Intermedia, Fluxus And The Something Else Press: Selected Writings By Dick Higgins
Edited by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman
By MARK BLOCH, Feb. 2019
As a transplanted suburbanite from Ohio, I used to walk around feeling grateful that I now lived in New York City with so many generous, smart, well-read people. Their influence was at my fingertips. How lucky I was to be a New Yorker! But when I learned in 1998 that he had died, the void left by his sudden absence made me realize that it was actually one person, Dick Higgins, that made me feel this way about my adopted home. Dick, more than anyone else, was responsible for this feeling I had about a certain kind of worldly wisdom accessible to me. Even though he lived upstate then, in Barrytown, New York, and I rarely saw him, it was comforting to know he was at work on his projects for a New York and a world audience, including me. Dick Higgins, it turns out, was my unconscious link to a flawed personal philosophy of my own that I had been walking around with.
Higgins told me once in the early ‘80s he’d like to see a younger person write about what Fluxus meant to them. Perhaps I showed him with a few of my actions but I regret now I ultimately was not able to literally fulfill his request during his lifetime.
With the publication of Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings, I can see what Fluxus meant to him, instead, and I am delighted by it and humbled by it because I see now how much I needed that information. More than just Fluxus, Higgins’s world was a cluster of activities and ideas perpetually manifesting all around him and his contemporaries at break-neck speed carrying with it a strange, unclassifiable nature. The world had transformed on his watch, even, from classifiable to acceptably vague, and I caught, through him, a slight glimpse of the boundary-busting, cosmic permission slip he attempted to chronicle. Now that some of the dust has settled, we can all benefit from his wise point of view, doled out in real time and perhaps begin to share, amongst ourselves, what it means to us.
At various times, Higgins labeled the wide subject of his “research” into the art of his times with various terms including:
Arts of the New Mentality
The Going Thing style
St Marks in the Bouwerie (style or school)
Happenings and Events
the “new work”
and Exemplificative Art
One of the editors of this book, scholar and Fluxus artist Ken Friedman, refers to Higgins’ contribution as an “artistic reformation” similar to Martin Luther’s reformation in the 1500s—thanks to the printing press—crediting Higgins’ Great Bear Pamphlets and Xerox machines that easily reproduced them—as well as the books published by Higgins’ creation the Something Else Press—for circulating elements of Higgins profound but elusive “philosophy.” Friedman doesn’t call it that, I do, but he does cite an element of that potential philosophy, a simple truth that probably both helped and hurt its circulation: that Higgins was more eager to spread ideas than make money.
According to the book’s other editor, Steve Clay, the publisher at Granary Books, editor, curator, and archivist, by the time Higgins was 27 years old, he had co-invented Happenings, co-founded Fluxus, founded the Something Else Press and theorized the concept of Intermedia which this book writes about with a small i. That captures the nature of the missing philosophy: It is so wrapped up in Higgins’ actions that it is sometimes difficult to point to. But Higgins was a wonderful writer and so while an overall “philosophy” can seem strangely absent, it can also be found on every page. That is because what interested Higgins seems to be this very paradox. He was aware of his plight. Though he loved history, he was interested in living, wiggly things, not immovable objects, not nouns one can easily and clumsily point to. And so this book, like Higgins is… alive! Many of his essays are written in the moment and if you blink you might miss the examples and ideas he referred to. But in between them, a bit of his “philosophy” remains.
Clay calls the book overdue. Friedman uses the word “reconsideration.” Clay calls Higgins a “consummate explainer.” He mentions Dick’s attention to his failures, correctly saying that they are also very valuable. Clay cites a section of the book on “what almost was or might have been” as an example. Higgins’ vision was large. Friedman says Dick left many things incomplete and was not given to the “memorable single gesture” that made Marcel Duchamp an art star and he even wonders if Dick’s value as an artist can ever be known. But I believe there are enough wonderful gestures to go around—his Press, Intermedia, Danger Music, his invention of Happenings, the co-shaping of Fluxus and one of the world’s most under-reported efforts of all time—The New York Audio-Visual Group—among them.
