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Original Creators: Performance Art Pioneer Allan Kaprow

Original Creators: Performance Art Pioneer Allan Kaprow

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator,” an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Allan Kaprow.

There was a time when the term “Happening” took an important place in artistic and philosophical conceptions. By fostering the desire to break the boundaries between art and life, Allan Kaprow embarked on the adventure of “art as an experience”, according to the words of John Dewey. As a young painter, he attended seminars from John Cage at the New School for Social Research in 1956 and 1957 and developed an interest for the works of Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie and Antonin Artaud. Kaprow later became the leader of those who reject every assumption about art, thus erasing the boundaries between art and non-art. Assembling and gluing his pieces, he became one of the first artists to propose installations to the rest of the world.


The idea of the Happening

In 1958, Kaprow published an essay entitled The Legacy of Jackson Pollock in which he pleads for “concrete art” built from everyday material. He coined the term Happening to make people forget about the artistic habits linked to the transmission of savoir-faire. According to him, the act of performance has no beginning and no end, and shouldn’t impose a hierarchy between the artist and the audience, for it is the audience’s reactions that make the artwork and give a unique character to Happenings.


18 Happenings in Six Parts at the Reuben Gallery, New York

The first Happening

18 Happenings in Six Parts took place for the first time in October 1959 at the Reuben Gallery in Manhattan, New York. Visitors were invited to experiment with the gallery space and to interact with the elements of the piece. We could see people pressing oranges or playing instruments. Kaprow then developed the idea suggesting that Happenings should spark off a creative reaction from the viewers, encouraging them to make their own connections between their ideas and the event they’re attending.


Fluids, 1967

A theoretical definition of performance

In his book Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings, published in 1966, Allan Kaprow offered a base reference on the notion of performance. Blurring the limits between art and life, he continues his creative enterprise by developing happenings which will act as reports of the progress of his research and his desire to escape from the systematic pigeonholing in visual arts. In 1967, he presented Fluids, followed by Transfer in 1968. With these two performances, Kaprow led groups of volunteers to perform construction tasks which looked pretty pointless: building a structure of ice under the sun, or moving empty barrels from their storing place. But the purpose of these happenings was to isolate the experience while engaging the attention and the energy of its participants. Kaprow drew a certain poetry from daily life, something that no material will ever be able to capture.


Transfer, 1968