Los Angeles

Allan Kaprow

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

The Pasadena Art Museum’s exhibition of work by Allan Kaprow from 1953 to ’63 will probably not be recalled by many as an especially spirited or provocative event. That it fails to generate lively curiosity, if not among local artists and amateurs at least for the larger public, has greater significance in this instance than it might ordinarily. Of all manners of artists, Kaprow is one whose presence alone should elicit immediate general interest. This, at any rate, might well be expected in the light of his style and reputation. The pervading apathy which attends the presentation is certainly no fault of the Museum, whose staff has gone to some pains to provide an atmosphere of unconstraint, a comprehensive catalog, and publicity.

Kaprow is less an artist than he is a phenomenon, in the sense that John Cage is not as much a musician as an innovator (or will be remembered as such long after his scores and performances have been forgotten). The Kaprow phenomenon belongs essentially to the history of art. He has made his objectives not only clear but virtually transparent: he has at every opportunity talked about him-self and his intentions to the point where, if one has troubled himself to read and look, the mystery has gone out. Probably the ascendant reason that his impact has turned out to be so susceptible to temporal vitiation is that what he is trying so emphatically to tell us is no longer very arousing or even relevant; certainly it is anything but novel.

In whatever the disguise, he has, for ten years, been concerned basically with “breaking down the distinction between art and life.” Regardless of the idea’s inherent virtue it had thoroughly sunk in and hardened by 1960 at the. very latest. We have witnessed, after all, militant anti-art in Futurism and Dada, Pop, and Yves Klein. No one will deny that Kaprow was cogently instrumental in establishing the Happening as a viable and accepted American art form. One might, however, question the momentousness—both in terms of absolute esthetic value and historical significance—of this enterprise. In a sense it was inevitable; it may also be pointed out that, for all intents and purposes, it was arrived at independently in both Europe and Japan. Historically, the Happening is yet another way of responding to a philosophical tenet that was formulated with Nietzsche and has developed steadily through our century with both the Existentialist and the Westernized Zen cries for authentic spontaneity. In the context of all the arts, the Happening has so far proved to be a precarious and, ironically, a predictable venture.

Kaprow’s personal “breakdown” approach to the Happening involves a certain contradiction in terms: ideally the staged event should be conceived as archetype or impetus, and then should eventually be superseded by the experiential conviction that everything is a potential Happening. At that point the function of the artist, or agent, disappears.

At the present time, the most relevant issue from Kaprow’s art versus life question, considering the extent to which it has permeated artistic thought over the past several decades, is that the museums and concert halls continue to serve their traditional roles, and still almost to the exclusion of public extra-institutional artistic activity. Environmental art and sculptures too large to be displayed indoors have not yet become the antidote to the near-monopoly on presenting art which the institutions still possess. At best, they make concrete the paradox implicit in an object which purposefully represents either boundlessness or continuance with the environment, while at the same time demanding that the spectator come to it where it is, knowing beforehand that what he has come to see is art. Obviously the same holds true for the pre-planned Happening.

For Kaprow to show conventional paintings and collages in a conventional way within a museum is for him to invite the charge of inconsistency. He knows this and defends himself—but on the wrong grounds. There is nothing objectionable in conforming to traditional means of public exposure when they are unavoidably the most expedient means. But plainly one gains nothing by superficially masking the museum environment to simulate “life,” and then expressing the wish that things might have been otherwise. Kaprow concedes failure. He begins with a brave and sweeping generalization in his opening statement for the exhibition catalog: “. . . most advanced art of the last half-dozen years is, in my view, inappropriate for museum display. It is an art of the world: enormous scale, environmental scope, mixed media, spectator participation, technology, themes drawn from the daily milieu, and so forth. . . .” But he is found already on the defensive in the next paragraph: “. . . As a compromise—I spell it out—between what is and what should be, I have agreed to a museum exhibit of that part of my work from the past which was still partially conceived in the gallery spirit. I would have preferred a factory building, loading platform or storage yard. But these being unavailable, I shall try to camouflage the museum environment as much as possible. One new work, however, a Happening, is to be presented outside the premises.” By “camouflaging the museum environment,” he meant hanging cloth over the walls of one room and filling it with tires (Yard, 1961) or using another gallery for debris selected in 1963 for Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann.

It is reflective of Kaprow’s persistent way after 1960 of seeming to proselytize, to always make palpable his stance against art, that the Pasadena environmental displays look as irreconcilably old hat as a novel by Ayn Rand. Perhaps needless to add, it is not necessarily that the simulated or caricatured environment by its nature fails to hold up with the passage of time: one thinks first of Lucas Samaras’s 1965 Room, and, indeed, Kienholz’s Beanery doesn’t diminish in stature through time or exposure. Kaprow’s small, eclectic, ’50s works are infinitely more ingestible: for instance, Grandma’s Boy, a collage of 1956, is both unpretentious and moving.

Jane Livingston