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A Long-deserved Close Look at Alison Knowles, First Lady of Fluxus

Alison Knowles, The Boat Book, 2014–2015, Wood and metal frame with silkscreen, digital print on silk, collage, assemblage, personal ephemera, beans, books, fishing net, photographs, ship anchor, fabric tunnel, electrical lights, audio recording, etc. Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes Gallery, New York  Photo: Bryan Conley, Carnegie Museum of Art

 

Alison Knowles at Carnegie Museum of Art Pittsburgh, PA

May 20–October 24, 2016

By LAUREN FULTON, November 2016

Approaching Alison Knowles’s survey at the Carnegie Museum of Art, one became increasingly conscious of one’s demeanor: a change of tone and manner, to one of reverence, seemed the natural adjustment to make. Even children somewhat crept into the Forum Gallery with an air of awe and wonder. Perhaps the mood could be attributed to the gentle voice emanating from one direction of the gallery—a looped recording of a spoken word performance, installed within a page of the artist’s Boat Book. The space, like Knowles’s voice, was tranquil and relaxing, the soft glow radiating from the large-scale installation being the primary source of light, which gently guided visitors through the artist’s practice and essentially her entire personal and professional life.

A precursor to her 1966 Big Book, Boat Book is a life-size mixed media publication with pages eight feet high and four feet wide, on view at the Carnegie. Engulfing the “reader,” Boat Book engages all five senses, presenting a variety of audiovisual and tactile experiences. Dedicated to the artist’s brother, a former fisherman in Easthampton, the piece possesses a clear nautical theme. However, more important than this homage, Boat Book offers reflection on Knowles’s long career. Multiples, photographs, and ephemera line the wooden pages, harkening back to her earliest Fluxus performances around Europe, where her career began and has always been more widely recognized than in the States. That is, until James Fuentes, the New York gallerist who commissioned Boat Book for Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014, began representing Knowles in 2010. As an object, Boat Book can be considered an anthology or, an “accumulation,” to quote her late husband, publisher and artist Dick Higgins.

Alison Knowles, The Bean Rolls, 1963, Tin can lid, offset printing on paper, and beans, Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes Gallery, New York Photo: Bryan Conley, Carnegie Museum of Art

Knowles is now the only living original member of the avant-garde Fluxus movement that emerged in the early ‘60s—known for irreverent gags; the use of everyday, banal materials; and the embrace of chance and indeterminacy—associated with John Cage, who was a mentor to many involved in this male-dominated group. This includes Higgins, who coined the term “intermedia” to describe artwork falling between media, the merging of one medium with another, and the dissolution of rigid artistic categorization. This is perhaps the only way to describe Knowles’s work, which seems especially true after seeing so much of it amassed in one space­—a rarity for the artist, especially in an American museum. Her practice, like most Fluxus production, dissolves any boundary between art and life, melding the two into an experiential object or event, a sensibility to which Boat Book remains loyal.  

Knowles collects materials and products, often for multipurpose use, that later become instruments with her activation. She encourages the handling of her work and views participation as an activation of the piece; figures moving through Boat Book’s pages promote a physical experience, a reading through bodily motion. Being in a museum setting, however, Carnegie visitors were not permitted to touch, sound, or activate Knowles’s work—a key component of one’s experience of it and part of the artist’s intent.

Alison Knowles, Bean Garden, 1976/2016, Wooden box, navy beans, and contact microphones with amplifier and speakers, Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes Gallery, New York, Photo: Bryan Conley, Carnegie Museum of Art

Books have been important to Knowles since her earliest association with Fluxus. This includes The Bean Rolls (1963), a tin tea can containing loose beans and tightly wrapped scrolls printed with data about the history of the bean: In addition to shoes, the artist has been fascinated with legumes since childhood. This penchant becomes even clearer in The Bean Garden (1976/2016), an amplified wooden box allowing visitors to experience beans with their bare feet, and experiment with their sonic possibilities in the process. The piece first premiered at Charlotte Moorman’s Avant-Garde Festival in 1973 and has been recreated many times since, most recently for Moorman’s touring retrospective organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.  

Alison Knowles (with George Brecht and Robert Watts), Blink (The Scissors Brothers’ Warehouse Sale), 1963, Screenprint and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Courtesy the artist and James Fuentes Gallery, New York

Like the silkscreen panels within Boat Book, many works in the show point to Knowles’s skill as a printmaker, an under-recognized and important hallmark of her practice. This is seen with her collaboration with George Brecht and Robert Watts, Blink (The Scissors Brothers’ Warehouse Sale) (1963), a screen print on canvas divided into three bands, one contributed by each artist. It retains its performative intention without requiring physical activation on the part of the viewer: Ordering the viewer to blink each time focusing on different registers, the small canvas promotes a cognizant, embodied experience.  

As curator Eric Crosby’s first show at the museum, recently arriving from the Walker Art Center, the exhibition sets an impressive and surprising tone for the encyclopedic museum—and Pittsburgh. Knowles’s work must be appreciated within the larger experimental tradition to which it belongs and continues to unabashedly celebrate, which the Carnegie presentation succeeds in examining and applauding. Now in her mid-eighties, Alison Knowles is finally getting her due with this solo presentation at the Carnegie. WM

 

Lauren R. Fulton

 

Lauren R. Fulton is Curatorial Assistant at the Aspen Art Museum. She frequently curates exhibitions in Texas and Chicago, and has worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Nasher Sculpture Center, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.

 

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