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Allan Kaprow has been described as an avant-garde revolutionary, a radical sociologist, a Zen(ish) monk, a progressive educator, and an anti-art theorist. But, above all, as this book reminds us, he has been an influential artist. Known for his "Happenings," Kaprow created vanguard performances in the early 1960s in which he collaged various art forms (painting, music, dance), disguised as ordinary things (newspaper, noise, body movement), into quasi-theatrical events.
In the decades since, his works have remained open to the changing character of contemporary experience, always seeking the thresholds at which art and life converge. Because this art places such emphasis on direct experience, some people today think Kaprow's works were primarily transitory and immaterial. Childsplay corrects that misconception by providing a vivid description of Kaprow's Happenings and other art activities, clarifying their materiality, duration, and setting, as well as the ways in which people participated in them. Jeff Kelley brings the artist, his era, and his work to life by showing that Kaprow's artworks were physically present, socially engaged, and intellectually resonant in the moment of their enactment.
Foreword: Allan at Work—David Antin
1. John Dewey and the Ranch
2. A Prelude
3. Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts
4. Happenings in the New York Scene
6. On the Road
7. Passing Through
8. The Education of the Un-Artist, I
9. The Education of the Un-Artist, II
10. The Education of the Un-Artist, III
List of Illustrations
Encouraged by the success of Sweeping, Kaprow staged another outdoor Happening, A Service for the Dead II, performed on the beach at Bridgehampton in the dusk of a late August evening in 1962. It began with a procession of people moving toward the water, some carrying cardboard boxes and "fluttering bedspreads," others "wheeling a bicycle, rolling a few oil drums and a car tire," and dragging junk metal. When the procession reached the water's edge, a team of "carpenters" constructed a wooden platform topped with bedsprings. Several men with plastic bags over their heads rolled down the grassy sand dunes, a hundred yards or so away from the shoreline, then threw themselves into several large pits and were buried by others (including some children) up to their noses. A plastic-clad woman rolled down the dunes and slithered along the ground toward the raised platform, from which the carpenters drank and spit out beer, sometimes hitting the woman. The action was accompanied by low booming sounds from behind the dunes. The woman climbed the platform, up onto the bedsprings. The carpenters lifted the bedsprings and the woman down from the platform, which they then set on fire. A screaming man in the crowd brandished a tree limb and suddenly rushed into the sea, which threw him back. A ship's distress horn pierced theevening air. A line of five "noisemakers," people playing drums and horns, marched past the crowd toward the burning platform. They stopped near the woman on the bedsprings, lifted her to their shoulders, and walked slowly and silently toward a large blinking light at the water's edge, trudging as far as they could into the pounding waves before being washed back onto the beach, where they lay motionless.
There was something touchingly futile about these shenanigans by the sea. The rhythmic noises, the funeral pyre, the sacrifice and burial, and the light blinking out over the water were rendered pathetic, even poignant, by the power and indifference of the ocean. The meaning of each part of the performance was of little importance, since its cumulative effect was overwhelmed by the proximity of the forces of nature. This particular stretch of Long Island was known for the preponderance of psychiatrists who summered there, and this had prompted Kaprow to use the overwrought imagery of crossing the dunes from land to sea, symbolic of the divide between reason and the unconscious. The "service" was a synthesis of his two most recent Happenings, A Service for the Dead and Sweeping, employing similar materials, ritualisms, images, and clichés. Kaprow was getting good at this type of pseudo-somber, tongue-in-cheek re-creation, and it occurred to him that maybe he was coming into a league of his own when it came to putting on a show. words
The next month, in September 1962, Kaprow responded to an invitation to show at the Smolin Gallery in New York by creating an environment called Words (plates 4-5). Kaprow divided the gallery space, which was inside an apartment, into two rooms. The first, outer room, nine by nine feet in size, was the more public, rhetorical of the two. Four colored lightbulbs hung at eye level, and two vertical rows of lights reached from floor to ceiling on opposite walls. On two of the walls, five vertical loops of cloth stenciled with words had been hung side by side, and visitors were invited to roll the loops so that words would align or misalign (recalling a slot machine). Hundreds of strips of paper, each containing a single handwritten word, were stapled onto the other two walls; here, visitors were encouraged to tear off the strips and replace them with others that had been nailed to a central post. All the words on cloth and paper had been randomly gathered from "poetry books, newspapers, comic magazines, the telephone book, popular love stories," and so forth. Crudely lettered overhead signs urged visitors to "staple word strips," "play," "tear off new words from post and staple them up," and "make new poems," among other actions. Fixed to a small stepladder was a sign saying, "climb! climb! climb! climb! staple!" Another sign, "lissen here hear records," directed visitors to three record players, on which recordings of lectures, shouts, advertisements, nonsensical ramblings, and so forth could be played simultaneously.
