New York

Allan Kaprow

John Gibson Gallery

“Once, the task of the artist was to make good art; now it is to avoid making art of any kind,” wrote Allan Kaprow in a 1966 manifesto, formulating a paradox that has come to pervade his entire oeuvre. The Happenings and Environments through which he made his name in the ’50s and ’60s all attempted to merge art and life, to bring the audience inside the work instead of leaving it standing stupidly around in front of it. Kaprow has never ceased to make works or pen position papers (such as “The Education of the Un-Artist: Part II,” 1972, and “Art Which Can’t Be Art,” 1986) that decry this separation of art and life—all of which made encountering the “scores” (photos and texts) for the ’70s Happenings exhibited in his most recent show somewhat problematic: we were back in front rather than inside, reading the sheet music rather than playing in the orchestra.

If by the late ’60s the Happening had become a sort of buzzword that referred to any grand-scale media spectacle from presidential elections to rocket launches, in Kaprow’s work it came to denote something increasingly private. Small-scale social rituals—cooking, bathing, breathing, touching, and talking on the phone, or just being a couple—comprise Kaprow’s ’70s Happenings. Comfort Zones, 1975, investigates eye contact and “territorial bubbles,” the capsule of space around the body that only intimates can penetrate. “Eye contacts are programmed in the activity when normally they would be avoided,” and A and B (a man and woman in the photos) perform various activities: they crawl toward each other, press against opposite sides of a door, lock eyes while one runs toward the other. The photos aren’t much to look at—it wasn’t an event staged for an audience—but you can imagine the acting out of the Happening eliciting various feelings just as you can imagine a game of Twister being fun. Another Happening—the 1973 Time Pieces, in which partners take each other’s pulses and breathe into each other’s mouths—was described by Kaprow as “a way of monitoring feelings, sometimes strong ones, which were never specified beforehand, but discovered in the process of carrying out an apparently objective plan.”

Ironically, deprived of the participants’ inner narratives, the scores for such Happenings read like any other blueprint: impersonal, schematic, repetitive, further from life than the average painting in a museum. On the other hand, there’s an inverse ratio at work in the Happenings themselves: the more completely they approach an individual life, the further they move away from the majority. Kaprow’s work withdraws from the public sphere into a cocoon that embraces only the participants (as in a relatively recent piece, not included in this show, in which Kaprow considered brushing his teeth a Happening). While it has often been said that art should achieve the universal through the particular, Kaprow seems to find a space in-between, framed on the one side by the impersonality of his “scores” and on the other by the intense subjectivity of his Happenings. Oddly, rather than stage a reunion of art and life, Kaprow creates an empty space between two different kinds of art: should life choose to walk in and look around, it could only find itself in a no-man’s-land.

Keith Seward