PRINT Summer 2006

Judith Rodenbeck

SITTING AT a Howard Johnson’s in New Jersey in 1957, artists Allan Kaprow, Robert Watts, and George Brecht drafted a grant proposal that might be seen as a programmatic statement of the direction advanced art would take over the coming decade:

In all the arts, we are struck by a general loosening of forms which in the past were relatively closed, strict, and objective, to ones which are more personal, free, random, and open, often suggesting in their seemingly casual formats an endless changefulness and boundlessness. In music, it has led to the use of what was once considered noise; in painting and sculpture, to materials that belong to industry and the wastebasket; in dance, to movements which are not “graceful” but which come from human action nevertheless. There is taking place a gradual widening of the scope of the imagination, and creative people are encompassing in their work what has never before been considered art.

Though the trio’s “Project in Multiple Dimensions” was never funded, their proposal introduced the concept of “multidimensional media,” which advocated the use of cutting-edge technological and industrial materials. It suggested an experiential and experimental model of art linked not to the sublime of the New York School but to the everyday, to a pragmatic willingness to embrace slapstick and even failure as readily as tragedy and success. As Kaprow would observe years later, “Multimedia in art was the mirror, the rhyme of every moment of life (which is always ‘multimedial’).”

Kaprow is probably best known as the “inventor” and chief proponent of happenings—a radicalized collage form of theater that he and other visual artists started to explore in the late 1950s—but he began his career as an expressionist painter, emulating the coloristic, figurative, and compositional example of Pierre Bonnard and the rigorous teaching of Hans Hofmann, with whom he studied in 1947–48. While painting with Hofmann he also studied philosophy at New York University, where he discovered the work of American pragmatist John Dewey, in particular his contextualism. Eventually Kaprow’s interest in aesthetics led him to semiotician (and fellow Bonnard fan) Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, where as a graduate student in art history Kaprow wrote a class paper on Jackson Pollock and a master’s thesis on Piet Mondrian. He began teaching at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1953, the year after he cofounded the Hansa Gallery with fellow students of Hofmann’s. Like many others of his generation, he rapidly cycled through a colorful and vigorous if awkward urban figurative expressionism toward abstraction and then, in the early ’50s, broke through to what he called “action collage.” Throughout the middle of the decade he mined “the tacky side of abstract expressionism,” as he put it, experimenting with gravity, action, new materials, and open forms. But as early as 1953, he was already arranging his pictures in the angled clusters and sequences that would develop into environments. As these expanded to engage other senses (sound, smell, touch), he sought help with his taped sound and playback systems. John Cage’s class in experimental composition at the New School, which Kaprow attended in 1957–58 and out of which both happenings and Fluxus would emerge, complemented the training undertaken with Hofmann and Schapiro and completed an abstractionist’s trifecta.

Kaprow’s best-known and least exemplary public happening grew out of these experiments and inaugurated New York’s Reuben Gallery in 1959. Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts was, as he has said, “an early minimalist piece, in the sense that things happen with large spaces of nothing around them, or they overlap unexpectedly into clusters that suddenly shut off.” A potpourri of historical castoffs, the script was by far the most elaborate of any of Kaprow’s happenings. The textual apparatus for the piece was vast, including choreographic diagrams, tone scores and fingering charts, timings, lists of verbs, mini-speeches. A compartmentalized set was built from a recycled element of an earlier environment combined with a simple post-and-beam structure made out of two-by-fours and covered with semiopaque plastic sheeting. The “parts” were timed intervals; the audience, divided into three discrete groups, was moved from site to site by sound cues. Simple activities such as bouncing balls and walking were juxtaposed with slide projections of a mouth or a scrawled word. A brief and tendentious speech on art was complemented by fragments from Guillaume Apollinaire and an image of the word POW! At one point two painters painted (one, lines; one, circles) on either side of a transparent scrim; at another a mirror was wheeled out to face the audience. Critics had difficulties with the mixing of elements, references, and media: It wasn’t “fun,” and Cage objected to the degree of control. But for some, the austerity and ambition of the piece, its rigor and its serial form, provided an introduction to critical postmodernism.

