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Allan Kaprow, Robert Smithson, and the Limits to Art

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Allan Kaprow and the Limits to Painting

"Oedipal-just for fun"

Allan Kaprow and Art History

Environments

In March 1958 Allan Kaprow exhibited a work in New York at the Hansa Gallery, an artists' cooperative that he had cofounded. The work was untitled at the time. Later he listed it in his chronology of works as Untitled Environment.1 A handful of color slides in Kaprow's archive and some black-and-white photographs, a few of which he published later on, give no more than a vague impression of the exhibition in spring 1958. These pictures show long swaths of translucent plastic with markings in red, blue, and black paint; hazily visible beyond them are the blurred outlines of exhibition-goers (see figure 4). Besides the strips of plastic, there were also wires, lengths of cloth, carbon paper, and tinfoil suspended in the gallery space. It would be impossible to interpret these images if not for contemporaneous reports by critics. Park Tylor, who reviewed the exhibition for Art News, the leading art journal at the time, commented that "as one moved at leisure among the even rows, one had phantasmal glimpses of other visitors doing the same." Moreover, as he put it, the visitor felt "abstracted from the ordinary world to one where musique is as concret as abstract art."2 Tapes recorded by Kaprow were played through speakers, transmitting the chirping, buzzing, and grating noises made by the Japanese toys that were all the rage in those days. Newsweek also reported favorably on the event. Its reviewer made a particular point about the way that the work enveloped the visitor-it reminded him of Cinerama. In some amusement, he also reported that one "gallery goer" found the sounds of the toys "so penetrating that he clapped his hands over his ears and ran from the room."3

In November 1958, Kaprow showed another untitled work in the same gallery, which he also later listed as Untitled Environment. To judge by the description of the work by the art historian Jeff Kelley in his monograph Childsplay, based on conversations with Kaprow, this was a "somewhat intensified environment" with "a 'forest' of raffia strips hanging from ceiling-level netting along with swarms of tiny blinking Christmas lights and a wall of broken mirrors framed by two rows of spotlights aimed at the spectator."4 Geoffrey Hendricks, a colleague of Kaprow's on the faculty of Rutgers University, saw this exhibition and remembered it being divided into two parts.5 In this second exhibition, he structured the space not only in terms of sight, sound, and touch but also with pleasant and unpleasant smells. According to Kelley, "an oscillating electric fan circulated chemical odors."6 However, these mingled with one another and left a "nasty smell" in the space, as the Hansa Gallery's director, Richard Bellamy, recounted in an interview.7 And Fairfield Porter, who was very critical of the exhibition in Art News, wrote ironically of a "repellent smell of the particular disinfectant that osteopaths favor."8

Kaprow must have come to the conclusion that exhibition-goers needed guidance of some kind, so he organized twice-daily events when they could listen to the noise. Because these were too close to being a performance-"a concert, in effect"-he later tried a "random distribution of mechanical noise and taped sound."9 The second exhibition was accompanied by a pamphlet titled Allan Kaprow: An Exhibition. In it Kaprow set out his aims under the heading "Notes on the Creation of a Total Art":

In the present exhibition we do not come to look at things. We simply enter, are surrounded, and become part of what surrounds us, passively or actively according to our talent for "engagement," in much the same way that we have moved out of the totality of the street or our home where we also played a part.10

The text explains how visitors should view and interpret the work. They are to literally enter into the picture and participate in the composition of the Environment, which in turn constantly changes in response to their input. This idea reflected Kaprow's interest in producing a space that-as an extended form of painting-not only represented something but also had a presence of its own. As he put it: "Space is no longer pictorial, but actual (and sometimes both)."11 According to him, visitors to the exhibition were given "much greater responsibility" than in the context of traditional artistic media, and the "success" of the work depended as much on them as it did on the artist.12 Indeed the Environment only "happened" when someone was moving around within it.In 1992, Kaprow wrote in retrospect that "the Environment was vestigially scenographic, but it favored the making and doing process, not the visual result."13

"The Legacy of Jackson Pollock"