Friedman cites Dick’s toughness and revolutionary mentality in the same breath as explaining that he worked scientifically. Friedman called him “rigorous in documenting his results.” He cites Dick’s use of publishing as a strategy for critique. He explains that idiosyncrasies were left in to preserve integrity.
To Friedman, perhaps more elegantly than calling it a philosophy, Dick “shaped a theory of the arts for our times,” referring to an art world that is often clueless about its own history. Higgins last book was Modernism Since Post-Modernism, and Friedman asks if curators and critics actually understand the intellectual foundations of experimental art. He addressed Dick’s relationship to the art market and compares it to the military industrial complex, scolding scholars and critics for the same lousy treatment Dick got from gallerists and collectors.
Friedman compares Dick to Duchamp and Cage. He is one of the few idea-based artists, one who articulated his ideas in fleshed out published works as opposed to Duchamp’s notes and proclamations. He compares Dick’s early death to the longer lives of Cage and Marcel and suggests Erasmus of Rotterdam might provide a better kindred spirit to compare to Higgins. He cites Higgins’ “firsts”: first book on pattern poetry, first books on various important theorists and practitioners of experimental art from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, all philosophers, poets and historians (as he was) and a first book about a lesser known 20th century book designer. He also was responsible for the revival of Gertrude Stein. With these accomplishments, Higgins, like Erasmus, shaped his era.
Friedman also explains the Coleridge distinction for the use of the term Intermedia that Higgins recycled, elucidating something very important that needed to be said about the relaxed boundaries of the 1960s. He also muses on its significance to artists who confine themselves to a single discipline.
The way Higgins came to influence the international underground with his Something Else Press worked like this: Fluxus founder George Maciunas promised to publish a major Higgins work like he was doing with other artists but it never happened. So a frustrated Higgins started his own press to do it himself. The visionary Maciunas was big on plans but not sales and Higgins knew there already was a medium for mass publishing: the book. Friedman says Higgins published between 3 and 5 thousand copies per title (and one thousand, tops, for a few of the Great Bear Pamphlets, his more affordable parallel venture that included Xerox-able sizes and formats, bound with staples) then contrasts, briefly, Higgins’ strategies with the major publishing houses of the day.
After the era of the Great Bear Pamphlets, Friedman explains Higgins sent out the free Something Else Newsletter. Scholars and critics were the audience but it proved influential to artists via what French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou called “the eternal network,” a “borderless international laboratory.”
My only complaint about this book is that it repeats again and again the story of how the Something Else Press got its name—the first time on page 18 when Friedman tells the “Shirtsleeves Press” story that is then repeated 3 more times and finally a fifth time on page 339 by Higgins’ daughter in her wonderful and personal recollections of her father. Since the first and last instances of this story could have been eliminated, I won’t repeat it here but invite you to read it in the book a few times.
But don’t let that deter you: this tome is extraordinary. The structure of the book after the two editor introductions is that there is a long section, 62 pages, in the middle of the book comprised of a collection of checklists and delightful trivia about the Something Else Press’ salient achievements. There are pictures, annotated lists, and other ephemera which give an excellent overview of Higgins’ output with the Press, the centerpiece of what he was able to attain in his life. It is a valuable reference that I will continue to cherish.
But it is that which precedes and follows this middle section that has proved to be of primary interest to me, thus far. The first 150 pages is Higgins doing the treasured work of a historian as no one else could, about how he got to the Something Else Press. It covers the early days of the John Cage Composition Class at the New School and more than one detailed accounting of the evanescent Fluxus years. It has always been my opinion that the nameless years from 1958 until 1964 when Pop Art began to dominate the cultural scene, were a pivotal period and Higgins susses it out using several approaches in several different articles. Here is finally a real opportunity to rethink the meaning of what was at stake in the 1960s—its art and non-art and anti-art, its triumphs and its failures.
Next, after the middle section, the book provides a service by including several of Higgins’ articles as a theorist, bringing into focus just what his concerns and interests were and highlighting some of his own work that can now be seen as manifestations of how he theorized the world to be. This takes the form of 89 pages on art, publishing and poetry. The book then concludes with the 20 page biographical appreciation by one of his beloved twin daughters, the scholar Hannah Higgins. Her sister Jessica is an artist.
