Allan Kaprow, the Happener
In the late Fifties, the spirit of Dada was revived in Post-World War II American Art. For Allan Kaprow, the artist who led this revival was Jackson Pollock. In a famous article, written in 1956 (the year of Pollock’s death) and published two years later in Art News by the distinguished editor Thomas Hess, Kaprow claimed that Pollock was less important for his paintings as material objects than for the kind of choreographic approach to painting that the artist instigated. This led Kaprow to explore a concept, close to Dada, in which intermedia performances involving groups of participants—which came to be known as “Happenings”—became a new art form. By 1959 Kaprow was exploring a direction in art where idea and process were considered more important than the object. Others, like Jim Dine, Robert Whitman, Claes Oldenburg, and Red Grooms, eventually joined in with their own versions of this phenomenon. In many ways, Kaprow was as much a link between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art as Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, or even the sculptor George Segal.
As the Happenings moved from its association with Neo-Dada in the late Fifties to Fluxus in the early Sixties, it became clear that Kaprow’s idea was also shifting between avant-garde aesthetics on one hand and popular culture on the other. By the late Sixties, his work had indirectly spurred various countercultural phenomena—such as the “be-ins” and “love-ins”—as well as the massive outdoor rock festivals of that era. This kind of popularization was not particularly welcomed by Kaprow, who believed his ideas were being distorted by the commercial media and, at a certain point, refused to allow journalists and press photographers admittance to his events. In retrospect, Kaprow’s Happenings were less “anti-art” than many claimed and were never entirely devoid of aesthetic interest. As much as he tried to integrate the art-and-life paradigm by giving his “activities” in the Seventies a purposefully bland and reductive appearance, Kaprow’s rarefied, somewhat overdetermined aesthetic became even more pronounced. As much as he tried to reduce the formal ingredients by which a Happening could be identified as “art,” its cultural framework somehow managed to remain indelible. Its spontaneous element was always guided by the structure of the piece, regardless of its openness.
Having curated a Kaprow retrospective at the Ulrich Museum of Art in Kansas in 1979, and then later, in 1987, giving a keynote talk at another in Texas (curated by Jeff Kelley), I grew increasingly to admire the importance of this deeply singular artist’s work. Allan never wanted to be part of a movement nor did he believe that the market had any real relevance to the future of art. He was forever committed to art as a medium that could feed and nourish our understanding of human psychology, sociology, aesthetics, and politics. Initially influenced by the philosophy of John Dewey and later by the teachings of Meyer Shapiro, John Cage, and Hans Hofmann, Kaprow believed in an expanded idea of art—prior to the conceptualists and long before the advent of postmodernism—that was inextricably bound to aesthetics and could encompass actions and ideas as much as objects. Allan Kaprow was always in advance of his time and, in many ways, he still is.
—Robert C. Morgan
First Nam June Paik. Now Allan Kaprow. Two great innovators, gone.
In 1957, I wrote a review for Art News in which I praised Allan’s wall-size collage-action-paintings. Raw, raucous, and frenetic, they introduced a fresh note of urban realism into Abstract Expressionist painting. I met Allan shortly after, and we became friends.
Allan’s soft-spoken reasonableness belied his iconoclasm. I recall him taking the floor at the end of a panel at The Club, the Abstract Expressionist hangout, in 1958 and quietly challenging in the audience, which consisted primarily of painters. He said: “I am convinced that painting is a bore. So is music and literature. What doesn’t bore me is the total destruction of ideas that have any discipline. Instead of painting, move your arms; instead of music, make noise. I’m giving up painting and all the arts by doing everything and anything.” Like his mentor, John Cage, Allan was calling for artists to break down all barriers between art and non-art. There was a shocked silence in the room before the painters turned in fury on Allan. He had anticipated what to expect and remained calm. The avant-garde art world would never be the same.
In a seminal article, titled “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” published in the October 1958 issue of Art News, Allan predicted that in the future he and like-minded artists would “become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of everyday life…Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. [We shall show] as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us, but ignored.” The upshot would be a new kind of visual art theater.
If Allan’s thinking was influenced by Cage, it was also rooted in Harold Rosenberg’s conception of Action Painting. However, as Allan said, he had kept the action and jettisoned the painting. He put down all post-Pollock painting as passé. As a partisan of Abstract Expressionism, I disagreed strongly with Allan and rebutted his statements in a letter to Art News. Nonetheless, I recognized the importance and timeliness of his ideas and invited him to participate on Club panels. And in 1963, recognizing that he had become the primary spokesperson for Environments and Happenings, I introduced his ideas to the general public readership of The New York Post by publishing a lengthy interview with him in the newspaper.
