Friday, April 18, 2008

Print-Out on the New Art (1968)

A new art has been with us for nearly a decade now, as it emerged from the void that followed the diminishing presence of abstract expressionism. One would hope that happenings, pop art, minimal sculpture, and the like are, like the computer and thermonuclear capability, sufficiently established in our common sensibility by now so that we can accept them as subjects worthy of intelligent discussion. Nonetheless, the criticism of the new art distinctly of the sixties has been just about as baffled and evasive, if not downright ignorant, as, say, most writing about computers; for the new art, sometimes masquerading as an anti-art, is so radically different from the dominant styles preceding it that the long-established critics have been less than helpful.

In contrast, as the creators of the new art are, by and large, intelligent, educated, and unashamedly articulate people, their own writings often provide the best guides to comprehension and judgment. Assemblage, Environments & Happenings (1966) and Store Days (1967) are the first full-sized books by two of the new art’s most eminent and articulate practitioners. As their respective authors, Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenberg are both adventurous artists, who have created theatrical pieces and prose essays as well as objects to be displayed, so the books they produce are distinctly unlike any tomes we know, and yet as coherent and authentic as everything else they have done.

As vanguard artists of diversified talents, both have intelligences integral enough to create books that esthetically resemble their art, and each possesses in addition a distinct sensibility that informs every page. Whereas Kaprow’s book is logical, definite, and accessible, Oldenburg’s is cunningly ironic, indefinite, and elusive. Oldenburg has a literary mind, trained in English at Yale and then honed on journalism in Chicago, that concocts suggestive allusive prose and cultivates perceptual enhancement; Kaprow, trained originally in philosophy, practices clear exposition and champions intellectual reforms.

Let me start by saying that the latter’s book is, among other things, the most substantial exposition we have of the aesthetic aspirations and critical ideas that inform much of the recent scene. If nothing else, it demonstrates why Kaprow became the primary theorist of several tendencies in post-abstract expressionist American art. His 1958 essay on “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” forecast, if not influenced, the styles of art that we now call pop and happenings, while the manuscript of this book, which he circulated among friends for several years before its publication, had an enormous influence upon many of the most interesting current talents. American publishing took an unconscionably long time to get his words into public print (nearly everyone, rumor has it, enclosed a cutely worded rejection slip, as if to exonerate himself from the industry’s Philistinism). It is even more regrettable that reviewers and review editors have so far been slow to recognize its seminal significance.

In his essay on Pollock’s legacy, Kaprow, then a young painter of some reputation and an instructor in art history at Rutgers, wrote the following prophetic words:

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 which 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.

This belongs among the most important passages in modern aesthetics; for not only did his writing influence several students and colleagues at Rutgers who have since established themselves as important artists (George Segal, Lucas Samaras, Robert Watts, Robert Whitman, and Roy Lichtenstein), but it also reached other maturing artists who were then total strangers, among them Claes Oldenburg. In addition, Kaprow successfully coined an epithet—in his case, “happenings”—which so appropriately characterized a certain kind of experience that the term has since entered common parlance. Once a polemical young prophet, he is now, at forty, an elder sage.

As a practicing critic, certified art historian (M.A., Columbia), and recognized creator, Kaprow functions as what the sociologists would call a participant-observer—a man who is very much part of an activity and yet able to achieve the psychological distance necessary for discriminative analysis. Assemblage, Environment & Happenings opens innovatively with a long sequence of strategically arranged pictures which have their own story to tell, particularly about how examples of the new art resemble certain older works and how happenings by various practitioners exhibit visual similarities—by implication, how new art, even if concerned with “reality,” inevitably comes out of previous art.

The text that follows is richly perceptive, invariably sensible, patiently persuasive, and eminently comprehensible. Everything is so thoroughly thought through that Kaprow seems to have considered nearly all problems that his new art raises. Although his prose inclines toward excessively long, sometimes “elegant” sentences (perhaps out of stylistic indebtedness to his sometime Columbia teacher, Meyer Schapiro), Kaprow talks about the new art in the common tongue, avoiding the needless complexity and jargon that afflict so much art criticism. No intelligent reader can miss, let alone misunderstand, his major points, or doubt his concluding words:

If some of the past is still meaningful, as it assuredly is, then what is to be retained in the present work is not archaistic mannerisms, easily recognized and praised for this reason, but those qualities of personal dignity and freedom always championed in the West. In respecting these, the ideas of this book are deeply traditional.

