain things can’t be done again because they have already been done, he couldn’t be more convincing…The “Eighteen Happenings” devalue all art by a meaningless and deliberate surgery. And the final totality is without character; it never takes off from the sidewalk.

 

In retrospect, one might think the painter Porter, who came to specialize in sunny porches and tidy domestic scenes, might have found some kinship with Kaprow’s valorization of the quotidian. Porter was a better writer than a painter. At his best he managed the startling plainness of dance critic Edwin Denby.  But he was, unlike Denby, a better writer than a critic.

 

With a reception like Porter’s (who in person was a kindly man), it is no wonder Kaprow took pen to hand, not only to issue essays, now collected, but also in one case to write his own notice.

 

On Jan. 12, 1961, the Village Voice published an over-the-transom piece by a certain Theodore Tucker headlined “An Apple Shrine at the Judson Gallery.” It was a review of Kaprow’s labyrinthine environment of chicken-wire and newspaper — written by the artist himself:

 

Beneath the surface of each confrontation with the work is the doubt that it is art at all. There is a distrust and fear of an expression that is short-lived by intention. As though this were subtly calling upon death itself…. Far beyond the “Apple Shrine’s” actual content and humanity stands Kaprow’s inadvertent quarrel with all the vapid glories, qualities and eternities which we think are history.

 

 

Part Three: Re-Tiring

 

The most direct reinvention of Yard is at Hauser & Wirth itself and is a lookalike  reenactment by William Pope.L, who titles his version YARD (To Harrow). In this case, rented tires are jammed into the basement level of the building and not in the small courtyard out back, which had been the original site.

 

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Allan Kaprow:Yard, 1961

 

 

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          Opening Reception, YARD, 1961. Kaprow second from right.

 

Yes, it is entirely fitting that this is the H.&W. inaugural Big Apple foray. At this very same address, the first Yard was the most attention-getting component of the Martha Jackson Gallery 1961 exhibition “Environments — Situations –Spaces.” There were also works by George Brecht, Jim Dine, Walter Gaudnek, AI, Claes Oldenburg, and Robert Whitman. Brecht’s piece, probably the only other work of lasting significance, was nearly the opposite of Yard: the presentation of a single chair. Here is dance critic Jill Johnston’s description in her Village Voice summation:

 

George Brecht is always clean as a clipped wing, airy, cheerful and self-disappearing. He had a little white room just off the yard with a nice, white chair in it, comfortable for a Cape Cod porch…his first two statements [in the accompanying brochure] are A. nothing special; b. no theory.

 

But more about Brecht later.

 

 

FOUR: Yard Art

 

Vis-à-vis the original Yard, I remember that a few statues were concealed by tarpaper and you could look down upon the entire tire pile from a gallery window on the second floor.

 

Now, deep inside the building in William Pope.L’s reinvention, black plastic covers a desk and all accoutrements. And there is a rack of very un-Kaprow body bags concealing manikins (according to the gallerina I spoke to) or ooze (according to the New York Times). Sound and on/off lighting have been added, but to no effect. Visitors may sit on the tires, which is historically correct and shows Kaprow’s incorporation of audience participation. That the tires are not from 1961 is of no import. As we all know, used tires are eternal.

 

Pope.L’s redo is darker then the earlier, plainer version. Suffice it to say, aside from constructing ecological Earthship homes out of old tires — for a million plus — we have still not figured out what to do with all those rubber tires filling up dumps around the globe.

 

 

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Earthship (Biotexture) ecological house made of used tires and other recycled materials.

 

 

Further afield, the second Hauser & Wirth commission was offered by Sharon Hayes. Referencing Kaprow’s image for an ancient Martha Jackson poster, an accumulation of handmade yard-sale signs were installed at the N.Y. Marble Cemetery on lower Second Avenue during the weekend of October 3 

 

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The third reinvention was by Josiah McElheny. Offered at the Queens Museum of Art, YARD (Junk Yard) was a gigantic projection of an aerial photo of the Iron Triangle junkyards of Queens, projected on the outside of the N.Y. Panorama (unfortunately only until Oct. 4). It was a breathtaking image, perfectly presented, and I searched for tires amid the wreckage. And found them.

 

 

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Josiah McElheny: YARD (Junk Yard), 2009

 

 

                                         

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                                                                                 McElheney: YARD (Junk Yard), detail

 

 

 

 

 

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Allan Kaprow preparing 18 Happenings in 6 Parts.




Part Five: Some Thoughts on Kaprow and Art History

 

 

Allan Kaprow, justly acclaimed as the inventor of Happenings, certainly did not operate outside of art history. A professor of art history at Rutgers (when there were still such jobs to be had), he had studied under the great Meyer Schapiro at Columbia. So he knew where art had been, all the way up to Pollock and de Kooning. And as an artist he knew where he wanted it to go. Basically, his collages became assemblage (influenced by Robert Rauschenberg’s early Combines.) The assemblage grew and grew and without even a polite nod to Kurt Schwitters became walk-ins or what he began calling “environments.” another term he invented.

 

Under the influence of classes taken with our hero John Cage at the New School for Social Research, Environments became Happenings. Although anti-establishment, Kaprow did show in galleries when they were co-ops, like the Hansen, the Reuben, and the nonprofit Judson Gallery in the basement of Judson Church. Otherwise he steered clear (I first typed: “seered clear”) of the blue-chip art market, which usually controls art history in subtle and not so subtle ways. Until recently, there was little of his work to sell besides pamphlets and posters.

 

Nevertheless, Kaprow is in most surveys of art. I shall hypothesize that his late-career entries into the museum milieu helped. Sequestered in various California art departments, he had time to reinvent himself and  to re-deploy his time-based, virtually unsalable art.



 

How did he manage this feat?

 

He was not a cultural icon like Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol. Aphorisms were not his métier. Aside from a few bright  students, he had no entourage. The very nature of his work emphasized the banalities of everyday life. There was no mystique. He was never shot down by Russian gunfire, to be rescued by peasants wrapping him in wool and fat. He did not wear a silver wig. He hadn’t climbed along a ceiling dressed in only a jock-strap. He never painted himself wearing adult diapers. He never had plastic surgery to turn himself into a perpetually grinning 28-year-old corporate stand-in.

 

He did, however, have a peculiar cross to bear.

 

The term “Happenings” is pretty much his fault, but as his works became leaner, moved outdoors, and his scripts got boiled down to mere sentences, he began to call what he was doing “Activities.” I imagine he was annoyed by the appropriation of his term to refer to raucous parties, love-ins, and sales events in department stores. There’s even a Supreme’s song called The Happening. The packaging ate what was packaged. But it also gave him a tag.

 

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The Supremes

 

The reinventions reinvented his career. Key pieces were replicated, more or less, throughout the art world. The reinventions were intended to have the aura of the participatory, but some very strict rules applied.

 

Near the end, when contemporary curator Stephanie Rosenthal of the Haus der Kunst, Munich, was working on “Allan Kaprow: Art as Life” retrospective, she reports in the Getty catalogue/book that the artist offered the following:



Kaprow stipulated that wherever possible, responsibility should be given to a single leader. The form of the new version would be dependent upon the leader, the time, the place, and the participants…Kaprow’s guidelines [for individual works] gave the new leader a point of reference to work with and against, so that he or she could avoid being overwhelmed by possibilities. Kaprow’s only request was that he not be personally involved or asked for advice, although he wanted to be kept informed of events.

                                                                                                                                                              Part Six:  Happening v. Events; Kaprow v. Brecht

 

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 George Brecht: Chair Event, 1966

 



And what of Kaprow’s contemporary, George Brecht? Brecht (1926-2008) was a New Jersey neighbor and also a friend of Kaprow’s Pop Art pal George Segal. Segal was a chicken farmer; Brecht, a chemist. Kaprow was teaching at Rutgers. In the last Artopia entry, focused on the Neo-Fluxus trend, I stated: “With the exception of works by the truly original George Brecht, Fluxus was pretty much an outgrowth and a minimalization of Happenings and/or a music phenomenon.”

