Allan Kaprow - Biography and Legacy
American Performance Artist and Theoretician
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Biography of Allan Kaprow
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 Expressionist; he trained at the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts 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 (with 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.
Beginning in 1954, 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.
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 1993, he published his only book Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, a compilation of the essays he had written over the last four decades. Kaprow continued to teach until 1993 and was working on a major retrospective when he died in 2006.
The Legacy of Allan Kaprow
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.