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Kaprow, Allan

A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art

Ian Chilvers,

John Glaves-Smith

Kaprow, Allan (1927–2006) 

American artist and art theorist, best known as the main creator of Happenings. He was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and graduated from New York University in 1949. He then studied painting at Hans Hofmann's school, 1947–8, history of art under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, 1950–52 (his MA thesis was on Mondrian), and with the musician John Cage at the New School for Social Research, New York, 1956–8. From Cage (who is sometimes credited with creating the first Happening at Black Mountain College in 1952) Kaprow took over the idea of chance and indeterminacy in aesthetic organization. In the mid-1950s he gave up painting for assemblages and then environments, and in October 1958 published an article in Art News entitled ‘The Legacy of Pollock’. For Kaprow, Pollock was an artist who had an ‘amazingly childlike capability of becoming involved in the stuff of his art as a group of concrete facts seen for the first time’ and who ‘left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life’. The conclusion was that ‘art’ could no longer be defined by specific media and that for the young artist, ‘All of life will be open to him’. Happenings entered the public arena at the Reuben Gallery, New York, in 1959, although Kaprow evidently staged a comparable event the previous year in George Segal's chicken farm. The essential feature of the Happening as theorized by Kaprow is the breakdown of the barrier between performance and spectator. Indeed in a true Happening there is no audience, only participants. Kaprow's Happenings took place in discontinuous places and times to avoid the closed structures of theatre and traditional art forms which ‘contain highly sophisticated habits’ (Untitled Guidelines for Happenings, c.1965). For instance, Calling (1965) was in two sections, a ‘city section’ on Saturday followed by a ‘country section’ on Sunday, according to an already socially inscribed pattern of ‘shopping’ and ‘rural leisure’. In the city section ‘Wrapped figures left in public places call each other’; the country section took place in the woods where ‘people are found hanging, undressed and left to call each other’ (Henri). Kaprow was an evangelic promoter of his ideas through his teaching at various universities and his voluminous output of writings, as well as through his own performances. His books include Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (1966). Claes Oldenburg and Lucas Samaras are among the artists who cite him as an important influence on their work.

Further Reading

A. Henri, Environments and Happenings (1974)Find this resource:

A. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1996)Find this resource: