By the late 1950s, the Abstract Expressionist painter Allan Kaprow (1927–2006) began to consider the ‘action’ component of Action Painting far more important than the painting part. In 1959, the painter who set off countless gestures orchestrated 18 Happenings in 6 Parts, a series of actions seemingly spontaneous and unrelated, but actually tightly coordinated directives. In 1961, for Yard, Kaprow filled the backyard of an uptown art gallery, the Martha Jackson Gallery, with old tires and tar paper, giving birth to what we once called “happenings” and now have settled on as “performance art.”
Kaprow reinterpreted Yard in other locations ten times before his death, and he encouraged other artists to reinvent his works by keeping simple instructions. Hauser & Wirth Gallery invited Helen Molesworth to take Kaprow up on his offer. Molesworth invited three artists—Josiah McElheny, Sharon Hayes, and William Pope.L—to intervene. The latter was the only to reinvent YARD at the gallery’s 32 East 69th Street location, and is the artist who followed Kaprow closest to the letter Yard (To Harrow) used real tires in the space, although combined them with some materials not in the original instructions—like body bags.
MARY BARONE: I’m told Kaprow first conceptualized YARD as a cross between a junk pile and a funhouse. Your reinvention Yard (To Harrow), with its changing light effects and mirrored walls, draws the viewer through the gallery’s darkened entry hall into what seems to be a ‘fun-house’—but approaching a pile of cascading rubber tires mounted on a platform of body bags is hardly my idea of fun. Why the body bags? (LEFT: PHOTO BY MARY BARONE)
WILLIAM POPE.L: The body bags reference the body bag-like containers Kaprow constructed out of tarpaper around the figurative sculptures [a Hepworth, a Giacometti] in Martha Jackson’s courtyard. Kaprow wanted to hide something–I wanted to show something.
BARONE: You were supposedly given a copy of Kaprow’s meticulously worded, deceptively, simple set of master instructions for future presentations of YARD. Was it your idea to bring the work back inside an enclosed gallery space as a device to compel the viewer to reconsider traditional values, traditional themes?
POPE.L: I was given two things by the Kaprow Estate: a binder containing clippings; newspaper texts of almost all past YARD reinventions, both Kaprow’s and others as well as the book Allan Kaprow: Art as Life. I did my own research and looked at the environments book by Allan Kaprow, the J. Kelley book and a few other things. I re-read parts of Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ and some interviews with the filmmaker David Cronenberg published in 1997.
The original courtyard space at 32 East 69th Street has since been covered over but you could say my reinvention is in almost the same area as Allan Kaprow’s 1961 YARD except now it has a lid. Hauser & Wirth and the Estate chose the site.
I believe that Kaprow discovered something but didn’t realize it’s full import until years later. He discovered that art was inexorably moving out into the world. On the other hand, Allan Kaprow was trained as a formalist modernist who must believe there is something that is specific to art that makes it art. There’s a tension in Allan Kaprow re: the split between art and life. I see this in art in general and I find the tension productive.
So when Hauser & Wirth and the Kaprow Estate chose a gallery for a artwork whose radicality partly derived from not being in a gallery, I felt it was necessary to bring some world back in. Not only materially but tonally. Today the American automobile experience is inextricably tied to otherness (mid-east oil, Toyota, Iraq, Afghanistan) and a fallen Eden (bad ecology, bankrupt car companies). And the voice (Obama) that we’ve chosen to speak our paradox, our crisis is intimately attached to otherness. Perhaps some of this is political, I know it’s not pure or clean or comfortable. And putting a lid on things does not necessarily mean ignoring or softening them, it can also intensify an experience. In the case of rubber tires that are constantly oxidizing into the air, housing them in an enclosed space guarantees we will, as an audience, have to breathe in the very molecules the tires give off. Even though Kaprow championed the notion of blurring the line between life and art, (human molecules and non-human molecules) he was wary of including politics in his idea of life. I find this odd, human surely, but odd even so. (LEFT: PHOTO BY MARY BARONE)
BARONE: You said you were struck by Kaprow’s “playful impetus” in the first version of YARD, “his invitation for people to touch the tires, move them around, climb into them, was an end in itself, art for art’s sake, essentially upbeat.” Can you explain the importance of the “upbeat” tone?
POPE.L: I think that “upbeat” as a tone is a very American way of speaking. We like a happy ending. It’s a way of indicating to a viewer that no matter what you see, no matter what you experience, no matter what you know to be true, it’ll be all right. I think Kaprow suspected his insistence on the play could be mistaken for lack of rigor, radicality or seriousness of purpose but at the same time, play was a very human means to avoid the dark. And as a true American black man, fully born into the cultural vise, I am all for the dark.
William Pope.L’s Yard (To Harrow), 1961/2009 is on view through October 26. Hauser & Wirth is located at
32 East 69th Street, New York.