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An Interview with Allan Kaprow
John Held Jr.
The following interview was videotaped at the Dallas Public Library Cable Access Studio in 1988 while Mr. Kaprow was attending, "Proceedings," a sympiosium in his honor held at the University of Texas at Arligngton. It was subsequently broadcast on Dallas Cable Access TV.
John Held, Jr: Tonight we have a very special guest, Mr. Allan Kaprow, who is in Dallas this week of April 12 through 16 (1988) to have a retrospective of his actions of the past called "Proceedings" at the University of Texas at Arlington. Mr. Kaprow, it's a pleasure to have you with us this evening to talk about your work.
Allan Kaprow: Thank you.
JH: Of course, you are best known as the person who coined the phrase "happenings." I just wonder how you felt the first time you heard the Supremes singing that song, "The Happening." Did you...
AK: I'd already repudiated the word, because many other people before that were using it. It was a catch word. You remember everybody went around going, "What's happening, baby?" Political uprisings on campuses and advertisements for butter and brassieres were all using the word "happening." I remember one ad showed a floating woman in outer space, a starry background, and the legend was, "I dreamt I was in a happening in my Maidenform brassiere." So by that time movies and the Supremes and all were in general usage around the world in ways that had nothing to do with my original sense, which became so foreign to me that I just dropped it. However, it's like your name, you can't drop it without somebody coming and picking it up and saying, "You dropped something mister."
JH: The place you used it first was a paper about Jackson Pollack?
AK: Yes. It was actually semi-conscious. It occurred in a paragraph toward the end of the article, which was about the presumed legacy of that artist, who had died shortly before then, in which I said there are two directions in which the legacy could go. One is to continue into and develop an action kind of painting , which was what he was doing, and the other was to take advantage of the action itself, implicit as a kind of dance ritual. Instead of making ritualistic actions, which might be one directions someone could take, I was proposing the hop right into real life, that one could step right out of the canvas, which in his case, he did while painting them.
JH: It seems to be a continuation of the Abstract Expressionist concept that the process was just as important as the product. Tell me if I'm wrong, but you were bringing the painting to life?
AK: Well, painting as painting is a lively affair in any case. Let's not repudiate painting. My interest was not in negating painting, it was to add to the number of options that an artist had at that time. I had been a painter. I might even say that I was beginning to be somewhat successful among my colleagues at that point. That was 1956. But, the idea of going farther was a heritage of Modernism at that point. hat each younger generation went farther then the last one. And the notion of a progressive amplification of options, even of a revolutionary sort, was part of our upbringing. So I was offering that option, not as a denouncement, but rather as one more opening into some other future.
JH: You mentioned that you were a painter, and you were a student in the early fifties studying under some of...
AK: In the forties.
JH: In the forties. And early fifties with Meyer Schapiro?
AK: I studied painting then under the greatest teacher in the world of Modernist painting and that was Hans Hoffman, who was of course a distinguished member of the Abstract Expressionist group in New York. And that was the liveliest school you could find anywhere. It was superb. I was very lucky, and when I studied with Meyer Schapiro, who was an eminent historian, it was a parallel study. It was not only art in the practical sense, it was art history and the philosophy of art, which I had been studying in the university before that. That was to do my masters, and I thought at the time my post-graduate work too. But I got my masters degree and did most of my course work in art history for my PhD and then I got a job with his help, that is with Meyer Schapiro's help, at Rutger's, teaching art history, and chucked the whole post-graduate program, which they never let me forget.
JH: You were concentrating then on Mondrian. Why?
AK: He was my thesis. I was interested in what turned out to be a key to what I'm doing now, although I didn't realize it then. In that master's thesis, which was an intensive analysis of the optical effects of looking at Mondrian, in a way that I thought had gotten cues from his writings, that if you do that intensively, that is almost staring for as long as two hours at a painting, the relativity of all the parts increases to the point that the clarity that you first see in the picture, you know, those straight lines - the whites, the blacks, the reds, the blues, and the yellows - no longer are at all clear. They start bending. They start disappearing under your glance, in a way that using the same kind of staring technique at other works will not happen. So there is something unique about that, and I convinced that when he was talking about the mutual destruction of all parts of the work, which would produce some sort of transcendent unity at the end, he was dealing with the elimination of painting through itself. I didn't put it that way. I ascribed to it a kind of mystical state, which I think was correct in his terms. But later on the idea took form in a different way with me when, indeed, I separated the action of action painting from the painting part of it, and in a sense jumped into life.
