Art Is in the Air. The Public Dimension in Allan Kaprow’s Utopian Un-Artistic Theory

From Firenze University Press Journal: Aisthesis

Marcello Sessa, University of Florence/University of Pisa

Beginning his openly anti-modernist theoretical enterprise, Allan Kaprow paradoxically started from a strongly modernist base, that can be regarded, in some respects, as an actual heritage. He considered himself the artist as an unplanned child of what he called «the “private” plastic arts» (Kaprow [1966]: 153) in general, and of «the idea of a “complete” painting» (Kaprow [1993]: 5) in particular. He spent his entire life finding the best ways to disown those par-ents somehow inconvenient and definitely adverse. He firstly deconstructed the above mentioned “painterly” paradigm, which automatically superimposed pictoriality (viz. opticality and vision) to all modern art1, with the aim of achieve a «total art» (Kaprow [1993]: 10): intermedial, transmedial, and multisensorial. This would have been possible only «if we bypass “art” and take nature itself as a model or point of departure» (Kaprow [1993]: 10), crossing over into a peculiar mode of overcoming Avant-garde and even Neo-avant-garde art that he called «nonart» (Kaprow [1993]: 98).

In the present essay, I want to suggest that the public dimension is a crucial issue in Kaprow’s “bypassing” art, and that this shift from art to “nonart” literally occurs as a transition from private to public: from private contemplation of “complete” paintings to artistic experience publicly performed and shared. To demonstrate this, a survey on Kaprow’s theory in its entirety will be necessary. Primarily, I will focus on his troubled relationship with painting meant as a specific medium restricted to the picture plane. Then, I will con-centrate on his ground-breaking reflections on the picture frame, on framing in general, and on the ensuing urgent drive to unframing.

After that, I will analyse his most relevant theoretical achievements, environment and happening, emphasizing the active role of publicity in his personal idea of performance art. Finally, I will discuss his distinctive interpretation of “nonart”, by comparing it with other substantial variations on the “post-art” theme, offered by different authors, either modernist or post-modernist. In the end, the Kaprowian un-artistic theory will emerge re-configured as a singular, and someway “aerial”, utopian proposal for public art.


Quite confessional in tone, Kaprow admits his feeling guilty about having been formed as a painter, and even worse as a modernist one; later, he became known as «a professor of art history» (Kirby [1965]: 11). One would say that his writings are an attempt to atone for his avant-gardish sins of youth. He is always aware that this burden is inherently dangerous, and that can at any time visual-orient his perspectives on art. The afore-mentioned project for a “total art”, for example, is clearly informed by a substrate stemming from visual arts, to the detriment of other forms of expression (and of other forms of perception other than the optical): «Because I have come from painting, my present work is definitely weighted in a visual direction while the sounds and the odors are less complex. Any of these aspects of our tastes and experiences may be favoured. There is no rule that say that all must be equal» (Kaprow [1993]: 11).

An all-encompassing art is not simply a matter of an old-fashioned fin-de-siècle synaesthetic inter-play between arts; rather it is the search of a new horizon in artistic research, that before being acted upon must seriously cope with any pictorial and painterly residual3. According to Kaprow, in fact, «from time immemorial picture making […] has maintained hands-off policies respecting two elements: the […] field, and the flat surface» (Kaprow [1966]: 155). It is as if centuries of habit, custom, and norm had established an ontology of the image which is also and mainly an ontology of the picture. Or to better say, an ontology of «the framed picture» still associated «with the principles of pictorial representation» (Conte [2020]: 122), that for Kaprow are active from the time of Egyptians. “Picture making” is equivalent to making an operation of cadrage since its origin: there has always been — borrowing Victor I. Stoichita’s vocabulary — the «instauration du tableau» (Stoichita [1999]), and it has always had political implications. This “instauration” has the characters of an imposition, and a prevarication in its tracks. It is not an «apparition», linked to «discours métapictural» and caused by «la crise du statut de l’image religieuse» (Stoichita [1999]: 9, 10); that is to say: something that hap-pened from a certain point in time.


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