This form of art, as yet without any widely accepted nomenclature, was in need of commentary, and Kaprow provided this in an essay, at greater length than was possible in the exhibition pamphlet. Timed to coincide with the opening of his second Environment at the Hansa Gallery, in October 1958 Art News published "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock."14 In this essay, Kaprow outlined the thinking that had led to his Environment and, in so doing, cast light on his future production. He also established the credentials of his work by staking his claim to the legacy of none other than Jackson Pollock, who had died in a car crash in 1956. Kaprow diagnosed a tragic component in Pollock's life that had less to do with his sudden death than with the precarious state of art at that time. He suggested that Pollock's role as a heroically self-sacrificing artist had become as untenable as the situation of contemporary art in general, which now appeared to be doomed to either eternal repetition or regression.

Kaprow came up with two provocative notions. First, that modern art-or as we would say today, Modernist or Late Modernist art-had become a thing of the past, at the latest with Pollock's death. He presented the art of the 1940s and 1950s as a historical phenomenon that had already come to an end-of course he was making this point before the term postmodern had become common currency.15 Second, he suggested that as an artist, Pollock had been playing a role. Although Kaprow does not explicitly talk of a role, nevertheless his references to Pollock's "gesture," to his being "in the work," to his interest in the "attitude" of the Surrealists, to his work as an "act," and to the "acrobatic" aspect of interpretation all testify to the fact that Kaprow imagined the artist as an actor of sorts, as someone who is performative in his demeanor and actions. He took the notion of the author behind or above the work and replaced it with the idea of the artist as an actor in a scenario that neither the artist nor the viewer can fully take in.

Pollock's legacy, according to Kaprow, was not the paintings he had produced, for all that "he created some magnificent paintings." In Kaprow's view it was the fact that Pollock had destroyed easel painting. And even if Pollock himself had not capitalized on this and had possibly only "vaguely sensed" its potential, he had definitely pointed the way forward.16 Through his gestures and his lack of a "malerisch [painterly] sensibility" he had managed to escape the tradition of Formalism based on "part-to-whole or part-to-part relationships."17 He created new conditions that allowed him to do away with the artfulness of painting and to relate art more closely to older practices such as "ritual, magic, and life." As Kaprow saw it, there were two possibilities: either follow in Pollock's footsteps, making "near-paintings" and inevitably coming up against a dead end in the process, or give up easel painting altogether.18 The latter was the path that Kaprow recommended:

Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movement, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, or a billboard selling Drano; three taps on the front door, a scratch, a sigh, or a voice lecturing endlessly, a blinding staccato flash, a bowler hat-all will become materials for this new concrete art.

Young artists of today need no longer say, "I am a painter" or "a poet" or "a dancer." They are simply "artists." All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well. People will be delighted or horrified, critics will be confused or amused, but these, I am certain, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.19

It is nothing short of astounding that Kaprow anticipated the artistic issues of the immediate future with such accuracy. The different role of the viewer, the advent of performativity, the engagement with popular culture, and the transformation of spatiality are all prefigured in this text. And so it was that in 1964, for instance, when Frank Stella delivered his verdict on "relational painting," he was in effect implementing Kaprow's critique of relational composition methods.20 Moreover, Kaprow's text is still regarded as a "manifesto for the Pop generation,"21 even as a "prophetic statement."22 This article in Art News made such an impact above all because Kaprow managed to communicate the concerns of a younger generation of artists while outlining a vision that was as inspiring as it was vague, with the result that numerous artists read it as a reflection of their own thinking.