The first section of “selected writings by Dick Higgins” is called “Intermedia” and it begins with his first three newsletters, Volume 1, Numbers 1,2 and 3. The first, also called Intermedia, fleshes out this underappreciated term that he all but invented: media that fall in the “subdivisions” between other media, an important thing to have noticed in 1966. He mentions populism and calls Pop Art bland. Higgins wrote this at the time that Duchamp’s influence was replacing Picasso’s as the century’s premiere artist and he attributes this to Duchamp’s embrace of Intermedia. Allan Kaprow for Happenings, Wolf Vostell for De-collage and Rauschenberg for Combines are also name checked. Happenings are described as a Spring 1958 development in which spectators enjoying “environments” “weren’t enough” and so collages were expanded to include “live people.” Pinter, Albee and Beckett were named as examples of “recultivating an old” thing to make it new. Finally, he mentions his own piece Stacked Deckand his contemporaries Al Hansen, Nam June Paik, Ben Patterson, Joe Jones, Robert Filliou and Phillip Corner in a discussion of rules that are dictated by needs, not vice versa.
The second newsletter was Games of Art in which Higgins invokes Nothing, Ray Johnson, Somethingness and “Invitingness,” in which objects are invited, through their use, to make the transition from empty to full, creating unexpected joy.
Another clumsy gerund, Intending is invoked in the third essay, in which “an artist” is “specific about what he intends, (and) work… is written by describing only intentions.” This could be seen as advocacy for the event “score” as developed by George Brecht in Cage’s Composition class and made famous elsewhere by La Monte Young , Yoko Ono and others, as well as Jackson Mac Low, another attendee of that Cage class, who chose to create “systems” for the construction of poetry. But scores are not mentioned in this text. Instead, it is a rather opaque invocation of the International Style of Music, serialism, Bauhaus and Abstract Expressionism, “back in the days of pure media, when pictures were painted in paint on cloth.” Higgins proposes art that would be created a bit like what we know today as “Mad Libs” in which blanks are filled in to make of-the-moment art that is less “perishable.”
Speaking of timeliness, before moving on to what follows, let me note that the Something Else Newsletters are charmingly reproduced as actual newsletters. Siglio Press and the editors Clay and Friedman deservse kudos for this entire superb, stunning and sturdy presentation of an opulent book about books and the sovereignty of publishing. There is an intimacy here and an attention to detail that come to life when our eyes settle on gossipy little items from Higgins’ original newsletters like one that Wolf Vostell is coming to visit or that Emmett Williams had begun his role as an editor of Higgins’ Press.
A much-needed forty page excerpt from Higgins’ book Postface follows next. He describes the importance of Hansen, Brecht, Larry Poons, La Monte Young, Patterson, Paik, Johnson and others and establishes each one’s essential contribution to the Downtown scene. Next, Higgins discusses George Maciunas and tells the story of exactly how Fluxus came to be, including Higgins and his wife Alison Knowles joining Maciunas for the trip to Europe that led to the Fluxus creation myth and the addition of Eric Andersen to the fold in Copenhagen. Higgins then circles back to the Yam Festival in New York of Brecht, Robert Watts and the events at George Segal’s farm in New Jersey. It ends with a brief discussion of his own Danger Music that, fortunately, is revisited in Hannah Higgins piece at the end of the book. I say that because my only other criticism of this book would be that it does not include enough about Higgins’ own quirky artistic contributions that manifest the many theories and ideas that are here. But the book is a treasure trove of information of how one can find them. In fact, many questions I have had for decades about Higgins’ oeuvre are definitively answered here. So thank you Dick Higgins and thank you, Siglio Press.
Speaking of omissions, remind me to someday go back and investigate what was left out of this extended excerpt of Postface. Regardless, Postface has always been an important text for me and it is of immeasurable importance to have included it here to reread and for anyone wanting to understand the origins of performance art, mail art, concept art, Fluxus and Happenings. In fact when Friedman asks in his introduction if curators and critics actually understand the intellectual foundations of experimental art, he does not say that a firm foundation could be had simply by reading this excerpt from Postface. The folksy, user-friendly, memoir-ish screed was originally published as one of the first Something Else Press books in a two-fer with Jefferson’s Birthday containing “all the work Higgins wrote” in ‘62-‘63 and responsible for the creation of Higgins’s Press when he grew weary of Maciunas’ good intentions and took off in a new direction, much to the dismay of Maciunas, who I always understood, took it as a betrayal. But, sorry, Higgins returns to this topic later and talks warmly about the copasetic but complex relationship between the two meticulous intellectuals, Dick and George.
