.The Potential of Everydayness: BAMPFA mounts major retrospective of Alison Knowles’ career


Do you have a favorite red object? Would you be willing to part with it in the service of art?

If so, you’ll get your chance as part of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) extensive exhibit of groundbreaking artist Alison Knowles’ six-decade body of work. Opening July 20, and on view through Dec. 18, “Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960-2022)” will include a new iteration of her installation, “Celebration Red,” first mounted in 1962.

Exhibit visitors are invited to donate small red objects to add to the installation, which will be displayed in BAMPFA’s Crane Forum during the opening weekend. (Key word: donate. Objects will not be returned.) A red grid on the floor will hold the objects, which can be picked up and rearranged by participants. Why? Simply to enjoy the color red, and delight in how different configurations of the objects take them outside our familiar obliviousness to them.

The artist is expected to visit Berkeley during the exhibition’s opening week to help mount “Celebration Red.”

Knowles’ work is “grounded in objects, materials and actions from everyday life,” said guest curator Karen Moss. Moss first encountered Knowles’ art as a graduate student at University of Southern California (USC). The Getty Museum had just opened its doors, and she attended an event showcasing some new holdings. 

Some of these were associated with avant-garde interdisciplinary art collective Fluxus, of which Knowles was a founding member, alongside her husband, Dick Higgins. Artists who contributed to Fluxus’ works included Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota and Wolf Vostell, among many others.

Fluxus, Moss explained, emerged from a series of European concerts organized by artist George Maciunas, who was planning to launch a magazine of that name. Eventually, many of the artists, all based in New York’s Soho, created some of the earliest “live/work” spaces.

Moss, who later was invited to visit Knowles’ studio, was struck that she was the only woman among the cofounders, yet another instance of female artists’ work being overlooked or minimized, and also that Knowles was making “all kinds of other work” outside of Fluxus. 

The BAMPFA exhibit includes more than 200 objects illustrating the monumental scope of the 89-year-old Knowles’s still-active practice, which has spanned multiple disciplines, from painting and printmaking to sculpture, installation, sound art, live performance, poetry and book art.

The exhibit’s first section is organized chronologically, and emphasizes Knowles’ work with Fluxus through the 1970s. This includes her “intermedia” work, said Moss, that combines elements of visual art, written texts or musical scores, and live performance. The live components are represented with historical photographs or other artifacts, including materials from three of Knowles’ most notable intermedia projects: “The Big Book” (1966), “The House of Dust” (1969) and “The Identical Lunch” (1967).

“The Big Book” allowed people to walk through the installation like the pages of a book. “The first [“Big Book”] was dedicated to her brother,” said Moss, “and you could walk through his life as a fisherman.” 

“The House of Dust” started as a poetry project that produced one of the earliest computer-generated poems, then became a public sculpture. While Knowles was working with the California Institute of the Arts, she evolved “inhabitable sculptures” as sites for teaching her classes. 

She invited musicians to play the project’s score inside them—the score being created from the original computerized poem. This evolution is another aspect of Knowles’ work that fascinates Moss. “It started as a poem, and ends by being used in multiple ways,” she said.

“House of Dust” was recently remounted, using 3D printing technology, and installed in Wiesbaden, Germany, where the initial Fluxus Festival took place in 1962.

In “The Identical Lunch,” Knowles invited people to eat lunch with her, as she ate the same lunch at the same time for two years. Moss noted that the artist enjoys celebrating both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of actions like eating lunch, asking viewers to appreciate not only the sights, but the sounds and smells. 

In one of her best-known performance art pieces, “Proposition #2: Make a Salad,” the sense of taste is involved as well. First performed at London’s Festival of Misfits in 1962 and regularly revived, Knowles prepares a massive vegetable salad to the beat of a live musical score, and then serves it to the assembled audience. BAMPFA visitors will get glimpses of this piece in the exhibit’s second, non-chronological section.

“She was experimenting with the idea of food,” said Moss. “This was very different from what other artists were doing [at the time].”

The opening section will also highlight Knowles’ early series of silkscreen-on-canvas paintings. These predate the use of similar production methods by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, Moss noted. 

The second section of the retrospective presents Knowles’ output from the 1970s to the present, when she continues to produce new work. It investigates Knowles’ experiments with a range of media and materials, including her silkscreen paintings, sound installations, book art, and sculptures and musical instruments constructed from unusual materials like beans or flax paper.

Some subsections document Knowles’ collaborations with other artists on live events during the past 20 years, during which she has traveled internationally to revisit and reactivate many of her early projects. 

These projects retain Knowles’ respect for seemingly ordinary things and actions, said Moss, pointing to “Onion Skin Song (1971),” called by Knowles “a score for performance.” According to her instructions for one presentation of the piece,  “Performers study and execute the ‘Onion Skin’ score to make music. They see the clusters of skins and fragments sandwiched in a transparent plastic prototype before the performance. Each selects an instrument and decides how to treat the score. An ‘Onion Skin’ score is made afresh for each performance.”

Commenting on the similarity of Knowles’ aims and those of Buddhist teachings, particularly Zen, Moss explained that the artist’s friendship with John Cage had furthered her interest in Zen, and that she maintains a meditation practice. 

The retrospective will also display a new illustrated timeline, “Art/Life/Events,” which will introduce visitors to important milestones in Knowles’ biography and artistic career. Compiled by the independent curator and scholar Lucia Fabio, this timeline represents the first attempt to construct a detailed narrative of Knowles’ life and work, from her first performance with Fluxus at age 29 to the artist’s most recent project at age 89.

Alongside “Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960-2022),” BAMPFA is mounting “Fluxus Reverb: Events, Scores, Boxes & More” in an adjacent gallery. This highlights several important works by Fluxus artists from the BAMPFA collection, including Beuys, Cage, Alice Hutchins, Kubota, Paik, Ben Patterson, Ono, Mieko Shiomi, Ben Vautier and Knowles herself.

Moss is the editor of an illustrated catalog that BAMPFA will publish in conjunction with the exhibition—the most significant scholarly treatment of Knowles’ work to date. The catalog includes an introductory essay by Moss, as well as essays by other experts on her work, and an illustrated chronology of the artist’s education, exhibitions, performances, residencies, collaborations and commemorations.

BAMPFA will also mount a range of public programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including a curator’s talk with Karen Moss on the exhibition’s opening day; a performance by UC Berkeley students of Knowles’ work, “Event Scores,” on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 7pm; and an academic symposium on Knowles’ work on Saturday, Oct. 15 at 1pm.

Visit bampfa.org for more information about the exhibit and public program.

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