ArtWeekend

Allan Kaprow, Before the Happenings

Considered the Father of the Happening, Kaprow started off as a painter whose work reflected a Cubist-inspired, pre-AbEx aesthetic.

Allan Kaprow, “Standing Nude Against Red and White Stripes” (1955), oil on canvas, 65 1/8 x 49 3/4 inches, © Allan Kaprow Estate (all images courtesy of the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth unless specifically stated)

In his essay for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition ALLAN KAPROW. PAINTINGS NEW YORK at Hauser & Wirth’s uptown outpost, art historian Philip Ursprung describes Kaprow’s progression from painting to performance in three swift strokes:

The story began in the 1950s when Kaprow relinquished the norms established in panel painting by implementing collages of photographs, texts, objects, and mirror fragments to expand the pictorial space. In 1958, he created his first environment, in which canvas, newspaper, tar paper, sheets of transparent plastic, colored lamps, and sounds created a space that the visitors could immerse themselves in. In 1959, he presented the first Happening with the title 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, a series of short performances in an environment where the breaks were as long as the performances.

Kaprow (1927-2006) coined the term “Happening,” but he didn’t invent the genre of performance art, which can be traced back to the antics of the Dadaist and Futurists at the beginning of the 20th century. (The honors for the first Happening have been ascribed to the Fluxus artist —and Kaprow’s future-fellow-Rutgers-professor (and grandfather of the musician Beck) — Al Hansen, who more than a decade earlier threw a piano off the roof of a building in Frankfurt, Germany.)

More important, however, than who-did-what-when, is the consonance with which Ursprung’s timeline corresponds to Kaprow’s own postulations about the future of art in his essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (1958). Written two years after Pollock’s death — and, not coincidentally, it would seem, two years after completing the paintings included in this show (and one year before “18 Happenings in 6 Parts”) — Kaprow’s text famously spotlighted the performative aspect of Pollock’s painting process:

I am convinced that to grasp […] Pollock’s impact properly, we must be acrobats, constantly shuttling between an identification with the hands and body that flung the paint and stood “in” the canvas and submission to the objective markings, allowing them to entangle and assault us. This instability is indeed far from the idea of a “complete” painting. The artist, the spectator, and the outer world are much too interchangeably involved here. (And if we object to the difficulty of complete comprehension, we are asking too little of art.)

What Kaprow ended up exploring over the course of his career was an engagement with “the hands and body,” in which the “artist, the spectator, and the outer world are much too interchangeably involved” — all without the conceptual encumbrance of a resulting tangible commodity.

Allan Kaprow, “George Washington Bridge” (1955), oil on canvas, 37 5/8 x 46 1/4 inches

Kaprow, however, started off as a painter serious enough to study with the storied Hans Hofmann, and yet his approach reflected a pre-Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. This standpoint, as he put it in “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” followed the formal principles governing advanced painting “from Impressionism up to, say, Gorky,” in which “part-to-whole or part-to-part relationships, no matter how strained, [comprise] a good 50 percent of the making of a picture (most of the time they were a lot more, maybe 90 percent).”

At this point it should be noted that a version of ALLAN KAPROW. PAINTINGS NEW YORK was presented by Villa Merkel in Esslingen, Germany, in 2017. That show was a more wide-ranging survey of Kaprow’s paintings, encompassing the years 1946 to 1957, while Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition focuses on work dating only from 1954 to 1956, accompanied by a selection of drawings from 1978.

The Villa Merkel catalogue, which doubles as the catalogue for the Hauser & Wirth show, underscores the extent to which Kaprow’s art comes out of the School of Paris. In his catalogue essay, Villa Merkel’s director, Andreas Baur, cites the influence of “the grandfathers of European art” on Kaprow’s painting, listing Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, and Henri Matisse. I would add Pierre Bonnard, Chaim Soutine, and the artists of Die Brücke.

Allan Kaprow, “George Washington Bridge, with Cars” (1955), oil on canvas, 42 x 50 inches, © Allan Kaprow Estate, private collection of Michael and Jennifer Peters

Kaprow, therefore, occupied a Euro-centric position as a painter, though he eventually came to examine and deconstruct that tradition from a trans-Atlantic remove. When he wrote “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” he was in the act of transitioning from “part-to-whole or part-to-part relationships” to the beginnings of an art form that required the artist and the spectator to become “interchangeably involved.”

The paintings filling up the Hauser & Wirth townhouse on East 69th Street — the same address, as the gallery’s press release points out, occupied by the Martha Jackson Gallery, where Kaprow created his immersive environment “Yard” in 1961 — are redolent of his Cubist roots. Brushy, vigorous depictions of the George Washington Bridge and nudes in interiors, the paintings’ space is consistently squeezed against the picture plane, rendering inconsequential the distinction between near and far.

These are the works of a restless, even impatient talent. Except for some of the larger nudes, they look as if they were knocked off in a single session. He seems to be searching for something behind the paint.

Allan Kaprow, “Subway with Self Portrait” (1956), oil on canvas, 50 x 36 x 1 1/8 inches, © Allan Kaprow Estate

Despite his admiration for abstract painting in general and Pollock in particular, Kaprow continued to hold onto the image well into the 1950s, when it was considered passé by many critics and collectors — a stance that can be taken as evidence of his investment in “the outer world,” which he would ultimately pursue at the expense of the handmade object.

Having an artist’s words at our disposal affords us the opportunity to attempt a guided reading into the work and speculate on its direction and goals, even if they were hazy or unknown to the artist at the time. In light of Kaprow’s essay and its analysis of Pollock’s form and scale, it is reasonable to argue that, unlike other postwar figurative painters, he wasn’t struggling to reconcile recognizable subject matter with the painterly freedom espoused by the abstractionists. What seemed to matter more to him than expression — and what ironically led him away from painting — was the structure of the work and the materiality of the paint.