The next short chapter is called Postscript to Postface from 1977, published in 1982, 15 years after the original. Fluxus is declared to be a group, even if it wasn’t before. He also cites a break—in conception and teleology—from what came before 1958 and after, adding that in the ensuing years, the analysis of the implications of their activities has comprised Higgins’ main preoccupation. This is when he refers to the genre as the “Going Thing, ” perhaps an indication of how prevalent it was, and if it were not for “an art world that is often clueless about its own history” how prevalent it still is to those who know what to look for. Perhaps this book will help.
Higgins again explores differences between he and Maciunas, leading to the founding of the Something Else Press and the twin histories of the SEP and Fluxus after 1963, leaving his book out of print by 1967. He complains about the modernist Morton Feldman, who he later calls “robotic” and “cookie cutter” but praises Jonathan Williams, a fellow self-publisher who attended Black Mountain College. “I was writing about a small world that has since grown,” he says in his overview. Higgins talks about the comings and goings of Fluxus members and the eventual bankruptcy of his Press. It introduces his follow-up publishing endeavor Unpublished Editions.
The next chapter is a 30-page text not on Fluxus (for which he recommends instead A Child’s History of Fluxus which does not appear in this volume) but on the Fluxus “experience,” an idea which was later picked up by his daughter, Hannah, when she published an excellent book with that exact title decades later. (Fluxus Experience, University of California Press, December 2002.)
No, instead, this chapter is a musing on Fluxus for insiders, a look at its relationship to Romanticism, Dada and Surrealism as well as to Pop Art and the conceptual art of Joseph Kosuth. The underlying assumptions and policies of Fluxus as a whole are trotted out, providing not a criticism but Fluxus theory. He revisits Wiesbaden—the first Fluxus concert—and the pre-planning before the group’s memorable entry to the international scene. Higgins also discusses the Fluxus “members” since, and even talks about the origins of fluxwords. He discusses infighting, pre-Fluxus, and the Fluxus relationship with his own Intermedia. He discusses Fluxus’s relationship to Cage, to Zen, to its own manifesto, to Japanese art, focusing in on Mieko Shiomi, then concludes by calling Fluxus a “mongrel art,” a form with no particular pedigree or parentage. It is these moments in the book where a Higgins “philosophy” that I mentioned earlier sneaks in, between the lines.
He questions whether Fluxus is a tendency and what parts are played by nine criteria that he once developed, (expanded to twelve, since, by the book’s editor Friedman, with those new criteria embraced by Higgins). Higgins then discusses each one individually, focusing notably on “play” and “humor” and the aforementioned “experience.” Higgins imagines what a typical Fluxus piece might be. Perhaps the most interesting section is about how to evaluate Fluxus. He singles out objectivity, pragmatism, feeling, expressionism, and patterns of communication.
Finally I must take a moment to mention hermeneutics and in particular Gadamer, who Higgins returns to often in this book and in other works mentioned in this book. He returns often to the concepts of “horizons” to interpret texts. Higgins’ love of both history and language make it understandable that he would be drawn to Gadamer, who studied Aristotle under both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Higgins also explains that in order to discuss his ideas with the excitable Maciunas, Higgins would have to avoid mentioning Heidegger by name. But Higgins’ explorations of meaning as an event that occurs between text and reader permeate all his work and this book in particular.
Finally, Higgins cites the Fluxus influence on genres such as artistsbooks and performance art and apologizes for not being able to go on more about that just as I might apologize for not saying more about hermaneutics as we enter Section 2, focused precisely on the Something Else Press.