The mixed-means art form that Kaprow calls “happenings” descends from several discernible tendencies in modern painting. The first, probably instigated by Marcel Duchamp, considers any and all materials and subjects as viable for artistic use. Out of this tradition springs not only pop art, junk sculpture, and certain primary structures, all of which employ subject matter previously dismissed as not-for-art, but also the current wholesale rejection of the classical hierarchy which regarded the female nude as the most ideal form and, by implication, disposable junk as the lowest. In his own creative career, Kaprow wanted to see how much “art” he could discover, or create, in seemingly intractable materials. After pursuing this interest in his painting, he eventually made a leap to an entirely radical position—that his own art should eschew, as thoroughly as possible, any semblances of the arts we know. This purpose drove him through an “exhibition” of piles of discarded automobile tires, Yard (1961), to his present position in which he neither makes not even compiles art objects. Happenings he now considers a kind of heightened format (a criterion usually signifying “art”) in which an indeterminate number of people gather together to participate in certain predetermined activities which may take place in any kind of terrain and over any length of time; as an unprecedented open art form, happenings are, for structural precedents, as much indebted to non-competitive games as to art.

The three words in Kaprow’s title outline a second tradition of contemporary painting that likewise culminates in happenings—the imposition of greater dimensionality upon the processes of painting. Whereas assemblage, originated by Picasso back in 1912, is by definition a three-dimensional collage that usually incorporates materials not normally found together or common to the currency of art, an environment escalates the collage-principle to a multiplicity of assemblages that literally encases the spectator—an enclosed space wholly designed as an artistic object. In his own development as a “painter,” Kaprow recapitulated this historic development, creating first cubist paintings in the late ‘40’s, then “action collages” which consist of materials rapidly slapped together into three-dimensional assemblages (which he invariably pronounces as an American word, with the accent on the broadly articulated second syllable), and eventually environments, which took him out of the frame of painting. Kaprow’s next step, which historically represents his innovation, came in Penny Arcade (1956), where he animated the subjects within that closed space, creating a kinetic environment, and thereby bestowing the fourth dimension of time upon painterly activity.

His next move, as logically derived as all his previous leaps, came in the path-breaking 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) where he introduced into the gallery setting live performers in place of objects and, therefore, created an experience closer to theater than painting. He has since taken his performance work out of the gallery situation entirely, discarding the theatrical convention of an intentional audience along with such other theatrical conveniences as a beginning and an end. “The room”, he writes in retrospect, “has always been a frame or format too.” (In art-historical retrospect, we can also see that another of Kaprow’s leaps consisted of appropriating the act of painting, which so preoccupied the earlier generation of “action painters,” and making the artist’s movement itself into the stuff of art.) As an appendix to his critical text, Kaprow’s book reprints the outline-scripts and photographs of several of his own pieces, as well as those of eight other practitioners around the world. This part too is chosen and presented with taste and care.

My main criticism of Kaprow’s book is its presumptuous exclusivity. Though his own conception of happenings is quite clearly explained, he does not sufficiently differentiate them from other theatrical events that occasionally pass under the same name, such as the performance pieces of John Cage, Robert Whitman, Ken Dewey, or Oldenburg. My own suggestion, which is developed in my forthcoming study, The Theatre of Mixed Means (1968), is that Kaprow’s pure happenings represent only one of the four distinct genres of mixed-means theatrical art—the others being staged happenings, kinetic environments, and staged performances. Each of these achieves a particular mix of the general dimensions of time, space, and materials. Perhaps because Kaprow has the philosopher’s preoccupation with correct positions and thus the necessity of excluding invalid alternatives, he is the only major mixed-means practitioner to devote himself entirely to pure happenings, as the text explains why his own ethics persuaded him not only to give up painting but to regard the other mixed-means genres as essentially compromised. (This devotion to rationally deduced scruple has led to quarrels with other artists, Oldenburg among them.)