It is typical of Kaprow's approach that rather than simply dismissing Pollock as dead and gone, he proceeded to reassess an eclectic selection of elements of Pollock's art. Kaprow neither indulged in a symbolic act of patricide nor allowed Pollock to become his demon, unlike Claes Oldenburg, for instance, who later noted ironically: "I feel like Pollock is lurking over my shoulder, or rather crouching in my pants."23 The relationship Kaprow implied between himself and Pollock is similar to the one between Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning, illustrated by Rauschenberg in 1953 in Erased de Kooning Drawing. With de Kooning's consent, Rauschenberg spent a month and a half meticulously erasing one of de Kooning's drawings. However, this was not so much an iconoclastic act as a pastiche of artistic patricide.24 De Kooning had deliberately selected a drawing executed in oil crayons and ink, which could not be entirely erased. And for a long time Rauschenberg kept the end product in his private collection like a trophy-with its evidence of determined yet ultimately ineffectual erasure.25 Rauschenberg and Kaprow thus took the Oedipal process of artistic rebellion, based on the nineteenth-century model of trouncing one's predecessors, and replaced it with playful imitation. To paraphraseGilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, they were only Oedipal "for fun."26

Unlike the artists of the classical avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s, Kaprow was not out to do away with painting. On the contrary, he repeatedly made the point that his work was deeply rooted in the rationale of painting and that "the innovations which are under discussion have primarily grown out of the advanced painting of the last decade."27 In fact he was closer to his teacher Hans Hofmann than he was to Pollock. In his writings and teaching Hofmann always returned to the connection between movement and space, between tension and rhythm, and without doubt his ideas, as set out in the following passage, were a major source of inspiration for Kaprow's Environments:

Movement is the expression of life. All movements are of a spatial nature. The continuation of movement through space is rhythm. Thereby rhythm is the expression of life in space.... The product of movement and counter-movement is tension. When tension-working strength-is expressed, it endows the work of art with the living effect of coordinated, though opposing, forces.28

So Kaprow's mission was not to wipe out painting as a medium but rather to transform it. He wanted to free it from its self-referentiality and historicity and thus develop an alternative to the tradition of art for art's sake. Or, as he said on a later occasion: "I was concerned with the implication that action painting-Pollock's in particular-led not to more painting, but to more action."29 One of the counterstrategies he employed, like many of his contemporaries, was narration. As he put it, his easel paintings from the 1950s told "literary stories." With hindsight he pointed out that his paintings had always been figurative, never nonrepresentational, and that his "seemingly 'abstract' pictures were anything but abstract!"30 Another strategy was to use collage and assemblage, as in Kiosk: Rearrangeable Panels with Lights (1959). This consists of a series of variously clad panels that can be opened up, at will, like a polyptich, or closed again-that is to say, they can be arranged as a sculptural installation. Kaprow regarded collage as a subset of painting that also bore within it the seed of a future replacement for painting, or, as he put it, "one of the forms of painting which has led us unknowingly toward rejecting painting in any form, without, however, eliminating the use of paint."31

Kaprow thus took what he needed both from art history and from the art being produced in his own time. His works have a strong affinity with Rauschenberg's Combines. Like Rauschenberg, he was striving to combine painting, assemblage, and stage design. Shortly before Kaprow installed his Environments in the Hansa Gallery, Rauschenberg-commissioned to create the set for a performance by the dancer Merce Cunningham on 30 November 1957 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music-came up with a design using chicken wire, branches, and newspapers, all of which appear in Kaprow's pieces.32 From 1956 to 1958 Kaprow attended the seminars led by John Cage (a close friend of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns) at the New School for Social Research, where, as Kaprow pointed out, he learned a lot about tape recorders and made the "transition from being a visual collagist to being a noise collagist."33 He suggested that Johns should participate in the exhibition Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, which he was co-organizing and which was to be presented at the Jewish Museum of New York in 1957. So Johns exhibited his painting Green Target there.34 Some critics took the view that Kaprow was imitating Rauschenberg, and Porter closed his assessment of the exhibition in autumn 1958 with the words "Kaprow could be more inventive."35

