This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
, Institutional Critique in Postwar America
When Artists Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson purposefully distanced their work from the limitations and conventions associated with a museum or gallery context, they created another version of the isolation and confinement they could not escape. It is necessary to consider the historical context of both Kaprow and Smithson‟s work in Postwar America. Modernism emphasized the purity and spiritual nature of the art object and the art world was very much isolated to the sterile, white walls of New York City art galleries and museums. Kaprow acted against these conventions by blurring the boundaries of art and authentic life experience. Like the beat poets of his generation, Smithson ventured westward, far away from the city, and literally brought art into and onto the land. Earthworks and Happenings are the two innovative art forms attributed to these artists. They offer avant-garde art experiences outside the confines of a museum or gallery. In a published dialogue between the two artists, Kaprow entertains the analogy of museum as mausoleum: “Museums tend to make increasing concessions to the idea of art and life as being related. What‟s wrong with their version is that they provide canned life, an anesthetized illustration of life. „Life‟ in the museum is like making love in a cemetery” (Smithson 44). The
Yergens 2 topic of institutional critique was not only prevalent in the writing of both Kaprow and Smithson, It was embodied in their work. Kaprow‟s Happenings emphasize a merging of art and life by providing bizarre interactive experiences, often far removed from any formal art institution. Happenings were often spontaneous or underpublicized events that were often interactive and impermanent. Due to the “experiential” quality of the work, documentation was not emphasized (Molesworth 44). In 1959, a limited number of posters and fliers circulated for “18 Happenings in 6 Parts.” Admission to the event was free and by reservation only. Kaprow essentially restructured a museum-like experience by orchestrating an art event like a social gathering in an alternative space; thereby doing more to redefine what constitutes a gallery, than escaping the gallery altogether. An excerpt from the inside cover of Days Off: A Calendar of Happenings by Allan Kaprow (1970) suggested that the misinformation resulting from poor documentation of the Happenings was not unwelcome: “Photos and programs of such events are leftover thoughts in the form of gossip. And gossip is also play. For anybody. As the calendar is discarded like the happenings, the gossip may remain in action” (Meyer-Hermann). The environment itself was the art form and the residual gossip was fascinating and appropriate. Kaprow fed off of this unpredictability. The work took on a life of its own and this organic evolution distanced it from its artificial, museum-based contemporaries. Smithson‟s site-specific Earthworks were as far removed from gallery and museum spaces as possible. In Smithson‟s essay, “Cultural Confinement” he describes museums as prisons: “The function of the warden-curator is to separate the artworks from the outside world”
Yergens 3 (Smithson 248). It could be argued that by placing Earthworks in a desolate, uninhabited region of the American West, Smithson separated his work even more from the world. By creating this dialectic between material and site, Smithson made it virtually impossible for most people to experience the work directly. “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged with the outside world” (Smithson 248). Although the artwork has a direct physical relationship with the landscape, it is far removed from civilization. The only way one can experience it is through a piece of photographic documentation and the words accompanying it. Spiral Jetty, the most famous of Smithson‟s Earthworks is located a few thousand miles away from New York City in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Not only is Spiral Jetty particularly difficult to find, requiring elaborate directions and uncertain adventures off the beaten path, depending on annual precipitation, it is usually submerged in the lake and can only be visually experienced through photographic and filmic documentation from 1970 (Shapiro 5). Galleries and museums certainly alter one‟s experience of art. Curatorial restrictions may influence the way in which the work is presented and art historical context may change the way in which the work is interpreted. However, substituting first-hand experience of an artwork with photographic documentation and written descriptions introduces a new set of limitations. Two-dimensional documetation of places and events, ineffective verbal descriptions and distorted accounts of first hand experiences create a distance between artwork and viewer. Conversely, photography extends the art world‟s influence in the form of art books, exhibition catalogues, and magazines. Its purpose is documentation as well as dissemination.
