Art Performance/Performance Art
Recently I spent five months or more in Amsterdam, Holland; Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, Norway as well as three weeks in Nuuk/Godthab, Greenland with the Greenlandic Eskimos. I had several shows and sold well enough to keep on travelling. Frequent lectures at art schools helped too. The big part of my first trip to Amsterdam (I thought) was to meet Wies Smalls the woman who runs De Appel. This is a funded performance art building whose funds came because there was no place to harbor performance artists or specialize in presenting this particular art mode. I made a big mistake.
Dick Higgins had performed at De Appel the night before I arrived. I called them. People answering the phone had simply barked, "We are closed!" and hung up. I had thought it was sort of a performing arts headquarters. Local artists explained that the woman who had made Appel happen was pretty tired of the strain and was withdrawing to a nice farm she had just bought. "If she's been so busy with Appel how did she buy a farm?" Shrugs. Silly smiles. "You ought to get together and have someone go over the books," I said.
"They'd love to see you there" the other artists said. "After all you started what Appel is there for." I called again
"Hi," I said, "I'm Al Hansen, I started--"
"The Appel is Closed!" Click! I redialed the number. After all it's a six or seven story building and a dozen or so artists are living and working in it; presumably around the idea of happening, performance, live art, if you will. A voice in an amphetamine induced screech, "We are closed!" and hung up again.
I redialed. As soon as it was picked up I screamed: "You fuck, you hang up again I'll come up there and stomp a round hole out of your ass!
A voice began , "We--"
"You rude prick, don't hang up !"
"You find out who's calling before you hang up you cocksucker!"
"We are closed!"
I flipped. Snotty bureaucrats get to me now and then. I was only seven or eight blocks from there. I had left America three days before with a $159 New York to Bruxelles, Belgium ticket and $227 in cash. The ticket to Amsterdam from Bruxelles was thirty or forty dollars. The one place I thought I'd be welcomed with love and open arms had hung up on me four or five times.
Linda Van Heelsbergen, a Dutch film maker who has stayed at my daughter Bibbe's villa in Hollywood--we've worked on three or four films together--had given me the keys to her flat on Frederik Hendrik Straat near De Appel. Harry Ruhe and Tuja of Galerie 'A' , a Fluxus, Action Art gallery were giving me a one-man show in a month. I had created the ism of Happenings that these bums were living off with the Dutch government money for Action and Performance art and they wouldn't even answer the phone!
Block by block, canal by canal, with fists doubled and a glint in my eye, I approached the Appel I had heard so much about. I might not be able to throw the money lenders out of the temple but two or three of them were going to get their asses kicked good.
"Here we are" I said to myself as I arrived at the front door. I rang the bell. Nothing. I kicked the door. Karate kicks, ram kicks, bronco kicks. Nothing. A rock? The street was sand for blocks. The streets in Europe are alive. They are always taking them up and putting them down again. I looked this way and that for the right pipe or bar to pry the Appel door open. I felt like a well-tuned cutting torch or laser beam. I kicked some more kicks.
A guy who looked like a preppie from New England looked down from a fifth floor window, "Sorry, we're closed!" He had sleep in his eyes and voice. It was supposed to be a performance art headquarters and there are people LIVING in it! I thought the Soho, NY Kitchen was a snob hill become Academy. This place had become a flophouse for the in-group of grant-getters--a squatters hotel for the funding umbrella. The window closed.
"Fist Fuckeeeeerrrrrrrrr!" I yelled up. Nothing. I walked back around to the other side of the canal. A police boat went by pulling a gaily painted hippy barge and several smaller craft. Some Dutch kids jeered at them. Some older people smiled and nodded smugly. Suddenly across the canal, four or five women loudly speaking French were approaching the door at the Appel. I ran like hell, they were ringing the bell as I hit the bridge.
From a high window the key was thrown down, twinkling and twinkling as it fell through the Dutch sunlight. Twinkling and thundering my feet as I crossed the bridge. They opened the door and went in giggling. The door shut and clicked. Kaboom!, I hit the door. Rang the bell. Yelled. Nothing. The Avant Garde as Establishment.
A month or so before at The Kitchen in New York, Peter Frank asked whether I would do a piece at The Kitchen. I said, "Yes. Sure, I would." "They only pay a few hundred dollars," he said. "Their money is as good as anybody else's," I said. After all, I might get carried away and let loose with four hundred dollars worth of my genius for two hundred fifty. Sometimes I've lost control and before I could stop I'd unleashed over a thousand dollars worth of performance on an audience I'd agreed to just let have a couple hundred dollars worth. Believe me, I know how Bob Rauschenberg felt when the things he sold Shull for a few hundred turned up later worth thousands. Once I was living with a woman and we were both very poor and I started to get my hands on money regularly and I celebrated my love for her and how important she was to me by buying her presents. After a few months of this she confessed that she wanted a separation. Everytime I came home she started to tell me, there I'd be presenting her with a rocking chair or a Skil-saw or a Sony Porta-Pak. Older artists have problems younger artists couldn't even begin to fantasize about.
