Blurring the Boundaries Between Art and Life: Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1425–32); Allan Kaprow’s Apple Shrine (1960) and Eat (1964)

  • Diane G. Scillia
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 76)


Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece of 1426–1432 was a fundamentally innovative work in its depiction of naturalism: the artist presented to the viewer a rational world very much like that in which the viewer stood. Moreover, van Eyck intentionally broke down the boundaries, or rather, broke through the picture plane of his panels, posing his Adam and Eve so they seem to pierce the invisible divide between the fictive space of their shallow niches and the real space of the viewers, and he also seems to include the real viewers standing before the Altarpiece as an extension of the groups of figures kneeling and standing around the painted Altar of the Lamb in the lower center panel. Since the ensemble was erected in a chapel too small for it to begin with, the visitors/viewers/participants of this altarpiece were forced to stand close to it and to experience its immediacy.1 In spite of its new location, behind bazooka-proof plastic, in the Church of St. Bavo at Ghent, it is still easy for the sensitive modern viewer of this work to imagine himself or herself penetrating the picture space, literally moving from the real world into the painted distant landscape, visually sampling the fruits arranged there for our delight.


Picture Plane Brown Sugar Picture Space Metropolitan Museum Painted Image 
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  1. 1.
    For Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, see Elisabeth Dhanens, Hubert and Jan van Eyck (New York: Alpine Fine Art, n.d.), pp. 374–381.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Jeffrey Chipps Smith, —Venit nobis pacificus Dominus’: Philip the Good’s Triumphal Entry into Ghent in 1458“ in `All the World’s a Stage.’ Art and Pageantry in the Renaissance and Baroque. Susan S. Munshower and Barbara Wisch (University Park, Pa.: 1990), pp. 258–290, includes earlier bibliography. For recent works on tableaux vivants in civic festivals of the Northern Renaissance, see Diane G. Scillia, ”The Audiences for Israhel van Meckenem’s Proverb Imagery, circa 1500“ in New Studies of Northern Renaissance Art in Honor of Walter S. Gibson. Laurinda S. Dixon (Turnhout: Brepolis, 1998), esp. pp. 87–91.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Albrecht Dürer, Durer’s Record of Journeys to Venice and the Low Countries, ed. Roger Fry (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995 ), p. 79.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I presented some of this material in “Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, the `Tong’ of 1458 and the Fountain of Life (Oberlin): Visual Images in Translation,” read at the 24th International Congress of Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, May 1989.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In 1966, Kaprow knew he was caught in a paradox even as he called for a new kind of art, one totally unlike and unrelated to earlier art of works. In his article “Experimental Art” (1966) (reprinted in Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), he states “Painters and sculptors cannot put out their past as they would a light” (75) and “A residue of esthetics and masterpieces lies on the inside of our eyelids as patterns of semiconscious recall” (76). As a trained painter and an art historian, he could not have ignored the associations sparked by his own lectures on the “machines” painted in France in the 19th century or on the large polytychs of earlier centuries. Significantly, he had studied with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia, an art historian known for his contributions to Medieval and Modern art scholarship. Moreover, in his classes at SUNY at Stony Brook, both studio classes and art history classes, he frequently spoke of the importance of rituals, religious, secular and personal, and of our need to “invent” such rituals in order to have some control over our lives. He was not alone, in the early 1960s, in seeking to make some kind of large scale meditative art works of quasi-religious or spiritual content or intention. At least two painters linked to Abstract Expressionism, Barnett Newman (with his fourteen panels of The Stations of the Cross, 1966) and Mark Rothko (with his Chapel, 1964–1967), commissioned by the de Menil family as objects of contemplation in a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, employed forms that looked back to the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Louise Nevelson’s Homage to 6,000,000, no. 1 (1964), one of her environmental shadow boxes, is in effect a large “shrine box” altarpiece for Jews killed in the Holocaust (for which, see Carla Gottlieb, Beyond Modern Art [New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1976], pp. 74–77 and fig. 5, who likens this work to a columbarium). Neither Newman, nor Rothko nor Nevelson used overt religious symbols or imagery in their works. It may be significant that Kaprow, Newman, Rothko and Nevelson had Jewish upbringings, each of them trying to “invent” a new visual, artistic tradition that merges art and religious experiences. In contrast, Andy Warhol’s icons of 1960s celebrities come out of his Byzantine Catholic upbringing, but serve no spiritual purpose. Kaprow also taught (in his studio courses at Stony Brook) that because certain conventionalized forms had become so much a part of their mental constructs modern artists were unable to free themselves from these forms which are implicitly contained in the works of art they produced. One, therefore, had to be aware of the past and how it affects one’s own art works, whether consciously or not. See, Allan Kaprow “The Shape of the Art Environment,” Artforum, 6, no. 10 (Summer 1968), pp. 32–33 (reprinted in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 93–94) where he touches upon some of the same ideas.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Robert E. Haywood, “Heretical Alliance: Claes Oldenburg and the Judson Memorial Church in the 1960s,” Art History, 18, no. 3 (June 1995), pp. 185–212, esp. p. 208. Kaprow also defined environment, an art work one entered into, in his catalogue text for Words (1962), which is cited within my text below. Compare, Michael Kirby, “The New Theatre,” Tulane Drama Review (T 30) 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965 ), p. 24.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Throughout this study I refer to Kaprow’s original Apple Shrine (1960) and Eat (1964), not the re-enactments/re-installations of 1991 at the Fondazione Mudima, Milan. Kelley’s Introduction in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, xxv, and Dorothy G. Shinn, The Duchamp Effect: The Influence of Marcel Duchamp on the Work of John Cage and Allan Kaprow (M. A. Thesis, Kent State University, 1994), pp. 100–101 and p. 132, discuss the role of Schapiro in Kaprow’s education as an art historian. Apple Shrine is an environment and Eat has elements of a happening, but both are discussed by Kaprow in similar terms. Kaprow’s Happenings of the 1960s were always thought out and scripted, although he tried to leave things open in order for the chance event or unplanned occurrence that could color the experience. Unplanned events work best when everything else is tightly scheduled. We can see this inclusion of chance operations in both Apple Shrine and Eat. When it comes to themes, particularly of a ritualistic nature, Kaprow is less likely to have overlooked a parallel with traditional art works, like the Ghent Altarpiece, given his interest (see above, n. 5 ).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: The Play Element of Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). Kaprow’s name appears among the “Painters” receiving Guggenheim Awards in 1967, see Art News 66, no. 3 (May 1967), p. 8. He told his students at Stony Brook that on the application for this grant he wrote, “I want to play.” Kaprow’s ideas about play are outlined in Allan Kaprow, “Education of an Un-Artist, Part II” (1972) reprinted in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 113–116.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Haywood, op. cit., p. 208. Kaprow is cited at least eight times in this article. That he served as art director of the Judson Memorial Church art program through the Fall of 1960 and early Winter of 1961 underscores my argument that Kaprow’s Apple Shrine had some religious connotations, whether implicit or explicit ones.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid. Because there is no consistency in the published accounts of this event (even in Kaprow’s publications), I shall call it simply Apple Shrine.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Shinn, op. cit., p. 106.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Multiple readings of symbols in art works is not new; see, Julien Chapuis, “Early Netherlandish Painting: Shifting Perspectives” in From Van Eyck to Bruegel. Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998) p. 12, who cites James H. Marrow, “Symbols and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance,” Simiolus 16 (1986), pp. 151–155. Compare, Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” in Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1966); and Meyer Schapiro, “The Apples of Cezanne: An Essay in the Meaning of Still-Life,” in Modern Art, 19th and 20th Centuries (New York: G. Braziller, 1978), pp. 1–38. This article originally appeared in 1968 and must reflect some of the ideas that Schapiro discussed in his classes at Columbia when Kaprow was a student. See, especially, Schapiro’s footnote 24a, where he argues that modern painters might find in older art works — along with exemplars to up-date — “a mask for meanings in his own works — a mask that adds to the ambiguity of the whole.”Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Jan van der Marck, “Pictures to Be Read/Poetry to Be Seen,” The Journal of Typographic Research, 2, no. 3 (July 1968), p. 267 (Kaprow’s text is reprinted from the Smolin Gallery catalogue). Van der Marck’s article originally appeared as the catalogue introduction for the exhibition Pictures to Be Read/Poetry to Be Seen, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Fall 1967). Compare the description of this work that appears in Aldo Pellegrini, New Tendencies in Art. Translated by Robin Carson. (London: Elek, 1966), p. 243; and Gottlieb, op. cit., pp. 256–257. Words was one the seven environments re-enacted/re-installed at the Fondazione Mudima in Milan in 1991, for which, see, Shinn, op. cit., pp. 124–132.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), in which he juxtaposed a real chair with a written description and a photograph of the same chair, is somewhat similar in conception, which he addressed in his article “Art After Philosophy,” Studio International, 178, no. 915 (October 1969), p. 135: “The art I call conceptual is based on the understanding of the linguistic nature of all art propositions.” I thank my colleague, Carol Salus, for this reference. In Kaprow’s Apple Shrine with its juxtapositions of the word apple with painted images of apples and real and fake apples (which predated Kosuth’s chairs by five years), this “art proposition” is extended to include larger questions of replication, for which, see Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy. Striking Likeness, Unreasonable Facsimiles ( New York: Zone Books, 1996 ).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Kelley, “Introduction” in Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, p. xxii.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
  17. 17.
    For Dewey’s influence on Kaprow, see Shinn, op. cit., pp. 122–123, who quotes an interview she had with Kaprow in 1994; and Kelley, op. cit., pp. xxiii—xxvi. Pamela Lehnert had earlier uncovered Kaprow’s use of Dewey, see An American Happening: Allan Kaprow and a Theory of Process Art (Ph. D. Dissertation, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1989 ).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Michael Kirby, “Allan Kaprow’s Eat,” Tulane Drama Review (T30) 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965), pp. 44–49. Much of the following is taken directly from Kirby, with some of his language amended to conform to current usage.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    The uterine shape of the Ebling Brewery cave in Kaprow’s sketch bears comparison with the diagram of “GOK The Monster, a Model for a Popular Theatre,” depicted in Paul Sills, “A Monster Model Fun House,” Tulane Drama Review (T30) 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965), p. 225, and Hon (She), the 82-foot long recumbent female figure that Nikki de Saint Phalle constructed in collaboration with Jean Tinguely (her husband) and Per Olof Ultvelt at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966 (Gottlieb, op. cit., pp. 61–65), figs. 4a and 4b, where the work is called “She—The Cathedral”; and Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990), ill. 195). According to Chadwick (312), “Spectators entered Hon through the vagina and found themselves in a female body that functioned as a playground, amusement park, shelter, and pleasure palace with a milk-bar installed in one breast and an early Greta Garbo film playing elsewhere.” Gottlieb gives a fuller description of Hon and explains exactly what Tinguely and Ultvelt contributed to the work. GOK (Sills, op. cit., p. 226) and Hon also play with eucharistic imagery, but Hon goes further in tweaking the idea of Mater Ecclesia.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    This description together with the published photographs in Kirby’s article form the only record of the original Eat. In 1991, Kaprow re-created this work, and six other environments, at the Fondazione Mudima in Milan, for which, see Shinn, op. cit., pp. 124–132.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Kaprow always insisted on the unrestricted meaning of every thing or object in his environments and Happenings, see, Kaprow, “Education of an Un-Artist, Part II” (1972) reprinted in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 113–116. Eat also resembles a chapel of atonement, in particular the chapel constructed and painted for the Scrovegni Family in Padua known familiarly as Giotto’s Arena Chapel. Pilgrims came to that chapel to perform a devotional pilgrimage by following the sequence of painted scenes and to pray for the soul of the grandfather of the chapel’s founder. Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object. Art Today and Its Audience (New York: Horizon Press, 1966), p. 93, made this link between Giotto and Kaprow but did not specify which of their works are similar.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Kaprow, “The Shape of the Art Environment” (1968), in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 93–94. This article originally appeared in Artforum, 6 no. 10 (Summer 1968), pp. 32–33 and included a photograph of Apple Shrine (1960). In his discussion of the movement of “spectator(s)” in the art environment — here a gallery — he states: “any casual meanderings on their part will thus be the formal equivalent within the exhibition floor area of, say, Pollock’s drips within the canvas area?’ In his contribution to ”Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium, Part I,“ Art News 66, no. 2 (April 1967), pp. 33 and 59–61, Kaprow elaborates on the movement of people within a space vs. the movement of paint in Pollock’s drips: ”If an artist wanted to make the connection, he could say that some of the underground discotheques come straight out of Jackson Pollock — and he’d be right. Look at the action! It’s all-over: it’s intense; when you’re in it you don’t know what you are doing; it seems to go on without beginning or end; the noise and the lights assault you; the pulsations, changing, ever-so-slightly, come in waves; you are surrounded; it’s overwhelmingChrw(133).“ Also see Allan Kaprow, ”Notes on the Creation of a Total Art“ (1958), reprinted in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 10–12.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Shinn, op. cit., p. 116; and Kaprow, “Jackson Pollock” (1967), p. 60. Recently, Bruce Hainley cited Kaprow’s “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (1958) in his review “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979” in Artforum 37, no. 1 (September 1998), pp. 145–146. According to Hainley, “Kaprow’s brilliant contextualization (1958) of Pollock’s practise” was the means by which “Pollock’s space” was used by other performance artists. Hainley goes on to state that “By placing Pollock as the innovator, even impetus, curator Paul Schimmel [of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles] structures all the works on display as (safely) art and brackets performance as the legacy of Ab EX [Abstract Expressionist] painting — the museum in this sense inoculating art from what in the end might bring it down (which is the point, after all).” The bracketed expansions here are mine. Kaprow’s article of 1958 appears in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 1–9.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Allan Kaprow, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings” (c. 1965?) in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 59–65. Also, see Allan Kaprow, “Pinpointing Happenings” (1967) in ibid., pp. 84–89. Surprisingly, authors whose works followed Kaprow’s into print cite Michael Kirby, Happenings. An Illustrated Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1965) or the issue of the Tulane Drama Review (T. 30), 10 no. 1 (Winter 1965), edited by Kirby, instead of Kaprow’s own words. Compare, Fred W. McDarrah, The Artists’ World in Pictures (New York: E. R. Dutton and Co., 1961) p. 177 and figs. 175–180 showing 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) under construction; Lucy P. Lippard., Pop Art (New York and Washington: Frederich A. Praeger, 1966), in which Kaprow is cited nine times in several different contexts; Pellegrini, op. cit., pp. 238–241; and Gottlieb, op. cit., pp. 257 and 258, where she concludes that because sound plays such a big role in Kaprow’s Happenings, they are “a mixture of theatre and dance, not of theatre and art?’ Marilyn Stokstad, Art History (New York: Abrams/Prentice Hall, Inc. (2nd edition) 1999), pp. 1108–1109, a widely used introductory textbook, states ”Kaprow’s works and those of his followers were badly received by the avant-garde New York art critics, because they were considered theater and because spectators enjoyed the happenings so much. One critic even asked the rhetorical question, “Is artistic experience about being entertained?’ Such questions about what art is and what role it plays in society have marked the richly innovative period following World War IL” Compare Allan Kaprow, “Letter to the Editor,” Artforum, 6, no. 5 (January 1968), p. 4, for his response to Jane Livingston’s review of Fluids (1967) that touches upon some of these same issues.