Higgins’ Manifesto begins the section, written before any of his books were published, also excerpted on the back of the book. Next Steven Clay, the editor, creates a checklist as he cites Peter Frank’s important book (Something Else Press: An Annotated Bibliography, McPherson & Company, 1983) that for decades has served as the definitive reference on Higgins’ Press. Clay also described his SEP list as “ love letters to the future” by Higgins. I, for one, sitting here in the future, am grateful. In his introduction, Friedman also cited the Frank work explaining that Dick’s own annotations, cobbled from various sources, are added to create a whole new summary of the SEP years.
A detailed essay follows on what to look for in a book physically. But for me, the most interesting essay in this section is called Two Sides of a Coin, a 1992 text that appeared in the publication “Visible Language” and dispels many of the myths that I bought into over the years about the dystopian relationship between Fluxus and the Something Else Press, Maciunas and Higgins. In short, in the summer of 1966, Dick and George sat down in a park and worked things out. This careful recounting of many points of collaboration and differences of opinion and approach between the two men makes for a fascinating read. Higgins states that both agreed that unlike in science where one innovation negates another, in art each innovation adds to the previous ones, creating a cumulative effect. Furthermore, both men agreed that the avant-garde is eternal. The various Something Else editors are discussed, Barbara Moore, Emmett Williams and Jan Hermann, respectively. Unpublished Editions is recalled again, including its death in 1986. A discussion of Maciunas typography, structures, Henry Flynt’s political influence, and the famous Maciunas fluxchart are then brought into the mix. In the end, Higgins said, Fluxus was thought to be four things: 1) publications, 2) a group of artists, 3) the forms of performances and public actions and 4) a “postmodern” theory. To Higgins, Fluxus was about Fluxus performances and Flux-objects such as the Fluxboxes.
The Something Else Press, by contrast, he said, was wider. It was about Fluxus, but also about concrete poetry, new fiction, avant-garde theory “and so on.” Some of the “and so on” is exposed in an abundance of fascinating footnotes.
One of the interesting diversions was a recollection of SEP overlap with mainstream publications including Harpers, Vogue and Newsweek. But in the next fabulous chapter, Notes For a History to Be Written Some Day, Higgins slowly reveals many of the behind the scenes workings of his avant-garde endeavor that would probably not have been of much interest to such mainstream readers but all these years later they make for fascinating publishing biz gossip and anecdotes.
The circumstances surrounding the earliest SEP books are covered. A short-lived Something Else gallery Higgins opened and his partner Alison Knowles’ monumental Big Book are delineated. He then raises a favorite topic of his, the overlapping fields of visual poetry and concrete poetry, which he returns to in much depth in later chapters. Higgins also introduces his alter ego, Camille, a pseudonym he used quite a bit in those days and even shared with others who helped with her output. Finally, Higgins ventures into the period before he moved to California to teach at the new Cal Arts, his divorce from Alison Knowles, with whom he later remarried, a new found sobriety, and in the end, bankruptcy for the Something Else Press, a labor of love that he ultimately withdrew from, just in time to see it go belly up.
The difficult moments are each explored thoughtfully and sensitivity. Higgins’ most major success was with Emmett Williams’ book on concrete poetry, a saving grace complicated by the fact that Williams soon worked with Higgins as an editor and that Williams’ son Eugene and Higgins eventually became romantically involved. (Williams also met his own wife-to-be Ann Noël at the Press.) It was quite a tangled web and Higgins analyzes what went wrong, both professionally and personally. A “pudgy” and negative Lincoln Kirstein uptown is taken to task for not carrying one of Higgins’ books and later Higgins’ philosophy comes through again when he later uses the word “pudgy” and “pudgies” to describe anyone who didn’t quite understand what he and his generation were up to. Finally the Great Bear Pamphlets, Unpublished Editions and finally Printed Editions, which began in June 1978, are each discussed, giving us a full picture of Higgins’ publishing ideas and their manifestations.
A brief 1964 letter to his friend Ray Johnson about his early Something Else book The Paper Snake, is reproduced here. A publishing party, the number of copies to be printed, the need for Johnson’s formal name to be a copyright holder, and a request for some of Johnson’s trademark hand lettering all demonstrate the ins and outs of being a publisher and how they manifested themselves in those early years.
