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Allan Kaprow papers, 1940-1997

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Kaprow (Allan) Papers

Biographical / Historical Note

Allan Kaprow was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on August 23, 1927, and spent his childhood in Tuscon, Arizona. His family then moved to New York, where Kaprow attended the High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1945. He received his B.A. degree from New York University, where he majored in philosophy and art history and was a principle cartoonist for the college magazine. He then earned a Master's Degree in art history at Columbia University where he studied with Meyer Schapiro, to whom he dedicated his Thesis on Piet Mondrian in 1951. He also studied painting with Hans Hofmann (1947-1948) at Hofmann's school, and musical composition with John Cage at the New School for Social Research (1957-1958).

In the mid-1950s Kaprow began exhibiting his work, expressionist or fauvist-style paintings, at the Hansa Gallery, an East Village cooperative that he co-founded with a group of other young artists including Jan Müller, Felix Pasilis, and Jean Follett. By 1958, Kaprow's paintings had evolved into the interactive installations that he called Environments, at that time a novel concept in the American art scene. From this Kaprow moved to the notion of creating an event determined, like Cage's music, by a score that allowed for chance developments. The elements of these event pieces were always to be everyday objects (tires, cheap mirrors, aluminum foil, plastic strips), people (participants), and often sound (bits of household or workworld dialogue, breathing, industrial noise). He also generally dispensed with the gallery space and utilized urban spaces or sites in nature.

Kaprow had a long career as a professor of art and art history. He taught at Rutgers University (1953-1961), SUNY Stony Brook (1961-1968), California Institute of the Arts (1969-1974) and UC San Diego (1974-1993), and has been a visiting lecturer at numerous museums and universities. He also co-directed an educational program for the Berkeley public schools in 1969, Project Other Ways, and has authored several proposals regarding art education reform in the United States.

Beginning with his prescient article "The Legacy of Jackson Pollock," published in Art News in 1958, Kaprow has consistently produced critical and theoretical pieces that explain his kind of art as the most adequate aesthetic response to contemporary life. Assemblage, 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. In addition, major catalogs of Kaprow's work have been published in connection with retrospectives in the U.S. and Europe, most notably 7 Environments (1992).

The critical and public acceptance of Kaprow's work may be attributed as much to the polemics of Kaprow's writings and lectures as to his anticipation that American art would move away from the hermetic aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism and return, in certain respects, to the anti-subjective populism of Futurism, Constructivism and Dada. For four decades Kaprow has continued to work within the form of the Environment, Happening, or Activity, and has reinvented certain early works several times, making a total of nearly 250 pieces. His influence on other artists, especially the performance and installation artists of the 1970s and 1980s, has been significant. More than forty years after the first Happening, his work is the subject of continual critical discussion. While the form Kaprow largely invented has lost its shock-value, the quality of his ephemeral pieces continues to resonate through their scores and other surviving documentation.

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