Interview with Allan Kaprow
Conducted by Susan Hapgood
Encinitas, California, August 12, 1992
Susan Hapgood: Dore Ashton once called your work “Neo-Dada.” Do you remember what the context was?
Allan Kaprow: She reviewed my last real exhibition, two environments that I had in succession at the Hansa Gallery in 1958. A number of the sculptures were assemblages made out of a variety of things—light bulbs flashing on and off, things that moved, paintings whose surfaces were broken up into literally separate planes in space. In other words, they were prototypes for the next step, the environmental. Her review called my work “Neo-Dada.” I took exception to that because I really had none of the sociopolitical attitudes of the Dadaists. I remember one thing Ashton said in the review: “Me thinks he doth protest too much.” But I wasn’t protesting at all. I think that’s what I objected to. I was really just having fun.
SH: You said in your essay for the New Forms—New Media catalogue that critics made erroneous references to Neo-Dada to describe objects, environments, and Happenings. Can you elaborate?
AK: Dada was a common reference point. To the extent that people would comment on what we were doing in that particular show or elsewhere, they would speak about Dada. It was mainly in conversation. Frequently, I thought, we were wrongly associated with Dada. Anti-art isn’t something the Dadas invented. There’s a whole thread of “life is better than art” dating at lest to the time of Wordsworth, right through Emerson and Whitman, to John Dewey and beyond, emphasizing art as experience, trying ot blend art back into life—this tradition influenced me very much. But anti-art is an old Western theme.
SH: What about the cynical side of Dada?
AK: The cynical side was not present. IF you talk about freedoms—for example, the freedom to employ open processes or the freedom to use a variety of objects and materials from the everyday world—these were derived from the prototypes of Dada. But to ascribe to me protest and cynicism—not at all.
SH: How else was the term “Neo-Dada” used?
AK: Well, it was generally thrown around as a criticism. No one said, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful that you’re a Neo-Dadaist.” It was a criticism, not a joyous utterance.
SH: Did the active role of the audience as participants in Happenings bear any comparison to Duchamp’s insistence that the viewer creates the meaning of the work?
AK: Well, Duchamp gave that speech in Texas in 1957, I think. That’s where he made the famous statement that the work of art is essentially a composite of meanings added to by posterity, whatever the artist may have put down first. I didn’t read it until somewhat later. Then he gave a talk at the Museum of Modern Art where he also spoke more on the same lines, if I remember rightly. I did not attend, but it was recorded and published. But he also said something else about the rash of neo-Duchampian shows. He said, “When I selected my first objects, I did not have in mind whole shows of shovels and bottleracks, because that would have killed the point.” And he implied that younger artists who were just buying out hardware stores were doing the wrong thing: they would overdo it. I think we all learned from those little hints from Duchamp. A key feature was discreetness, a timing and restraint that many of us didn’t learn well enough.
Duchamp was personally very helpful to us, no question. He came to our Happenings, most of them. He certainly came to mine, and he brought friends, Ernst and Richter and Huelsenbeck. And, in my case, Duchamp later acted as a reference in my getting a number of grants. So he was very helpful, both practically and intellectually.
SH: In a 1967 interview, you said that Schwitters conceived Happenings but never did them. Were you referring to his descriptions of Merz theater?
AK: What I learned about Schwitters was simply what was available to me through books: about his plans for theater, about his performances, about his wordplay. But I never heard or saw any of them. So, as far as I knew, most of them were cabaret-style performances, not Happenings. As much as they may have been capable of being Happenings, they never evolved to that point.
SH: Why do you believe artists used detritus and junk in their art?
AK: It was clearly part of transforming reality. It gave everyone a sense of instant involvement in a kind of crude everyday reality, which was quite a relief after the high-art attitude of exclusion from the real world. It also allowed us to give up a certain kind of seriousness that traditional art-making required. What’s more, the materials were available everywhere on street corners at night. And if you didn’t sell these environmental constructions, you’d just throw them back into the garbage can. Why not just thow them out? At once, the process in its fullest would be enacted. It was very liberating to think of oneself as part of an endlessly tranforming real world.
SH: The element of getting away from tradition, couldn’t that be called an anti-art gesture?
AK: Yes. Now I know it could be, but I didn’t then. At that time, I didn’t like the idea of giving up a sense of art.
SH: In retrospect, there does seem to be some subtle protest.
