PRINT Summer 2006

Lucas Samaras

Lucas Samaras, untitled work for Allan Kaprow, 2006.

I WAS ALLAN’S student at Rutgers in the mid-’50s. At that time, George Segal had a farm nearby, where he was showing his sculpture in a creepy old decrepit barn with lamps, cobwebs, mice, and shit—he was obviously interested in what used to be called a theatrical experience—and he invited Allan to use the structure for whatever he wanted. The first thing Allan did, I think, was hang these strips made of raffia throughout the space, which gave you the feeling of walking through tall grass. But soon Allan got interested in directing people. I don’t know whose idea it was, but either he or George invited tons of people from the art world and their families to a party on the farm. Allan had them playin the fields in this childlike way-—pretending one army was charging another in the fields, like rejects from Ben-Hur, or conquering a mountain that was a haystack covered with construction paper. That experience must have given Allan some ideas. But his familiarity with dance was a source, too: I remember he invited choreographer Paul Taylor to Douglass, Rutgers’s women’s college. Performing in a little theater, Taylor and a woman were dressed in ordinary clothes (she wore a chiffon dress), one standing, one lying down. Wind was coming from a fan in the wings. And for two or three minutes, nothing happened, except this wonderful wind. That was the dance. It was just fabulous to me, especially since I’d never seen anything like that on a stage. I know Allan studied with John Cage, but perhaps with dance, the idea of “chance” began changing into selecting something from reality—something from daily activities—and presenting it simply.

After college, I was interested in performance, working with Stella Adler and the idea of social realism—what was passing for realism at the time. So when Allan asked me to be in Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts, I thought, Why not? His directions were extremely simple and professorial: Here’s a violin; make a couple sounds. There’s a table; play chess with Bob Whitman. Do it as flatly as possible. Whatever you do, don’t be cute; perform the act plainly. The gallery was divided into separate rooms; people sat in folding chairs but there were mirrors so they could glimpse events happening in each space. What I found interesting was that during every performance two artists would stand on opposite sides of a piece of burlap, one painting stripes and the other circles. One night it was Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, with Johns pressing paint cans against the material to leave circular imprints. The audience seemed bemused, it was so matter-of-fact, cerebral.

All this was different from other artists’ happenings. Whitman offered a kind of poetry in which the materials, whether a newspaper, cloth, or plastic, became organic or uncanny. A white-dressed Red Grooms would workin a broken-down building somewhere, emerging with candlelight. Claes Oldenburg might use an old store, so you would smell something suddenly or see mold in a corner; and you had characters like a bum or a circus girl. But Allan didn’t need mise-en-scène. He isolated an ordinary gesture, whether it was playing the violinor walking with a lawn mower down an aisle. It’s like he didn’t need theater. A performance would slice out a chunk of life. And then it would be over.

I last saw Allan about fifteen years ago, when he was doing a piece at Virginia Zabriskie’s gallery in New York. His happening was to be her assistant for a week: He would get her coffee, answer the telephone, sweep the floor. He still didn’t want to be making something for a museum, something for someone to hang on the wall—something that had the old-time magic. Allan knew and respected the art of the past, but he wanted no part of it. He even rejected the art of his own time. He didn’t want aesthetics to come into the picture. But that’s maybe why he isn’t recognized as he should be—someone who towers over artists today the way Ernest Hemingway did over writers in the ’50s.

—as told to Tim Griffin

Lucas Samaras is an artist living in New York.