‘Art as Life’ exhibit at MOCA captures conceptual emotion

Jessica Hager

A new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles highlights the work and theory of Allan Kaprow, an artist best known as a pioneer of performance art.

Allan Kaprow – Art as Life gathers the artist’s early works (paintings, assemblages, scores, photography and video) and displays them alongside recreations of sets that he designed throughout his career.

Kaprow called these sets “Environments” and they represent the pioneering theory that the artist established in the 1950s.

“Environments” were created using everyday objects that enabled the artist and others to interact spontaneously – a type of performance art he coined a “Happening.”

A key theme of Kaprow’s vision was to fuse art and life. To him, art was life and life was art.

Using the Environments that he created, he would stage activities using everyday people – thus performance art took on the quality of theater (minus the scripted lines).

This type of artistic expression can be hard to grasp at first, as it is far removed from more traditional forms of art. When viewed as a whole, the collection can seem downright odd for those unfamiliar with Kaprow or performance art in general. The exhibit is interactive – visitors are asked to participate with the art (move through it, around it and in it) in order to fully understand it.

As a tribute to the artist, who passed away in 2006, 29 other institutions around Los Angeles will stage a Happening to supplement the MOCA exhibit. As for the in-house exhibit, different contemporary artists have been commissioned to recreate some of Kaprow’s more popular Environments.

Allen Ruppersberg, a conceptual artist, designed one of the Environments for the exhibit. Titled “Circles,” it recreates the original “Words,” created by Kaprow in 1962.

“Circles” consists of vintage typewriters set up on desks that were placed around the exhibit. Visitors can sit at these desks and use the typewriters to type on paper – supplied in cardboard boxes. In this way guests participate in one of Kaprow’s Happenings.

Children may have an easier time relating to the exhibit (at least at first), as kids typically have an easier time imagining themselves in new and different environments. However, some of the other works on display might not keep their interest.

Kaprow used video throughout his career as a performance artist, and a number of screens are set up that play the footage he captured of his Happenings. Watching some of these videos can be tedious, as these mini-films do not contain a plot.

Other works on display include his notes and sketches, assemblages and paintings.

“Rearrangeable Panels” (1957-59) is an assemblage of nine panels that form a kiosk. Wood, mirrors, oak leaves, aluminum, fabric, tar and light bulbs were the materials used for the sculpture, which looks like a garishly-decorated outhouse.

Much of Kaprow’s work falls in the ‘conceptual’ category, as the idea or feeling that a particular work of art conveys is more important than the piece itself.

“Subway with Self Portrait” (1956), one of Kaprow’s oil paintings, shows the artist reflected in a subway terminal – another abstract and conceptual piece.

Kaprow’s sculptures and paintings, like his Environments, require the viewer to actively participate with the art. One must delve deep to find the message buried in the work.

Another Environment recreated for the exhibit is “Trade Talk” by Suzanne Lacy in collaboration with Michael Rotondi and Peter Kirby. Twelve wooden chairs are placed in a circle on a big dirt-floor platform. A telephone booth at the far right corner of the set allows visitors to call a number and leave a message recording about their experiences, which will be posted on the MOCA website.

Kaprow’s art requires some energy and an active imagination to truly appreciate its more unusual qualities. This artist believed that everyday life experiences could be shaped into artistic expression, and in order to appreciate that, visitors are asked to play along.