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March 23 - June 30, 2008 at Museum of Contemporary Art [MOCA], Downtown

by Marlena Donohue

"Household, men working on the tower,"
© Sol Goldberg Estate and Research Library,
The Getty Research Institute.
Photo by Sol Goldberg, Allan Kaprow Papers.

"oranges hanging by strings,"
© Terry S. Lindquist and Research Library,
The Getty Research Institute.
Photo by Terry S. Lindquist, Allan Kaprow Papers.

"Household, women licking jam off of a car,"
© Sol Goldberg Estate and Research Library,
The Getty Research Institute.
Photo by Sol Goldberg, Allan Kaprow Papers

The large-scale retrospective “Allan Kaprow—Art as Life” spans over five decades of complex and far ranging art production. The exhibition contextualizes the life, works, and philosophy of Kaprow through an investigation of his most famous art form, the “happening,” as well as through his extensive writing, and written and oral histories of Kaprow by others. To the converted, this array of materials--facsimiles and originals of  scores/notes, absolutely fascinating photos of events, painted works, sculptures, reinventions of his ideas by current artists--will be familiar, and will also add flavor and tangible forensic evidence to this thinker's profound intellect and creative range. For those new to Kaprow and his strategies, the romping show will seem playful and dizzyingly open ended--just as the late artist would have hoped.

In art and criticism we are fond of “firsts.” John Cage, Gutai, the Judson Dance Theater, Fluxus, all are performative movements that evolved alongside Kaprow, and collectively they set the roots and origins of art practices locked in real time. Using the media of the body in real non-illusionist, uncontrived life space seems to have been “in the air” across the globe during the 1950s. Artists in a post-Hiroshima world questioned the economy, meaning and efficacy of abstract marks stored in museums. It is Kaprow’s extensive and articulate writings--fore-fronted here--that speak back to and thus enlighten that seemingly zany practice he founded. It has become so mainstream a concept that today “happening” means any gathering of free-wheeling folk. Add to this shallow cliché Kaprow’s  decades long studies of phenomenology, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, an encyclopedic knowledge of history and art history, and you have the true wellspring for this work.

The Getty Research Institute acquired the Kaprow archives and is contributing heavily to the show; a trip to the Getty Center for a look at show preparation  revealed  a sprawling room of letters, original essays, scores, notes on scores typed on an old hunt-and-peck typewriter, boxes and boxes of news articles on his work applied to teaching teens, etc. Connections between writings, events, happenings, photo archives, letters, early paintings, assemblages, and Kaprow’s central spirituality are laced loosely together in this show.
Kaprow studied under Meyer Shapiro at Columbia, gained a complete understanding of post-Greenberg critical discourse. He  also studied serious abstract expression in paint with Hans Hoffman (some of these great early works are on view), and wrote a Master’s thesis on Mondrian. He therefore came to his seemingly wacky free form experiential art via a serious respect for aesthetic formal strategies: organizing principles, composition, color theory, mood, hue, symbol, ritual. He understood both the need for and the limitations of these formal standards for art making, and his book “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life” contains some of the most thoughtful essays on the artificial separation of aesthetics and experience. His mentorship at CalArts fed the body/mind, in-community art strategies of key Feminists such as Suzanne Lacy. His active scholarly and studio tenure at UC San Diego continued almost until his death.

One of the most compelling aspects of this show are actual scores and corollary materials that allow one to reflect from hindsight (ironically, this is antithetical to the “now-ness” of his life philosophy and work) on the intensely poetic, aural, sensual, coloristic planning behind nearly every Kaprow event. The scores set the loose boundaries of his imagination; the other artifacts/photos then give posterity a sense of the indeterminate, random unfolding responses to these that took place in real time. That is precisely what Kaprow was about.

My favorite works are the photos around the score tellingly called “Household.” As the score unfolds, a group of men, lost in an out-of-culture-in-nature ritual erect a phallic-looking  mound of junk in the woods. A bit later a group of women lick strawberry jam from an old wreck of a car towed, partially smoking, by onlooker-participants. The amount of smoke, the” red tin fence” conceived to bound the event area--all this was “designed” and composed by Kaprow the artist with professional awareness of color symbolism, textural contrasts, rhythm and scale. In the Brechtian poetry of “Household’s” written directives and in the bizarre, authentic actions it elicited (captured here in photos), we see profound  realities about gender, pleasure, power, ritual, and catharsis being “bodied forth.”

Though the exhibition has been conceived in a non-serial, non-chronological  order (in keeping with the philosophy and practice of  Kaprow), there is a historical arc in that it includes early paintings, the predictable move from fictive space to collage and assemblage, and the final leap Kaprow made to real time/life’s space.

Even with its avoidance of logical order, the show has a serious philosophical dilemma from the get go: at the very crux of this practice was the dictum that fossilized aesthetic objects cannot and do not engage or teach about the big experiential “whys.” This is only achieved through active engagement. His position was astutely anti-exhibition/anti-spectacle. So  even as we honor the artist  by placing him in history and discourse, we dismantle some of his intentions. That said, the concept for the show was developed in close touch with Kaprow prior to his recent death with its organizer, the Haus der Kunst Munchen. That he understood his inevitable historicity and engaged in it both ironically and academically is clear:
Leaving the galleries, museums and professional arts circles for woods, alleys, public bathrooms, supermarket aisles could hardly erase my role as a former painter in the New York art scene of the  ‘40s and ‘50s. It was like rejecting a labor union membership. Just as serious, I was a full time teacher of art history and studio practice in a university. I had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. . .”

To mitigate the conundrum, MOCA asked artists who knew and worked with Kaprow closely to either consult on or actually create works that re-cast his core ideas. If we could pinpoint the hub of Kaprow’s art as life ethos, it would indeed have to be collaboration, and this is certainly a community project. Andrew Perchuk, Assistant  Director for Contemporary Programs and Research at the Getty, contributed  to archival context. Performance artist Paul McCarthy oversaw the re-working of Happenings. John Baldessari, Barbara T. Smith, Allen Ruppersberg  and Skylar Haskard concentrated on re-positioning Kaprow’s legacy of installations. Perhaps most interesting is the central interactive piece by Suzanne Lacy, Michael Rotundi and Peter Kirby. The three will install in the center of the show a circle of Kaprow’s favorite wood chairs in an arena of lights arranged on a strategically designed bed of dirt (a play on one of Kaprow’s famous scores). This quasi-ritual space--demarked to collect oral  histories--will be a place where those who participated in ephemeral Kaprow works in the past, or in the course of the MOCA show, can communicate and record their experiences  to and with museum goers who then become creators and actors in this evolving awareness that is Kaprow.