Allan Kaprow

Allan Kaprow by Katherine Satorius
MOCA, Los Angeles CA
March 23 – June 30, 2008

Originally published in ArtUS 23

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“Art as Life,” a retrospective of Allan Kaprow’s work, which debuted in a different iteration at Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, originated in 2004, two years before Kaprow’s death, when curators Stephanie Rosenthal (Munich) and Eva Meyer-Hermann (Eindhoven) visited the artist in hopes of collaborating with him on the project. As Rosenthal relates in her catalogue essay, “His eyes gleaming like diamonds, Kaprow [said]: ‘Here’s the problem: I don’t want a show!’ This statement was wholly at odds with the fact that he had invited us to visit him and had already expressed his interest, in principle, in an exhibition of his work. […] At one point he said, ‘I don’t know what I want.’ And when we asked, ‘Do you want the public to understand?’ he responded, flatly, ‘No.’” The next day, Kaprow let on that he had confused them on purpose: “[He] wanted to sustain a state of confusion—a situation in which everything is still completely open—for as long as possible.”

The resulting retrospective, on which Kaprow did collaborate, has two faces: “Museum as Mediation” and “Agency for Action.” MOCA installed the museum leg in the Geffen Contemporary’s side gallery, in which the absence of white walls and open plan nicely suits the exhibition—or “presentation,” as Kaprow insisted it be called. Kaprow’s early assemblage paintings hang on the back wall, firmly in the traditional art camp: precursors to the 3-D environments that begat happenings (and later, “activities”), their value is mostly historical. Running down the installation’s center aisle are a series of environments reinterpreted by other artists, including “Apple Shrine” (1960) via John Baldessari and Skylar Haskard; “Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hoffmann” (1963) via Barbara T. Smith; and “Words” (1962) via Allen Ruppersberg. While these homages don’t do much to illuminate the original Kaprow works, they serve other important functions, lending the installation a needed playful streak, engaging visitors’ senses, and riding the line between non-art and art—that borderland central to Kaprow’s practice. Video footage of original happenings and activities plays along the opposite wall while, in another interactive gesture, a row of overhead projectors can be loaded with documentary photo transparencies chosen by visitors. Finally, a long row of glass-topped tables containing Kaprow’s notes, diagrams, letters, sketches, scores for happenings, and other ephemera runs down the gallery. It forms the installation’s real artery.

Kaprow was a gifted writer, and writing played a crucial role in his practice even beyond his influential theoretical essays. Many of his scores—particularly those for more elaborate happenings of the 1960s and early ’70s such as “Sweeping” (1962), “Service for the Dead II” (1962), “Orange” (1964), and “Calling” (1965)—have a literary quality. However, the scores cannot be understood as literature, or even as conceptual artworks. While Kaprow’s lucid descriptions allow a partial realization of his happenings in a reader’s imagination, their critical element is time, coupled with participants’ actions, reactions, and reflections. Reading the scores alone, it’s difficult to appreciate the tonal shifts of Kaprow’s work, from moments of exuberance, to plateaus of boredom, to episodes approaching torture. Melting an ice cube between your forehead and another person’s forehead–to take an example from “Warm-Ups” (1975), an activity from Kaprow’s later, more intimate period–sounds romantic on the page, but in life (I tried it) it’s excruciating and leaves a welt. The happenings also have a musical quality reflecting the influence of John Cage, with whom Kaprow had studied, and which only reveals itself through performance. Hence the need for the other exhibition leg, “Agency for Action,” in which reinventions (not “reenactments,” as Kaprow was careful to stipulate), occur around the city, organized by MOCA and a range of participating institutions.

As Rosenthal tells it, Kaprow struggled with the prospect of relinquishing control over his work in this way because it forced him to confront his mortality. Along with this, he must have wrestled with the idea that reinvented happenings might only be watered-down versions of artworks, if they would be artworks in their own right at all, and—since this type of slippage was central to his work—whether that possibility didn’t represent a desirable outcome. “Art as Life” doesn’t resolve any of this. As was Kaprow’s wish, the confusion whipped up by his “art which can’t be art” (as he titled a 1986 essay) remains intact, which if nothing else should ensure its survival. After all, Kaprow’s strongest legacy is found not in an art world that rejects objecthood and its trappings—today’s doesn’t—but in the revision and expansion of the curatorial discipline, which relies on rising to the challenges posed by exhibition-resistant work just as Kaprow’s work depended largely on a resistance to institutionalized art. If the very act of presenting his art as he wished means the museum has been defanged, which in turn has something of the same effect on his work, then that illustrates another of the many paradoxes that were vital to his practice.