Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 11 - Lest we forget
Log 11 - Lest we forget

Richard Meltzer


Geez was I lucky hooking up with Kaprow when I did.

In the time I spent as a student at the State U. of New York at Stony Brook, 1962-66, I took more than my share of courses with a couple of guys, two profs who in their separate ways prepped me my-t-well for the long freaking haul of this here life. The teacherly shtick of Donald Goodman, philosopher, boiled down to Think for yourself or perish. He’d give you texts--Plato, Kant, Meister Eckhart, Marcus Aurelius--to kind of nudge you along, help to get you oriented towards being thorough and clear and systematic, meanwhile letting you dance through the full field of available real-life content (rock-roll, comic books, Vietnam, etc.)--with the ultimate goal being no more/no less than to come up with your OWN damn system or forget it. So I did.

Allan Kaprow, by comparison more of a "see Spot run" type of guy, was a hot-dang MASTER of show & tell re the stuff and pith and lore of 20th century high-booty art. My first class with him, called simply Modern Painting, was an incredibly lucid/cogent follow-the-dots beginning with Cézanne and Matisse and ending up with Warhol and, dig it, Kaprow himself. In between, he served up glorious helpings of Picasso, Mondrian, Duchamp, Schwitters, Hoffman, Pollock, Johns, Rauschenberg, etc., etc. This was History as an immensely exciting roller coaster ride--a text the likes of which I’ve never found in a book about ANY genre or era.

The two figures he probably lingered on the longest, gave maximum weight to, were Duchamp and Pollock--polar opposites, exemplars of cool and hot, ideational and retinal--whom of course he found compatible to the nth. I vividly recall coming to class one day, entering a room pitch-dark except for a slide of one of Pollock’s larger ’50s canvases, projected as close to scale as Kaprow could manage. He’d gotten there early and set it up, inviting us to experience the work as a neutral slab of visible Universe, a macrocosmic night-sky thing-in-itself.

Although he had us play a round or two of "exquisite corpse", he spent less time than we’d anticipated on the Surrealists because, as I remember it, he thought the Cubists were already Surrealists (simultaneous multi-focus and all). Picasso himself got cut off at some less-than-obvious date like, oh, 1914, with "Guernica" barely namedropped as a big hunk of Kitsch. Lauding both De Kooning and Rauschenberg for their hell-and-gone transcendence of various thises and thats, he disparaged the compositional tendencies of each--too beholden, he felt, to Mondrian (of all people). He came up with some very idiosyncratic, but totally credible, takes on shit, and was one persuasive, charming (often mesmerizing) sonofabitch.

For the final session of the class, he had all roads lead to his own merry work--voila!--Environments and Happenings. Which was anything but gratuitous, hell no!—’cause it really did tie together many strands of biz. Happenings = action combine-painting? Sure, you bet, but with one crucial proviso. "Artist", "art object", "audience"--all semester he’d done a dandy job delineating the interplay of these three components in the art-strut of the century. The "object", we’d been shown, could sometimes be elusive. (For Warhol, it was not so much silk-screened Brillo boxes as the whole entire clatter & clang of their cycle of being, from production to exhibition to public-historical context to, presumably, nonexistence.) In a Kaprow Happening, of course, artist, audience, and object would by design be ONE. Unity at the end of History, the end of Art. (Which is something most "performance art" hasn’t YET come to terms with.)

I also took some Kaprow studio courses, whatsems as rudimentary as Studio 101, and learned more about color, for inst, than any army of instructors had previously shown me--things like the four ASPECTS of color (hue, intensity, tint/shade, chroma), and the why and the whatfor of purple and gold (neither warm nor cool, hence mystical) as the calling card of nobility. Watching me apply paint, he was quick to observe that sloppiness was my forte--so I needn't even try being neat. Wowie!

All of which today seems rather amazing. Had he been ensconced at Cal Arts or UCSD, contempo-friendly places which would soon be all too pleased to let him DO HIS THING, Kaprow in those days would not've been teaching standard curriculum bullcrap like Art History and Painting 102. Although its students were some wild & krazy fuckers, the administration at Stony Brook was fairly conservative. In four years, they only once let him put up an installation on campus ("Words", in the G-dorm lobby, fall ’62). All they let him do was teach these things he would never have occasion to teach again.

Which I was lucky to fucking happen upon. Yup.


Richard Meltzer is the author of 12 or 14 (or 11) books, depending on how you count these things, including the recent A WHORE JUST LIKE THE REST: THE MUSIC WRITINGS OF RICHARD MELTZER. He lives somewhere in the U.S. (neither New York nor L.A.) and would like to get laid again before he dies.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room