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I want to briefly describe the opening for the Allan Kaprow exhibition, Art as Life, now on view at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. I also want to say that for most people who go to gallery or museum openings often, or even just sometimes, it has probably long since become expected that, at openings, people aren't looking at the work. Most likely what they are doing instead is socializing. This is okay, especially at a Kaprow opening. In fact it seems to be much more in line with the non-art, un-artist stance that he promoted.
But then go figure; inside of Allan Kaprow: Art as Life, people were looking at the work. They were engaging, amused even, reading the seeming endless rows of glass tables containing Kaprow's hand-written documents and notes. There were couples debating, and almost everyone, it seemed, was participating in one of the organized ‘reenactments' of Kaprow's performances or participating in alternately creative and destructive ways by typing up some poetry on available typewriters, shredding art magazines, or leaving a Kaprow-inspired message on a memory machine.
The exhibition itself is handsomely produced if not a hair on the side of corny. This is due to the fact that his papers are laid out under glass like so many dead butterflies in a science museum. When they weren't under glass they were available as transparencies that one could project on the several schoolhouse style overhead projectors. Although Kaprow himself was certainly invested in the academy, his Happenings were ultimately, it seems, more about fun as opposed instruction and certainly not instruction with a capitol "I". On the wall opposite of his texts there was a line up of energetic canvases from his Abstract Expressionist years (1947 - 1957). One has a scrawl that even seems to say, ‘call Greenberg'. Maybe he never got around to calling and thought it better to just put the paint tubes away and move forward.
In the center of the gallery, artists, friends and inheritors of Kaprow and the Happenings tradition were invited to recreate certain of Kaprow's performances. Barbra Smith recreated Push Pull, which was staged on a designated rectangle, and included old furniture that had been painted blue. Participants in the performance are invited to push, pull and stack the furniture as they may. If you aren't a designated performer however you are not allowed into the designated area and a museum attendant, who has been instructed to do so, will ask you to leave. Perhaps there is a safety concern? Might it all erupt into chaos? Whatever the reasoning it is precisely the moment where the inherent rebellion and freedom of the work rubs up against inherent strictures of the museum and make the experience into something like the kind you would have at a controlled theme park. It is the moment Kaprow foreshadowed in his 1966 Manifesto when he said that to produce his Happenings in the context of a museum, gallery, concert hall, or stage would blunt their power because all of these arenas are where one already presumes paradoxes will be presented.
In the same year as his Manifesto, Kaprow wrote an essay entitled, The Happenings are Dead! Long Live the Happenings!, in which he proclaims that his Happenings are the one art that can escape the inevitable 'death by publicity' because they are designed as ephemera and are dead immediately after they happen. Given this, his Happenings (it should come as no surprise) have been long since dead and what we are experiencing now is something else entirely. Over the course of the exhibition there will be many opportunities to take part in performances all over Los Angeles and then, if you hold out until April 13, Lawrence Weiner will be taking over the rest of Geffen for an even more complete picture of radical art practices from times gone by.