AK: But the protest was not against society, it was against traditionalism in art. You might remember that this was during the Eisenhower years, and there was a powerful conservatism operating that began to repudiate Abstract Expressionist attitudes and anything attached to the European tradition of art. Even Art News and editor Tom Hes were going all out to celebrate a return to the figure and the “sanity-in-art” movement. “Sanity” meant reverting, nto only to the figure, but to European prototypes of painting and sculpture; supposedly, this would reinstate humanitarianism and the great traditional values that had been forgotten. That was what we were implicitly protesting against. Under the aegis of de Kooning, even many of the Hofmann students who had been abstract artists were reverting. Matisse and German Expressionism were recalled again. To me, that seemed less interesting than experimental work. So you could say we were protesting, some of us.
SH: Did Rauschenberg’s comment about working in the gap between art and life relfect a prevalent attitude at the time? Was it a prescription that artists followed?
AK: No, it became famous later on, but I would be very surprised if anybody even knew about it when it was first uttered. It was basically a prevalent attitude. I’ve tried to rephrase the attitude myself, not wishing to act in that gap, if there is one, but pushing it more toward the life side. I’m not too interest in gaps.
SH: One of the earliest Neo-Dada artists was Jean Follett, whow as also one of the first artists to make junk sculpture when she integrated gritty found objects in her works in the early 1950s. What do you remember about her?
AK: I met her in 1947 when I was a student at Hans Hoffman’s School of Fine Arts in New York. She stood out from all the other students; her drawings looked like Picabia drawings and they were unlike the very strong Hoffman style. Hofmann would often literally draw over our work, but he never touched Jean Follett’s. He would get to Jean and he would just look at it, and almost invariably say, “Ja, das ist sehr gut, sehr gut” [Yes, that’s very good, very good].
In 1949, two Hofmann students (Wolf Kahn and Felix Pasilis) organized a group show of certain graduates of the school at a kind of semi-private gallery in their loft at 831 Broadway—I don’t think there was a name. That’s where I first saw Jean’s sculptures. Shortly thereafter, this same group got together—and Richard Stankiewicz was very helpful—to form the Hansa Gallery, which was named party to elicit the Hanseatic League, a loose federation of medieval North German states, and partly to honor Hans Hofmann. I joined Hansa in 1952.
Anywya, Jean Follett’s work impressed everybody. But we also thought she was “crazy” because she put huge prices on them, prices that seemed astronomical! But we thought that she was absolutely a wonderful artist, very very powerful. Her show was one of the most widely attended. Even Leo Castelli came to the gallery, as did Clem Greenberg. I know that Dubuffet came to New York for a show at that time, and somehow or another she got him to come to her studio and he was mightily impressed.
SH: Do you remember when you first read Motherwell’s Dada anthology?
AK: Yes. I was at Columbia in 1951 and ’52, taking classes with Meyer Schapiro. I was most interest in Mondrian at the time; and we were just getting used to Abstract Expressionism, which had peaked by then. Dada wasn’t particularly interesting to most artists. Motherwell’s anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, came out in 1951, but I didn’t read it immediately. It was a little later before I was really very immersed in it. Probably within the year. And once I read it, of course, I found Dada, as presented by Motherwell, to be much more interesting than Surrealism. Then there followed a whole lot of publications and artists’ revived interest in Dada.
I didn’t meet Rauschenberg until 1952, but he was another important link to Dada. As was George Brecht, who was my neighbor in the early 1950s. I was teaching at Rutgers at that time, and George Brecht was working for the Personal Products Division of Johnson & Johnson, in New Brunswick [New Jersey]. And Bob Watts was part of the Art Department at Douglass College, the Women’s College of Rutgers. George Segal was also a neighbor. All of us lived in the New Brunswick area.
SH: Did you talk to Brecht about Motherwell’s anthology?
AK: Well, he had an earlier interest in Dada. He was doing work at that time—which I remember very vividly—that encouraged chance operations. For example, he once brought an eight-by-four-foot masonite panel and several boxes of wooden matches over to the farm where I was living. He laid out this panel on the driveway and casually threw matches over the surface. Then he tossed a lit match among them and they all burst into flame in some kind of random pattern. Then we lifted up the panel and the matchsticks fell off, leaving burn marks. This was his way, one of many, of trying to produce paintings that dealt concretely with what he felt Pollock was all about. He even wrote an essay on chance, which dealt with his interpretation of Pollock, essentially saying that Pollock was interest in giving up organizational techniques. But Brecht was more interested in a kind of randomized dispersion principle. I remember him showing me tables of random numbers. For him, Dada was a celebration of chance, or the appearance of chance.
SH: This is before John Cage’s class.