Second, his commitment to the development of his own ideas forces Kaprow to create the false impression that happenings historically extend primarily from preoccupations within the traditions of painting (with a dash of John Cage!), which is a myth perpetuated in too much early criticism of the new visual/performance art. Actually, there is more evidence that the current mixed-means theatrical art comes from modern eccentric tendencies in all the artistic means it encompasses—painting and sculpture, music and dance, theater and film; and just as every contemporary painter, in Robert Motherwell’s phrase, carries the history of modern painting in his head, so the major creators of mixed-means theater are polyliterate and multi-sensitive enough to be familiar with the relevant esthetic precedents in all these fields. Otherwise, Assemblage, Environments & Happenings is an important book, easily the most resonant overview we have of the painting and post-painting of our time; to my mind, it was indisputably more deserving than, say, all the 1967 National Book Award nominations under “Arts and Letters.”

Oldenburg’s Store Days is an entirely different sort of publication, designed less as an exposition than as a memento of Oldenburg’s first major artistic innovation and first great work of art. “The Store” (1961) was a real Lower-East Village store filled with miscellaneous objects, most of which Oldenburg created in the semblance of junk and then actually offered for sale; and this “store” subsequently became the setting for his first major series of mixed-means theatrical events, “The Ray Gun Theater” (1962). In contrast to Kaprow, whose interest is mostly in conceptions, Oldenburg is primarily concerned with image and materials. His leap in “The Store” consisted of making the stuff within the store itself into an artistic object that bore approximately the same ironic relation to a real store as his miscellaneous sculptural objects did to their respective models. For this reason, just as we can appreciate his mammoth Giant Hamburger as a sculptured object that at once resembles a hamburger and yet expresses other archetypal resonances (some of them sexual, the erotic suggestiveness of familiar objects being a favorite Oldenburg theme), so The Store was a store, where things were sold, and yet it was much else besides.

His book differs from Kaprow’s in another respect. Though Oldenburg is no less an intellectual than Kaprow, as well as no less skilled with words, he uses his intelligence in an entirely different way. Whereas Kaprow wants to explain, as a teacher might confront his class, Oldenburg, not an academic, weaves an imaginative and thoroughly ironic commentary composed of prose materials as miscellaneous as the stuff of his store—historical data, replicas of important printed matter (such as a business card), sketches, price lists for the objects, photographs (that are not as explanatory as Kaprow’s), scripts for his staged performances, various recipes, aesthetic statements, ironic declarations and even occasional aphorisms. “Boredom is beautiful, but it is hard to keep awake.” The result is an open-ended and semi-satisfying pot-pourri of bookish materials standing in relation to a real book as The Store did to a real store. “My piece is called a store because like a store it is a collection of objects randomly placed in space.” For the words “store,” “objects,” and “in space,” consider substituting “book,” “phrases,” and “between hard covers.”

The following passage, perhaps the most famous, should convey Oldenburg’s canny style. In addition to parodying Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, his words also echo ironically Kaprow’s inventory of viable materials, quoted above, and perhaps the whole tradition of artists’ manifestos:

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.

I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top.

I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.

I am for an art that takes from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse, and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.

The point, of course, is that the art that he eventually created—the giant hamburger and toothpaste tube, the collapsible “soft” bathtub, and the misshapen bedroom set-has itself an ironic relation to his prescriptions. “What I want to do more than anything else,” he solemnly asserts at another point, “is create things just as mysterious as nature.”

Squarely in the great tradition of ironists, Oldenburg aims to fuse contraries, usually in the cross-grained fashion of plywood. “My art is a resolution of opposites,” he declares in what I take to be a lapse into pure seriousness; and the art critic David Bourdon has pursued this point. “He simultaneously strives for elegant and vulgar forms, animate and inanimate forms, solidity and bodilessness, empathy and indifference. In addition, he is coping simultaneously with metaphor and concreteness, figuration and abstraction, memory and present, mystery and commonplace, individuality and mold, commerce and art.” Similarly, I would say that Store Days as a book resolves both sense and nonsense. No reader should be fool enough to take everything he says seriously-but in the nonsense lies a clear sense of Oldenburg’s incorrigibly ironic and articulate sensibility. In publishing such an unusual book, the Something Else Press does what every truly avant-garde publisher should do-produce tomes that no other house would even consider seriously; for it “explains” Oldenburg’s sculptural and theatrical art less by declarative statement than by inferred resemblance.

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