Geez was I lucky hooking up with Kaprow when I did.
In the time I spent as a student at the State U. of New York at Stony Brook,
1962-66, I took more than my share of courses with a couple of guys, two profs
who in their separate ways prepped me my-t-well for the long freaking haul of
this here life. The teacherly shtick of Donald Goodman, philosopher, boiled down
to Think for yourself or perish.
Hed give you texts--Plato, Kant, Meister Eckhart, Marcus Aurelius--to kind
of nudge you along, help to get you oriented towards being thorough and clear
and systematic, meanwhile letting you dance through the full field of available
real-life content (rock-roll, comic books, Vietnam, etc.)--with the ultimate
goal being no more/no less than to come up with your OWN damn system or forget
it. So I did.
Allan Kaprow, by comparison more of a "see Spot run" type of guy, was
MASTER of show & tell re the stuff and pith and lore of 20th century high-booty
art. My first class with him, called simply Modern Painting, was an incredibly
follow-the-dots beginning with Cézanne and Matisse and ending up with
Warhol and, dig it, Kaprow himself. In between, he served up glorious helpings
of Picasso, Mondrian, Duchamp, Schwitters, Hoffman, Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg,
etc., etc. This was History as an
immensely exciting roller coaster ride--a text the likes of which Ive
found in a book about ANY genre or era.
The two figures he probably lingered on the longest, gave maximum weight to,
were Duchamp and Pollock--polar opposites, exemplars of cool and hot, ideational
and retinal--whom of course he found compatible to the nth. I vividly recall
coming to class one day, entering a room pitch-dark except for a slide of one
of Pollocks larger 50s canvases, projected as close to scale as Kaprow
could manage. Hed gotten there early and set it up, inviting us to experience
the work as a neutral slab of visible Universe, a
macrocosmic night-sky thing-in-itself.
Although he had us play a round or two of "exquisite corpse", he spent
than wed anticipated on the Surrealists because, as I remember it, he thought
Cubists were already Surrealists (simultaneous multi-focus and all). Picasso
himself got cut off at some less-than-obvious date like, oh, 1914, with "Guernica" barely
namedropped as a big hunk of Kitsch. Lauding both De Kooning and Rauschenberg
for their hell-and-gone transcendence of various thises and thats, he disparaged
the compositional tendencies of each--too beholden, he felt, to Mondrian
(of all people). He came up with some very idiosyncratic, but totally
credible, takes on shit, and was one persuasive, charming (often mesmerizing)
For the final session of the class, he had all roads lead to his own merry work--voila!--Environments
and Happenings. Which was anything but gratuitous, hell
no!cause it really did tie together many strands of biz. Happenings
combine-painting? Sure, you bet, but with one crucial proviso. "Artist", "art
object", "audience"--all semester hed done a dandy job delineating
the interplay of these three components in the art-strut of the century. The "object",
wed been shown, could sometimes be elusive. (For Warhol, it was not so
much silk-screened Brillo boxes as the whole entire clatter & clang of their
cycle of being, from production to exhibition to public-historical context to,
presumably, nonexistence.) In a Kaprow Happening, of course, artist, audience,
and object would by design be ONE. Unity at the end of History, the end of Art.
(Which is something most "performance art" hasnt YET come to
I also took some Kaprow studio courses, whatsems as rudimentary as Studio 101,
and learned more about color, for inst, than any army of instructors had previously
shown me--things like the four ASPECTS of color (hue, intensity, tint/shade,
chroma), and the why and the whatfor of purple and gold (neither warm nor cool,
hence mystical) as the calling card of nobility. Watching me apply paint,
he was quick to observe that sloppiness was my
forte--so I needn't even try being neat. Wowie!
All of which today seems rather amazing. Had he been ensconced at Cal Arts or
UCSD, contempo-friendly places which would soon be all too pleased to let him
DO HIS THING, Kaprow in those days would not've been teaching standard curriculum
bullcrap like Art
History and Painting 102. Although its students were some wild & krazy fuckers,
the administration at Stony Brook was fairly conservative. In four years, they
only once let
him put up an installation on campus ("Words", in the G-dorm lobby,
fall 62). All they let him do was teach these things he would never have
Which I was lucky to fucking happen upon. Yup.
Richard Meltzer is the author of 12 or 14 (or 11) books, depending
on how you count these things, including the recent A WHORE JUST LIKE
THE REST: THE MUSIC WRITINGS OF RICHARD MELTZER. He lives somewhere
in the U.S. (neither New York nor L.A.) and would like to get laid
again before he dies.