The smaller, inner room, maybe eight feet square, was painted blue and illuminated by a lone lightbulb. Overhead was a black plastic sheet, creating a false ceiling that made the dark room seem like a graffiti space, recalling alleys and public toilets, in contrast to the brash, carnivalesque openness of the first room. Hanging from slits in the plastic ceiling were torn strips of cloth, and clipped onto these were many small pieces of paper with handwritten notes. Near the entrance, paper, clips, and pencils were provided for visitors to add their own notes. Also hanging from the ceiling, at the end of long strings, were pieces of colored chalk that could be used to write or draw on the blue walls. A record player on the floor played barely audible whispering sounds.
With Words, Kaprow bettered his invitation to eat in The Apple Shrine by inviting his audience to contemplate the Word, albeit a decidedly secular and pointedly urban Word, calling to mind graffiti, notes passed in class, advertising, political banners, and the like. In a brief catalogue introduction, he declared, "I am involved with the city atmosphere of billboards, newspapers, scrawled pavements and alley walls, in the drone of a lecture, whispered secrets, pitchmen in Times Square, fun-parlors, bits of stories in conversations overheard at the Automat. All this has been compressed and shaped into a situation which, in order to 'live' in the fullest sense, must actively engage the viewer." To engage the viewer, in other words, was to bring words to life-and life came to language through play.
Nearly twenty years before the "pleasure of the text" became intellectually de rigueur on the streets of lower Manhattan, Kaprow was inviting his guests to take pleasure in the random alignments, fleeting abutments, revealing elisions, half-audible utterances, embarrassing associations, fading echoes, silent omissions, and slippery alliances of language. But this wasn't the disembodied sense of the linguistic field that we have suffered since; the words were fragments of the physical environment, a pre-postindustrial architecture of signs, notes, doodles, carvings, shouts, and whispers. This was evident particularly in the outer room, which was a distillation of the city-as-language. If Kaprow's randomness was Cagean, his sense of the surrounding space, of the "overallness" of language, was derived (again) from Pollock, but with a physicality that eschewed aesthetic mannerism and partook of the street speech all around.
The inner room was more subdued, contemplative, furtive. Unlike the blaring signage of the outer room, the pieces of torn cloth hanging inside were like strands of thought suggesting a more private, slower, internal kind of speech. Perhaps Kaprow's sensitivity to this difference came out of his childhood experiences in group homes, where privacy was hard to come by. The inner room was also less arranged, more organic in the ways people left notes or took them or marked on the walls. Thus, a contrast between public and private speech-between shouts and whispers, rhetoric and thought, the polis and the individual, reason and intuition-emerged as the underlying metaphor of Words.
Art in the United States was on a precipice, nearing the advent of Pop, and words were about to become one of the great subjects of American art. But for Kaprow, words were neither artifacts of popular iconography nor abstractions; they were sounds resonating in the body, letters painted by hand, pitches made on the street, objects traded like baseball cards, walls that hemmed you in. Kaprow wanted to drain words of literary meaning by inviting people to engage in such ordinary activities as "doodling, playing anagrams or scrabble, searching for just the right word to express a thought," and so on. These actions would literalize-secularize-the Word. The experience of leaving a note for someone or stapling one word over another would supplant the denotative meaning of the words, giving rise to the connotations of doing. Like myths, language could be emptied of meaning through experience-through the experience of play in particular. At a time when Kaprow, as an academic, was continually required to justify his professional station with language, and when he was increasingly known as the spokesman for Happenings, he wanted to get speech out of his system by creating a playground of words. He remembers lots of schoolchildren visiting his environment; he also recalls Mark Rothko showing up one night with a sour look on his face.
If Kaprow wanted to empty himself of language in Words, with his next Happening, Chicken, he wished to empty himself of theater. Performed in November 1962 in Philadelphia, Chicken was a macabre Ring Cycle, a carnival-like version of the collapse of Western civilization, full of quasi-sacrifices, feasting, and anarchy, followed by a mock restoration of order. In a brief prologue spoken to the audience before the performance, Kaprow said, "I have conceived this Happening as the enactment of a comic-tragedy about ourselves, full of the utterly ridiculous and the painfully stark. These opposing qualities are contained in the several meanings we might attach to the work's title and its main symbol: chicken."
