by Maria Porges
Alison Knowles—performance artist, conceptual artist, book artist, event score writer and sculptor—has been making and exhibiting her work since 1960. The only female co-founding member of the infamous avant-garde group Fluxus, Knowles has generated a rich body of work both as a collaborator and as a solo artist. It is therefore surprising that her first comprehensive retrospective is only now being staged.
Apart from work made by Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, Fluxus was not the most visual of art movements. Though well-known and widely exhibited in Europe since its inception, Fluxus remains a vague name or set of associations for U.S. audiences which have seen few exhibitions of this work, possibly because museums are reluctant to offer them. In this country, museumgoers are often too impatient to absorb the amount of explanation such shows require: text panels, extensive wall labels in tiny print and timelines. by Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960–2022) crams all of this and more into two basement galleries, installing a fully annotated timeline along an adjoining corridor. Yet Knowles’ multimedia, intermedia production somehow manages to be so interesting that you don’t mind the denseness of the presentation or the labor involved — the reading, the maneuvering to spot interesting details and the mental stitching together of the complicated narrative. This is not a mindless stroll through galleries hung with reverently spaced paintings or sculptures. Still, it offers some genuine art-viewing pleasure, even if it isn’t exactly relaxing.
Enter where the timeline begins, and the story of Knowles’ early life and education as an Abstract Expressionist painter unfolds. After a single show, she burned all her canvases, an event that was one of her first performances. She was already part of a group of young artists influenced by composer John Cage’s ideas, from which strategies involving chance became an important part of her practice. She soon focused on creating “intermedia” works—pieces that combine visual art, written texts, musical scores and live performances.
Knowles has repeated some of these intermedia works over her career, the best-known of which is Proposition #2: Make a Salad, which had its debut in 1962 at London’s Festival of Misfits. In this, she makes a salad for a large group, chopping vegetables to the accompaniment of a musical score, with mikes capturing the sounds. (Three of the most recent performances of the piece took place in 2008 at the Tate Modern (salad for 1,900!), on the High Line in 2012 and during Art Basel in 2016.)
Food is also an element in The Identical Lunch, a work that came about when a fellow Fluxus artist noticed that Knowles ate the same thing every day — tuna on buttered whole wheat toast with lettuce but no mayo, accompanied by a cup of soup or a glass of buttermilk. Turning this habit into a performance, Knowles repeated this homely meal countless times, asking others to try it and write about their experiences. She even served the sandwich/soup combo as a communal meal, gathering her guest’s pictures and responses into an artists’ book.
There are a lot of vitrines in this show, filled with interesting small objects and images, underlining the fact that the performance experience can be hard to transmit decades later. That is not the case with House of Dust. Here, an old-school dot matrix printer periodically spits out verses of Knowles’ randomly composed 1967 poem in which the words “a house of” are followed by a material, a site, a situation, a light source and a category of inhabitants. (Example: a house of sand/in an overpopulated area/ lit by candles/ inhabited by people who enjoy eating together.) The verses, printed on a continuous roll of antique perforated paper, have the charm that random, dreamy texts almost always do, their exit from the machine signaled by the printer’s chunky, metallic noise.
While the first gallery focuses on the early years of Knowles’ career, the second features objects, images, and performance-based work from the 1970s onward. There are examples of her early screen-printed paintings, which preceded Warhol’s first ventures into this medium; sound installations, book sculptures, and sculptures made of organic materials such as molded flax paper and beans. Some of these are musical “instruments.” Shakers, demonstrated during an exhibition preview, made a surprisingly loud sound. There is documentation of the more recent performances of Make a Salad, though if you want to see the actual event taking place, YouTube videos are available.
In the atrium, a repeat performance of an earlier work, Celebration Red, was available for visitor participation for the first two days of the exhibition, during which time red objects filled a grid on the floor into which viewers could place something red of their own and take something away. I brought some leaves of a reddish succulent. Doing so felt like a fitting tribute to a long and productive career.
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by Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960–2022) @ BAMPFA to February 12, 2023.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. Since the late ‘80s, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many now-defunct sites or magazines. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she is a professor at California College of the Arts.