View of “Allan Kaprow: Art as Life,” 2006, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

View of “Allan Kaprow: Art as Life,” 2006, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Photo: Wilfried Petzi.

Allan Kaprow

CREATIVELY BESET FROM THEIR INCEPTION by the innocence, license, and incipient counterculturalism of the second wave of America’s post–World War II avant-garde, Allan Kaprow’s actions and reflections on the compounding of art and life shuttled between the comestible and the laborious, the sonic and the tactile, home and work. While clearly a prophet of aesthetic relationality—his practice anticipating almost everything suggested in relational art’s much-touted, post-neo-avant-garde reformulation (including, perhaps, its political diffidence)—Kaprow’s braiding of chance and designation was unique and ineffable. Layering everyday encounters with scripted routines, he took on the heterotopic recalibration of objects and events within a vast gesamtliebenwerk of experiential equivalence punctuated by moments of intensity both found and assisted.

The precipitants of all this were paraded throughout his writings, talks, and lectures—many collected in the artist’s Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1993)—in an unending series of poeticizing lists grounded only in the ceaseless ebb and flow of apposition. These lists sometimes propose themselves in a stream of quietist aphorisms or quasi-animist ejecta sanctioned by the “beautiful privacy” of the artist. (Such are “the green of a leaf, the sound of a bird, the rough pebbles under one’s feet, the fluttering past of a butterfly” of which he writes in 1958 in defense of the molecular compounding “of the sensory stuff of ordinary life.”) Yet Kaprow’s soft adjudications extended almost everywhere, and to almost everything, even to language itself. As he put it in 1958, in reference to one of his own exhibitions, “We do not come to look at things. We simply enter, are surrounded and become part of what surrounds us, passively or actively according to our talents for ‘engagement,’ in much the same way that we have moved out of the totality of the street or our home where we also played a part.” Typical of his low-key revolution, this seemingly modest statement is in fact a radical proposal to subtract the aggressive vectoring from the linguistic prepositions that mediate any encounter with art. Kaprow, characteristically, did not put as much pressure on the connective interrogation and binding of experience and events as, say, Heidegger, whose insistence on the innate and self-defining qualities of objects and beings exceeds Kaprow’s immersive coextension in and with the world to visit on them something like a state of philosophical grace.

Herein lies a key dilemma for any retrospective of the artist, such as “Allan Kaprow: Art as Life,” which appeared this past fall at Munich’s Haus der Kunst: the unstoppable mélange of process and situational relativity folded into Kaprow’s clarion call for participation and unrehearsed reciprocity puts the very idea of an exhibition into some kind of crisis. To subject the materials and ideas with which he worked to a commonplace assemblage in what he called the “framed context of the conventional showplace” does nothing more than blunt the power of their paradox, invest them with unwanted “certainty,” and virtually imprison them in a “history of cultural expectations.” Kaprow argued for a compositional formatting of art so open that the spectator would be absorbed into it as a shifting bioformal constituent. Works, defined only by their perceptual and circumstantial discontinuity, are always in progress by virtue of the multiple itineraries that thread between them and then reconstitute them: They are fixed only in their commitment to flux. For him the “most intense and essential” locative quotient for art correlated it not with galleries and museums, then, but with those New York nirvanas of the later twentieth century, including “old lofts, basements, vacant stores, natural surroundings, and the streets.” Kaprow even signaled his specific mistrust of the defining parameters and “proper manners” of the art institution—“white walls,” “aluminum frames,” “lovely lighting,” and the art-erati cocktails and chitchat of the vernissage. In his view the very architecture of the gallery circumscribed spectatorial experience by subjecting audiences to the confining axial directives of the exhibition space.

Its imponderable history and sheer symbolic weight aside, the Haus der Kunst is, inescapably, one of those places, as Kaprow counseled in 1966, whose very name “assures us that whatever is contained within is art, and everything else is life.” In light of this cascade of skepticism, just how is it possible to make an exhibition of Kaprow’s work, and why—and how—would he agree to it? Curators Eva Meyer-Hermann and Stephanie Rosenthal were conscious of being backed into a corner by Kaprow’s thoroughgoing suspicion. But they fought their way out by making decisions that both respected the wishes the artist made known before his death in April 2006 (the reinterpretations of Kaprow’s environments, happenings, and handouts were given special sanction by the artist, and continue to be supported by his estate), and willingly sacrificed many of the normative dimensions of an art exhibition—with the latter both exceeding and in some ways circumscribing the former.

The show occupied four spaces within the institution and continued with a calendar of happenings on the premises and in other venues (under the designation “The Museum as Agency for Action”). The gallery spaces were a suite of adjacent rooms in the center of the Haus der Kunst. Visitors entered through a freely accessible public area, outside the ticketed galleries, in which students from the Munich Art Academy, directed by faculty mentors, had made their own version of Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann, first prepared for the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibition “Hans Hofmann and His Students” (1963), with loose “instructions” (called “Points of View”) that read like a parody of interior decoration. The Munich reincarnation riffed on goofy Hofmannesque homologies between form, color, and common objects, giving rise to an anarchically composed assemblage that included a shelving unit housing exchangeable objects for which visitors could barter.