What looked to many at the time like plagiarism can now be seen as the outcome of an entirely deliberate approach to art as a commentary on the status quo, which is wholly in keeping with Kaprow's skepticism regarding the Modernists' expectation of constant innovation. For the differences outweigh the formal similarities between Kaprow's assemblages and Environments and Rauschenberg's Combines. Kaprow's works are not about adding and combining decipherable codes from the repertoire of art history and popular culture. They are much more about the contingent superimposition of sense impressions, which-since they have no fixed meaning-cannot be unraveled like some kind of mystery. Typical of these is the collage Hysteria (1956), whose whole picture plane is pasted or painted with the word Haha. The paint surface consists of a mass of interlocking letters that cannot be taken apart and reconstituted in their original form. Whereas Rauschenberg took the view that all lines of communication are of equal value, regardless of direction, Kaprow's interest was in the errors and faults that can arise during the process of communication. And while Rauschenberg, in his role as a mediator between different levels of representation, was constantly colonizing new terrain and themes for art-thereby reinforcing its hegemony in the cultural arena-Kaprow questioned the basic precepts of art by seeking out confrontation with nonartistic realms.

For Rauschenberg's pluralist art there was "no poor subject," because in it meaning can be transferred or shifted at will.36 For Kaprow, however, there were most definitely better and worse subjects. Rauschenberg's Combines respect the limits of painting and sculpture and accept the authority of established iconographies. In fact his combination of painting and sculpture does not defy the limitations of different genres as such but rather the hierarchization of artistic genres, with painting as the dominant medium. Even as the Combines symbolically ignore the frame and reach out into the space around them, they affirm the authority of that same frame. By contrast, Kaprow's Environments share the space with the exhibition-goer. Whether this art, as we have already seen, is deemed "successful" depends as much on the audience's engagement as on the artist.37 The complex spatiality of these Environments-in which there is no preferred standpoint-comes to light as soon as we examine the documentation pertaining to them. Rauschenberg's Combines, like his stage sets, are photogenic and readily accommodate the static position of a single viewer. In complete contrast, Kaprow's Environments only arise through a process of interaction with multiple participants. They are all but impossible to photograph and cry out for commentary and interpretation. The fact that of all Rauschenberg's works, Kaprow most admired the White Paintings he saw at the exhibition in the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1953 is highly revealing with regard to the role that he expected the viewer to play. He remembered spending a long time looking at these paintings, studying the reflections and shadows that appeared on the white surfaces. In his view these were Rauschenberg's "pivotal works," because they "left viewers with themselves and the void in front of them."38

The Hansa Gallery

Taking a closer look at the institutional circumstances that formed the backdrop to his artistic praxis can shed useful light on how Kaprow came up with his Environments in 1958. Until that point he had exhibited almost exclusively at the Hansa Gallery in New York. Like all the other members exhibiting at the gallery, he paid out of his own pocket for the hire of the premises and publicity for his exhibitions. His hope was that this would pay off by attracting the attention of collectors, critics, and museum directors so that sooner or later he could make the move to an established uptown gallery on or around Fifty-Seventh Street. The Hansa Gallery, founded in 1952 by a group of students from a Hans Hofmann class, had its roots in a cooperative called 813 Broadway, launched in December 1951.39 The name Hansa was a reference both to the league of North European seaports and to the students' highly respected teacher. This new venture was to become the most prominent of a number of similar cooperatives, such as the Tanager Gallery (founded in spring 1952, closed in summer 1962) and three others-Area, Camino, and March-all on Tenth Street.40 George Segal, for one, was convinced that the Hansa Gallery "represented the embryo that hinted at most of the major directions in New York contemporary art."41

The founders, who signed a contract in November 1952 setting out "the aims and means of the Hansa Gallery," were Jacques Beckwith, Barbara Forst, Miles Forst, Jane Wilson Gruen, John Gruen, Wolf Kahn, Allan Kaprow, Jan Müller, Felix Pasilis, and Richard Stankiewicz.42 John Gruen seems to have initially taken on a role similar to that of a business manager. The contract stipulated that the founding members should present at least one solo exhibition per season. In autumn 1958, immediately before the cooperative was dissolved, the regular members were Beckwith, Richard Bellamy, Lilly Berdoy, Jean Follet, Miles Forst, Kaprow, Ivan Karp, Fay Lansner, George Segal, Stankiewicz, and Myron Stout.43 However, this is not to say that all these artists sold much of their work, let alone were able to live from their sales. Without exception the artist-members of the Hansa Gallery cooperative, including Bellamy, appointed the business manager in 1954, and Karp, who acted as manager toward the gallery's end, all earned their living elsewhere.44