JH: It was very interesting to me. Those were two great teachers, Hans Hoffman and Meyer Schapiro. At the same time, a great many things were happening at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and it seems that so many of your latter colleagues came out of Black Mountain, or had some experience with it. Did you yourself ever visit there?
AK: No. I tried to get a job there after I completed
my masters work and decided to stop doing the PhD. I didn't know what
to do next, and I thought I was getting this job at Rutgers, but I wasn't
sure so I was trying, as any young man would, as many options as I possibly
could. One of them was Black Mountain, and they said to me, people who
were colleagues of mine and friends, for example the composer Stefen
Volker was there, and Bill de Kooning had been there, and I asked them
about it. There was a party one night when they were in New York, some
of it's recruiters were in New York, trying to scare up students, and
I asked them for a job, and they said, "Sure, if you want to milk
cows. We can't pay you." So I told them politely, thank you, I'd
have to consider other alternatives.
AK: No. Not yet.
JH: You were running a gallery? The Hansa gallery. Did that come into being about this time?
AK: The Hansa was going for years before that. It started in '53 or '54, first at one of the artists studios, Wolf Kahn, then subsequently it got it's own place toward the end of '53, I think, down in the 4th Avenue area, near 9th or 10th Streets. But that then grew subsequently into an uptown gallery, which I was part of for awhile, and then, as a cooperative it dissolved as most of the artists went on to bigger and better commercial galleries. Then I joined the Judson Group downtown at the Judson Church. At the same time, I was part of the group that overlapped to become the Reuben Gallery, where the first happenings were given.
JH: One thing I was extremely interested in while reading over your biography was that you attended a class given by John Cage at the New School for Social Research. And the reason this intrigued me so much was that, being familiar with the Fluxus artists - Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Yoko Ono, etc. - that's how they started - from that class of Cage.
AK: He was a kind of train station. People would sort of gather there and wait for the next train. I actually was a student of his. That was not the case with all of them. Many of them were occasional visitors. But I was already teaching at Rutgers by then. That was 1957, and I knew him slightly. Knew his work, of course. But at that point I was trying to introduce a richer range of sound into the environmental stuff that I was doing parallel with the early happenings that were done. So I went to the class - I had been on a mushroom hunt with him, that's what it was, with George Brecht, who was a neighbor of mine at that time in New Jersey - and I asked John at that time about the problems I was having with the sounds. There were mechanical gadgets that I had gimmicked up as best I could, you know, those wonderful toys the Japanese made - gorillas that growl, cows that moo, and things like that - and these were interesting, but after awhile they got boring, rather mechanical and expected, so I asked him what to do. And he said, "Why don't you come to the class next week." So I drove in for the class, and he explained rather quickly that I could use tape decks, a half dozen cheap tape decks, make all the sounds in advance, and put them on in some sort of random order, or program them as I wanted, and then distribute loud speakers around the room, and these things would have a much greater richness, done in a collage fashion, which I could understand readily, having done that, then any of the mechanical toys I had done. So I thought that was - he explained it in five minutes. You just take sticky tape and stick all these things together which you've previously recorded and put into envelopes. And he said, "Why don't you stay for the class?" "Fine," I said. At the end of the class I was so fascinated with what was going on I asked him if I could attend it regularly, and he said, "Sure." And that's where I actually did the first proto-happenings with the participation of the rest of the class members. Everyone was given homework every week and came in with a piece. And that's where I began doing that sort of work.
JH: Some of the first happenings, aside from those in Cage's class, were done on George Segal's farm. And I know that the Fluxus people did things there too. They had a Yam Festival...
AK: That was done later. In 1963.
JH: So many things were going on there. What was the karma?