 

I have been gently called to task by a latter-day Fluxian who thinks that Fluxus was independent of Happenings and developed simultaneously. However, a little research will show that Kaprow and Brecht attended Cage’s New School classes together. Yet Kaprow’s first Happening is thought to be the 1959 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, which was slightly before Brecht’s proto-Fluxus Event Scores. Brecht’s earlier works had complicated scripts, like Kaprow’s  Happenings. The term “Fluxus,” however, was invented later by facilitator George Maciunas in 1962. I am right! If only by a hair.

 

And here is something else to consider.

 

Whereas Brecht had no doubts about joining up with or fears of being subsumed by Fluxus, Kaprow himself wanted no part of it: 

  
George and I couldn’t get along. Indeed, he approached me as he did everybody else to sign my entire career away to him, and I thought this was a Fluxus joke. So I said, “Up yours.” And he took it seriously. But he was a marvelous man. I mean the energy and cohesion that he gave to a disparate number of artists around the world was extraordinary. So I don’t say this unpleasant part [of] history with any kind of rancor. It was like oil and water.

                                         

                                              Interview with Allan Kaprow, Dallas Library, 1988.

 



And here’s a sample of Maciunas-iana:

HE MUST DEMONSTRATE OWN DISPENSABILITY, HE MUST DEMONSTRATE

SELFSUFFICIENCY OF THE AUDIENCE, HE MUST DEMONSTRATE THAT ANYTHING

CAN SUBSITUTE ART AND ANYONE CAN DO IT. THEREFORE THIS SUBSTITUTE

ART AMUSEMENT MUST BE SIMPLE,AMUSING, CONCERNED WITH INSIGNIFICANCES.

HAVE NO COMMODITY OR INSTITUTIONAL VALUE. IT MUST BE UNLIMITED, OBTAINABLE BY ALL AND EVENTUALLY PRODUCED BY ALL. THE ARIST DOING ART MEANWHILE,TO JUSTIFY HIS INCOME, MUST DEMONSTRATE THAT ONLY HE CAN DO ART. ART THEREFORE MUST APPEAR TO BE COMPLEX, INTELLECTUAL, EXCLUSIVE, INDISPENSABLE, INSPIRED. TO RAISE ITS COMMODITY VALUE IT IS MADE TO BE

RARE, LIMITED IN QUANTITY AND THEREFORE ACCESSIBLE NOT TO THE MASSES BUT TO THE SOCIAL ELITE.

 

FLUXMANIFEST ON ART AMUSEMENT

 

                                 by GEORGE MACIUNAS, 1965. Available at artnotart.com

 

Actually, looking through the Getty compendium, it is clear that as Kaprow began to call his works “Activities,” he was becoming more and more Fluxian, in terms of the simplicity — and sometimes the ambiguity — of his instructions for pieces.



Here is an early example:

 

LEVEL (1970)

A block of ice and a bale of straw are

placed near on another somewhere.

 

The ice melts slowly.

 

The bale is reduced straw by straw

until nothing remains.


 

 

Compare this to Brecht’s: Three Dances (1961)

 

     1.

     Saliva

 

     2.

     Pause

Urination

Pause

 

    3.

    Perspiration

 

Or the undated Air Conditioning

 

         (move through the place)

 

Am I splitting hairs? The very process of trying to make distinctions, even if they are only temporary, can help us see. Although Brecht was, I think, as thought-provoking an artist as Kaprow, he made the following horrible mistakes:

 

He was a research chemist and not a professor of art history. He participated in Fluxus. He did not invent any new art terms. He issued fewer art products than even Kaprow. And worst of all, unmindful of John Cage’s advice, he moved to Europe.

 

The N.Y. Times obituary for cult-figure Brecht, by Times art critic Ken Johnson, ran and still runs under the Music category, which is more than odd. His piece consisting of  dismantling a violin, might be an homage to his musician father, who committed suicide. And his Drip Music might be considered music. Nevertheless, whatever fame Brecht has is art-world fame.



 

 

 

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