Alison Knowles was born in New York City in 1933. She is a visual artist known for her soundworks, installations, performances, publications and association with Fluxus, the experimental avant-garde group formally founded in 1962.
Formal and Informal Education: After briefly attending Middlebury College, Knowles studied with Joseph Albers and Richard Lindner and graduated from Pratt University in 1954. With John Cage and Dick Higgins, she joined the New York Mycological Society, frequently hunting for wild mushrooms around New York City from the late 1950s-60s. During this time a close and fertile exchange of affection, food and ideas developed between Knowles and Cage. Also significant, if informal, in 1968 Knowles designed and screen printed the last known edition with Marcel Duchamp, a reprint of his Couers Volants for the Something Else Press.
Book Objects: As a founding member of Fluxus, Knowles produced what may be the earliest book object, a can of texts and beans called the Bean Rolls, in 1963. In 1967, Knowles produced The House of Dust poem, possibly the first computerized poem, which she produced with composer James Tenney following his informal seminar on computers in the arts held at her home with husband Dick Higgins in 1967. In addition to many performances based on the House of Dust, one quatrain of Knowlesıs House of Dust poem was built as the House of Dust public sculpture; "a House of Dust ion open ground lit by natural light , inhabited by friends and enemies." This quatrain-sculpture and would move from a ILGWU housing project in New York City, where it was arsoned in 1968, to the new Cal Arts Campus in Burbank California in 1970, where she taught briefly. A sound installation for the House of Dust sculpture was produced by Max Neuhaus.
In 1967, she expanded the scale of her book projects with the Big Book, an eight foot tall book of environments organized around a spine. This book opened at the Frankfurter Buchmesse and continued touring through Europe. After the first Big Book was destroyed, Knowles produced a second large-scale book, The Book of Bean in 1982 with the help of Franklin Furnace. Some pages of this book can be found at Museo Bostell in Estramadura, Spain. This was followed by a smaller book of tactile languages called A Finger Book of Ancient Language in 1985 that has seven eleven inch high pages all in braille and was shown at the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York. Three examples of this books were made and exists in private collections. Knowles has also produced aand written several books of experimental text and poetry.
Loose Page Sculptures: Beginning with the Bean Rolls, the Big Book and the House of Dust, Knowles has engaged in thirty years of experimentation on the sculptural potential of the book. One part of the book, the page, has engaged her since 1982. Loose Pages (1983), originally produced in collaboration with master paper maker Coco Gordon, consisted of pages made for each part of the body, the human spine taking the place of the standard bookıs. In other page sculptures, the visitor stands in the page, physically entering it with one or another body part. Mahogany Arm Rest (1989), and We Have no Bread (No Hai Pan) (1992), invite the viewer to engage directly with their four and five meter page formats respectively. Since 2000, Knowles has been producing sounding objects, most recently Bean Turners, using beans and paper which are both pages and instruments.
Events and Performances: Events are a minimal form of performance score invented by George Brecht in John Cageıs historic class in Experimental Composition at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1958. Many Fluxus performances take this reduced means of performance, which is often a deceptively simple instruction. For example, Knowlesı much discussed The Identical Lunch (1969) is a score based on her habit of eating the same food at the same time each day "a tunafish sandwich on wheat toast, with lettuce and butter, no mayo and a cup of soup or a glass of buttermilk." This meditation on the everyday was also explored in a book by her friend, composer Philip Corner, who originally suggested to her that this habit might be scored as an event. Other often performed Events by Knowles include Make a Salad (1962) most recently performed at the Baltimore Museum of Art "Work Ethic" exhibition and The Wexner Center (2004) and Shoes of Your Choice (1963) which invites the audience to talk about their shoes and to tell the stories they evoke. Knowles has produced more complex performances that often involve the use of ubiquitous objects such as beans, which evoke a world culture of sustanace, and shoes, a nearly universal clothing item. These performances utilize the Cagean compositional devises of indeterminate performance and chance operations and include The Bean Garden (1976), The Shoemakerıs Assistant (1977), Paper Weather (1986), and Loose Pages (1986-present).
Sound: Distinct from her Events and live performances, Knowles has been active in sound since the late 1960s. In 1968 Knowles designed and co-edited John Cage's Notations a book of visual music scores for the Something Else Press. The book and exhibition with performances will occur at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, Germany (2005). Her Bean Garden (1971), consisted of a large amplified platform covered with beans that were sounded underfoot by visitors to Charlotte Moormanıs Annual New York Festival of the Avant-Garde. In addition to many other radio broadcast performances, Knowlesıs interest in the effects of resonant sounds produced by beans and hard surfaces was explored extensively in a series of four radio programs hosted by the progressive German station West Deutscher Rundfunk, whose director, Klaus Schöning was a friend and supporter of Cage's work and the work of artists associated with him. In 1982, Knowles was awarded the prestigious Karl Sczuka Award for best radio work from WDR for her sound work Bohnen Sequenzen [Bean Sequences]. The last of these radio plays was based on a series of prints by Knowles. This last radio play was produced in collaboration with Joshua Selman and titled Bread and Water (1994).
Prints: In 1960, Knowles began producing silk screen paintings shown at the Judson Gallery. She changed direction as her interest in performance and objects developed. He joined the Fluxus group. From 1963 until the middle 1970s, print functioned for Knowles as an expression of other process-based concerns. In 1963, she collaborated with Cage students Robert Watts and George Brecht in the Scissor Brothers Warehouse show, normally called BLINK for the bold word that appears in the center. This eighteen inch square printed painting consisted of three images chosen at random, one by each artists. The image appeared on everything from canvas to bathing suits and hair brushes. These were sold for random prices at a special sale at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles. These works were not presented as art but rather as a flea market. She would collaborate again with Brecht on a book in 1983 on a publication called The Red, the Green, the Yellow the Black and the White (Brussels: Editions Lebeer, 1983). In 1973, Knowles produced the Identical Lunch Graphic, which showcased many of her friends and Fluxus colleagues consuming the Identical Lunch. The prints includes a Starkist logo, indicating corporate sponsorship, which was withdrawn when it was determined that she might be a spy from the competitor, Bumblebee! Beginning in 1978 Knowles published limited print runs of found and manipulated graphic materials with Italian publishers Francesco Conz and Editions Pari & Dispari, Rosanna Chiesi.
Recent experiments with light sensitive chemicals have produced photographic prints on paper and cloth, which are then manipulated by hand. The most sustained of these was the Bread and Water cycle of palladium prints and cyanotypes, which in turn generated a sound work and book. In these later works Bread has replaced beans as a universal form of sustenance and myth. In 2000, Knowles began casting flax paper to make musical instruments. The Bean Turner, Rattles, Wings and Drums use beans for sound with the aid of text, toys and silence.
Prizes: In additon to numerous teaching engagement and minor awards, Knowles has been acknowledged for her profound contributions to contemporary artistic practice in the form of a Guggenhaim Grant (1967), NEA Grants (1981 and 1985), a collaborative New York State Council on the Arts Grant (1989), a Dokumenta Professorship at the Kunstakademie Kassel, Germany (1998), the College Art Association Lifetime Achievement Award (2003), and Annonymous was a Woman Grant (2003).
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Alison Knowles General Bio