PRINT Summer 2006

Jeff Kelley

IN THE SPRING of 1999, Allan Kaprow, then seventy-one years old, conducted a workshop for about twenty graduate students at Mills College in Oakland, California. By that time, workshops—in which Kaprow and his students undertook roughly a dozen or so activities designed for partners and then talked about their experiences—had become his preferred mode of staging what had once been known as happenings.

Typically, these sessions began with proposals to do something: Keep a smile (or a frown) on your face for a long time; give your partner some money (or a kiss) on demand (and then demand it back); draw a chalk line on a sidewalk while your partner erases it. Plucked at will from Kaprow’s grab bag of forty-plus years of art-as-doing, these proposals, like so many riddles, jokes, or philosophical conundrums, embodied questions (about putting on your face, for example, or making your mark on the world) for which answers—or, more likely, further questions—could be considered only through experience. In this, they were analogues of Zen koans, Buddhist teaching forms intended to outmaneuver the rational mind and promote intuitive insight.

While it is a commonplace to say that Zen philosophy influenced many artists of the postwar American vanguard, it is important to note that for nearly all of them Zen was an aesthetic influence, not an ascetic practice. Such was the case for Kaprow, too, until 1978, when he began attending the Zen Center of San Diego, where after about a year of guided daily meditation he realized that sitting on a cushion was as silly as holding a smile on your face or making your mark on the world. In other words, the practice of Zen reminded him of his own works—not the happenings per se, but the psychological exchanges, dutiful routines, empty courtesies, recorded confessions, intimate maneuvers, strict imitations, and obsessive self-examinations that comprised his practice during the late ’70s. (At the time, he had been breaking down conventional behavior to its parts, which was the opposite of the total art he once espoused.) Kaprow also noticed how certain attributes of Zen practice had become integral to the forms of his quasi art: the reduction of formalistic maneuvers to nonsense; the heightened awareness of the present moment; the belief in gradual enlightenment espoused by the Soto sect (as opposed to the sudden-enlightenment principles of the Rinzai); the willingness to let meanings and attachments pass unclaimed through experience. Thus did happenings come to Zen, and, thereby, to a kind of grief, since they no longer looked like happenings.

In 1958, when Kaprow first used “happenings” in an essay on Jackson Pollock, the term meant nothing; it merely suggested that something might happen. Only later did this word pertain to hybrid forms of vanguard performance (“enactment” might be more accurate), which were extensions of American action painting’s energies beyond the art object and into the scenes and settings of modern, mostly urban experience. Eventually, having been appropriated by the mass media of ’60s youth culture, happenings came to mean everything from antiwar sit-ins to rock ’n’ roll light shows and even television commercials. One advertisement: a tight shot of a woman’s big lips as she applies lipstick, followed by the declaration, “That was a happening, by Revlon.” By the ’70s Kaprow was calling his works “activities,” another meaningless word, hoping to shed the reputation of happenings (in both the art world and mass culture) so his participants could again focus on their own experience and the unexpected meanings that emerge from doing something they couldn’t easily name before (and possibly even after) doing it.

Though Kaprow invented a unique form of participatory spectacle, for which he will always be known, the key development in his work pertains to the locus of experience: Over the course of a career, his sense of this matter shifted from the world around the artist to the world inside and among individuals. In 1958, his ambition was to be the “most modern” artist, and he believed happenings should be composed of the stuff of modern life. (The modernity of happenings, which were often presented as a kind of crude, primitivistic antitheater, rested not so much in their contents as in their collagelike openness to the subjects, objects, materials, tempos, and processes of the urban environment around them. Because they were open, bits of the world spilled into them, and they, in turn, opened up pockets of aesthetic attentiveness in the half-conscious run of modern experience.) But as early as 1961, Kaprow wrote that “the artist may achieve a beautiful privacy, famed for something purely imaginary while free to explore something nobody will notice.” There was always a tension in his work between wanting to gather participants and wanting to disappear within the gathering—the irony being that if he hadn’t grown famous, nobody would have come. Nevertheless, later in Kaprow’s life, when people did come, most of them expecting happenings, they got something else instead: a weirdly prolonged handshake, or a request for a bucket full of dirt (in exchange for one of his). Kaprow wanted participants, not an audience. The payoff was experience—your own. And his own.

At Mills College, Kaprow drew a line with colored chalk on an asphalt path while his partner, a male graduate student, worked earnestly to erase it. Both were on their hands and knees, talking as they worked—though Kaprow, engrossed in the drawing, talked less. Their nose-to-the-ground activity echoed back through a century of avant-garde erasures, and called to mind the silly games and absorbing tasks of childhood. Other pairs dotted the winding pathway, hugging the ground like piles of fallen leaves.

Kaprow once asked: “What is a kiss without the intention to endear oneself?” Fair enough. What, then, is a happening without the intention to be the most modern art? Is it Zen with a small z? Art that can’t be art? The education of the un-artist? Right living?

You may have to kiss to find out.

Jeff Kelley is a critic based in Oakland, California, and the author of Childsplay: The Art of Allan Kaprow (University of California Press, 2004).