The aforementioned checklist book by book, compiled by Steve Clay, covers the same ground that Higgins hit anecdotally in his essay from pages 176 to 237, in the middle of the book. Fabulous pictures accompany the list. Dick’s notes provide insights and tidbits on many of the books, newscards, gallery announcements, catalogues and excerpts he published. Camille’s reports, objects, posters, special cases and lists within lists of all of it provide a very full picture of Higgins’ distinguished printing career.
Following the checklist, Some Poetry Intermedia is a 1976 text that distinguishes “quick flash” art from art that is “time-based” expression. Five Traditions of Art History contains taxonomy of Mimetic, Pragmatic, Expressive, Objective and Exemplicative Art. Higgins’s preference is the last one, which he elucidates in a manifesto, which follows. Higgins names his new movement that will fight the pudgies, the cognitives, the previous generation in favor of a new one who will borrow their resources in order to survive, advocating cannibalization of his own past and not adhering to a single identity. He likes the interplay between roles. He embraces failure stating that perfection is only one of many possibilities. He states, “all form is a process of notation.”
Finally Higgins speaks against controlling his audience and describes the changes he had lived through, beginning in the late 1950s, as a time “when the social and cultural revolutions of our century finally broke our historic mentality down—precipitating a time of tremendous ferment, from which only now are some of the clear outlines of things to come emerging.”
He talks about the baby boomers, a new tribe unlike the generation that precedes them. He talks about art as exchange vs. art as capital. He even wants to rename Fluxus and Intermedia at this point. There is no manifesto necessary, only to consider his audience who calls his “brothers and sisters,” while describing the pudgies’ world as so much dross, a “gaudyverse.” He needn’t be concerned about image, he says, and results are only so useful. Higgins is describing an art of process, a far cry from today’s market place of mega-expensive art products that wag what’s left of a dead art market dog breathing its last breaths. Higgins was writing about something that was then new, perhaps so much so that he didn’t feel the need to think of encompassing it in an overall philosophy.
After these game plans are revealed and I finally got to learn what my late friend was going for, in spite of its ethereal nature, Higgins launches into The Strategy of Each of My Books (1984), with its title reminiscent of Raymond Roussel’s How I Wrote Certain of My Books (1935), in which Higgins takes each of his manuscripts covering ideas in many media and devotes a meaty paragraph to what was behind it. The chapter slowly demystified and defogged Higgins’ prolific and diverse yield for this reader who has been voraciously interested in the details of his work since I first heard about it as an art student in Ohio.
Here Higgins tell us, book by book, what it is he has really done, without having to explain Fluxus, without having to explain his friend’s books that he was so heroic to publish, without having to explain the confusing times he has lived through, by just leaping deep into who he really was and what he had tried to do as a wordsmith.
What follows are informative descriptions of long texts, short plays and graphics, poems, essays, radio plays, even forays into environmental spaces (when he speaks of his book Fantastic Architecture edited with Wolf Vostell), theater works, histories, aleatoric (chance and system) compositions, sonatas, and orchestral works.
Higgins talks about his 1978 book Dialectic of Centuries: Notes Towards a Theory of the New Arts, a theoretical text I have not read that sounds like it might be bordering on the overall philosophy I am looking for. He calls it a collection of his “theory texts” that sold unexpectedly well, resulting in a revised edition in 1979.
Towards the end of the chapter, interestingly, in answer to the question “what is next to do?” Higgins again describes the book Dialectic of Centuries, pointing out that it “lacked a teleology,” in other words, an explanation of some purpose, end, goal, or function. He explains that he wished he had stated what the purpose was of his practice was and what the purpose of his contemporaries’ practice was—for the performers, audiences, readers and viewers of these various experiments. What exactly was being offered? (He pondered.)
He explains that though he corrected the “lack” with an essay, he hoped he might expand it to an entire second book, which would be a follow up to Dialectic of Centuries about “the critical system” he belongs to, with a taxonomy, a confrontation of historical problems that exist (despite a “pedigree as old as mankind itself”) and an “erotic” of the “new work,” in which he would explain what was “good” about it and why it was not boring. He wanted the second book to be called Horizons. Strangely, this chapter and A Letter to Steve McCaffery, both come from a book called Horizons: The Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia that seems to be partly but not entirely the very book Higgins is imagining.