In contrast, Kaprow’s near-contemporary, Jan Müller (1922-1958), whose great canvases based on Goethe’s Faust were done at exactly the same time as the works in this show (and who also studied with Hofmann), believed, as he once wrote, “Art is first and foremost content.”

Allan Kaprow, “From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’” (1956), oil on canvas, 83 7/8 x 76 1/8 inches

Müller’s aims in composing a picture were narrative and literary (and, ultimately, moral), while Kaprow’s seem to foreground the fusion of the image with the medium — a merging of one reality with another — while attempting to break free, as Pollock did vis-à-vis the European Surrealists, from “work [that] is consistently ‘artful,’ ‘arranged,’ and full of finesse — aspects of outer control and training.” Unlike Müller’s “Walpurgisnacht” pictures, the extra-visual associations linked to Kaprow’s attempt at literary referencing, “From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses'” (1956) — presumably the Nighttown episode, given the provocatively posed nudes gathered like latter-day “Desmoiselles d’Avignon” — are the exception and not the rule.

In 1956, the same year Kaprow painted “Ulysses,” he embarked on a series of what he termed “action collages.” As Baur writes in the catalogue:

Influenced by the primacy of action exhibited in Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, and the significance John Cage placed on chance operations, Allan Kaprow made it his goal to produce the collages as quickly as possible. In the process, he expanded his work beyond the single material of paint.

The materials he used for the collages, represented here by “Blue Blue Blue,” “Caged Pheasant #1,” “Caged Pheasant #2,” and “Hysteria” (all 1956), included cardboard, silver foil, newspaper, and fabric. With these works he seems to leapfrog from pre-abstraction to post-abstraction, à la Robert Rauschenberg’s trash-and-cardboard assemblages.

Allan Kaprow, “Blue Blue Blue” (1956), collage and oil on canvas, 60 x 47 1/2 inches, © Allan Kaprow Estate

Paradoxically, despite their use of “real” materials, they fall short of establishing their own reality compared with the more formally secure representational paintings. The surfaces are highly activated, and the overall effect is one of energy and inventiveness, but the part-to-whole and part-to-part interactions don’t quite gel, succumbing to a breathless busyness rather than a solid push-and-pull, for lack of a better term.

To trace Kaprow’s transition from object to action, it’s worth turning again to what he wrote about Pollock — “[I]t is necessary to get rid of the usual idea of ‘Form,’ i.e., a beginning, middle, and end, or any variant of this principle—such as fragmentation” — keeping in mind that fragmentation is exactly what comprises Kaprow’s 1956 collages, which can be seen as a way station to someplace else:

We do not enter a painting of Pollock’s in any one place (or hundred places). Anywhere is everywhere, and we dip in and out when and where we can. This discovery has led to remarks that his art gives the impression of going on forever—a true insight that suggests how Pollock ignored the confines of the rectangular field in favor of a continuum going in all directions simultaneously, beyond the literal dimensions of any work.

For Kaprow, Pollock’s “mural-scale paintings ceased to become paintings, and became environments.” The dots connecting Pollock’s “Number 1” (1948) and Kaprow’s “Yard,” in this reading, constitute a straight line.

Allan Kaprow, “Hysteria” (1956), oil, silver foil and fabric collage on canvas, 71 3/4 x 67 3/8 inches, © Allan Kaprow Estate, Alexandre Carel, London

Or maybe not, or at least not entirely. Given the strength of painting’s hold on Kaprow, it would always operate as a background hum, complicating his relationship with performance. In a spectacularly misspelled mini-manifesto (reproduced as a declaratory wall text in the Hauser & Wirth show) that he scribbled on the front of the stretchers bearing the painting “Standing Nude Against Red and White Stripes” (1955), discovered in 2017 when the canvas was detached for reframing, the artists states:

OH THE PLEASURES OF PAINTING . PLAYING IN MUD . […] TO CREATE THINGS LIKE GOD . TO DISTROY [sic] AT WILL A WORLD OF MY OWN TO EXPERIMENT IN . A PHALS [sic] FALSE WORLD . WHERE NOTHING COUNTS . AND EVERYTHING COUNTS . […] THAT IS WHY I LOVE TO PAINT .  I WILL ALWAYS BE A PAINTER . OF SORTS

With his Happenings and Activities (defined as “non-audience performances”), Kaprow created social and formal interventions (participants drawing and erasing chalk lines on the street; holding hands with a stranger until discomfort sets in; spitting on the sidewalk and mopping it up) that brought art-making out of the studio and into the outer world, eliminating the boundary between artist and viewer.

Allan Kaprow, “Drawing based upon the breath” (1978), charcoal and conté crayon on paper, 19 x 25 1/2 inches

Decades after his first Happening, in 1978, Kaprow made a series of works on paper in charcoal and conté crayon called Drawing based upon the breath. Inspired by Zen meditation, they are composed mostly of simple, geometric shapes whose lines and erasures are derived from breathing, movement, and stillness.

In a way, they are “non-audience performances,” and in another, they are distillations into pure abstraction of the Cubist armatures structuring his early paintings of bridges and nudes. Installed on Hauser & Wirth’s third floor above the rooms displaying the paintings and collages, they also feel like the closing of a loop, works of the hand that are simultaneously actions and objects, ephemeral and concrete.

ALLAN KAPROW. PAINTINGS NEW YORK continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 7.

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