A number of the early happenings took place in galleries, but Kaprow, highly critical of the gallery system and the experiential bracketing it placed on the viewer, increasingly avoided such sites, and his subsequent work became looser, more open to chance and accident, and less like proscenium theater in its use of audience, space, and time. Though he was attracted to ritual forms, Kaprow understood these as more generic than “shamanistic,” and used them in the context of birth, death, marriage, and so on. Happenings were produced in industrial, rural, and residential settings, and by the mid-’60s Kaprow was exploding a strictly geographic notion of “site” by having events occur in different cities, on unmarked stretches of highway, simultaneously, at unspecified times, at whim, etc. Eat, 1964, took place in an abandoned brewery vault; Tree, 1963, on George Segal’s chicken farm; Calling, 1965, involved driving foil-wrapped people around New York, leaving them in Grand Central Terminal, making phone calls from pay phones, and wandering through the exurban woods; Moving, 1967, happened in various apartments and on the street; Self-Service, 1966, took place simultaneously over a period of four months in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles; Fluids, 1967, involved the laborious construction by hand of grim minimal buildings out of ice blocks at fifteen different sites in greater Los Angeles. Soap, 1965, commissioned by Florida State University in Tallahassee, was “unperformed.”

As an artist and experimentalist who was also an art historian, Kaprow blurred the line between theory and practice, and Thomas Hess at Art News for a time adopted him as a kind of spokesman for those artists involved in “painter’s theater”—Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, and Robert Whitman. But Kaprow’s position among the “Happenings Boys” was somewhat uncomfortable: Slightly older than some of his cohorts and more attuned to historical precedents, he had been promoted by the art-critical establishment to the role of godfather, which the younger artists resented. Still, the category of the happening rapidly absorbed extremely varied, like-minded “theatrical” experiments: Hansen’s free-for-alls, Wolf Vostell’s interactions with a bombed-out postwar Berlin, sexpol spectacles in Paris by Jean-Jacques Lebel, Grooms’s puppetry, Dine’s expressionism, Oldenburg’s materiality, and Carolee Schneemann’s choreography. Kaprow himself produced work at theater festivals in Europe, including a piece staged inside the Bon Marché in Paris. And it is not unlikely that Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg knew Kaprow’s Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann, first produced in April 1963, when they made plans for their demonstration of “capitalist realism,” Leben mit Pop Eine Demonstration fuer den Kapitalistischen Realismus, which took place in a furniture store in October of that year.

Indeed, Kaprow’s neologism, “happening,” almost instantly became a Pop artifact, a synonym for “groovy”—and by 1966 happenings had lost their hip cachet (“Where Not to Be Seen: At a Happening,” declared Esquire magazine). The word’s entry into the vernacular so demoralized Kaprow that he abandoned it and the form for small, privately executed actions he called “activities.” Although frequently sited in public, these explored questions of private exchange—the boundaries and banalities of intimacy, courtesy, and social convention, usually on the scale of 1:1 or 1:2. Often they involved a kind of indexical mediation: participants taking photographs of one another, or taking turns holding up mirrors for one another to look into, then taking photographs of the photographs, or photographs of the mirrored reflections, or doing the same with telephones or tape recorders. Rates of Exchange, 1975, for example, was a piece for two people recording and playing back taped messages to each other, rethinking “exchange.” Directions were disseminated in the form of bland instructional photo-text brochures and/or magazine articles. These activities—conceptual in their de-emphasis of the object in favor of the cheaply printed multiple, the tautological photo-text and the “neutral” language of “instruction”—were intended as DIY projects; unlike Lawrence Weiner’s instructional works, the pieces required execution, and often this was followed either by discussion or by some kind of report.

In his 1964 Art News article “Should the Artist become a Man of the World?” Kaprow exhaustively details a scathing ethnography of cultural capital and its circulation: No longer struggling, a new “loft generation” of painters lived in circumstances that were “the conditions of a certain power.” His description of that power adumbrates Arthur C. Danto’s coining of the term artworld that same year; but where Danto’s work provides a simple category analysis, in the space of a few pages Kaprow’s essay lays bare the terms taken up by what would later become known as institutional critique. His own practice took on the analysis of cultural capital with increasing austerity, from the nonproduction of goods to the gradual and then rapid retreat from documentation to the microincidental behavioral feedback loops of his “activities” to the beautiful and koanlike “microactivities” of “just doing” (like “just intonation”) and, finally, to the pedagogical exercises of his later years.