So, across the crowded floor of The Kitchen in Soho, New York comes Peter Frank with Rosalee Goldberg who was then the director. It was the night of Jean Dupuy and Olga's performance. Fifteen or twenty young performance artists like Pooh Kaye were in it. Rene Block, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Phillip Corner were just a few in the audience to prove it was quite rich and varied. A signature avant garde academy; it was star night at The Kitchen. I have always found Rosalee Goldberg charming. She said, "Peter tells me you wouldn't be above doing something here..." I said that yes I would like to. There were some new ideas I was working on and-- "Ooh," she said. "Stop it" she meant. She continued with, "I was really rather much more thinking of having you ressurect one of your old Happenings."
When I was little, say four to six years old, my father would have me draw things and sing songs for guests. One of the songs was Kate Smith's "When the moon comes over the mountain, Every beam brings a dream dear of you..." The pictures I drew: a man on roller skates and Herbert Hoover. Of course, Rosalee Goldberg is beautiful and my father never offered me a couple of hundred dollars. I'd also love to make love with Rosalee Goldberg but I usually see her around Soho with puppy looking guys like the ones who answer the phone and look out the windows of this place they live out of in Amsterdam that the Dutch government funded as a place for performance artists which during the month of August is closed to performance artists. The Dutch government should take the month of August's money and give it to Harry Ruhe of Galerie 'A' because any performance artist can go by there as he is always available during the month of August.
One of the noisier self-styled aestheticians in the antique Fluxus movement is Ben Vautier. He feels the art world is divided between what he calls the Andre Breton/Henri Matisse split. Ben sides with Breton. Because Matisse once said he wanted to do the kind of work that a banker or a wealthy man would feel good upon returning home from a hard day's work and seeing, I have always felt drawn to Matisse's position.
Ben Vautier is a typical Fluxus artist in that most of them have no art training and are not artists. Dick Higgins: music; Vautier: record shop proprietor; Emmet Williams: Literature; Daniel Spoerri: Ballet & Theater; Robert Filliou: Economics; Yoko Ono: music and so on. One need no longer marvel at the fluidity with which anti- and non-art works gush forth when this becomes plain. Alison Knowles, Robin Page, Vostell, Beuys, George Brecht and myself are, by comparison, born, schooled, trained artists who paint, draw, etc. So our work in many cases represents a true casting away or rejection of knowns. There is often no way to tell the difference.
It follows through today in the Eighties. One can see it in any of the performance art works to be seen at, say, Arlene Schloss' a space on Broome Street in New York City. The majority of art students are renegades who have become punk new wave musicians and the Performance artists by and large know little or nothing about art art. Except, of course, for Ralston Farina who unlike performance artists, does art performances.
Once, off-stage, or I should say, out of the performance area at the old Reuben Gallery in the early Sixties, Jim Dine and I were waiting to go on in an Allan Kaprow happening. Jim was wearing a kind of monkey or animal suit made of jute sacks, he had makeup and a red rubber ball clown nose. I was wearing a Harris Tweed top coat buttoned to my neck with the collar up and around the coat's neck hung ten or fifteen neckties. I also wore makeup, lots of dark eyeshadow.
I was reading Lev Shull's theater newspaper "Show Business". I had a gallery up on 46th Street called Theatre Arts Gallery. It was across the street from Performing Arts High School (of Fame fame). My partner was Ira Bilowit, the managing editor of "Show Business." His wife Alice Bilowit is an actress and still teaches with Uta Hagen. Jim Dine bent over a bit to see what I was reading. Seeing that it was "Show Business" he seemed surprised and said earnestly, "Are you in show business? Theater?"
That's how completely the new dadaists did not feel they were doing theater but doing the art painting drawing experience in a theater way. It was theater as painting.
When we (Oldenburg, Grooms, Dine, Higgins, Brecht, Kaprow, Whitman, Forti) were first doing Happenings, a lot of advertising, commercial art and theater friends would try to get me to explain what it was and I couldn't. Those who know me might probably find it hard to believe that I could not answer a question, but I would just--Gack! No words would come together and flow out. Artists, more often than not, don't come along with index cards sticking out all over them. There's a cultural marination period--a ripening.
Whenever people try to involve me in arguing about whether George Brecht or Yoko Ono did the first notational art piece, I usually focus on the fact that there could be more than ten million sextillion universes in our group (10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056).
