Allan Kaprow, 79; Artist’s ‘Happenings’ Broke New Ground in Expression

Times Staff Writer

Allan Kaprow, the artist who combined painting, sculpture and theater in flamboyant events that he staged in unexpected locations and referred to as “happenings,” has died. He was 79.

A founding member of the visual arts department at UC San Diego, Kaprow died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Encinitas, his studio manager, Tamara Bloomberg, said this week.

As a young artist in the late 1950s, Kaprow was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painters who moved around their vast canvases to pour and drip paint. He took the idea further by leading observers directly into the artwork, eliminating canvas and display walls.


He staged his happenings in industrial lofts, empty storefronts and other unlikely places and wrote about the events and the ideas behind them in magazine articles and his 1993 book “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life.”

He compared happenings to mime, circus acts, carnivals and Dada art, as well as theater.

“Allan was able to break the boundary between life and art,” said Steve Fagin, chairman of UC San Diego’s visual arts department. “He turned things on their head. Instead of making a grandiose artwork, he would put greatness into anything ordinary. That can be inspiring and transcendent.”

Kaprow staged his first major art event in New York City in 1959. Titled “18 Happenings in 6 Parts,” it took place in three rooms of an art gallery. Slides were projected on one wall, some performers walked with their arms held at an angle to their bodies and others read aloud while the audience moved on cue, according to Kaprow’s plan. He created an experience for the audience, leaving it to them to give it a meaning.

“Allan took art off the walls and put it in places where anyone could encounter it,” said David Antin, a poet, artist and longtime friend of Kaprow. “It was a step in the democratization of fine art and a big psychological breakthrough. He was an enormously important artist.”

Early in his career, Kaprow and such like-minded artists as Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine created “environments” for viewers to walk through. One of Kaprow’s best-known works, “Yard” (1961), was a jumble of spare tires heaped in a small room open to foot traffic.

In “A Spring Happening” (1961), staged in an artist’s loft in New York, Kaprow added the element of change to his work. Viewers moved from place to place while he bombarded them with unexpected sensations such as a breeze from a fan and the jarring start-up noise of a power lawnmower. Critics commented on the influence of Kaprow’s former teacher, multimedia composer John Cage.

Later in the ‘60s, Kaprow moved away from large-scale art events to smaller ones he referred to as “work pieces.” In one that Antin observed, workers built a house in Southern California made of blocks of ice. The main purpose of the event was for the participants to have the experience of building the ice house, Antin said. Watching it melt seemed beside the point.

By the early 1970s, Kaprow had distilled happenings to intimate encounters he called “activities.” Antin recalled one of them that involved only two people. The first person was asked to stand on the shadow of the other and not let it get away. “It was a kind of game but it was also about a negotiation between two people,” Antin said.

Kaprow’s work pieces and activities inspired a number of performance artists from the mid-1970s, including Chris Burden, who once crawled across glass as an early performance piece.

While Kaprow remained best known for creating the happening, he continued to develop his ideas and exhibit his art around the world.

“In time Allan eliminated the audience,” said Jeff Kelley, editor of Kaprow’s book of essays and author of the 2004 book “Childsplay: The Art of Allan Kaprow.”

“The participants experienced the work by doing it,” Kelley said. “In that sense it is helpful to think of Allan as a composer. He was a composer of events.”

Born in Atlantic City, N.J., and raised in Tucson, Kaprow graduated from New York University in 1949 and earned a master’s degree in art history at Columbia University in 1952. He then studied with Cage at the New School of Social Research from 1956 to 1958.

He joined the faculty of Rutgers University in New Jersey in 1952 and remained there until 1961. He also taught at several other schools in the East before moving to California in the late 1960s to join the faculty at UC Berkeley.

He later taught at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia for several years before joining the faculty at UC San Diego in 1974. He remained there for the duration of his academic career, most recently as an emeritus professor.

Kaprow is survived by his wife, Coryl, and four children, three of them from his previous marriage to Vaughan Rachel, which ended in divorce. He is also survived by three grandchildren.