Allan Kaprow

Inventor of happenings

Monday 17 April 2006 00:00 BST

Allan Kaprow, artist: born Atlantic City, New Jersey 23 August 1927; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Encinitas, California 5 April 2006.

It is ironic that Allan Kaprow will be remembered for a form of art whose point, perversely, was that it should not be remembered. In October 1959, Kaprow gathered a group of friends - John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg among them - in the Reuben Gallery in New York. On cue, this group moved around the gallery, pausing to squeeze oranges or play music on toy instruments. There was no word to describe this kind of art, no such thing having been done before. Its creator had called it "Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts", and the term stuck. From then on, Kaprow was The Man Who Invented The Happening; an honorific he grew to hate, and which oveshadowed his later career.

This was a pity for two reasons. First, happenings were misunderstood by the public as flaky things carried out by beatniks with bongo drums. Actually, their pedigree, like that of their inventor, was intellectually immaculate, and they were far from being the haphazard things they seemed.

Kaprow had trained as a painter with the German-born American Abstractionist Hans Hofmann, before studying for a doctorate on Mondrian at Columbia under the art historian Meyer Schapiro, and then at the New School with the composer John Cage. (Among his Cage contemporaries was the Fluxus artist Yoko Ono.) An early apostle of Jackson Pollock, Kaprow then wrote a series of ground-breaking essays on Action Painting. In one of these, he noted that not only were Pollock's sprayings and dribblings "not the old craft of painting, but [that they] perhaps bordered on ritual itself".

Like many artists of his day, Kaprow came to see the fetishising of works of art as a symptom of capitalist decline. By the late 1950s, the action of Action Painting was more important to him than the painting. "Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts" was a moral and political work, unsellable, uncollectable, defying the market. It was also fiercely democratic: where Situationists held every man to be his own artist, a happening turned him into his own artwork. "Life is much more interesting than art," Kaprow observed, cutting out the middlemen of transformation and representation.

Not that his version of life was left to chance. Although later happenings by lesser artists were often slapdash, Kaprow's were always tightly organised. In one, people standing around Times Square in New York were ordered to fall to the pavement at a given signal, before being loaded onto a lorry and driven away. In another, Kaprow patiently built a six-foot wall of bread in Berlin using jam as mortar, and then knocked the whole thing down. Critics, lost for an explanation, compared his happenings to Dada. The difference, perhaps, was that Kaprow's "action collages" - his earlier term for the works - were not meant as ridiculous. For all their echoes of Absurdism, they were glimpses of life, unstretched and unvarnished.

This was not how the public saw them, however. By the mid-Sixties, "happening" had become a word applied to anything rebellious, trendy or simply weird. Political uprisings on university campuses were happenings; their participants asked each other, "What's happening, baby?" and described themselves as happening people. A US underwear maker ran a television ad over the legend, "I dreamed I was at a happening in my Maidenform bra"; Diana Ross and the Supremes sang a song called "The Happening".

Kaprow, exasperated, tried to distance himself from the word. "It's like your name, though," he recalled, mournfully. "You can't just drop it without somebody coming along, picking it up and saying, 'Hey, mister, you dropped something'." Much against his will, he became a guru. Campus revolutionaries rang him for help; Life magazine put the sagely bearded artist on their cover. The more famous he became, the less happy he was. "I really couldn't handle the public exposure," said Kaprow. "So I pulled back, not into the past but into a private world."

Eager to put some distance between himself and New York, he took his first wife and children to California in the late Sixties. He taught at Berkeley before moving, in 1974, to the newly founded University of California at San Diego, where he spent the rest of his career. Although Kaprow initially carried on organising happenings - he had a house built from ice in the biting Californian sun, for example - he scaled his works down to a more intimate form in which two people might stand on each other's shadows or breathe into their mouths. These he re-dubbed "activities", at which, to his undisguised relief, "everyone immediately lost interest".

Kaprow's fame as the inventor of happenings, combined with the willed anonymity of his later years, have led to his broader importance to modern art being overlooked. He influenced everyone from painters like Roy Lichtenstein to poets like Adrian Henri; there isn't a performance artist alive who does not owe him some debt. Together with Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg, he pioneered works known as "environments" in the early 1960s. Now re-christened Installations, these are among the mainstays of contemporary art-making.

Glad to be freed from the burden of happenings, Kaprow was philosophical about his neglect. Asked to curate a retrospective of his work at the University of Texas, he thought for a moment and replied, "How can you retrospect on a 30-year career where everything was throwaway?"

Charles Darwent

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