Once at the height of the revolution and the baby boom I taught a lecture art history class. I was an assistant teacher. I got $75- $80 a week. My lecture class held about ninety students. Other faculty members told me it was proper to cut off at 27-30. So there were all these kids in English, Pharmacy, Sociology, Nursing, Accounting who felt like getting a little culture through their electives and decided to take an Art History/Art Appreciation Crap Course. All the tenured faculty refused to take more than 17-20 kids. I never for a second thought about what size the class should be. As more kids showed up wanting an art elective I accepted them into my class. The majority of the money it takes to run a school comes from the money the students pay; I couldn't tell the 31st or 42nd or 58th kid wanting to sign up for my class that I only used a certain number of people. But the other teachers in the art faculty had no problem saying, "Sorry, the doors closed; the class is full."
Then the end of registration comes. There are people who wouldn't know how to register on time. California, for instance, is almost totally populated by last- runners and late-comers. Late registration kids got the word and started coming to me. The word was out--this guy will teach anybody. Well, I'm an education major and education is like a priesthood. A teacher is a navigator through particular areas of information. The average college teacher is the kind of person who could limit the number of people taking their class to an abstract number that, through being brain damaged or at least intellectually lackluster, they feel is the absolute limit beyond which it was impossible to teach effectively. I had close to 90 or just over 90 students by the time it was just past late registration and it was no longer legally possible to sign up for a class at Rutgers University Newark College of Arts and Sciences.
Word had gotten out that there was a crazy guy teaching in the art department who would take anyone into his courses. He didn't set any limits.
See the Nick Roeg movie "Performance". I'm a performer. Can a performer say how many people are in an ideal audience? Can a criminal say what is the proper amount of money to steal? The film "Performance" starring Mick Jagger is about existential realities. The most positive performer in society is the artist because most of what art communicates is nonverbal, therefore, at least potentially, universal and can reach out to (again potentially), an incredibly vast large number of people.
I was spoken to severely by several faculty. I was not acting like a member of the club. If one has 92 students then one has to read 92 term papers. That gets into, in just the reading, time one is not going to get paid for. Well, out of 90 odd students, I had several who laid 40 or 50,000 words on me. Often I would get papers or reviews with a joint or a lump of hash attached. I had also been a teacher at Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn. I was and am a teacher, a leader out of darkness, a navigator, a major terminal of Access to Data for those seeking data; I flew the flag of "Where It's At". During the crowding and student flood of the Baby Boom, all the senior and tenured faculty turned students away.
As Warren Beatty in Shampoo says "I deliver heads!" That is to say, I, the revolutionary student hippy Chieftain was delivering heads, putting dough into the University Bucket and all the conservatives: George Weber, Hildreth York, John Moore, Ely Raman, Andrew Gardner and Domenic Capobianca, were limiting the University's income and refusing to teach more than a mystic number of students.
Once we were well into the Seventies, I was fired by the two most tenured faculty members. Each year the tenured faculty (and in some cases 'all the faculty'--as a Democratic experience--but only the tenured faculty's vote counted) list the teachers in the department in terms of their importance. This is an interesting exercise. Traditionally, one puts oneself on top of the list. The rest is honest. One can thus be assured of one first position vote. Well, in 1974, they--the four tenured faculty members--decided my dismissal. Two voted for my dismissal, one voted for me and one abstained. Abstaining is a chicken-shit way of technically not voting "No" even though you know your withdrawal from voting counts as a "No" in that it is most definitely not a "Yes". Hildreth York and George Weber voted against me. Donald Zanfagna voted for me and Ely Raman got me fired by abstaining. So there is a way of performing that is refusing to perform by abstaining.
It is hard to describe the joy I felt at having to leave Rutgers. I was like a bird who suddenly realizes the cage door is open. George McNeil once told me that he used to run into DeKooning in the street in Greenwich Village. "Where you going?" George would ask. "Up to Jail (Yale)" De Kooning would answer. Read Ivan Glick.
This is a very exciting time. We are soul body art surfing on a crested wave of transition and change. You can really feel the future around you constantly gathering for change. When I find I am listening to deadies and naysayers I am reminded of Harky Hopkins in mid 1941 assuring everyone that Japan didn't want war because it wasn't in Japan's interest. Very funny considering Japan held half of China from violent conquest.
Or retirement figures. As population growth stabilizes at zero a reverse pyramid is created that could require as much as 50% of taxable payroll to go to Social Security so the oldsters can buy groceries and survive. Everybody's carrying on about the death throes of capitalism. They say gold and silver price fluctuations are its fever chart but at Gstaad and Acapulco all the deck chairs are full and it doesn't look like Brooks Bros. is going to have a half-off, "all prices slashed" sale anytime soon. I'm dying to see how it turns out. Give any situation a little time and the shit will usually float up into view.