AK: Right. He joined Cage’s class just a bit before I did. In fact, we used to drive into New York City together. But I had known Cage earlier. Not well, but over the years I’d met him here and there and was part of the periphery of his circle, because I was familiar with Jasper [Johns] and Bob [Rauschenberg] and a lot of the musicians that Cage knew, like composer Morton Feldman. It was a very small group of people in those days. I attended Cage concerts as early as 1948, when he was diddling around with the prepared piano, and all kinds of toys and gadgets to make noise. I made a decision then to concretize my work by having a real action or activity take place. For example, hammering a nail or blowing your nose would be self-evident. It wouldn’t just be the isolated feature of one sense being recorded.
Cage’s teaching was sophisticated philosophically. From his own sensibility and from Zen Buddhist readings, he learned that he experience of the present is a combination of receptivity and action. For Cage, concreteness wasn’t the isolation of one feature of a situation, framed out of context; it was actually an experience, like that [hits table]. That sense of the experiential moment was a clarifier for me. Once I realized how simple the whole thing was, it was only a matter of taking off as fast as I could in the direction of Happenings. (I did my earliest ones in his classes in 1957-58.)
SH: Did Cage talk directly about Dad in the class?
AK: He mentioned it now and again. I know that he was familiar with all of those people and certainly he knew Duchamp.
SH: Is it fair to say that by the latter half of the 1950s there was a major shift of interest among arrists from Surrealism to Dada?
AK: Surrealism was interesting to the previous generation of New York School painters, and we sort of “got it” through over-saturation. But it was their thing, and very European. When Dada came along, there were few objects to see, it all seemed really far-out, although we didn’t necessarily understand its sociopolitical programs. We did not think, as the Dadaists did in 1916, that the world had gone crazy and there was no redemption in sight—its current of cynicism. Rather, we felt that here was freedom to put the real world together in weird ways. It was a discovery, a heady kind of appetite for debris, for cheap throwaways, for a new kind of involvement in everyday life without the judgments about it, either social or personal.
SH: Did John Cage’s ideas about chance develop directly out of his knowledge of Dada and Marcel Duchamp?
AK: No. He claimed that his interest in chance derived from his study of Zen Buddhism, even though Zen Buddhism has no tradition of chance whatsoever. I think for Cage it was the open sense of an unwilled grander design in the universe, one in which an experience is more important than knowledge of the grand design. For me, Cage’s teaching was a real gift, an opening-up rather than a prejudice or a gimmick. But it was threatening to a lot of people because it meant losing control.
SH: Did everyone read books on Zen? And which books were the most widely read?
AK: The grand message-bearer of Asiatic philosophy and religion to the Western world was Daisetzu Suzuki, a transcendentalist and former student of John Dewey. He ws an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and all the American philosophers, and he felt that their work represented a kind of analogy to the Japanese view of the world. Suzuki was really the bridge, more than anybody else. Cage attended Suzuki’s lecutres on Zen Buddhism in the Philosophy Department at Columbia University. Those lectures and readings certainly helped Cage clarify his own point of view. Now I didn’t attend those lectures. In Cage’s case, the whole notion of chance was a result of putting together a lot of the readings: Thoreau, Emerson, anarchism, as well as Asiatic philosophy and the I Ching.
So the answer to your question about how the chance operations eveolved is: through Cage, as well as an awareness of Dada. He was very informed about Dada, a real intellecutal. I’m sure he was aware of Duchamp’s use, and Arp’s use, of chance operations. I remember reading in Motherwell’s Dada anthology, and also in the Lebel book, how Duchamp made part of the Large Glass by shooting paint-dipped matches out of a toy cannon: where they landed was where there marks went. In any cause, the question is a complex one that, to my knowledge, has never been asked—how did the system of chance operations evolve? All I know is that by the time I met Cage, I mean, when I was going to the class, it had already been worked into a system.
SH: Wasn’t your interest in the Gutai Group related to this idea of chance? Do you remember how you heard about the Gutai activities?
AK: Alfred Leslie told me about an article he had read in the New York Times [Ray Falk, “Japanese Innovators,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1957, p. 24ff.]. It was in the Sunday paper, but I hadn’t read the Times that particular Sunday. Leslie saw I was moving into a kind of wild spatialized collage/assemblage mode, and he said, “Hey, did you read about this?”
SH: So the article was sort of a passing curiosity, then?
AK: Oh, it was a prominent article! Brecht must have heard about it, because the work he was doing paralleled the various Gutai environmental and action-type pieces. He must have read the article in the Times, and I would guess that Bob Watts would have, too.
