If an artist makes art intended to function outside the confines of an art museum, does it make sense for an art museum to present a retrospective exhibition of that artist’s work?
That’s the peculiar question encountered at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Little Tokyo, where a 50-year survey of work by Allan Kaprow (1927-2006) recently opened. Kaprow is best known for initiating Happenings in 1959, a performance-based art with disposable elements of collage and assemblage, such as one in which 20 rectangular enclosures were constructed from blocks of ice around Los Angeles. Needless to say, these Minimalist igloos, 1967’s “Fluids: A Happening,” were something an art museum cannot contain.
Oddly enough, a partial answer to the question is found in a second Geffen exhibition, “Lawrence Weiner: As Far as the Eye Can See,” which opened Sunday. Weiner, 66, is best known for language sculptures -- usually epigrammatic statements, such as the one that serves as the show’s title, painted or printed on walls, floors or paper.
Kaprow’s art sees the museum as a vivid social problem, which his art means to escape or circumvent. Weiner’s work seems to suggest that, hey, it’s really no big deal.
I’m with Weiner. Museums do have problems, but pretending they’re separate from life is a problem all its own.
High up on a Geffen wall is Weiner’s phrase “Many colored objects placed side by side to form a row of many colored objects.” As a description, it puts you in mind of paintings lined up in a museum gallery. But just as easily, it could conjure canned goods at the supermarket or clothes on a rack. Or, maybe it’s describing you and your fellow museum visitors, standing in a row and looking up.
Weiner at his most provocative creates an egalitarian field of thought and feeling. His work is radically subjective. Its meaning belongs to anyone who encounters it, inside a museum or out on the street, every bit as much as it does to a collector who might be its nominal owner.
Weiner did not go to art school. (Neither did Kaprow; notably, he earned a master’s degree in art history, which might explain the occasional pedantry of his work.) He was born in the Bronx, N.Y., where his parents owned a candy store, dropped out of Hunter College before a year was up, began painting in a formulaic Abstract Expressionist manner and traveled around North America working odd jobs. At 18 he was in San Francisco, lured by existentialist Beat poetry and City Lights bookstore.
With help from friends, he set off small dynamite explosions in a Mill Valley state park, north of the city, creating a series of little craters that he regarded as “negative sculpture.” (The authorities thought otherwise.) Some consider “Cratering Piece” to be the first Earthwork or Land art.
A sculptor’s concern with physical mass eventually began to inform the painter’s tall, vertical abstractions. They employ unusually deep stretcher bars and have a notch cut from one corner. These nearly monochrome canvases appear strangely busy, working hard to bust up conventional abstract painting.
The bulky objects hang against the wall like figures, palpable and materialized, against a ground. Weiner asked other people to select the paintings’ colors and which corner to notch. These decisions stressed the painting’s objective qualities, while the subjectivity of expression was being elicited from the viewer rather than asserted by the painter.
These early efforts coalesce in the show’s first mature work, made in 1968. Easy to miss, it consists of a 36-inch square of “nothingness” embedded in the surface of a gallery wall.
Weiner made it by chiseling away the thin, plaster wallboard to expose the support structure beneath. Like “Cratering Piece,” it embodies a removal of material -- which has the uncanny effect of making the absent plane of wallboard all the more emphatic.
After that, Weiner’s text pieces took off. His lettering style tends to be clean and rectilinear, sometimes animated by looping lines. In “Often Replayed (Played Again),” the two, two-word sentiments form a diptych, echoing against itself. “Encased By + Reduced to Rust” is like a haiku, meditating on decomposition. “Water Under a Bridge” revives a cliché, while perhaps picturing Monet at Giverny in your mind’s eye.
“A Glacier Vandalized” conjures a monumental crime. Telescoping a remote outdoor tragedy into an intimate indoor encounter, the presence of big words on a wall in front of you is as sculpturally tangible as a massive yet dwindling sheet of ice thousands of miles away. Given the disarming current of connection that flows between them, one’s complicity in the ecological vandalism cannot be fudged.
The installation of Weiner’s retrospective is carefully designed. (His drawings for the gallery layouts at the Whitney Museum of American Art and MOCA, which co-organized the show, are on view.) The entry wall is a long arc, throwing a literal curve into a visitor’s expectations. Behind it the main room is divided by a row of T-shaped walls set at a 45-degree angle, creating a dynamic space for Weiner’s epigrams.
Despite the elegance of individual works, the career-long accumulation of about 100 texts, along with lots of posters, books and multiples, can make for a sometimes clamorous environment. But the chief asset of seeing so many signature examples together -- this is Weiner’s first American retrospective -- is that themes emerge. The most compelling is the frequent reference to water, with its elemental, shape-shifting fluidity.
Which brings us back to Kaprow, instigator of “Fluids: A Happening.” Weiner has spoken of his debt to such works.
“Happenings allowed the audience to participate,” he once told an interviewer, “instead of overwhelming them with the artist’s emotions. The audience had to participate in order for the work to exist.”
That’s a drawback for the Kaprow retrospective, which is more like a thorough archival display than a typical art exhibition. The show was organized by Munich’s Haus der Kunst and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and it draws heavily on the artist’s papers in the Getty Research Institute, which published the informative catalog. The show is tough going.
The long gallery is divided into three zones. Along one wall are early paintings and collages; along the other are 15 tables displaying documents, many related to Happenings. Several projectors let you choose the photo-transparency to be projected -- a weak nod toward audience participation.
Down the center are four interactive Kaprow environments, reinvented here by artists who worked with or were affiliated with him. The most compelling is “Apple Shrine” by John Baldessari and Skylar Haskard, a prison-like maze of chain-link fence carpeted in pounds of shredded paper and guarding a box of apples. It’s as if Oliver North and Fawn Hall had worked overtime destroying evidence of who ruined the Garden of Eden.
Kaprow’s paintings don’t reveal any unusual skill. Youthful pastiches of Matisse and Picasso give way to routine pastiches of the Neo-Dada collages of Robert Rauschenberg, Raymond Hains and others. But Kaprow’s audience-participation Happenings were instrumental: They helped kick off art’s post-subjective era, which has been dominant for half a century.
“18 Happenings in 6 Parts” (1959), commonly cited as the first one, found Kaprow dividing a New York gallery into three rooms formed by semitransparent plastic sheets adorned with paint, collage materials and plastic fruit. Audience members received printed instructions, not unlike an orchestral score, to execute six simultaneous actions as they moved among rooms.
MOCA is reviving 22 Kaprow events around the city during the exhibition’s run, including “18 Happenings in 6 Parts” and “Fluids: A Happening.” (The schedule is available at www.moca.org/kaprow/.) The organizers have been careful to note that these are reinventions, since it’s not possible to step into the same stream twice.
But Kaprow was skeptical of such things. Even popularity could represent a deadening institutional inertia. He stopped using the term Happening in the early 1970s, after it entered the vernacular, replacing it with the rather sluggish organizational word, Activity.
If you’ve seen the 1967 hippie-caper movie, “The Happening,” featuring the worst track in the Supremes’ songbook and notable mostly as Faye Dunaway’s second big-screen performance, you’ll understand why. It’s a good thing “Bonnie and Clyde” was already in the can.