Life like Art

Artforum International, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Life like Art


Allan Kaprow's death this spring at age seventy-eight, a profound loss by any measure, is all the more impropitious given the recent upsurge of interest in his work and the growing awareness of his contemporary relevance. While his happenings gained widespread notoriety in artistic circles and mass culture alike during the '60s and '70s, his evolving critical writings and activities both then and in later years resonate strongly within the context of today's vital considerations of performance and spectatorship, aesthetics and politics, and private experience in an age of spectacularized commerce. Taking pause to reflect on Kaprow's legacy, Artforum asked art historians Judith Rodenbeck and Jeff Kelley, as well as artists Lucas Samaras, Suzanne Lacy, and Paul McCarthy, to look again at the "un-art" and life of this pivotal figure.

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Sitting at a Howard Johnson's in New Jersey in 1957, artists Allan Kaprow, Robert Watts, and George Brecht drafted a grant proposal that might be seen as a programmatic statement of the direction advanced art would take over the coming decade:

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  In all the arts, we are struck by a general loosening of forms which
  in the past were relatively closed, strict, and objective, to ones
  which are more personal, free, random, and open, often suggesting in
  their seemingly casual formats an endless changefulness and
  boundlessness. In music, it has led to the use of what was once
  considered noise; in painting and sculpture, to materials that belong
  to industry and the wastebasket; in dance, to movements which are not
  "graceful" but which come from human action nevertheless. There is
  taking place a gradual widening of the scope of the imagination, and
  creative people are encompassing in their work what has never before
  been considered art.

Though the trio's "Project in Multiple Dimensions" was never funded, their proposal introduced the concept of "multidimensional media," which advocated the use of cutting-edge technological and industrial materials. It suggested an experiential and experimental model of art linked not to the sublime of the New York School but to the everyday, to a pragmatic willingness to embrace slapstick and even failure as readily as tragedy and success. As Kaprow would observe years later, "Multimedia in art was the mirror, the rhyme of every moment of life (which is always 'multimedial')."

Kaprow is probably best known as the "inventor" and chief proponent of happenings--a radicalized collage form of theater that he and other visual artists started to explore in the late 1950s--but he began his career as an expressionist painter, emulating the coloristic, figurative, and compositional example of Pierre Bonnard and the rigorous teaching of Hans Hofmann, with whom he studied in 1947-48. While painting with Hofmann he also studied philosophy at New York University, where he discovered the work of American pragmatist John Dewey, in particular his contextualism. Eventually Kaprow's interest in aesthetics led him to semiotician (and fellow Bonnard fan) Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, where as a graduate student in art history Kaprow wrote a class paper on Jackson Pollock and a master's thesis on Piet Mondrian. He began teaching at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1953, the year after he cofounded the Hansa Gallery with fellow students of Hofmann's. Like many others of his generation, he rapidly cycled through a colorful and vigorous if awkward urban figurative expressionism toward abstraction and then, in the early '50s, broke through to what he called "action collage. …

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