SH: Your own article, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” [Art News, Oct. 1958-, was published the following year and also created something of a stir, didn’t it?
AK: Well, I got some feedback from people in my circle, like my editor, Tom Hess, who took a rather dim view of my very eccentric interpretation of Jackson Pollock as someone whose work led to conventional repetition or to what many felt was a kind of Dada junk.
It was written in its entirety after Pollock died in 1956, but then I reworked it slightly later. I gave it to Hess in 1958, within a month of finishing the rewrite. But he held on to it for reasons of caution before he published it. Then he finally made up his mind to publish it, and I asked for it back to correct a few errors.
SH: I think the part about art employing any materials necessary is very impressive considering that it was written in 1956. Were you familiar with Schwitters’s work by this point?
AK: Yes. What was unusual was the jump that I made from quasi-painting work, like Schwitters’s, in which the common metaphor of art and the world was closure, to a kind of environmental phenomenon, open to everything because it was so big. That was a really extreme leap. Painting seemed unnecessary to anyone who wanted to experiment. I didn’t, of course, say that it was over; it certainly wasn’t. So in the Pollock article, I proposed that artists could go in one of two directions: to further develop action painting, or to work environmentally in lifelike situations.
SH: Oldenburg was supposedly especially struck by that article.
AK: Yes, he told me that later, but I didn’t know him then. The first time I met Claes was at a party at George Segal’s farm. He didn’t say anything about the article, but did tell me how interested he was in what I was doing. There were some performances at the farm that day, and he was definitely very curious. That probably had something to do with his decision to become a Happener.
SH: In the Pollock article, you use the term “concrete art.” And in a brochure for a Hansa Gallery show the same year , you juxtapose the words “abstract” and “concrete.” How were you using those terms?
AK: I borrowed them from music. Musique concrete was a postwar phenomenon, partly inspired by John Cage, but more well-known in France and Germany. There was simultaneously an interest in Europe in the non-abstract aspects of music and in the specific, identifiable sounds of somebody hammering or flushing a toilet. Tape recordings were new in those days, a product of the war. With tape, you could make a recording of your footsteps and then manipulate it as much as you wanted. The French were not interested in making these sounds into abstract music but in retaining their very specific concrete identity. So that’s what I had in mind: that musique concrete would then suggest a parallel in art—art concrete.
SH: Dick Higgins has said that the general nature of the performances at the Reuben Gallery were different from those at the E-pit-o-me Coffee shop, and that the latter were more allusive. Is that true? Was there a significant difference?
AK: What I do remember from the few times that I went to the E-pit-o-me was that he performances tended to be more like cabaret performances than Happenings. They were prototypes of what we would call “performance” today, where you get the auteur or auteuse, the singular actor or acress doing a number. But the Happeners—at least Claes, myself, Red Grooms, and Whitman, Vostell, and later Knizak, I think—were much more involved in the phisical materiality of things, pushing furniture around, hiding things, moving people in and amonst environmentally filled areas; like a literalization of, say, the clottedness of an Abstract Expressionist painting.
SH: Supposedly in 1961 you had a disagreement with Oldenburg about Happenings. Is that worth talking about?
AK: It wasn’t all that terrible. One day, after some wonderful performances at one of our storefronts, in the days when we were still in a group, Claes and I were walking down the street. He said to me that he had heard from Jim Dine or Bob Whitman that I didn’t think his work was a Happening. And I said, “Yes, I don’t think it’s a Happening, I think it’s expressionist theater. But don’t get me wrong, I think it’s wonderful theater!” So we had what amounted to a real parting of the ways right there, not necessarily cordial. Then, weeks later we were in a show at Martha Jackson Gallery [in May 1961] called Environments, Situations, Spaces. That’s where I did my tire environment Yard in the back yard. Well, the gallery organized a little supper for us on the evening of the opening. And each of us delivered a little speech, probably inspired by the old Dadaists. In any event, Claes said something that cast a pall over what we were doing. And I got the impression—though it might have been my sensitivity—that it was criticism directed at me. So I wrote him a somewhat angry letter and said, “Okay, I’ll take you on anytime”—something foolish like that—“and we’ll see where it goes from there.” The next few years we went in different ways: Claes became famous and I withdrew more and more from the art-exhibiting world, although I was hardly suffering.
I suspect our disagreement was more over theoretical interest. I wanted to deine what I thought were the experimental possibilities in art at that time. For example, he rehearsed people well after I gave that up. He had specific time slots for the pieces, at a time when I was seeing that as a dead end. He confined the performance area while I dispersed it. He definitely had audiences, when I was trying to integrate everything. Really, it was like two guys talking two different languages who, I believe, had admiration from one another.