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Since 1971 Kaprow has participated in his own art works, which he entitled Activities to keep them distinct from the Happenings of the late 1950s and 1960s, for which, see James T. Hindman, “Self-Performance: Allan Kaprow’s Activities,” The Drama Review (TDR) (T.81) 23, no. 1 (March 1979), pp. 95–102. Hindman (97) carefully distinguishes between the pre-1971 Happenings (in which Kaprow did not always actively participate) and his post-1971 Activities. Also, see Allan Kaprow, “Participation Performance,” Artforum, 15, no. 7 (March 1977) pp. 24–29 (reprinted in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 181–194), which Hindman did not credit. Compare, Roselee Goldberg, Performance Art from Futurism to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1988, reprint 1996) pp. 128–129, where she discusses 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959) as one of Kaprow’s performances. In contrast, Michael Rush, New Media in Late 20th Century Art (London and New York, 1996), passim, but especially p. 78, places Kaprow’s environments and happenings as “a few examples of the multiplicity of art works” in the mid-1960s. Kaprow’s own thought on “artist as shaman” (as opposed to “artist as showman”) can be found in his contribution to “Jackson Pollock” (1967), pp. 59–60 and 61. Also see Allan Kaprow, “Performing Life ” (1979) in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 195–198.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Richard Schechner, “Approaches to Theory/Criticism,” Tulane Drama Review (T32), 10, no. 4 (Summer 1966), p. 35; and idem, “Happenings,” Tulane Drama Review (T 30), 10, no. 2 (Winter, 1965 ), pp. 229–232.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Kaprow, “The Education of an Un-Artist, II,” in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., pp. 113–116.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Haywood, op. cit., pp. 191,192–201,205–206 and 207–208. The Judson Memorial Church sought out artists using non-conventional forms and imagery to express the anxieties facing modem mankind. Many contemporary artists have been concerned with spiritual matters in their works, but art historians have been reluctant to follow the threads these artist leave them in the various published interviews about their art or in their “manifestos” now anthologized in edited form. As I noted above in n. 5, Kaprow was not the only artist “reinventing” an art with religious significance in the early and middle 1960s. Perhaps the problem is with the over-restricted definitions of spiritual and religious in the face of non-traditional and non-denominational and non-sectarian imagery or even a total lack of imagery, as well with the tendency to emphasize novelty in these works.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Allan Kaprow, “The Artist as a Man of the World” (1964) in his Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, op. cit., p. 58.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Allan Kaprow, “Letter to the Editor,” Tulane Drama Review (T 32), 10, no. 4 (Summer 1966), pp. 281–283. For Fluxus, see Estera Milman, ed., Fluxus: A Conceptual Country in Visible Language, 28, nos. 1–2 (Winter/Spring 1992). Kaprow’s association with this group is well known. He is included on the “Fluxchart” in Ken Friedman with James Lewes, “Fluxus: Global Community, Human Dimensions” (169) and is mentioned (sometimes negatively) in several of the other articles included in this volume. Moreover, Kaprow’s collage Self-Service (1966) was included in the exhibiition celebrated in this volume of Visible Language. Kaprow would be the first to deny that he was a major Fluxus artist although he was a guest speaker at the Symposium held in connection with the Fluxus exhibition at the Wexner Center at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, in February 1994.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Shinn, op. cit., p. 132.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Kaprow’s statement appears as the title to his contribution to “Jackson Pollock: An Artists’ Symposium,” op. cit., (1967), p. 33. According to Kaprow (60–61), Pollock “misused his sources by all conventional standards, taking from them rather marginal attitudes or tones of feeling, rather than developing their central principles.” He holds that “insight and growth in art lies less in certain lineal developments that are synthesized at some later point, than in a numberless range of arbitrary attractions and repulsions to and from things in and out of art,” and he concludes, “Chrw(133)in other words, art may now be a discipline of deliberate `misuses’ (or free-interpretations and combinations) of source material.” This seems to correspond to what Don lhde called “bricolage” in his essay “Columbus: New Technologies/Old Cultures” in Postphenomenology. Essays in the Postmodern Context (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993) pp. 28–30. My special thanks go to Robert D. Sweeney, Dorothy Shinn, David Cubie, Lyneise Williams and Albert Reischuck, who served as sounding boards for many of the ideas presented here.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Diane G. Scillia
    • 1
  1. 1.Kent State UniversityUSA

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