PRINT Summer 2006

Suzanne Lacy

Suzanne Lacy, Maps, 1971. Performance view, Los Angeles.

The case can be made that Allan Kaprow was an important influence on public art. But you’ll never get there if you ignore his influence on ’70s feminist performance (as does, for example, the ambitious but flawed exhibition on Los Angeles currently at the Centre Pompidou). In the time’s messy and interrelated worlds of Conceptual, performance, feminist, Marxist, and community-based art, Allan went beyond simple issues of equity to set the stage for a populist inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of art made in public.

When I was Allan’s student at CalArts during the ’70s, women students were drawn to the history and practices of what he termed “lifelike” art, where artmaking was a function of a reflective life, not a skill set. As he described it at a symposium on public art in 1991, artists from the late ’50s and ’60s “appropriated the real environment and not the studio, garbage and not fine paints and marble. . . . They incorporated behavior, the weather, ecology, and political issues. In short, the dialogue moved from knowing more and more about what art was to wondering about what life was, the meaning of life.”

This vision of art as a kind of “research” offered a significant aesthetic way out for young women artists whose identity politics and critical stance vis-à-vis culture demanded the production of an activist avant-garde: art that went beyond simple protest politics and engagedthe public sphere in multiple and open-ended ways. He provided permission to frame life—domestic, political, relational, and public life—as art. When I developed Three Weeks in May, a 1977 piece about rape in Los Angeles, it was Allan’s theories that allowed me to move into the public, using the frame of the city to contain a variety of “acts,” from reflective conversations to media interventions. His ideas, originally meant to challenge the art establishment, were mined by artists moving from the body to the body politic.

Allan Kaprow, Shape, 1969, happening, Berkeley, CA. From Six Ordinary Happenings, 1969. Photo: Diane Gilkerson.

Allan’s impact on public art is especially evident in three ways. First, he emphasized the importance of processas the “product” of art, something particularly relevant to public art that engages multiple audiences: “The artwork,” he said, “becomes less a ‘work’ than a process of meaning-making interaction.” Second, in his commitment to what he called an “ambiguity of identity and purpose,” he set up an important parameter distinguishing art from politics. What is often missed in the examination of performance-based public artists is the fundamental role of ambiguity and questioning in the structure of their work, because the content or topic—whether race relations or global warming—is so prominently positioned. (It is not surprising that political entities distrust the arts, since most artists can’t deliver the canon even when projecting clear political intention.) Finally, Allan provided a platform for criticism: “Once art departs from traditional models and begins to merge into the everyday manifestations of society itself,” he wrote, “artists not only cannot assume the authority of their ‘talent,’ they cannot claim that what takes place is valuable just because it is art.”

While his own practice might appear distant from current public art, in fact he approached all meaning-making activities similarly: with respect, curiosity, and attention to what he could learn. We talked often about the skills artists need in the public sphere, relationships between men’s and women’s art, issues of scale, and what constituted political relevance—not with judgment but to clarify underlying meaning. “Open-endedness, to me, is democratic and challenges the mind,” he said of his ethical struggle with the artist’s role.

Anyone who looks at the ’60s will see that these ideas were in the air. Artists from Argentina, Japan, Denmark, England, and France, theater directors like Brazil’s Augusto Boal, and American activists like Abbie Hoffman were all breaking the boundaries between art and life. But Allan—who once proudly told me that Hoffman had called to consult on one of his political actions—was central to the formation of that time, and his great contribution came precisely from his curiosity and his ability to articulate the ferment around him. His influence on contemporary art will no doubt be traced in the coming decades, now that he is no longer with us, but the historicizing gaze can betray the fluid interactions of an era. Let the long-overdue legacy making begin, remembering that it will be an incalculable loss if this tracing is not as broad, generous, and relationally based as was the man himself.

Suzanne Lacy is an artist and Chair of Fine Arts at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.