On a recent afternoon, Alison Knowles rediscovered two plastic cases in her SoHo studio in Manhattan. Neither case had been opened in decades, so Knowles laid them on a low wood table, and I watched as she quickly unclasped their locks. They revealed themselves to be Fluxkits, boxes from the 1960s, sold as multiples, that typically feature word scores and other objects contributed by Fluxus artists. Knowles reached in, grabbed a red yo-yo with the Coca-Cola logo on it, and began to play with it. As the yo-yo bounced up and down, Knowles’s face lit up. She pointed to two words printed on the yo-yo: “Enjoy culture.”
Knowles is something of a packrat, but that afternoon she insisted that she didn’t have too many things to show me. Most of her archives, she said, were in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art, which is currently staging a small survey of her work. “They took away everything from this loft!” she exclaimed.
But that clearly wasn’t the case. Knowles still managed to show me her collection of ocarinas, a bean shooter, and an Occupy Wall Street button. Knowles, a Fluxus artist, has devoted her career to thinking about such commonplace objects and how we relate to them. She is one of the great guides to our age of consumption, and her loft is overrun by little trinkets and documentation of performances she’s done. There are also precious treasures on her walls, like photographs of her with the Obamas and Marcel Duchamp.
For Knowles, art is a very organic process—something that can be done and undone with ease. In her most famous performance, Make a Salad (1962), a group of people mixes a salad on stage, and then the audience eats it. The art effectively appears and disappears within a matter of hours—nothing about it lasts. The fact that it’s performed is what makes it art, Knowles told me. “For me, a piece is not really living unless it’s presented, whether it’s music or an event score,” she said.
Knowles is now 83, but, with her slender frame and her Levi’s jeans, she looks at least two decades younger. She’s been in her Spring Street loft since 1972, and her space has taken on a life of its own. A massive tree Knowles bought years ago nearly pokes through a skylight; word scores by John Cage hang on the walls. Various other works by Knowles are strewn around the apartment. On the whole, her studio looks like a living space.
“It’s where she lives. It doesn’t much look like a studio or a place where you could have an archive,” Eric Crosby, the curator of the Carnegie show, told me in a phone interview. “A lot of the work happens outside.” The art she makes inside and outside the studio is “all living materials for her.”
From a very young age, Knowles knew she wasn’t cut out to be a housewife. After growing up in Scarsdale, New York, she went to Middlebury College in Vermont and found that she didn’t fit in. “When I was turned down for the society at Middlebury College, I realized I had some other path from the young women there, who were going toward sororities and boyfriends,” she said. She then went to Pratt Institute in New York, where she took classes with Josef Albers and Adolph Gottlieb. “For several years, I was convinced that I could be a painter, and then performance came along and changed my life,” she said. And what happened to the paintings? “I destroyed them all!”
Being in New York in the 1950s, Knowles was witness to much of the strange, experimental art that was cropping up at the time. Allan Kaprow had pioneered what he called “happenings,” events in which he set up a loose scenario for what viewers would have to do, and left everything else up to chance. “For me, performance art was indoors, planned. It had a rehearsal,” Knowles said. “[Kaprow] would direct us into this activity without any rehearsal. It was good for me.”
She also became close with Cage and his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham. “They lived together on Eighth Street, so I would go over there and talk with [them], and be served some lovely soup, tea, or beans,” she said. Cage sometimes even took Knowles on his mushroom-foraging trips in New Jersey. “I’d get a chance to walk with John. Now, that was very organized—it wasn’t like anyone could just stand and walk with him. Take your turn! You’d walk with him through the woods for a while, and then go home… We’d go to Stony Point and cook the mushrooms we had picked—clean them and cook them, add some soup or spaghetti.” Thanks to Cage, Knowles even got to work with Duchamp on what is sometimes said to be his final readymade, a 1967 screen print of color swatches arranged in the shape of heart. (Knowles, who gave one of the prints to Pop artist Richard Hamilton, says the work is a piece of memorabilia, not a readymade.)
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Knowles made her mark on the New York art scene. In 1963, George Maciunas wrote the Fluxus Manifesto, in which he heralded a new style that sought to “PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art—PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM’!” And thus was born Fluxus, a short-lived movement in which everyday objects and experiences could be framed as art. Knowles and Dick Higgins, whom she married in 1960 (they divorced in 1970), were some its first members; Nam June Paik, George Brecht, and Ben Vautier also joined the movement.
