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.
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.”
Kaprow’s subsequent yardfuls of old tires, architectural stacks of ice blocks left to melt, word-banner mazes and walk-through interaction paintings, such as his elaborate Apple Shrine (1960), are exhaustively documented with scripts, period photographs, reviews and other ephemera. His ’70s experiments in scripted interpersonal activities are well-served by his concurrent passion for video.
In addition to the new translations on view at the Geffen, MOCA has partnered with 8 gazillion arts and education organizations around town (plus a San Diego contingent; Jersey boy Kaprow spent his last three decades — RIP 2006 — as the big fish of UCSD’s art department) to update Kaprow’s performative oeuvre. In spite (by which I mean because) of the loss of control — who knows what those hooligans at the NEW Canoga Park Academy Charter School are capable of? — this is a major step toward capturing the spirit of Kaprow’s work instead of its appearance or art-historical significance.
Subcontracted to artist Paul McCarthy, the community-outreach programranges from Steve Roden’s five-day re-creation of Kaprow’s most acclaimed work, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, at LACE in Hollywood (happening this week), to Robby Herbst and the Outpost for Contemporary Art’s participants-only hippie-freak-out revival of Household (1964) at an undisclosed location. Layers of provocative contemporary issues have been collaged over Kaprow’s physio-political choreographies at will — from Industry of the Ordinary’s hiring of local sex workers to re-create the house-painting Happening Work (1969) to Critical Mass Performance Group’s reinvention of the Ionesco-esque street performance Pose (1969).
This sprawling gesture of boundary-dissolving, community-building decentralization is usually echoed by the subsequent interactive social aspects of each re-created work — with an exponential expansion of the randomness that fosters creativity. The exhibit itself would have been a much better work of curatorial art if it had stuck to the deadpan museological gravitas of its archival sections — maybe accompanied by precise anonymous historical re-creations of Kaprow’s environments, Happenings and activities. At least then no one would get the mistaken idea that Kaprow’s profoundly improvisational, anti-institutional, anticelebrity stance is less relevant today than in the artist’s prime — or at any point in human history. But embedded in the museum’s effort to purchase street cred is the possibility of a wilder creativity taking root in unsupervised territory. And maybe a few grad students realizing that — in the words of the poet — “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have.”
ALLAN KAPROW: ART AS LIFE | Geffen Contemporary at MOCA | 152 N. Central Ave., dwntwn. | Through June 30 | Schedule of Happenings at www.moca.org/kaprow/