Kaprow was the only member who already had a university post by the mid-1950s. While studying for his master of arts at Columbia University under Meyer Shapiro, whom he described as a "rara avis" among art historians, someone who was at home with the art of both the past and the present, Kaprow had also studied painting with Hans Hofmann. Although he had not published his master's thesis, "Piet Mondrian: A Study in Seeing" (1952), it nevertheless qualified him to take up a position, in 1953, as an instructor of art history and art for Rutgers University at Douglass College. From 1956 to 1961 he held the post of assistant professor and actively encouraged other artists to take up teaching posts at Rutgers.45 Lichtenstein, who had taught at various universities since the mid-1950s, became an assistant professor at Rutgers in the summer of 1960;46 Robert Watts and Geoffrey Hendricks were also faculty members; Lucas Samaras and Robert Whitman studied under Kaprow; and George Segal graduated from Rutgers with a master of fine arts in 1960. However, Kaprow left Douglass College following a dispute that arose when some of his colleagues deemed a particular work by Samaras to be obscene. After a short spell at the Pratt Institute, in 1961 he was appointed an associate professor in the Department of Fine Arts at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he subsequently held the position of professor from 1966 to 1969. At this point his career as a university teacher took him to the West Coast, where he was to remain. Having spent 1969-1973 as associate dean at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, in 1974 he was appointed a professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, where he was also department chair from 1985 until his retirement in 1993, when he became a professor emeritus.

From the outset, Kaprow combined a number of different roles in the art business: with his main source of income coming from his university teaching, he also exhibited in his own right, organized group exhibitions, and published texts on art-mainly concerned with his own work. In the art world he deliberately cultivated his image as artist and art historian in one. In view of his ambitions as a university teacher, he had to publish on a regular basis. With this in mind, he complained to Meyer Shapiro that Douglass College refused to recognize his painting as research: "I'm practically forced to write articles (the grand stand-by)-which I don't relish or have time for."47 At the same time, however, programmatic essays presented the ideal opportunity to lend weight to his exhibitions. In this he once again proved to be leading the way in what was to become a more general trend. The academization of artists-that is to say, the idea that they should graduate from a university with a master of fine arts-only started to become the norm in the course of the 1950s.48 This was matched in the 1960s by an equally rapid rise in the number of artists teaching at universities.49

The members of the Hansa Gallery did not regard their cooperative as a programmatic league to promote any particular artistic approach; they viewed it quite pragmatically as a potential springboard for their individual careers. Although they occasionally invited speakers-including Clement Greenberg in the mid-1950s-the members did not pursue any shared theoretical aims.50 They did not even agree in their attitudes toward Abstract Expressionism. However, they did attract considerable attention. Exhibitions at the Hansa Gallery were regularly reviewed in Art News, whose editor-in-chief, Thomas Hess, looked kindly on the group. By the mid-1950s the members' efforts were beginning to bear fruit. With the marked rise in prices being paid for Abstract Expressionism, there was a growing demand for new, less expensive art. Paintings and sculptures by Hansa artists, such as Müller and Segal, and especially large-format assemblages by Stankiewicz were now shown in prestigious group exhibitions and increasingly bought by art museums. Consequently the Hansa Gallery was able to move from downtown New York to uptown, to the southern end of Central Park, and to employ a professional business manager who earned a commission on his sales.