Statements like the one Allan made at the The Club got him labeled as a Neo-Dada, but he was not anti-art. In the Post interview, he acknowledged the importance of Dada for its “healthy hatred for clichés and smug esthetics,” but he did not “count it as a major influence on [his] art, either in attitude, subject or method.” He only rejected what he believed was dead in contemporary art. And his nay-saying led him to innovate what he would label Environments and Happenings. As he said, the purpose of these works, like “that of any art [is] to come to grips with the world, to do something revelatory which in turn could make things about us more meaningful…This, I think, is central to the best art, no matter what else it may superficially be about.”
As I write this appreciation, memories of Allan’s Happenings come back to mind: happily clambering over a mountain of used tires in the yard of the Martha Jackson Gallery, or lost in an Environment of words painted and collaged on the walls of a gallery and three-dimensional constructions that Allan built within it. The mise-en-scene enveloped the viewer, calling to the mind the mesh of words—newspaper, magazine, radio, T.V., etc.—that clutters up our minds. It was a hyper slice of reality. In 1962, I helped arrange Allan’s most ambitious Happening. It took place in the nine-story high courtyard of the disused Mills Hotel on Bleecker Street. As its climax, a huge inverted mountain descended from the roof onto an upright mountain, the two peaks figuratively kissing.
I asked Allan if the transience of his works concerned him. He answered: “No. If the work is of value it will stimulate the creation of related works later on and thus the tradition will stay alive that way.” The trail-blazer of Environments and Happenings, Allan influenced Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, among others in the late 1950s. He was also a formative influence on subsequent Installation Art and Performance Art, which is to be seen everywhere in today’s art world. Allan’s incisive polemics and the documentation of his work have been very much alive for almost half a century, and if current art is any indication, will surely live on.
I met Allan Kaprow at the High School of Music and Art in 1942. (Because of his asthma, his family had moved him from Arizona to New York.) I remember the first few weeks Allan used to come to school wearing cowboy hat and boots, talking about horses and all us New York kids thought he was strange, but we became friends anyway. After graduation in 1945, while I was away in the navy for a year, Allan had developed a hemorrhaged ulcer (a result of having argued with his father over his fate. Mr. Kaprow, the senior, was a self-made lawyer who wanted his son to follow his footstep instead of being an artist) which was so severe that they had to take him to the hospital in order to clean different part of his organs separately. At which point, the doctor told his father “you’ve got to let that boy do what he wants.” That was how Allan came to the Hofmann School with me.
Art school was where he wanted to be, but the environment didn’t quite fit his temperament. Allan wasn’t exactly the most natural painter. He used to say to me,” Every time I made a brush stroke it was taken from Kandinsky, Miro or Picasso”, which I responded,” That’s silly. You’re a student you can afford to be influenced”. But by nature Allan was too much of a rebel to do anything that has a look of tradition.
One weekend in the summer 1950, I had a job working on a farm in Hopewell Junction, New Jersey, Allan came by to visit me—he was staying with Stefan Wolpe, who besides John Cage, I think had an equally great impact on Allan’s thinking about the avant-garde—and he said to me, “ Painting is dead ”. That was the summer that marked the beginning of Allan’s new thinking about art, which he wrote eight years later in an article, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock.” In the interval Allan went to study art history with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University and later with John Cage at the New School for Social Research. One of Allan’s first memorable show, Penny Arcade, was at Hansa gallery in 1956, with objects and things hanging from the ceiling and all kind of noises including a telephone ringing at unpredictable time, which would get Dick Bellamy, who was at the time the gallery director, running to the telephone for nothing. A few years later Allan became a member of the Reuben gallery where he installed his landmark, 18 Happening in 6 Parts. After that, through George Segal, Allan got a teaching job at Rutgers University and a few other institutions before heading to California. In spite of the long distance, we still managed to talk on the telephone quite regularly when he was at the University of California in San Diego, where he taught the rest of his professional life.
To my greatest surprise, Allan agreed to give a lecture on my work when I had a show at the San Diego Museum in 1981. Everyone said it was highly intelligent and praising of my work, and so I call Allan up and said: “Gee whiz, I thought you said painting was dead.” He said “Well you know that was a public statement. Privately, I might think something else.” Allan kept amazing me. We grew up with the idea that artists were marginal types who didn’t shake hands with the world at large. If anybody got popular or started to sell, it was the kiss of death. But Allan thought that was sophomorically romantic, and he wrote an article in repudiation,” Should the Artist Be a Man of the World.” Perhaps Allan’s vision was prophetic because I’m still struggling to be a man in the world. In the meanwhile I hope that Allan is doing good Household on Cloud Nine, spreading strawberry jam over an old Volkswagen and having the angels lick it off.
ContributorsRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.Wolf Kahn
IRVING SANDLER was an art critic, art historian, and writer. The second volume of his memoirs, Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era, was published by Rail Editions in 2015.