Allan Kaprow is born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1927. In 1945 he starts his comprehensive studies of art and art history at several American universities. He is a student at New York University until 1949 and, from 1947 to 1948, at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. He returns to New York University in 1949, and from 1950 to 1952 he studies at Columbia University. He completes his studies at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1956 to 1958 and as a student of John Cage, focusing on musical composition. Starting in 1956, he teaches at various institutions, for example, at the State University of New York, at the California Institute of the Arts and at the University of California, San Diego.
In a short, but intensive first artistic phase Kaprow shifts his focus from Abstract Expressionism to pictorial collage and assemblage techniques. His pictures, characterized through expressive gestures and spiritual as well as actionist qualities, refer to real landscapes. Towards the end of the 1950s he develops these pictures into Environments and Happenings through the integration of space and time as well as the inclusion of different materials. In his work, Kaprow combines painting, music, and theater. He is considered the inventor of the term »Happening« and later publishes an essay entitled »Assemblage, Environments and Happening.« In 1959 he organizes the first Happening (18 Happenings in 6 Parts) at the Reuben Gallery in New York he himself helped to found. The Installation consists of three rooms separated with plastic foil, and at the entrance visitors receive a program and three small cards indicating which room they should go to at a certain time.
From the very beginning, the inclusion of the audience has characterized Kaprow’s Actions. He does not want viewers, but an audience that is involved. This audience is directly addressed through impacting all of the senses (sounds, light effects, smells, etc.), and it actively participates in Kaprow’s highly improvisational art. In his most well-known Environment Yard that has been realized several times (1961 New York, 1970 Cologne, 1986 Dortmund), Kaprow piles up old car tires and leaves it to the members of the audience to balance on them. The unstable movement becomes the starting point of a changed experience of the body, of form, and of material. Kaprow’s Happenings – Household (1964), for example, organizes car washing as a collective act, or the Happening Gas (1966) turns junkyard cars into a three-dimensional picture ground to be painted on – are propelled by the motif to understand art as a social instrument. Art is being questioned, and art and life are brought together in a playful way: »What is a Happening? – A game, an adventure, a number of activities, engaged in by participants for the sake of playing« (Kaprow 1967). As a self-declared »non-artist,« Kaprow focuses on those realms of life where the mass media and the leisure industry impact most strongly.
In 1965 Kaprow turns away from his Environemts to exclusively focus on Happenings which he soon starts to rename »Activities.« He performs them internationally on the basis of his »Scores« that contain directions for the participants. As a central figure of Action Art and Happenings, Kaprow is part of numerous international solo and group exhibitions. In 1967 he is invited to participate in the Documenta 6 and in 1987 to be part of the Documenta 8.
Alan Kaprow dies on April 5, 2006 in Encinitas, close to San Diego where he taught at the Visual Art Department of the University of California.
Ursprung, Philip: Grenzen der Kunst, Allan Kaprow und das Happening, Robert Smithson und die Land Art, München 2003
Allan Kaprow, Collagen, Environments, Videos, Broschüren, Geschichten, Happening- und Activity-Dokumente, 1956 — 1986: Ausst.-Kat. Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, Solingen 1986
Kaprow, Allan: Assemblage, Environments and Happenings, New York 1966
Becker, J. und W. Vostell, Happenings, Hamburg 1965