However, the growing success of certain members of the group also inevitably heralded the dissolution of the cooperative. In this situation Kaprow knew that he needed a succès de scandale if he was to make a breakthrough before the gallery closed. As he later wrote: "[The artist] must put-up or shut-up, succeed in conveying his vision in reasonably good time or consider giving up the attempt."51 The distinctly sensational invention of a new medium-the Environment-was the best solution, although the piece itself would, by definition, not generate any sales. Looking back, Bellamy recalled that Kaprow had never intended to sell the work but rather hoped it would encourage academic and art institutions to provide grants or other funding that would allow him to continue with his experimental work.52

Art and the Division of Labor: 18 Happenings in 6 Parts

Kaprow now set about building on the reputation he had made for himself with his Environments and "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock." He spent three months preparing an event for the beginning of the 1959 art season-an event that was to go down in the history of art as the first ever Happening. After the summer vacation, art lovers in New York received a form letter from Reuben-Kaprow Associates announcing that "eighteen happenings will take place." The recipients were invited to become part of these Happenings and to experience them in the company of other spectators: "Do not look for paintings, sculpture, the dance, or music. The artist disclaims any intention to provide them. He does believe that he provides some engaging situations." The letter closes with the words "The present event is created in a medium which Mr. Kaprow finds refreshing to leave untitled."53 A press release announced that the Reuben Gallery would have a grand opening in the autumn, not with easel paintings but with an "event."54 Later onflyers were sent out with the title "18 Happenings in 6 Parts."55 Some people also received individual invitations, consisting of a plastic bag that contained, besides the flyer, scraps of paper, photographs, wood, cinnamon sticks, and cutout figures.56 The recipients of the flyers learned that the event would be held in three rooms, that there would be actors and slide projections, that the "actions will mean nothing clearly formulable," and that the "whole work is to be intimate, austere and of somewhat brief duration." They were also asked to indicate whether they would be attending, because of the limited number of places available, and to make a financial contribution.

The work 18 Happenings in 6 Parts was presented six times-on 4 and 6-10 October 1959-at eight thirty in the evening, and lasted exactly one hour.57 Audience members were given a program with an "Instructions" informing them that the performance was divided into six parts, each of which consisted of three Happenings; the sound of bells would mark the end of one and the beginning of the next. The lengths of the intervals between the parts were underlined (two minutes between parts 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and 5 and 6; fifteen minutes between parts 2 and 3, and 4 and 5). Visitors were also given three cards informing them which room they should sit in and when. Each evening there were six participants, three men and three women, who were predominantly artists. Kaprow's score lists the participants: "Allan Kaprow-who speaks and plays a musical instrument," "Lucas Samaras-who speaks, plays a game and a musical instrument," "Sam Francis, Red Grooms, Dick Higgins, Lester Johnson, Alfred Leslie, Jay Milder, George Segal, Robert Thomson-each of whom paints," and "the visitors, who sit in various chairs."58 Robert Whitman, Shirley Prendergast, and Rosalyn Montague also took part as actors. Curiosity drove a large audience to the gallery newly opened by Anita Reuben, which was downtown in a loft above an antiquarian bookshop.59 The audience no doubt included many of the protagonists from the burgeoning New York art world, who in any case were always running into one another and who would feature three years later in a group portrait in the form of the book The Artist's World, by Fred McDarrah.60

Unlike the Environments, the first Happening is well documented, thanks to the detailed description, including a number of photographs, published by Michael Kirby in 1965 in his book Happenings. In preparation for the event, Kaprow had erected a temporary stage set in the loft. Opaque plastic sheets fixed to wooden frames divided the space into three "rooms" of different sizes. According to Kirby, in room 1 there were around thirty folding chairs facing the other rooms, which were only indistinctly visible through the plastic sheeting. Red and white bulbs were suspended from the ceiling and bathed the room in a pink light. The walls, as in Kaprow's earlier Environments, were covered with assemblages of wax fruits, scraps of paper, and mirrors. In room 2 there were two groups of around a dozen chairs, facing each other. A single lamp bathed the space in blue light, and colored Christmas lights bedecked the walls. In room 3 there were fifteen chairs, placed so that they faced the other rooms. As in room 1, there were light bulbs suspended from the ceiling, this time blue and white. Fixed to the plastic wall between rooms 2 and 3 were variously colored foil rings. Another wall was made from a screen collaged with words and fragments of words.