The set, laid out in a large auditorium with the chairs removed and the stage curtains drawn, was composed of five hanging wire-mesh spheres, each containing a plucked chicken and a sixty-watt lightbulb; a nine-foot-high wood, wire, and tar-paper sculpture in the abstracted form of a chicken; a seven-foot-square wooden cage covered with chicken wire, holding a man reading a newspaper and three cardboard boxes containing live chickens; a six-foot-high wooden platform with posts supporting beams thirty feet above the floor (like a gallows), from which a fifty-gallon steel drum was suspended by a rope and pulley; and six large tables arranged in a semicircle around the platform.
Each table was a station for a different "pitchman," who, megaphone in hand, vied for audience members' attention as they wandered by. The pitchmen then poked and examined the dead chickens, lectured about their uses and benefits, gave small broilers away by spinning a prize wheel, and heated eggs with candles, offering them to the audience or tossing them onto the floor. On one table, a man with a dejected look on his face and a dead chicken around his neck would, when tapped on the head by a salesman's pointer, rock back and forth, flap his arms, cluck loudly, and rise to his feet, crowing like a rooster. On another table, a woman with a lightbulb hanging over her head (like the chickens in the wire-mesh spheres) sat inside a closet-sized wooden frame covered with semitransparent plastic-a kind of incubator-while a record player at her feet played clucking sounds.
The wooden cage containing the man reading the newspaper and the boxes of live chickens was overturned several times, the birds becoming hysterical. The giant tar-paper chicken sculpture was demolished. The plucked chickens hanging in the wire-mesh spheres were cut down and handed from one person to another, bucket-brigade style, toward the wooden platform, where they were placed directly beneath the steel drum, which came down like a piston and crushed them one by one until only a mash of chicken flesh remained. The guillotine allusion was clear. Anarchy reigned. Throughout the set, chickens were broiled, boiled, plucked, diced, offered to the audience, and, in one instance, thrown at a stack of boxes.
The whole bizarre spectacle was as common as a chicken dinner and as morbid as a public execution. It was part sales convention, part slaughterhouse. In the end, two "police officers" pushed their way into the hall, yanked the pitchmen away, and sprayed the overturned cage-including the man and the birds-with a fine white powder. Order was restored.
Chicken cycled from life to death to market to waste, from chaos to control, from food to physical energy to exhaustion. In Sweeping, the chicken had been a phoenix; here, it was a eucharistic body being processed into a parody of the society it helps feed. Kaprow was very aware of chicken symbolism, and he used its cyclic, regenerative, sacrificial, and silly qualities as a way of sketching a rough narrative that was progressive and cumulative, with lots of energy and a fresh, unstudied physicality. The theatrics of Chicken turned the myths of sacrifice, regeneration, and so on into carnival gags, albeit with a gallows humor and a horrific edge. Kaprow regarded these myths as cultural debris-the refuse of belief systems-and he used them, like he used any other garbage, generously and as a parody of the mythic weight of art: in this case, of theater. Through parody, Kaprow released a participatory energy that was not dependent upon the meanings of the myths, creating an "avant-carnival" that for a moment masked the ordinariness of activities like sweeping or food processing. In a carnival, the ordinary beliefs of society are called up for critique, which Kaprow did in Chicken by turning food processing into a spasm of animal sacrifice. Still, his critique was not moralistic; rather, it was an attempt to transform mythic scenarios into narratives of play. Although Chicken looked a lot like theater, its purpose was not to create an illusion or advance a story, but to discharge the power of its background myths as physical energy. This was as close to theater as Kaprow got.
Happenings, by this time increasingly popular with the media, served a particular purpose for Kaprow. They were his vehicles for working his way out of theater. Since 1959, he had used them as experimental situations in which he could penetrate, squeeze, and scatter the audience; replace dramatic narrative with ritualisms, mythic scenarios, and common tasks; parody the theatrics of modern urban culture; and dissipate theater's need for culmination by simply announcing the end and then walking away. His use of ritualisms and mythic scenarios had allowed him to compose theatrical events that processed the meanings of rituals and myths into forms of everyday action.
Excerpted from Childsplay by Jeff Kelley Excerpted by permission.
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