1983’s A Book is a 2 page essay. In it he explains one’s horizon is what one brings to a text in the form of their past, tastes and desires, their being. What one knows and does not know. The idea of a horizon comes from Gadamer. One brings it to meet the horizon of the text. It is as close as Higgins gets to Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and post-modern critical theory. In A Book he also talks about Gertrude Stein, scrolls, and typefaces in saying that a book is “the container of a provocation.” But it is this relationship between horizons that interests Higgins and that interests me.
Next comes one 5 page missive from a 525 page correspondence between Higgins and McCaffery, a central figure in the Toronto literary avant garde, from the latter’s archive, A Letter to Steve McCaffery, in which Higgins calls himself a “real” structuralist because he draws little diagrams using shapes and forms creating structure and talks about pattern poetry as structure and explains why his process-oriented work and the shape of writing is much more interesting than the polarizing polar opposites of the “Paris Mafia” i.e. the likes of Eco, Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, and Lyotard. He does say he likes some of the work of Roman Jakobson who developed techniques for the analysis of the linguistic organization of sounds in languages.
Finally, Section IV is called Pattern Poetry, Visual Poetry, Sound Poetry. It begins with A Short History of Pattern Poetry, the first chapter of a book called Pattern Poetry, Guide to an Unknown Literature in 1987. It ends with Mallarme, Marinetti and Dada, familiar figures to avant poets, then and now. Fifteen plus pages before that covers 1700 BC through Medieval times and then walks us up to the present. It is this linking of the present to the historical where Higgins does his best, most scholarly stuff. He provides humbling links between what we perceive as new and a rich history of precedent, and context, providing a sobering continuity, one that has been largely ignored by artists, I might add.
In the Strategy of Pattern Poetry: Three Aspects, Higgins breaks down in detail how the human eye interacts with the verbal and the visual and why it might matter. “It is very difficult to enjoy a work fully before one has made some mental classification of it,” he says towards the end, once again bringing in ideas that are part of Gadamer’s hermeneutical circle and once again lamenting the lack of a teleology that undermines how this activity might have greater relevance. Higgins points to a lack of consensus about taxonomy in the field up until the time he wrote it, that created further distance between artists and their public. He takes steps to correct that in Points Toward a Taxonomy of Sound Poetry from 1981. He begins with a “sub-history” in which his descriptions of the genre move from light and fun to powerful. In the end he admonishes that sound poetry is not music, discusses environmental and spiritual use of sound poetry, and provides a linguistic analysis. In the book’s last brief essay, The Golem In the Text,he only hints at why the performer is a medium and why sound poetry is performance poetry.
This concludes Dick’s own careful dancing around various ideas, providing guidance for the future, sometimes elegantly, sometimes a bit clumsily, but always powerfully and meaningfully and with a learned eye for uniting the avant garde and the Everyman, a desire that permeates this volume. Perhaps Dick Higgins was the last man who attempted to make sense of the art world for a baffled public who could seriously benefit from these ideas. Alas, the art world seems to have abandoned a need to be this comprehensible, creating two ghettos: one of impoverished, deluded, uninformed masterminds imagining they might someday find homes outside of their dusty storage units for their precious creations, painstakingly cobbled together from ideas they don’t know are recycled at best and the other, new generations of “pudgies,” an isolated, arrogant and self-satisfied elite 1% who can afford to accumulate priceless treasures with no deep understanding of their origins, only enough knowledge about them to impress a few dinner guests while engaging in superficial banter about the unfortunate world situation. I am sure Higgins could have written a book about the precedents of this kind of activity, too.
This book concludes with the touching Eleven Snapshots of Dick Higgins by Hannah Higgins, a Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The senior Higgins apparently wrote a still-unpublished biography Dick Higgins, A Life and his daughter draws from it as well as her own recollections and other research to recreate an informative portrait of the “6’2, 220 pound” man and personally embellish it with love and appreciation, but not denial. Her perceptions of his early 1970s personal breakdown and a battle with alcoholism are explored just as matter of factly as are the early New York years with illuminating minutiae: Maciunas’ AG Gallery, her parent’s fateful trip to Wiesbaden and the rest of the early Cage and Fluxus years, his writing of Danger Music in ’61—each covered because they are important to who Higgins was and why his complete story is worth understanding. Hannah’s exploration of Higgins’ complex, well heeled early years in a patrician family lays the foundation for a future not without inner turmoil and contradiction.