SH: Do you agree that by 1961 there was a shift toward a cleaner, slicker look in art, especially in the work of emerging Pop artists?
AK: Sure. One of the things that happened was that the Abstract Expressionists were finally beginnign to make a sizeable impact on the market. Nothing like today, but for artists in those days to sell soemthing for three or four thousand dollars was a bonanza. But the idea that an artist could in fact make a living off art had never been even remotely thinkable before, certainly not for experimental artists. Now there was a different idea. I remember one particular article in Fortune magazine that advised collectors how to make more money buying modern art than they could in the stock market. And they actually gave tables of appreciation over a five-year period. Like, buy Larry Rivers because it was no longer affordable to buy Pollock or Newman or de Kooning. And the art market began to pick up everywhere, including a market for work by younger artists.
Symbolically, Pop art developed when Andy Warhol discovered he could move from the commercial world, in which he was quite a figure, to the fine art world and not suffer a disruption of identity. He just had da more sophisticated audience at that point. And, therefore, it was probably no accident that my friend Roy Lichtenstein gave up the Abstract Expressionist paintings he was doing at the time for something that was always present in his work but latent: the investigation of popular imagery and methodology. And as it turned out, it was very marketable.
SH: Do you recall why Yves Klein's 1961 show of blue monochromes at Castelli was boycotted?
AK: Well, I think that he was not well-received, but that is largely through hearsay. I gather this not from the show, because I didn't see it, but from the reviews. He was repudiated for two reasons: one was his showmanship, and the other was his reputed association with a conservative political group, the Chevalier de la Croix [in 1956 he was made a chevalier, or knight, of the Order of Saint Sebastian], or something like that. He was both star and impresario, a dual role that has great tradition in Europe, but which in America was associated with Broadway, razzle-dazzle, and the lowest common denominator.
SH: When did you become aware of the Nouveaux Realistes?
AK: I became aware of the New Realists when Pierre Restany organized the show in New York in 1962. It was at two different places. One was a rented storefront on 57th Street, and the other was Sidney Janis's gallery nearby. I became very interested, and in fact went to Paris the next year; there was a whole new set of people I wanted to meet. I did, in fact, and they were all very helpful. I met Spoerri right away. And Emmett Williams, who was living there at the time, and Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Robert Filliou. I became part of what I thought was an international association of artists. A number of the Japanese artists were in Paris then, so it was very international.
SH: Did you feel that there was a strong American chauvinism against Europeans between 1958 and 1962?
AK: To be as fair as I can, I would have to say that there was simply a very grateful sense that, at last, American artists were not deriving form somebody else. It was nice to feel that one was coming out of something personal. But we did not repudiate others, because obviously and logically they had just as much right to their ethos as we did ours. As I said, for us, the international sense of community was far more interesting than isolation. Some of us, after all, had a historical sense of what isolation had done back in the 1930s and '40s, and we didn't want to repeat that kind of silliness. So I was aware of some of the jingo-ism in the art world, particularly the distinctly nationalistic way in which Rockefeller and others resuscitated modern art, taking it from being the bad boy of American culture to being the exemplar of freedom. It was packaged for all over the world as a repudiation of Communism. Now this kind of turnaround was offensive to a lot of us, although we weren't taking positions of ideology either.
I think I shared the common attitude that some of the European work seemed tame, and precious. However, much New Realism was a breakthrough for the Europeans, Yves Klein, Vostell, Vautier, Spoerri, Tinguely, Filliou . . . hold up very well today.
SH: In retrospect, what effects and influences do you think Happenings had on immediately subsequent art?
AK: Well, the effect must have been indirect, if at all, because very few people actually saw them. But if you can say things are in the air, that sometimes you don't have to read the book because you get the whole idea just from gossip, then in this case permission was in the air. It's possible to say with some caution that the Happenings allowed a good bit of Fluxus to take place, just as Gutai provided some justification for the early Happenings. You can also say that earthworks, particularly earthworks that were site-specific, were given their permission by the earlier example of Happenings, although they had nothing to do with each other directly. I think Happenings--especially things going on in multiple spaces at different times that were not physically connected--gave permission to conceptual art, the "live in your head" approach. Unfortunately, now there's a kind of new piety that's being brought to bear by critics and historians upon our work which was so irreverent at the time!
Interview from Susan Hapgood's "Neo-Dada: Redefining Art 1958-62"