AK: Well, George Segal was a neighbor of mine, and became a fast friend, and has remained so. I was living on a chicken farm, in a cabin there, while teaching at Rutgers, and he was a painter so we got to know each other very quickly. And pretty soon there were years in which we had annual picnics for our artworld friends of ours, who never in those days got out of New York. So it was a big thing to come out for a weekend to either the farm I was living on, or the farm George was living on. It was there that in one of these years we decide as part of the entertainments, to try out some of the happenings that I had been working on in John Cage's class, or at least developing the prototypes for, but now on a somewhat bigger scale, because physically we could use the chicken coops, the fields, the tractors, whatever we wanted, and a casual atmosphere of friends was present that allowed people to do it, or not to do it, as they wished. And of course, that's where I started putting into some practice the things that I started in John's class.
JH: It occurs to me that alot of this type of activity had precursors in the Dada movement...
AK: Sure. And the Futurists.
JH: ..it was in the air then too, and then it petered out in the twenties, thirties..
AK: That's right.
JH: ...forties, and then all of a sudden in the fifties - here it was again - with yourself, and the Fluxus people, and Gutai in Japan...
AK: They were before us.
JH: ...and Yves Klein and the Nouveau Realists in France.
JH: It just happened again. Why? Why after all those years...
AK: There's no explanation for it. The usual kind of exhaustion principle, that the prior avant-garde had exhausted itself is true, but it's not an adequate explanation, because you don't find it happening with every exhaustion. So, why it happened pundits will have fun on speculating, and I'm sure they're all right. It's just beyond us. One could draw parallels today with the powerful conservative backlash that occurred right after the exhaustion of Abstract Expressionists around the world. Particularly those in New York in the Eisenhower years. You know, the rampages of Joe McCarthy and the Cold War in Europe. There were alot of features which resemble those of today. And one could say today perhaps almost for twenty years now, we've been in a neo-conservative state with back to all kinds of prototypical modernisms, now quoted, now so called post-modernist snide tickle-tickley cutesy stuff, all of it feeding a consumerist market, of course. Which has been revived when it was practically killed during the period that you're talking about. Well, who's to say how long this is going to last. There have been many many of these periods as there was before and whether this will be followed by a resurgence of experimentation is hard for anyone to predict. Meanwhile, of course, I'm still on this earth and very very healthy, thank heaven, and my experiments, like some of my colleagues from those days, still go on. They happen to be not particularly interesting to the prevailing tenor of the period.
JH: You mentioned Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde movement, and that it happened just previous to your involvement. Did you know about them?
AK: No. Not until 1958, which was when I had already begun working myself, so it was quite a refreshing thing to discover that by 1955 or so, for a few years up to that point, they had been very active. Coming from a very different cultural background though, not uncongenial with the West.
JH: Many of your contemporaries of the time formed a group, Fluxus, but you remained on you own. Fluxus, I should mentioned, revolved around the leadership of George Maciunas. But you didn't get sucked into that cyclone.
AK: Well, George and I couldn't get along. Indeed, he approached me as he did everybody else to sign my entire career away to him, and I thought this was a Fluxus joke. So I said, "Up yours." And he took it seriously. But he was a marvelous man. I mean the energy and cohesion that he gave to a disparate number of artists around the world was extraordinary. So I don't say this unpleasant part history with any kind of rancor. It was like oil and water.
JH: He was a very difficult person to get along with.
JH: You are mportant in several areas. One is performance. It has many levels now, but you're considered to be a father of the modern movement in performance. Another thing is installation, and your work with what you called assemblage.
AK: Well, let's backtrack a minute. Performance is the replacement of the word happening, or event, or activity, which we used in those days to refer to a number of somewhat related kinds of real time events. What's called an installation today is the child of what used to be called, before the happenings, an environment. Now, I think that if you look at the words there, the shifts indicate something like a real change toward the installation compared to that of the environment, and the performance to that of the happening. If you look at the word installation, installation means, very simply and literally, that somebody is taking something already fabricated or made, generally, and installing it. It has a kind of implicit art activity to it. It also suggests a kind of aesthetic intentionally, much as you would install a sculpture in a museum. The environment, the etymology of the word, and the whole connotation of the word environment, is that of a surround, in which the particular parts are not necessarily placed with some kind of formal care for their external cohesion, but rather as an interaction between the person who is being surrounded and the stuff of that environment. It has a kind of a fullness to it, which the work installation doesn't. Installation suggests a discreteness. Now, look at the word performance. It too has a conservative evocation. When you hear that word you think of Jascha Heifitz performing on the violin, Sir Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare, and so on. You don't ordinarily think of a high performance engine, which is the more vernacular meaning of the word in English, and in many other European languages it's used the same way. So, there is the return to a kind of artifying activity, a kind of singular focus on the performer as artist, in a way that a virtuoso was a performer in classical music, or still is. Or an actor.