“I always worked with men because there weren’t any women around,” Knowles said. Gender also figured into some of her earliest pieces. Of Make a Salad, which she first organized at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1962, Knowles said, “I was a married woman with two children. [Salad] was something that I loved and understood how to cook…It was something that I knew I could do on a stage that maybe a man couldn’t do as well.” (She’s since made salads at Tate Modern, the High Line, and, most recently, Art Basel.)
Make a Salad comes with a score, a to-the-point piece of writing that directs audience members how to perform. That score is simple: “Make a salad.” (Anyone can perform Knowles’s scores. As a sophomore in college, in a seminar about Neo-Dada, I performed Shoes of Your Choice, which entails audience members taking off one of their shoes and discussing how and why they came to own it.) The scores are deliberately spare, so that chance is involved. Knowles doesn’t know what will happen when they’re performed. “I was very attracted to chance,” Knowles said. “I like it because it puts the ego in a different place.”
In addition to writing word scores, Knowles dabbles in poetry. Growing up, she was surrounded by books because her father was an English professor; she still keeps a stack of things to read by her night table. She collaborated with Higgins on Something Else Press, which published artists’ writings and interviews. “Within a museum context and within an art-world context, we think of her as a visual artist and a performing artist, but she’s always been a poet working with found language and the spoken word,” Crosby, the Carnegie curator, said. “She’s always worked with a notion of poetry that’s not so much the standard kind of idea of the poet and the blank page. She’s not trying to compose something, but rather [using] found material that composes itself or is composed by chance.”
Recently Knowles has moved to experimenting with the form of books. One ongoing project she’s done is The Boat Book, an installation featuring an oversized book with various sea-related objects affixed to it. (The piece is in the Carnegie show.) “The image of being in a book is amusing,” Knowles said, “and going through a book without leaving it, with tunnels and ladders.”
The installation is a semi-remake of a previous installation, The Big Book, which Knowles made in 1967 and was later destroyed. She decided to dedicate the work to her brother, a fisherman who lived on Long Island, and so she and James Fuentes, whose New York gallery represents Knowles, traveled to East Hampton to borrow her brother’s shells, nets, and kettle, among other personal belongings for the piece. Knowles told her brother she would return everything, including his prized fishing rod, once the show was over. Fuentes recalls him responding, “I’m never going to go out there again, Alison, because I’m too old and frail.”
“Suddenly, these objects—the net, the fishing rod, all these objects—had such intense meaning,” Fuentes said. “It was amazing to watch Alison source work that would be considered assemblage or readymade. There was nothing nonchalant about it—it was very personal.”
The Boat Book also has an audio component—a recording of Knowles reading passages about oceans and fish. Sounds are just as important as objects in her work—you can’t stage Make a Salad without amplifying the sloshing of the salad being mixed (a detail not explained in the score), and you, of course, can’t perform her poetry without reading it out loud. The noises of everyday life are music for Knowles.
In a work called Frijoles Canyon (1992), Knowles mixes the sound of the New Mexico landscape with noises made by rocks, cacti, and trees. Joshua Selman, an experimental composer and artist, helped her produce it, along with a number of her other sound pieces. (Because there’s been so much interest in Knowles’s work recently, Selman is also helping her keep her archives in shape.) “A rainstick, woodhens—these were her chosen instruments,” Selman said. “It’s this idea…of getting out of the way of the work, ego-wise, and allowing whatever nature will bring into the work have a central place. You can’t really get beyond that.”
One of Selman’s most notable collaborations with Knowles is The Bean Sequences, a bravado 26-minute piece in which the sound of beans in ceramics, glasses, and human mouths becomes music. If anything, beans are the one through-line in Knowles’s long, winding career. Knowles told me there wasn’t any grand symbolism in beans, for her, but she does like the sound of them. Beans have a personal meaning for her, however. “It’s that, during the war years, especially if one didn’t have a lot of money, beans were a staple,” she said. “I knew how to cook all different types of beans and feed sometimes large groups of people.”
Beans are very versatile, I pointed out. She nodded, and said, “The thing I like, too, is that I can go over the world, and there’d always be beans. There might not be meat, there might not be whiskey, but there’ll be beans.”