The audience took their seats. A bell sounded to announce the beginning of the event. Loud, dissonant, electronic noises from four tape recorders sounded from loudspeakers. Actors appeared in ordinary day wear, men in room 1 and women in room 2, and, like robots, executed a number of gymnastic exercises, strictly according to Kaprow's choreography. In the darker room 3, there were slide projections of children's drawings and Kaprow's paintings. Part 1 of the event ended after five minutes. After a short pause, part 2 began, with two actors in suits carrying placards on small sticks and reading out sentences on the placards in loud voices. The audience heard fragmented utterances on the subjects of time and art. Samaras was the speaker discussing art and came out with sentences such as: "I was about to speak yesterday on a subject most dear to you all-art. I wanted to speak then about art, but I was unable to begin."61 In room 3 there were more slides, this time of masterpieces of European art. This was followed by a fifteen-minute interval, during which visitors moved to a different room depending on the instructions on their cards. Couples and friends who had come to the event together found themselves separated. Some people were instructed to stay where they were, since all three rooms did not have the same number of chairs.

Part 3 began with the entry of the actors once again and more electronic noises. In room 1 two female actors performed a series of physical exercises; one of them bounced a rubber ball. In room 2 two actors sat at a table, where they played with little wooden blocks that they arranged according to instructions issued by Kaprow in a flat voice that was now heard from the record player. In room 3, accompanied by a slide projection of diverse objects, a female actor recited fragments of poems. In part 4, four actors in room 1 played on a variety of musical instruments, as set out in Kaprow's score. In room 2 a mechanical drumming doll was set in motion. Meanwhile, in room 3 a man sat down at a table, struck a number of matches, and extinguished them in a glass of water, one after the other. Following this he positioned himself behind lengths of plastic sheeting, which he sprayed with a liquid so that the audience's view of him became increasingly blurred. In the next interval the audience members again switched places. In Part 5 indistinct sentences and words were heard from the speakers. A female actor in room 1 pressed oranges, filled a number of glasses set out in readiness, and drank the juice (see figure 5). The smell of the oranges filled the room and mingled with the smell of enamel paint in tins that were brought into the room. Another female actor pushed a so-called sandwich man-a wheeled construction for displaying advertising-from room to room. The sound of dance music, played on a scratchy old record player, came from within the sandwich man. In room 2 an actor presented a pantomime of sorts. At the same time, in room 3 a male and a female actor read sentences from placards that they carried in front of themselves. As the sandwich man passed through room2, two spectators stepped forward from the audience (on one of the evenings Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg performed this task), one from room2, the other from room3, and approached, from opposite sides, a frame in the dividing wall, over which a canvas was stretched. Each was carrying a brush and a tin of paint, and they started to paint the canvas with repetitive gestures.62 Since the canvas was unprimed, each performer and the audience could see what was bleeding through from the other side.63

The final part of the event took place without sound. In room 1, two actors performed a symmetrical synchronized sequence of movements. In room 2, two female actors stood stock still, facing the audience. After a time the four actors came together in the central room. They pulled rolls of colored paper down from the ceiling and started to read out the one-syllable words written on them. The voices merged, creating a Babylonian confusion that Kirby reproduced as "eh?," "mmmmmm ... ," "uh," "but," "well," "oooh...." In room 3 the lights went out for the last time and a single slide was projected, showing a detail of Kaprow's face-his mouth and chin (see figure 6). When the bell rang out twice, the last of the eighteen Happenings was over.

"Eh?," "mmmmmm ... ," "uh," "but," "well," "oooh ... ," you might say, although not entirely seriously, is not all that different from what has since been written about 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. Although most historiographers of modern art agree that it was a milestone, scarcely anyone-with the exception of Gavin Butt and Jeff Kelley-does more than mention the title. For Jürgen Becker it was the "first of its kind."64 For Rosalee Goldberg it was "one of the earliest opportunities for a wider public to attend the live events that several artists had performed more privately for friends."65 For Henry Sayre it marked the beginning of the history of Performance in New York.66 Thomas Crow places two images of the event at the beginning of his book The Rise of the Sixties and describes Kaprow as one of the founders of a tradition of "hybrid events, dubbed Happenings," albeit, as he adds, within the apolitical, "nearer horizons of the art world."67 And for Kelley it was "the first American Happening and a seminal moment in the history of the avant-garde."68 The main sources these authors used are Kirby's description of the Happenings, based on his memories as an eyewitness, an early script of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts published in the internal bulletin of Rutgers University, and the hand-written scores and other documents now in the Kaprow archive at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.69

