American Performance Artist and Theoretician
Born: August 23, 1927 - Atlantic City, New Jersey
Died: April 5, 2006 - Encinitas, California
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"The integration of all elements -- environment, constructed sections, time, space, and people -- has been my main technical problem..."
Allan Kaprow was a pivotal figure in the shifting art world of the 1960s; his "happenings," a form of spontaneous, non-linear action, revolutionized the practice of performance art. While Kaprow began as a painter, by the mid 1950s his interest turned to the theoretical, based primarily on the shifting concepts of space as subjectively experienced by the viewer. Kaprow emerged from the group of artists known as the Rutgers Group, based out of Rutgers University where Kaprow taught art history and studio art. Kaprow was among the many artists and critics who focused on an intellectual and theorized view of art, rejecting the monumental nature of Abstract Expressionist works and instead focusing on the act of their production. In particular, his influential essay, "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," (1956), called for an end to craftsmanship and permanence in art and instead demanded that artists shift their attention to "non-concrete," or ephemperal, modes of production.
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Kaprow created Yard for Hauser & Wirth's opening New York show, Environment - Situations - Spaces. In this seminal work he recreated a junkyard, in the then Martha Jackson Gallery's backyard, creating an immersive environment with which the audience interacted. This work contained a high element of play, but within the boundaries Kaprow had prefixed. The piece illustrates sculpture's expansion in scale and the increasingly blurred boundaries between a "life like" and an "art like" art. In Kaprow's determination, there was no distinction between the viewer and the artwork; the viewer became part of the piece.
Rubber auto tyres, backyard of a Manhattan town house - Photos and archives: Allan Kaprow Archives, the Getty Research Institute
Allan Kaprow was born in 1927 in New Jersey. During his early years, he experienced chronic illness that forced him to move from New York to Tuscon, Arizona where he spent the rest of his childhood. There, separated from his Jewish, middle class roots, he experienced life on a ranch, giving him a sense of the communal activity that came to dominate his later artistic career. Ill and often bed-bound, Kaprow began to develop an interest in arts and crafts, and eventually returned to New York to attend New York University and study Philosophy and Art History.
Allan Kaprow's early artistic career was as an Abstract Expressionists; he trained at The New York School under Hans Hoffman from 1947-48. Developing a dynamic and expressive style, Kaprow had absorbed the action painting techniques of Pollock and the others, finding meaning in the physical ("action") relationship between the artist and his work. Moving from these studies to a major in Art History and Philosophy (with an M.A. thesis on Mondrian) under eminent historian and critic Meyer Schapiro, Kaprow began to construct action collages and assemblages with found objects. The references to everyday experience become an increasing interest to Kaprow, reviving the earlier motives of Dada and Futurist movements. Philosopher John Dewey's seminal work, "Art and Life" had a profound influence on Kaprow, leading him to experiment with notions of scale and with the incorporation of aural elements. The works Kaprow was producing at this time expanded to form environments - a more direct, sensory experience for the audience. In 1958, Kaprow wrote "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," an insightful and influential essay where Kaprow pronounced Pollock as responsible for pioneering the expansion of art beyond the frame and into the realm of human experience. This essay also marked the start of Kaprow's prolific art-writing career.
Since 1955, Kaprow and other young artists from the Hoffman school had established and exhibited at the Hansa Gallery, an emerging institution on the New York art scene, where eventually Kaprow's notorious performative experiments took place. At the same time, Kaprow was teaching art history at Rutgers and attending classes of experimental musician, John Cage, along with George Brecht, Al Hansen, and La Monte Young. These young artists were becoming increasingly critical of the Abstract Expressionists for their neglect of experiential reference in their work. At this point, Kaprow began to adopt new methods of audience participation, incorporating performative and aural elements to create events experienced in real time. In this way Kaprow eliminated the subjects, structures, and narratives of conventional art practice. His practice became known as "the happening", a revolutionary element of the New York avant-garde of the 1960s. The happening, while spontaneous, has certain particularities. It could be performed only once, but in a range of guises: to a small audience in a loft or cellar, or as a larger scale public event on the street. The materials used were often perishable, giving the performance an ephemeral quality that denounced traditional preservation of the art object. Kaprow's ideas were not unique - the Fluxus movement had been formed by his contemporaries and the Gutai Group and artist Yves Klein were working internationally with a similar aim, as was John Cage. Kaprow was distinct in his choice to work alone, and in the substantial body of writing emerging around his events. While Cage's motives were to relinquish artistic authority to his participants, Kaprow delivered his vision through viewer involvement. He was notable for his relentless pursuit of lowbrow subject matter - the everyday processes, such as brushing one's teeth - and increasingly, the audience was eliminated, involving only participants. Throughout the 1960's, the artist led happenings in sites of industry and commerce, in a further shift from the traditional art context.
Late Period and Photo
By the end of the 1960s, Kaprow began to disassociate himself from the term happening, which he saw as being exploited by the mainstream media. He started to follow a more private, introspective path, influenced by his studies in Zen Buddhism. He concentrated on creating intimate events he termed Activities. Working mainly with individuals or couples, these were now accompanied with an instruction booklet (gradually, Kaprow was eliminating the need for his presence in his work) and took place in increasingly domestic settings. Conversely, his acclaimed reputation had led to Kaprow retrospectives in galleries around the world. These exhibitions confronted the problem of displaying a vast body of work that fundamentally rejects the art environment and for which there is no lasting physical trace. As a solution to the lack of art object, the exhibitions were constructed from Kaprow's writing, archival photographs, the recollections of his participants, and the reinventions of his most important happenings. In 2001, he published his only book The Blurring of Art and Life, a compilation of the essays he had produced over the last five decades. Kaprow continued to teach until 1993 and was working on a major retrospective when he died in 2006.
Kaprow presents a contradictory portrait; an artist seeking the direct and ephemeral relations between art, the artist, and the audience achieved in the "here and now" of everyday life, and a deep and prolific thinker, teacher and writer who meticulously planned and theorized every instantiation of his work. His lifelong quest to "unart" art practice had a profound and lasting impact on his contemporaries and on artists since, paving the way for Pop art, Conceptual art, Minimalism and new genre public art of subsequent decades. The embodied experience of the environment and the performative and real-time elements of happenings foreshadowed the Installation and Performance art common in contemporary practice, paving the way for artists like Vito Acconci, Suzanne Lacy, and Marina Abramovic.
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Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Allan Kaprow
| Experiments in the Everyday: Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts - Events, Objects, Documents |
By Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Judith F. Rodenbeck
| Childsplay: The Art of Allan Kaprow |
By Jeff Kelley
| Allan Kaprow: Art as Life |
By Alex Potts
| 18 Happenings in 6 Parts |
By Andre Lepeke, Eva Meyer-Hermann, Stephanie Rosenthal
| Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings |
By Judith F. Rodenbeck
| Essay references, interview links and theory of Happenings || Images of Kaprow works |
| Tail Wagging Dog, Essay by Kaprow || Programme for Kaprow retrospective 'Art as Life', MOCA, 2008 |
| Alan Kaprow, the Happener |
By Robert C. Morgan, Wolf Kahn and Irving Sandler
| Framed Space: Allan Kaprow and the Spread of Painting |
By William Kaizen, Grey Room
| Allan Kaprow |
By Oliver Debroise
| Allan Kaprow, Creator of Artistic "Happenings" Dies at 78 |
By Holland Carter