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BAMPFA’s Alison Knowles retrospective illuminates 60 years of artist’s impact

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AUGUST 02, 2022

“By Alison Knowles: A Retrospective (1960-2022),” on view at BAMPFA through February 12,  represents the first comprehensive exhibition of this interdisciplinary visual artist — spanning from her mixed-media objects and performances of the ’60s to the interactive pieces she continues to create to this day.

Knowles is best known for co-founding the international, interdisciplinary and experimental art movement Fluxus during her time in the ’60s New York art scene; her collaborators once included John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. The most noted works of the exhibition include two Fluxus event scores, described by Knowles as “one or two line recipe(s) for action”: “Make a Salad” and “The Identical Lunch.”

The former piece reads, in its entirety, “Make a salad.” Knowles conceived the latter after her friend, the composer Philip Corner, remarked that every day Knowles had “a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast, with lettuce and butter, no mayo and a cup of soup or a glass of buttermilk” at the Riss Diner in Chelsea. Knowles then invited a myriad of friends to share this lunch with her, documenting the sameness and particularly of each afternoon to elucidate how mundane repetition induces self-conscious reflection.

Screen prints, sound videos, photographs and documents of these performance pieces accompany promotional ephemera. Another work, “Nivea Cream Piece,” obliges its performers to slather their hands in the titular cream and come together before a microphone, audibly massaging their  hands.

This reflexive, tactile quality characterizes all of Knowles’ work, carrying back to her earliest ventures as an abstract expressionist painter and experimental screen printer in the late ’50s. The pop culture iconography centered in these works is accompanied in the show by booklets, pamphlets, articles and posters publicizing her paintings, and these archival materials are accompanied by her Fluxus publications explaining the principles behind her work. 

Many of these works involve an object which Knowles continues to engage with to this day: the bean. Her first major duplicated book, “Bean Rolls,” resides in a tea tin with real beans and paper printed with information she found at the New York Public Library. It may be one of the earliest found object book artworks. A later work, “Bean Garden,” is a sound installation whereby a wooden, broad and shallow box is filled with navy beans and amplified with a microphone, and the viewer is invited to play with them as in a sandbox; a variation in the center of the gallery itself is filled with garbanzos.

Knowles continued to combine small-scale books with found objects through the ’70s and ’80s, expanding her legumey focus to the “The Book of Bean,” an 8-foot-tall, wooden walk-in book hammered together and collaged with found objects, paper and ink. The sounds of Knowles’ construction of the book in New York have been remastered and released last year as a vinyl LP, Sounds from the Book of Bean.

Knowles’ focus upon supersize, found object book installations spans from her earliest, “The Big Book,” to her most recent, “The Boat Book.” Here, as in her paintings, prints and beanworks, the focus is on the audience’s tactile encounters with Knowles’ own life. She coined the term “transvironment” to describe the experiential shift that occurs when this encounter with the book is swelled to such a scale that the pages form small rooms.

Through the ’90s and 2000s, Knowles experimented with tactility less by scale than by the materials she used. The examples on view include “Broken Line with Slippers” and “A Change of Seasons,” scroll-like panels that incorporate leaves and plant marks. Additionally, the show features vibrantly blue, topologically textural cloth cyanotype experiments such as her “Bread and Water” series and “Iliad Oddities (Greene Street).”

The exhibition ends with photo and video documentation of recent performances, including “Make a Salad” in various international venues and “Identical Lunch” at the Museum of Modern Art. These, with the show as a whole, attest to a lifetime’s engagement with found objects, sensations and situations on the level of art and art on the level of communal experience. 

Contact Selen Ozturk at [email protected].
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AUGUST 02, 2022


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