Now, I think those two words, installation and performance, mark accurately the shift in attitude toward a rejection or sense of abandonment of an experimental, modernist, position which had prevailed up to about, lets be generous, up to about 1968-1969, and began gradually becoming less and less energized. So, I think what you're getting there is the flavor of modernist exhaustion and incidently a return to earlier prototypes, or models, of what constitutes art. And it's no accident that the majority of most performance nowadays, there's not much installation anymore, by the way, the majority of those performances tend to be of an entertainment, show biz, song and dance, in which the focus is on the individual as skilled presenter of something that tends to have a kind of self-aggrandizing, or at least self-focusing, purpose. It is artist as performer, much like somebody is an entertainer in a nightclub. And they're interesting. Some of them are very good. I think Laurie Anderson is very good. She's got all the skills that are needed in theater, which is what this is. Many others who jump on the bandwagon, coming from the visual arts, have no theatrical skills, and know zilch about the timing, about the voic about positioning, about transitions, about juxtapositions, those moment by moment occurrences in theater that would make it work. But it's another animal, whether good or bad, from what we were doing, and I think, in general, even the good ones are a conservatizing movement.
JH: You prefer the activity, or the event, rather then an audience/actor dichotomy. You were taking the action away from galleries and into the environment itself.
AK: Well, I wanted to pursue this thread, so to speak. I was like a hound dog on the scent. I wasn't particularly concerned about leading the artworld like the Pied Piper. I mean, it would be nice if they followed, but it wasn't really necessary. So you asked a moment ago about how I wasn't part of a group, although I occasionally intersected, and the reason is that I was really quite charmed by this scent that I was on. So, I don't want to put anybody else at a disadvantage here as being less good. But what interested me was that scent, which was, to put it another way, about the possibility of a totally new art. An art, which like Mondrian's pictures, would dissolve into a kind of life equivalent.
JH: Unfortunately we are short on time, and I can't pursue as many lines as I'd love to pursue. We are skipping over an illustrious teaching career at the University of California at San Diego, and also brings us to why you are here in Dallas this week to participate in a retrospective of your actions. Are you excited about this point that you've come to, where a whole week is being devoted to your past work?
AK: Well, I haven't had a chance to be excited yet (laughs), the work is so overwhelming. But what I should say in a capsule, is that the idea that I should have a retrospective was essentially that of Jeff Kelly, with the approval of the former-chair, Jeff Sperlock of the University of Texas at Arlington. They proposed it. Jeff getting on the phone quite often. And at first it seemed impossible, because how can you retrospect on a thirty-year career where everything was a throw-away.
Events were simply dissolved into the air, as all events are. And the best one could have about those events was a memory, distorted perhaps, but a memory. So, it occurred to us, that the way that we may go about this was not to have a show in the conventional sense, since there's nothing to show, but to have a yearlong of retrospections. Which might mean, and it turned out this way, that I would invent my career. And that's the way it would be interesting to me.
All these events had been, for the most part, once only
things, and they were meant as changeable events, there was no fixed
form in them, depending upon where they were, who did them, so why not
continue to change my memory of them. After all, it's a faulty memory,
and I might as well take the whole thing by the horns, so to speak,
and do it with great joy. That is, change willfully.
JH: Did you have some of the same people...
AK: I tried to get them, but for one reason or another, some of them just weren't available.
JH: Because I was just looking at the original program today and it was a pretty impressive cast, such as John Cage, Ray Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Filliou, George Brecht...
AK: There were alot of my colleagues there. But for
one reason or another we couldn't get them this time. They were busy
AK: Thank you.
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