In 2008, when she was 75, the artist Alison Knowles made a salad (with some help) for 3,000 people in the cavernous Turbine Hall of Tate Modern. From the viewing bridge that arches several stories above the installation space, she poured a blend of oil and vinegar down onto a huge mound of greens cradled in a gigantic grass-colored tarp held up by people below. Somehow the salad was tossed with the dressing, then shared among the spectators.
The salad is something of her signature.
By Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960-2022), BAMPFA, through Feb. 12, 2023
In 1962, she’d famously chopped up a more modest version of the feast at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. During a dance performance with a score stating, in full, “Make a salad,” she used microphones to broadcast the amplified sounds of knives cutting through lettuce back at her audience. And she has since reprised the salad — one of the earliest works of food-based performance art — at different scales, many times since, around the globe.
Now 89 and still making art, Knowles is being celebrated at BAMPFA with a major exhibition. By Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960-2022) is a lavish 60-year survey of her avant-garde, ground-breaking, unorthodox, playfully absurdist, influential and difficult-to-classify artistic practice. Knowles’ work evades categories, yet it anticipated and helped shape the development of experimental, conceptual, multi-media and performance artmaking in the U.S. and beyond for decades.
Organized by guest curator Karen Moss, this is a welcome addition to the recent spate of museum shows devoted to the work of senior female artists who were marginalized while young and are now finally receiving the recognition they deserved all along.
Moss has studied Knowles’ work for 30 years, and By Alison Knowles is a scholarly tour de force of dedicated research. It’s densely packed with an illustrated timeline (by Lucia Fabio) of the artist’s career and copious archival material, wall texts, labels, artist’s books, printed ephemera, photographs, video documentation of performances and interviews, and many, many objects — paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, installations, sound art, computer-generated poetry and more — all crammed into spaces a bit too small for their contents.
The first gallery presents a chronological account of Knowles’ early career, focusing on work produced during her involvement with Fluxus — an international, interdisciplinary network of composers and artists founded in 1960 by Lithuanian American George Maciunas and inspired by the ideas and experimental music of composer John Cage. Knowles credits Cage, a lifelong friend and artistic collaborator, for liberating her artistically. His ideas “helped me escape the ravening jaws of Abstract Expressionism,” she once said. Knowles was the lone woman among Fluxus’ founders, who included Nam June Paik, George Brecht, Joseph Beuys and Dick Higgins (Knowles’ husband); Yoko Ono, Alice Hutchins, and Shigeko Kubota joined later.
Fluxus had roots in Dada, the revolutionary early 20th century art movement that celebrated absurdity as the only rational response to the horrors of the first World War. Like Dada, Fluxus promoted “anti-art.” It advanced the notion that creativity should be democratic, open to everyone. It opposed commercialism. It privileged process over product.
In early work like her still ongoing and increasingly elaborate, often-communal, performance project The Identical Lunch, Knowles adopted the Fluxus values of simplicity, humor and anti-commercialism, using whatever materials were at hand to make art and turning mundane daily activities into performance pieces. The tuna sandwich she ate daily at a local diner (because, she explained, it was the only edible thing on the menu) became a performance score: “A tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with butter and lettuce, no mayo, and a cup of soup or glass of buttermilk.” She performed The Identical Lunch at the same time each day for two years, often inviting friends and colleagues to join her, and documented their participation with photographs that became silkscreened portraits, which are on view in the show.
Chance and accident were important to Fluxus. So was collaboration among artists and across art forms, as well as interaction with the audience or spectator. All these elements are present in Knowles’ early computer-generated poem — a collaboration with experimental composer and Bell Labs resident James Tenney — that ultimately provided the title for another of her ongoing projects, the inhabitable public sculpture The House of Dust. Its most recent iteration was made this year, from mud extruded by a 3-D printer, and will stand through 2022 in Wiesbaden, Germany. (You can rent it for an overnight stay.)
The second gallery is non-chronological, presenting pieces that illustrate the wide range and eclectic materials and forms that characterize Knowles’ artistic production from the 1970s on. Two of the most engaging works involve dried beans, which Knowles has a thing about. Bean Turner, Coral and Bean Turner, Brown are wall-mounted sound sculptures crafted from dried beans and flax paper. Formally and materially alluring, they sound when activated like the cactus rainsticks made by indigenous people in Central America. The Bean Garden — a small sandbox filled with white beans — was initially intended for visitors to walk on with bare feet, enjoying their soft music. Alas, that’s no longer allowed for safety reasons, but you can run your hands through them.
Also striking are Three Songs (2016), a series of sepia ink prints on vertical vellum scrolls that resemble delicate Asian calligraphy but are actually imprinted, respectively, with a shoestring, a silk thread and onion skins. Turned horizontally, they can be performed as musical scores. Other wonders are displayed in this section, notably A Finger Book 3 (1987/88), described as a “mixed media interactive book on aluminum base with various materials and Braille objects.” An exercise in sculptural empathy that incorporates an overturned aluminum cooking pan, Shang Dynasty pictographs, Sumerian clay tablet fragments, Japanese calligraphy, and soft fabric pouches containing garlic, the piece is strangely beautiful and touching.
I wanted to love this exhibition, to be exhilarated by it. I didn’t. I wasn’t. The work is so disparate, it’s hard to perceive a coherent vision. And the density of information, the sheer number of things to look at, is almost too much to absorb. Touring the show felt at times like hiking through a college textbook, a weighty tome with small print, narrow margins, too many indecipherable images, and exhaustive footnotes to plow through. (In fact, Knowles has made large walk-in sculptural installations in the form of books. One of them, The Boat Book, a homage to her brother, who’s a sailor, dominates the first gallery.) The exhibition’s overstuffed academic heaviness seems at odds with Knowles’ playful, experimental, collaborative practice, which makes art out of every aspect and material of daily living.
It’s a substantial, worthwhile show nonetheless — ideal for a university museum, with all kinds of relevance to Bay Area culture and art history. It’s full of revelations and good surprises. Some of the pieces are stunning, and Knowles’ long-term iterated projects are fascinating to follow as they evolve. The sumptuous exhibition catalog accompanying the show makes a substantial case for Alison Knowles’ important place in the story of contemporary art.
Knowles taught for years at Cal Arts in Southern California and collaborated with Bay Area pioneers such as sound artist Bill Fontana. Her work gave tacit encouragement to Bay Area conceptual artists like Tom Marioni, Paul Kos, David Ireland, Bonnie Sherk, Lynn Hershman, Chip Lord and others to follow their bliss. And she’s a delightful soul. She turned up at the exhibition’s public opening to witness a remake of her 2016 piece Celebration Red in the museum’s lobby; she’d brought a red felt coaster to donate to the red-taped grid herself. Seeing her in person was a thrill.
When you visit, and I hope you do, don’t miss the companion exhibition of Fluxus works from BAMPFA’s collection in an adjacent gallery. It was curated by the late, much loved and respected, irreplaceable Constance Lewallen. It’s the perfect complement to Knowles’ oeuvre.