The success of the Something Else Emmett Williams book An Anthology of Concrete Poetry is touched upon again and followed by the family’s fractured move west, right into the formative years of Cal Arts, then back to Vermont, where Dick had spent some of his childhood. Details abound. Very interesting accounts of Higgins’ visual art endeavors follow: a project parallel to Pop Art from ‘73 to ‘75—Higgins’ hunkering down to drawing activity, taking his inspiration from flora and fauna but also chance. Then daughter Hannah takes us inside the world of his brown paintings, cosmologies, arrows and maps and that he turned to at a time when he needed introspection and solace. This activity started in ’79 at age 41, providing a sense of order during his years spent in the Hudson Valley in an old church.
For such a learned man, it was interesting to finally hear about Higgins’ education, beginning with boarding school. After attending Yale as an undergrad, Higgins called it “an education annex to a country club” and graduated instead from Columbia in 1960. After spending the ‘60s and ‘70s leading workshops in addition to his art making and publishing activities, Higgins was awarded a masters degree from NYU in ‘77 but later dropped out before earning his PhD. “By 1979 he had published 146 articles and 22 volumes as a solo author, composer or artist,” says Hannah, the family academic. (Her maternal grandfather, Alison’s father, was also an educator. Alison Knowles was also a teacher in the early days of Cal Arts.)
Higgins married Knowles in 1960 and they divorced in 1970. Higgins then recommitted to Alison in ‘74, they remarried in ‘84 and Higgins died in ‘98. One of Higgins’ dictims, “If you haven’t done it twice you haven’t done it,” is cited at various times in the book. Coincidentally, Higgins’ complex family situation contains many sets of two: 2 siblings, 2 half brothers, a step father and step mother; Higgins started two presses, he mischievously “stole books” twice, had 2 gay relationships, married Knowles twice, had twin daughters, and, sadly, suffered 2 nervous breakdowns.
Fortunately, Higgins and his family only suffered through one car crash—a disturbing episode the year before his premature death at the age of 60 from a heart attack. Higgins was in attendance at an intermedia-related festival in Quebec, with his flux-friend Larry Miller when he collapsed alone before climbing into bed. Higgins, who was born in Jesus Pieces, England, had died in Canada. Miller arranged for his body to be returned to the States.
Hannah, grappling with Higgins’ role as an American artist, cites that before and after his important years as a publisher engaged with the art world, he was, closer to his heart, an artist engaged with the art world. “His was a life that ebbed and flowed in and around the arts,” she concludes.
Somewhere in the middle of the book, discussing the demise of the Something Else Press and his eventual move upstate, the elder Higgins digresses into a discussion of different printers, what his unusual Printed Editions experiment did for him and why he chose George Quasha in the Hudson Valley to ostensibly have his back, both professionally and as a colleague. Higgins was, in the end, a part of a community. He published with and for a community of like-minded souls. Everything seems personal for him. He was engaged, not detached, for better or worse. We must acknowledge his profound contribution not only because he did his homework but also because it came from the heart. Maybe that was the elusive philosophy I am looking for or the missing teleology he referred to: the communicator’s need to bridge the gaps between boundaries with personable kindness, with sharing, reaching out, reaching within, in a sincere attempt to help others to understand. Higgins seems to have wanted people to get him and his amazing “new” times—the 1960s and 70s—a whirlwind that he repeatedly tried to make sense of—with careful descriptions of current events supplemented by connections to history.
Once during a chaotic, free form event in the early 1980s in which I was a performer, throwing around terms and my own flawed attempts at philosophy, Dick Higgins pulled me aside and whispered in my ear something that I have found useful ever since and which certainly pertains to him and many passages in this book: “A genius is not something one is, genius is something one has.”
In the end, Higgins says on page 268 that he is intermedial because “it is simply my nature to be that way.” Dick Higgins looked into spaces where other people did not care or dare to look and we are all better off for it. His was an unusual life of many moments of underappreciated genius that are still in search of an audience up to the task of putting them to use in a world that desperately needs them.WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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