The second space was a small, prefatory gallery with five of Kaprow’s early works—four rather period paintings and a collage, all made between 1947 and 1957—grouped around a key protoenvironment, Rearrangeable Panels, 1957–59. The latter is comprised of nine hinged canvas and wood panels differentially set with paint, leaves, plastic fruit, mirrors, and lightbulbs that can be configured as a flat sequence, in a zigzag (like a room divider), or folded into a cube (as here). In a cute curatorial gesture, this room also served as an antechamber for another notable exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, “Black Paintings: Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella,” which occupied the perimeter spaces that surrounded “Allan Kaprow,” and was announced by a 1966 Kaprow dictum posted near its entrance: “For Rauschenberg, and for us who saw them, the Black and White Paintings were an end to art and a beginning.” Two trips, then, to the end of art (and back).

The next zone of the exhibition, termed “The Museum as Mediation,” was a vast archive that occupied the large central hall. Three collages were displayed here, but the space was dominated by glass-topped tables housing documents (letters, photos, review clippings, scores, notes, etc.) arranged in chronological clusters. Interspersed among them was a series of overhead projectors and ring binders loaded with removable acetate pages; several audio and video stations; and two double-projection screens, which gave access to differently formatted and multiply originated documentation of Kaprow’s environments, happenings, events, and lectures from the late 1950s through the early 1990s. The final space comprised a chalkboard calendar, two computer monitors, and a series of posters.

The rather attenuated topography of the exhibition was governed by three broad principles: the Kaprow-supported stipulation that framed or wall-hung photographs of the environments and happenings could not be presented as large-scale—and thus artlike—images; a low-tech moving-image presentation, which eschewed voguish black-box mini-theaters in favor of small monitors and no-nonsense wall projections; and, finally, the principle of extension, underwritten by the artist and his estate, according to which his environments, happenings, and handouts can be reinterpreted by artists or the wider public. In a big institutional art world dominated by performative grandiosity, reformatted aura, and sundry special effects, the DIY informality and browser-oriented archival mishmash engendered by these principles was refreshing, somewhat daring, and a little dangerous. It didn’t quite produce an antiexhibition (but then how could it?). And its vitrines, notebooks, earphones, and monitors could not escape the dubious condition of what Kaprow—referring specifically to the formal retrieval and conventionalized representation of performance events “by photos and texts presented as art shows in galleries”—called “artification.” But it did offer a salutary jolt to the gallery-going experience that was transformed, if you went along with it, into an adventure in nonvirtual Googling.

While one dimension of the research had actually been done for viewers in the form of curatorial decision making, there was so much to read and so many hours of sound and video that visitors were obliged to subcurate their own way through, creating personal itineraries based on an uncertain blend of their preoccupations, passions . . . and drift. Spurred on by the Hofmann piece at the entrance, I followed a line that looked at Kaprow’s work as a renovation of the comedic, taking in zany notes and offbeat documents on The Big Laugh, 1960, and Laughs and Ballrooms, 1959. On another visit I was mesmerized by a CBS report—spliced together with a verve utterly unthinkable in network broadcasting today—on Gass, 1966, with its carnival of giant inflatables, parachutists, and dancing on Amagansett beach, in which Kaprow defends his freedom to indulge in serious and regressive play (“I’m still a little boy”) while leaning on a gravestone. I also found a dozen documents that contradicted the clear tenor of Kaprow’s thinking about exhibitions in general as set out in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, in which scarcely a sentence is comfortable with the museum or institution. In a 1961 letter to curator William Seitz at MoMA, for example, Kaprow lauds “the more up-to-date museum” for its power to attract those “spirited but wealthy individuals” with the financial potential to support his demanding new work “in its more congenial habit: nature, vacant lots, armories, factories, etc.”

What was missing, however (presumably to be supplied in the catalogue, which will appear when the show moves to Los Angeles in 2007), is any sense of the rationale for what’s in the show and what’s not, and, equally important, any negotiation of the complex question of the origin and status of the assembled media—which included but weren’t limited to television news and art-press coverage and many different formats and qualities of footage recorded by participants and observers. In a show revisiting his legacy and summarizing the artist’s place in history, such explication seems essential.

In 1958 Kaprow bore witness to his own career through the legacy of Jackson Pollock in a tour de force of avant-gardist extrapolation and incrementalist logic (“The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” published in Art News) that secured the genealogy of expressionist art as a series of astutely predicated ruptures and repairs. Half a century later he sees it through again by surrendering his production to the creative contradiction of its institutional visibility while, in an almost glorious gesture of dejurisdiction, passing the baton of his happenings to a host of anonymous legatees. For me the most Kaprow-like aspect of this move is that its success, on both counts, is absolutely unguaranteed. It all leads back to the discomfort at the heart of another of his resonant mantras: “Art is very easy nowadays.”

“Allan Kaprow: Art as Life” travels to the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, Feb. 10–Apr. 22; Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, June 2–Aug. 26; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Dec. 16, 2007–Mar. 31, 2008.

John C. Welchman is professor of modern and contemporary art history/theory at the University of California, San Diego. He is also editor of Institutional Critique and After (JRP Ringier, 2006) and The Aesthetics of Risk, forthcoming from JRP Ringier.