By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In many ways, Allan Kaprow, father of the “Happening,” was the most important artist of the ’60s — at least as important as his household-branded comrade Andy Warhol. Warhol critiqued the commodification of art from way, way inside, and insisted to the end on the primacy of the image. But Kaprow, emerging from a hardcore New York School abstract-painting milieu, took an almost diametrically opposite path.
(Click to enlarge)
Women lick jam off a car in Kaprows Household (1964)
Forging a unified field theory out of his seemingly disparate Hans Hoffman apprenticeship, American Povera assemblages and participation in the formative social nexus of the Fluxus movement — John Cage’s legendary late-’50s class in music composition at the New School for Social Research — Kaprow operated as the postmodern missing link, personifying the historically bowdlerized continuity between Abstract Expressionist painting and the farthest reaches of the subsequent avant-garde, leaving behind not only recognizable imagery but the very notion of a tangible art object.
Taking to its logical extremes critic Harold Rosenberg’s seminal “painting as an arena of action” concept (where the term Action Painting came from), Kaprow systematically expanded and refined the “arena” to include virtually all intimate human social phenomena, while recognizing the subjective experiences of the actual physical participants — mere memories — as the most meaningful leftovers of the creative process.
Along the path, though, Kaprow left behind a wealth of more-substantial and potential-soaked evidence — including paintings, assemblages, environments, photo/video/audio records of performances, scripts for his trademark Happenings and later relational art, as well as correspondence and a goodly amount of incisive critical writing. Otherwise he would never have been able to have a museum retrospective such as the German-initiated “Allan Kaprow: Art as Life” tribute now on view at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary.
Which is the crux of the problem: As I recently insisted with regard to the Getty’s “California Video” show, the museological interment of insurrectionary creativity is a well-intentioned cul-de-sac at best, blah blah blah, insurgent corpses and gloating emperors, etc. ... I feel sort of like Charlie Brown running toward Lucy’s football each time I approach another such enshrinement of the dematerialized object or canonization of the trickster, thinking maybe this time someone will have found a way to circumvent the political declawing and cognitive dissonance that seem unavoidable when a voice of dissent is lauded and absorbed by the very system it was trying to destabilize and render obsolete.
“Allan Kaprow: Art as Life” seems — at least initially — like Mr. Right: handsome, entertaining, informative and well-hung. The exhibit occupies the southern wing of the former police garage, making use of its institutionalized industrial architecture to set the mock-librarian tone of the installation. Works are gridded off into taxonomic strata — the early paintings line one wall, while the opposite is divided between discrete sequences of large-scale video projections and interactive learning modules (enough to send a shudder down the spine of anyone who attended school in the ’70s) equipped with an overhead projector and scores of documentary photos copied onto transparencies.
Between them run a series of large, flat display vitrines laying out assorted paper ephemera in strict chronological order. This tongue-in-cheek bureaucratic set design works surprisingly well, marrying Kaprow’s increasingly antihierarchical and uncommodifiable output with another, more recent form of institutional critique — parodic mimicry — that was partly inspired by his work.
Dominating the space is a sprawling central row of artists’ homages — mostly reinventions of Kaprow’s environments — by contemporaries John Baldessari (in collaboration with Skylar Haskard), Al Ruppersberg, Barbara T. Smith and Suzanne Lacy. The most fun of these is Ruppersberg’s reinterpreting Words (1962), with its array of rickety manual typewriters and reams of colorful printouts of images scanned from the sleeves of ’50s-era LPs. Onto these the audience/participant is invited (by Ruppersbergian posters) to transcribe the period spoken-word fragments emerging from the accompanying portable phonograph machines, leaving messages for the next typist to add to, or to take away (no more than six, thank you).
The patina of hipster currency afforded by all this vintage technology — and there is nothing cooler than an overhead — is symptomatic of a troubling superficiality to the enterprise as a whole. Those nostalgia-dripping Califone turntables have in fact been gutted and retrofitted with CD players set to loop. A similarly spectacular commercial-display sensibility pervades the entire show — I didn’t encounter one instance where the reconfigured Kaprow was not more grand, more entertaining and more colorful than the original. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but marketing-style curatorial practice tends to favor such crowd-pleasing effects at the expense of the very subtle social and physiological nuances that were the true subject and object of Kaprow’s art.
The story of Kaprow’s work is well-told (especially in the detailed and copiously illustrated companion volume published by the Getty Research Institute, which houses Kaprow’s papers). His fiercely improvisational Kline-meets-Rauschenberg abstractions look much better than I remember them from MOCA’s “Hand Painted Pop” in 1993, while his crusty assemblage-coated Rearrangeable Panels (1957-1959) is deployed in its architecture-integrating “kiosk configuration.”