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'Happenings' artist Allan Kaprow, at 79

LOS ANGELES -- Allan Kaprow, the artist who combined painting, sculpture, and theater in flamboyant events that he staged in unexpected locations and referred to as ''Happenings," has died. He was 79.

A founding member of the faculty of the University of California, San Diego's Department of Visual Arts, Mr. Kaprow died April 5 at his home in Encinitas, Calif., of natural causes, his studio manager, Tamara Bloomberg, said last week.

As an artist in the late 1950s, Mr. Kaprow was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painters who moved around their vast canvas to pour and drip paint. He took the idea further when he led observers directly into the artwork, eliminating canvas and display walls.

He staged his ''Happenings" in industrial lofts, empty storefronts, and other unlikely places, and wrote about the events and the ideas behind them in magazine articles and in his book, ''Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life" (1993). He compared ''Happenings" to mime, circus acts, carnivals, and Dada art, as well as theater.

''Allan was able to break the boundary between life and art," said Steve Fagin, chairman of the Department of Visual Arts at UC San Diego. ''He turned things on their head. Instead of making a grandiose artwork, he would put greatness into anything ordinary. That can be inspiring and transcendent."

Mr. Kaprow staged his first major art event in New York City in 1959. Titled ''18 Happenings in 6 Parts," it took place in three rooms of an art gallery. Slides were projected on one wall. Some performers walked with their arms held at an angle to their body and others read aloud, while the audience moved on cue, according to Mr. Kaprow's plan. He created an experience for the audience. He left it for them to give it a meaning.

''Allan took art off the walls and put it in places where anyone could encounter it," said David Antin, a poet, artist, and longtime friend of Mr. Kaprow. ''It was a step in the democratization of fine art and a big psychological breakthrough. He was an enormously important artist."

Early in his career, Mr. Kaprow and like-minded artists, including Claes Oldenburg and Jim Dine, created ''environments" for viewers to walk through. One of his best-known works, ''Yard" (1961), was a jumble of spare tires heaped into a room open to foot traffic.

In ''A Spring Happening" (1961), staged in an artist's loft in New York City, the audience moved from place to place while he bombarded them with unexpected sensations such as a breeze from a fan and the jarring start-up noise of a power lawn mower. Critics commented on the influence of Mr. Kaprow's former teacher, multimedia musician John Cage.

In the '60s, Mr. Kaprow moved to smaller events he referred to as ''work pieces." In one that Antin observed, workers built a house in Southern California made of blocks of ice. The main purpose was for the participants to have the experience of building the ice house, Antin said. Watching it melt seemed beside the point.

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