Allan Kaprow

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Allan Kaprow
Born (1927-08-23)August 23, 1927
Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States
Died April 5, 2006(2006-04-05) (aged 78)
Encinitas, California, United States
Nationality American
Education New York University
Known for Installation art, Painting
Notable work Happenings
Movement Fluxus

Allan Kaprow (August 23, 1927 – April 5, 2006) was an American painter, assemblagist and a pioneer in establishing the concepts of performance art. He helped to develop the "Environment" and "Happening" in the late 1950s and 1960s, as well as their theory. His Happenings - some 200 of them - evolved over the years. Eventually Kaprow shifted his practice into what he called "Activities", intimately scaled pieces for one or several players, devoted to the study of normal human activity in a way congruent to ordinary life. Fluxus, Performance art, and Installation art was, in turn, influenced by his work.

Academic career[edit]


Kaprow began his early education in Tucson, Arizona where he attended boarding school. Later he would attend the High School of Music and Art in New York where his fellow students were the artists Wolf Kahn, Rachel Rosenthal and the future New York gallerist Virginia Zabriskie. As an undergraduate at New York University, Kaprow was influenced by John Dewey's book Art as Experience.[1] He studied in the Arts and philosophy as a graduate student. He received his MA degree from Columbia University in art history. He started in the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in 1947. It was here that he started with a style of action painting, which greatly influenced his Happenings pieces in years to come.


Through a long teaching career, he held teaching positions at Rutgers, Pratt Institute, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the California Institute of the Arts, before serving as a full-time faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, where he taught from 1974 to 1993.[2] He went on to study (time-based) composition with John Cage in his class at the New School for Social Research, painting with Hans Hofmann, and art history with Meyer Schapiro. Kaprow started his studio career as a painter, and later co-founded the Hansa and Reuben Galleries in New York and became the director of the Judson Gallery. With John Cage's influence, he became less and less focused on the product of painting, and instead on the action. In the late 1950s and early 1960s while working as a Professor at Rutgers University, he helped to create the group Fluxus, along with Professors Robert Watts, Geoffrey Hendricks, and Roy Lichtenstein, artists George Brecht, and George Segal, and undergraduates Lucas Samaras and Robert Whitman.[3] This is when he started his "Happenings".

Chronology of Teaching Institutions[edit]

Rutgers University 1953-1961
Pratt Institute 1960-1961
State University of New York at Stony Brook 1961-1966
California Institute of Arts 1966-1974
University of California San Diego 1974-1993

The Happenings[edit]

In 1958, Kaprow published the essay "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock". In it he demands a "concrete art" made of everyday materials such as "paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies." In this particular text, he uses the term "happening" for the first time stating that craftsmanship and permanence should be forgotten and perishable materials should be used in art.[4]

The "Happenings" first started as tightly scripted events, in which the audience and performers followed cues to experience the art.[1] To Kaprow, a Happening was "A game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing." Furthermore, Kaprow says that the Happenings were "events that, put simply, happen." There was no structured beginning, middle, or end, and there was no distinction or hierarchy between artist and viewer. It was the viewer's reaction that decided the art piece, making each Happening a unique experience that cannot be replicated. These "Happenings" represent what we now call New Media Art. It is participatory and interactive, with the goal of tearing down the wall a.k.a. "the fourth wall" between artist and observers, so observers are not just "reading" the piece, but also interacting with it, becoming part of the art.

One such work, titled "Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts", involved an audience moving together to experience elements such as a band playing toy instruments, a woman squeezing an orange, and painters painting.[1] His work evolved, and became less scripted and incorporated more everyday activities.[5] Another example of a Happening he created involved bringing people into a room containing a large abundance of ice cubes, which they had to touch, causing them to melt and bringing the piece full circle.

Kaprow's most famous happenings began around 1961 to 1962, when he would take students or friends out to a specific site to perform a small action. He gained significant attention in September 1962 for his "Words" performance at the Smolin Gallery. However, the ritualistic nature of his happenings is nowhere better illustrated than in "Eat" (1964), which took place in an old cave with irregular floors criss-crossed with pudddles and streams. As Canadian playwright Gary Botting described it, "The 'visitors' entered through an old door, and walked down a dark, narrow corridor and up steps to a platform illuminated by an ordinary light bulb. Girls offered red and white wine to each visitor. Apples and bunches of bananas dangled from the ceiling and a girl fried banana fritters on a hotplate. In a small cave, entered only by climbing a ladder, a performer cut, salted and distributed boiled potatoes. In a log hut, bread and jam were served. Bread was stuffed between the logs. The visitors could eat and drink at random for an hour. There was no dialogue other than that used in the interaction of the visitors with the performers." [6] Botting noted that "Eat" appealed to all the senses and superadded to that was the rhythmic, repeated ticking of metronomes set at the pace of a human heartbeat, simulating ritualistic drumming. Furthermore, "The 'visitors' were involved physically (by being required to walk, eat, drink, etc.), mentally (by being required to follow directions), emotionally (by the darkness and strangeness of the interior of the cave), and mystically (by the 'mystery' of what is beyond the walls of the hut or in the inner cave."[7] In short, Kaprow developed techniques to prompt a creative response from the audience, encouraging audience members to make their own connections between ideas and events. In his own words, "And the work itself, the action, the kind of participation, was as remote from anything artistic as the site was."[8] He rarely recorded his Happenings which made them a one time occurrence.[9]

