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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
By 10 a.m. on the blistering morning of Apr. 25, 2008, dozens of people on the plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art were stacking big blocks of ice to build the walls of what would become a structure 30 feet long and eight feet high. A cross section of students from UCLA, random volunteers and museum staff, including LACMA president Melody Kanshat, heaved and hauled the blocks from a Union Ice truck.

Over the course of the weekend, this reborn version of Allan Kaprow’s 1967-era "Happening" Fluids was recreated at nine other sites across the city, including at the Getty Center, where the job was done by the L.A. Art Girls group. Forty-one years have passed since Fluids was first staged. The vacant lots where these defiantly avant-garde "pieces" found their original stages are not so vacant these days. Thus, their recreation is being sponsored by several city art institutions, all in collaboration with and celebration of "Allan Kaprow -- Art as Life," the retrospective devoted to the late performance-art pioneer Allan Kaprow (1927-2006).

The ice structure came together before our eyes and just as quickly began to melt away. I imagine it felt a little less miraculous than it must have appeared to participants back in the day when there were more drugs and fewer curators on the scene. Nonetheless, the restaged Happenings extend the impact and intention of the artist, an aspect of the exhibition dubbed "Agency for Action."

The Getty Research Institute, to which Kaprow left his papers, helped fund the catalogue and retrospective, which was conceived by Eva Meyer-Hermann and Stephanie Rosenthal and originally appeared at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and the Van Abbemuseum, Rotterdam, the co-organizing institutions. The Getty Institute, led by Andrew Perchuk, also helped underwrite the diverse array of Happenings.

Today, when the nihilistic adolescent gesture looms large in the world of young artists, Kaprow’s strangely affecting yet random art performances seem peculiarly restrained and even intellectual. Yet, to participate in the placement of 200 one-dollar bills in trees in a scruffy downtown area or see the staff of the Hammer Museum sitting in their office chairs on the sidewalk for an hour is to appreciate the absurdist humor inherent in a Kaprow Happening (see for info on these events as well as details of upcoming Happenings).

The Geffen Contemporary warehouse in downtown L.A. presents another side of Kaprow in "Museum as Mediation." Kaprow’s artistic evolution is on view, including the paintings, assemblages and other works that he made before devoting himself to the temporal activities he called "un-art." Having studied painting with Hans Hofmann in the late 1940s and completing a master’s degree in art history from Columbia University in 1952, Kaprow sought to reconcile the achievements of Jackson Pollock and John Cage, according to MoCA curator Paul Schimmel’s catalogue.

Kaprow’s painted assemblages evolved as entire environments influenced by his studies with the experimental composer. Push/Pull features pieces of furniture, old shoes and other objects, all painted blue. Viewers are invited to move the stuff around. By the late ‘50s, Kaprow began writing what he called "scores" for Happenings, theatrical events where the audience participated -- collective activities reflecting the artist’s early interest in absurdist theater, poetry, experimental music and Zen Buddhism.

Glass-topped cases contain documentation of his many Happenings, but his typewritten instructions and photographs of past events are merely the armature for his principal idea of elevating everyday life to the status of art, which is visible in the Happenings.

Kaprow was a co-founder of Hansa Gallery in 1952 and many of his seminal works took place in New York. But his first retrospective was held at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1967, which helped stage Fluids across the greater Los Angeles area. Two years later, he was hired by a nascent upstart art school, California Institute of Arts, and then migrated to U.C. San Diego. He remained in the area until he passed away in 2006.

Kaprow was a great influence on the lively performance art community of Southern California. Paul McCarthy was both student and friend, and has advised the museum as well as conceiving his own recreation of a Kaprow Happening for the present tribute. Using spit and a q-tip, he will clean every inch of a car belonging to MoCA director Jeremy Strick. Kaprow originally cleaned a floor, a gesture which has less political and social weight than McCarthy’s version.

Indeed, MoCA curator Philipp Kaiser invited a number of artists to reinterpret Kaprow’s environments: John Baldessari and Skylar Hasard; Allen Ruppersberg and Barbara T. Smith; and Suzanne Lacy, one of Kaprow’s students, with architect Michael Rotondi and Peter Kirby. Some evidence of these events remains on view at MoCA. The place is a mess. Viewers type remarks on Xeroxes of old 45 rpms, which are playing, and shred them so the floor of the gallery is covered in bits of paper. The museum appears to have solicited Saran Wrap for sponsorship -- miles of the stuff is wrapped around temporary chain link walls.

Visitors to the show can see documents of some of the original Happenings by sifting through boxes of black-and-white film sheets and placing them in overhead projectors. The obsolete technology is touching and a reminder of Kaprow’s era, with its ideas about nonconformity and the breakdown of social constraints. This adds weight to a show that is less of a formal museum exhibition and more of an experimental exposition of a singular artist’s oeuvre.  

The curators acknowledge the difficulties of shaping a successful museum exhibition from the output of an artist who spent most of his career evading such institutions. As the catalogue introduction notes, "in the midst of one of the longest of the periodic booms in the postwar art market, a state in which commerce makes the values of scholarship, context, and criticality often seem irrelevant, Kaprow’s work offers a strong counterpractice, coming from an artist who more resolutely resisted the strictures of the art world than perhaps any other artist of his era."

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Another artist who confronted the relationship of artist to museum is Lawrence Weiner. A retrospective of his texts, "As Far As They Eye Can See," fills the rest of the MoCA warehouse through July 14. Weiner says that he approached the expansive galleries of the warehouse as a "fairground," and a charming irreverence enlivens what might seem like a dire proposition.

Frankly, the artist’s texts are considerably less dry than much of the writing about his work. Weiner’s texts dance across the industrial strength space incorporating colored paint and off-color innuendo. The works progress from early formal concerns whereby words are the medium and describe sculptural actions to later texts that come off as effortlessly droll and evocative.

Some resonate with poetic innuendo, like "Stretched as tightly as is possible (satin) & (petroleum jelly)" of 1994. Or "Illuminated by the Lights of Two Ships Passing in the Night," from 1998. As with Kaprow, there is an elegance of thought and presentation that might startle nay-sayers still challenged by notions of Conceptual Art.

"Allan Kaprow: Art as Life," Mar. 23-June 30, 2008, and "Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See," Apr. 13-July 14, 2008, at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 North Central Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90013

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.