According to Kirby, one source of inspiration for the piece came in the shape of dance performances at Rutgers University presented by Paul Taylor that Kaprow and Whitman had seen. Part of this program was given over to a dance divided into separate sequences in which a girl's voice announcing the time was followed by Taylor performing a series of jerky movements.70 Nevertheless, these accounts-some published and others accessible only in the Kaprow archive, like photographs of the rehearsals-and contemporaneous reviews supply only a very sketchy impression of the whole.71 There was hardly any reaction in the press. That the detailed article which appeared in the Village Voice was effusive was not surprising, since it was penned by Kaprow and signed for him by a friend.72 But the article by Fairfield Porter in The Nation was devastating. Porter accused Kaprow of eclecticism and specifically of plagiarizing the work of Cage, Rauschenberg, and Cunningham. "The Eighteen Happenings devalue all art by a meaningless and deliberate surgery. And the final totality is without character.... Like so many science fiction movies about the future, his subject matter is the undigested immediate past."73

After Kirby published his account, it was to be another twenty years before the next eyewitness report appeared, in the shape of a detailed description of the Happening in Samuel Delany's autobiography The Motion of Light in Water, published in 1988. Delany recounts that as an eighteen-year-old, he was at the Happening purely by chance and felt rather strange there, as the sole Afro-American in the audience. With hindsight, he felt that the real impact of Kaprow's work of art was the awareness it instilled in him of the altered temporality of Postmodernism: "As a representation and analysis of the situation of the subject in history, I don't think Kaprow's work could have been improved on. And, in that sense, Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts was about as characteristic a work as one might choose in which to experience the clash that begins our reading of the hugely arbitrary postmodern."74

In that same year, 1988, Kaprow presented a new version of 18 Happenings in 6 Parts in New York, although with an entirely different score, without an audience, and with little response from the art world.75 In 2006, shortly after Kaprow's death, André Lepecki presented a replica in Munich, which conveyed a sense of the progression and the atmosphere of the work.76 And in the autumn of 2006, Christoph Schlingensief presented a walk-in installation titled Kaprow City at the Volksbühne in Berlinalong with a two-hour performance involving members of the audience, which explicitly drew on 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. It is as though 18 Happenings in 6 Parts actively invites historic reenactments, however incomplete.

Taking as his example the fragmentary and partially inaccurate recollections published by Delany, Gavin Butt has demonstrated how memories and history are also defined by what is left out. He particularly makes the point that "history writing ... might address itself to its own inevitable inadequacies, to its lapses of memory, exclusions, and obfuscations as an important part of its very enterprise" (Butt's italics).77 He quotes Benjamin Buchloh, who takes the view that "happenings are known of and not known," and this "only through their dispersed traces: hearsay and gossip, reminiscence, a few photographs, and documents."78 Unlike those of many other works of art, Butt says, the story of a Happening is by definition open-ended:

So, whilst happenings might be taken as disappearing from the historical record by dint of the passing of their unique spatio-temporality, they continue to live on in the memories and curiosities of contemporary writers and historians. Remaining in this manner means that the arrival at any kind of final, interpretative closure is forever deferred in favor of the production and circulation of multiple and competing narratives.79

This had already led certain contemporary critics to assume that anyone could attribute their own meaning to the work. But although Kaprow had stated in advance that the actions would "mean nothing clearly formulable," he determinedly resisted accusations of "meaninglessness" by critics such as Jill Johnston:80

You are beginning to join with many in denouncing "meaning" in art and favoring "no-meaning," or purely existent situati