Kaprow's work attempts to integrate art and life. Through Happenings, the separation between life, art, artist, and audience becomes blurred. The "Happening" allows the artist to experiment with body motion, recorded sounds, written and spoken texts, and even smells. One of his earliest "Happenings" was the "Happenings in the New York Scene," written in 1961 as the form was developing. Kaprow calls them unconventional theater pieces, even if they are rejected by "devotees" of theater because of their visual arts origins. These "Happenings" use disposable elements like cardboard or cans making it cheaper on Kaprow to be able to change up his art piece every time. The minute those elements break down, he can get more disposable materials together and produce another improvisational master piece. He points out that their presentations in lofts, stores, and basements widens the concept of theater by destroying the barrier between audience and play and "demonstrating the organic connection between art and its environment." [1] There have been recreations of his pieces, such as "Overflow", a tribute to the original 1967 "FLUIDS" Happening.

In 2014 This Is Not A Theatre Company restaged two of Allen Kaprow's Happenings in New York City as part of the exhibit "Allen Kaprow. Other Ways" at the Fundacio Antoni Tapies in Barcelona: Toothbrushing Piece ("performed privately with friends"), and Pose ("Carrying chairs through the city. Sitting down here and there. Photographed. Pix left on the spot. Going on").

He has published extensively and was Professor Emeritus in the Visual Arts Department of the University of California, San Diego. Kaprow is also known for the idea of "un-art", found in his essays [2] "Art Which Can't Be Art" and "The Education of the Un-Artist."

Many well-known artists, for example, Claes Oldenburg, cite him as an influence on their work.[10]

His influence is also evident at the California Institute of the Arts, where he taught during his early formative years.

For more information on his work while at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ see Fluxus at Rutgers University.

The Happening even had media coverage in the New York Times[11]

Published works[edit]

Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (1966) presented the work of like-minded artists through both photographs and critical essays, and is a standard text in the field of performance art. Kaprow's Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1993), a collection of pieces written over four decades, has made his theories about the practice of art in the present day available to a new generation of artists and critics. [12]


  • "The line between the Happening and daily life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."
  • "...the problem with artlike art, or even doses of artlike art that still linger in lifelike art, is that it overemphasizes the discourse within art..."[8]
  • "...lifelike art makers' principal dialogue is not with art but everything else, one event suggesting another."
  • Referencing the passing of artist Jackson Pollock: "...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."
  • "I am not so sure whether what we do now is art or something not quite art. If I call it art, it is because I wish to avoid the endless arguments some other name would bring forth."
  • "In this context of achievement-and-death, artist who make Happenings are living out the purest melodrama. Their activity embodies the myth of nonsuccess, for Happenings cannot be sold and taken home; they can only be supported..."
  • "Habitats have always had this effect, but it is especially important now, when our advanced art approaches a fragile but marvelous life, one that maintains itself by a mere thread, melting the surroundings, the artist, the work, and everyone who comes to it into an elusive, changeable configuration."
  • "Some of us will probably become famous. It will be an ironic fame fashioned largely by those who have never seen our work."
  • "A play assumes that words are the almost absolute medium. A Happening frequently has words, but they may or may not make literal sense."
  • "It has always seemed to me that American creative energy only becomes charged by such a sense of crisis"
  • "This everyday world affects the way art is created as much as it conditions its response."
  • "even when things have gone 'wrong', something far more 'right,' more relavatory, has many times emerged."
  • "Artist refers to a person, willfully enmeshed in a dilemma of categories, who performs as if none of them existed."
  • "Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, food, chairs, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists..."
  • "The young artist... will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. He will not try to make them extraordinary. Only their real meaning will be stated."

See also[edit]


  • Art News 60(3):36-39,58-62. 1961. Reprinted in Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Ed. Jeff Kelley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Wardrip-Fruin, Noah & Montfort, Nick (2003). The New Media Reader. The MIT Press.
  1. ^ a b c Cotter, Holland (April 10, 2006). "Allan Kaprow, Creator of Artistic 'Happenings,' Dies at 78". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-29. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Trevor, Greg. "Rutgers Focus - Rutgers and the avante-garde". Retrieved 2008-05-05. 
  4. ^ "Fluxus & Happening -- Allan Kaprow | Chronology". Archived from the original on 8 June 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-04. 
  5. ^ Gary Botting, "Happenings", in The Theatre of Protest in America (Edmonton: Harden House, 1972) 13-17
  6. ^ Botting, "Happenings",15
  7. ^ Botting, "Happenings", p. 15
  8. ^ a b "Allan Kaprow". Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-28. 
  9. ^ Cotter, Holland (November 19, 1999). "ART IN REVIEW; Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts -- 'Experiments in the Everyday'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-29. 
  10. ^ "Allan Kaprow Biography". The Arts: Fine Art, Contemporary Art & Music. n.d. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  11. ^ Finkel, Jori (April 13, 2008). "Happenings Are Happening Again". The New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2010. 
  12. ^ Paul, J. (2001). "INVENTORY OF THE ALLAN KAPROW PAPERS, 1940-1997" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-05-05.