Kaprow is a key figure in the history of performance art, and his development of environments has also been heralded as a point of origin for installation. His experimental work with tape loops and noisemakers (he used cut-up tapes in his environments of the 1950s; and a crude and intentionally out-of-phase playback system using three tape decks was integral to his first happening, Communication, at Rutgers, in 1958) has long been of interest to sound artists, as has his later work with communications technologies, such as telephone, video, and satellite. His influence is acknowledged by new-media artists, especially those working with locational and network aesthetics, while architects interested invernacular form and street life have also cited his work. His art and writing are foundational to site specificity in its earliest and most recent forms, and they are deep but disavowed presences in relational aesthetics, institutional critique, and the “service” economy of art. More recently, projects investigating aspects of sociality give a reconsideration of happenings a new historical urgency.

But Kaprow continues to perplex. Since the cultural turn in art history, the manifesto-cum-elegy he published in 1958 in Art News, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” has become a survey staple. But the essay and the happenings that followed have served as props for a more marketable art and history than that in which his postformalist argument was invested. More Brechtian than Cage, less ritualistic than Joseph Beuys, and certainly less spectacularized than both, Kaprow’s work was consistently antiauthoritarian and antiauthorial, emphasizing instead the specificity of the individual experience of a collective activity. He has come to serve as a convenient foil, along with Beuys, for scholars exploring the performative dimensions of Minimalism, Pop, and even Fluxus, while the rhetorical obligation to write history in terms of black hat/white hat has often placed Kaprow as an antihero not just to Cage and Fluxus, but also to Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, and so on. (Indeed, the list is itself testament to his ubiquity.) This is partially the result of tactical errors on Kaprow’s part: Kaprow was eloquent, gentlemanly, and avuncular, and his crafted writing style was something of a throwback; his reliance on sometimes cornball imagery and on the literal has tended to reinforce limited readings of his work. Triangulated by the gallery system and the historical record, Kaprow has been relegated to the position of an “almost ran”—romantic, even retardataire. The art world tends to protect its own.

A maverick, a trickster, and a self-declared “un-artist,” Kaprow gnawed at the hand that fed him for more than forty years. He was in terms of his sensibility a literalist, by training a pragmatist, and by affinity and long-term practice a Buddhist. He insisted on a strongdistinction between play and game; on the architectonic considerations both of spatial and behavioral assemblages; on the material and conceptual critique of the art world (and art); and on the valorization of hard work, pragmatism, simplicity, and directness. Un-art was what he wound up advocating, and he identified it with clichéd American values but also with a modernist and experimentalist (and, importantly, pedagogical) trajectory that stretched from the Bauhaus to Black Mountain College to Rutgers. “Meaningless” labor, serial arrangement, obsolescent or disposable elements—all were consistent in his work, from the timing bells of Eighteen Happenings and the melting, “throwaway” architecture of Fluids to the micro-events he performed late in life like brushing his teeth or straightening out blades of grass. His interest in “meanings-in-use” would eventually lead him to explore such disparate bodies of thought as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on language games, Erving Goffman’s semiotic sociology, and Raymond Birdwhistell’s communication kinesics—a confluence of authors crucial to the then-developing field of cybernetics. Information theory had been integral to the project in multiple dimensions; in 1964 computation would be added: “The astronaut John Glenn may have caught a glimpse of heavenly blue from the porthole of his spaceship,” Kaprow wrote, “but I have watched the lights of a computer in operation. And they looked like the stars.”

From his first happenings to his last doings, Kaprow was, above all, a determined theorist of “experience.” As a longtime practitioner of Zen (he was a student of Charlotte Joko Beck’s, an important teacher at the Ordinary Mind Zen School, at the Zen Center of San Diego), Kaprow searched for, and found, the affinities between the analysis of microcommunication and body language and the concentrated practice of meditation and “just doing.” “What happens when you pay close attention to anything, especially routine behavior, is that it changes. Attention alters what is attended,” Kaprow wrote in 1990 in these pages. “So lifelike art plays somewhere in and between attention to physical process and attention to interpretation. It is experience, yet it is ungraspable. It requires quotation marks (‘lifelike’) but sheds them as the un-artist sheds art.”

Judith Rodenbeck is Noble Foundation Chair in Art and Cultural History at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.