Yergens 4 In the case of Hans Namuth‟s photographs of Jackson Pollock, the photographic documentation of the artist at work changes our interpretation of Pollock‟s paintings and ultimately enhances our appreciation of them. If Namuth‟s photographs of Pollock were never seen, would Pollock‟s work be as art historically significant? Photography exposed the performative aspects of Pollock‟s process. The paintings became artifacts of a heroic act performed by a celebrity, not exclusively sacred art objects. (Rose) Namuth‟s photographs give viewers a deeper appreciation for the Pollock paintings they encounter at the museum. The mythology created by the photographs makes the actual art objects more sacred. Kaprow relished the idea of an intimate crowd of participants and the unpredictable spread of rumors that might ensue. Smithson was more interested in the artwork‟s relationship with nature than its relationship with its viewer. Perhaps Earthworks and Happenings were more like philosophical and sociological experiments that were doomed to be confined to text books and art history lectures. In the case of Happenings and Earthworks, the existence of a material artifact is not necessary to perpetuate its mythology. The public‟s inability to experience the work first hand is not problematic. If succumbing to the limits imposed by galleries and museums is like artistic imprisonment, Kaprow and Smithson are skirting the law. In her essay “Museum as Mediation” Eva Meyer-Hermann addresses the challenges that accompanied the task of curating an “Art as Life”, an Allan Kaprow museum retrospective. The idea of showcasing the work of either Kaprow or Smithson in a gallery setting seems a bit paradoxical. The author also suggests that Kaprow himself was aware of this ideological dilemma. Kaprow even wrote an anti-institutional disclaimer in a museum catalog for a 1967 museum exhibition of Happenings, in which he reasserts his distaste for the art establishment and insists once again that a museum is an
Yergens 5 inappropriate venue for experiencing his work (Meyer-Hermann 76). Is such an institutional presence unavoidable? Curator Eva Meyer-Hermann explains that, “Kaprow had no desire to do away with museums altogether; he thought that they had their place for art from the past, including his early work, which had been made as „gallery art‟. Moreover, museums occasionally provided opportunities and funding for his works” (Meyer-Hermann 75). Did Kaprow‟s genuine desire to preserve his life‟s work make it difficult for him to completely resist involvement with art institutions? Despite its limitations, the museum‟s role as an effective teaching tool is undeniable. Allan Kaprow and Robert Smithson made bold artistic statements by refusing to participate in the art world in a conventional way. By evading incarceration in the institution, they confined themselves to a specific role in art history, one which is reliant on mythology rather than the presence of sacred objects. Ironically, the work of both artists is concurrently dependent upon and distorted by photographic documentation and other methods of preservation and communication. This emphasizes an unavoidable, incomplete connection between artist and viewer.
Works Cited Alexander, Darsie. “Reluctant Witness: Photography and the Documentation of 1960‟s and 1970‟s Art.” Work Ethic. Ed. Helen Anne Molesworth. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. 53-66. Fabozzi, Paul, ed. Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002. Kaprow, Allan. “Happenings in the New York Scene.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945. Ed. Paul Fabozzi. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002. 60-68. Kaprow, Allan and Robert Smithson. “What is a Museum.” Robert Smithson, The Collected Writings. Ed. Robert Smithson and Jack D. Flam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 43-51. Kirby, Michael. “Introduction.” Happenings and Other Acts. Ed. Mariellen R. Sandford. London: Routeledge, 1995. Meyer-Hermann, Eva. “Museum as Mediation.” Allen Kaprow: Art as Life. Ed. Eva MeyerHermann, Andrew Perchuk and Stephanie Rosenthal. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008. 72-89. Philips, Glenn. “Time Pieces.” Allen Kaprow: Art as Life. Ed. Eva Meyer-Hermann, Andrew Perchuk and Stephanie Rosenthal. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2008.
Yergens 7 Reynolds, Ann. Robert Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Rose, Barbara, ed. Pollock Painting. New York: Agrinde Publications Ltd., 1978. Shapiro, Gary. Earthwards: Robert Smithson and Art after Babel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Smithson, Robert. “Cultural Confinement.” Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art Since 1945. Ed. Paul Fabozzi. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002. 247-249.