As I approach or even get well into the end, my end, I think mostly on current and future projects. Now that I have been working long enough, off and on, for over fifty years thoughts of retrospectives come to mind.
I am not at all interested in having a retrospective exhibition of my work. Secondly it would take years of writing letters, taking advertisements, insurance, shipping...boring and expensive. Like Hokusai I have been on the road a long time yet every few days I learn something new. My work has been dispersed all over the world. I really have no interest in seeing it all brought together in one large space. It would take up, at least an airplane hanger or two. I am more interested in introspection and reflection, thinking, besides it would be impossible to collect it all. Ha! Just wait till they begin to try.
These are notes and a time log for all the different kinds of art directions I have looked into. It has been surprisingly difficult to put it together. I kept getting off into telling anecdotes instead of just briefly commenting on the diverse work. Then scan reading it regularly I kept remembering things I had forgotten. There might be a few more.
I was born at 11:15 A.M. on October 5, 1927 in Jamaica Hospital Queens to Nick and Katherine Hansen so I can assume that the love making that created me took place in late winter about the end of January in Aquarius. Including my birth it was a fascinating year. Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the first sound movie, Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first Oscar was designed and the Academy Awards were held for the first time. Lindbergh piloted the first plane to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
NOTES FOR A MINI RETROSPECTIVE
I began to make pictures, drawings, very early and to read also. When I was four or five Herbert Hoover was the President of America and I must have seen a cartoon caricature of him in a newspaper that was so simply done I took it for my own. A first appropriation. I am sure I began drawing by scribbling like every child. Herbert Hoover looked like this:
There was also a figure on roller skates. A sort of fat kid and he looked like this: (Fig. 2). I am not sure of the figure at all but the skates are very close to the original from sixty to sixty-one years ago. I am totally unaware of any drawings by my older brother Robert or Gordon my younger brother.
There is a third early drawing and it was done by my mother while she talked with someone the telephone. This kind of absent minded drawing while talking is called a doodle. I was fascinated by marks she was making on a little pad of paper while she talked and I got up on a chair to see it better. It was a swan and it was or seemed so beautiful and accomplished I remember very clearly being awestruck. It looked something like this: (Fig. 3). My approximation of it is quite crude; the swan my mother doodled was fantastically elegant
The artist is very early coerced, teased and cajoled into performing for society. "Wait till you see this," my father would say with a wink to guests in the li ving room. "Alfred, draw Herbert Hoover." I would do it and they would crack up laughing. I would do the boy on roller skates for an encore.
I did not go to kindergarten and as time to attend the mysteries called "school" came near I looked forward to it with great anticipation. On that golden day I walked with my mother the four or five blocks to Public School 55. Teachers stood in a row in the yard and students made a line in front of their teacher. The new students were on line with their mothers. At the sound of the bell, like the one that signals a boxing match, we filed around and up into a classroom.
Now, we lined up at the teacher's desk and she filled out a small card with my name and some other information. The columns of cards conformed to the rows of seats. And each card was held in place by a piece of elastic. I was, like, seat five in row three. Like eggs in an egg box. My first introduction to institutionalization. Some mothers, including mine, lingered in the doorway for some minutes then slipped away. The teacher began to lead the class into singing the alphabet. "A, B, C, D, E, F, G---H, I, J, K, L, MNOP--" It slowly dawned on me that I was in a roomful of people who could not spell, or know the alphabet or even read! I felt like a one-eyed person in the land of the blind!
Then I noticed a little kid in the front of the room was holding his hand straight up in the air. The teacher looked in her book and said, "Tommy, you may leave the room." A few minutes later a girl raised her hand. Teacher looked her up in the book and said, "Sally, you may leave the room." So Sally left. I thought about that for a few minutes, then cautiously raised my hand. She looked in the book. Row three, seat five, "Alfred, you may leave the room." So I got up and as casually as I could, I left the room.
Out in the hall (it was very good to get out of the room full of slow learners) I wondered what to do now. Tommy was coming up the stairs.
"Hi," I said. He said, "Hi." "What did you do," I asked. He said, "I took a piss." "Where?" I asked. "In the toilet downstairs." He went back into the classroom. They were chanting again, "A, B, C, D, E, F, G," the Alphabet Song. I went downstairs and into the toilet. It was tiled. The urinals against the wall were gigantic. Man-sized in height.
Out in the basement hall I wandered along and there was an open door. It was dark in there. The boiler, furnace room. Pipes and large dark shapes. A man sat at a table in the light from like a billiard table lamp. He was the janitor. He was eating a big sandwich on an open piece of paper. "Do you want a slice of pickle?" I came forward, took it and ate it. I like pickles very much. "You better go back upstairs," he said. I went back out into the hall. It had been a grey fall day but now it was getting on for noon and the cellar doors at the end of the hall were open and bright golden sunshine was pouring down the stairs. As I remember it now the soundtrack is Bach's "Annunciata."
I went up the stairs into the golden sunshine and found myself in the schoolyard. Outside the school. From inside came the litany, "A, B, C, D, E, F, G..." I easily retraced our steps the four blocks home. I began to amuse myself in an empty corner lot near home. Across from it was my friend Jimbo Breslin's house. His mother Frances called my mother and said, "Are you going shopping with Al?" "No," my mother said, "Today's the first day of school, Fran. He's in school." "I'm glad I called you then," Fran Breslin said, "He's in the empty lot across from my house andhe's wearing his best clothes, And, And..."
The next thing I knew my mother was across the street. She called out, "Alfred, I'm going to Mr. Hartman's grocery and I want you to help me carry the packages home." So we did that and in the kitchen over milk and cookies she spelled it out to me.
"You have no choice in the matter, the law says you have to go to school every day for the next eleven or twelve years." That would be twice the time I was alive. It seemed an awe inspiring length of time. I didn't like the idea at all. The next morning she dragged me, feet dug in like brakes, crying, screaming, to my second day of school. Back to "A, B, C, D, E, F, etc."
"He likes to draw" my mother told the teacher, "And he can already read and write..." So they gave me paper and crayons and while the class learned the alphabet I drew pictures for around three or four hours. Calling on people around the class to spell cat or dog and later house or automobile, if two or three got it wrong she would say, "Alfred Hansen, Can you spell horse?" And continuing to draw without looking up I would say, "H-O-R-S-E." Then they would fade into the background again as I drew pictures. The third day of school I went quite willingly because Mom showed me a long envelope full of colored wax crayons and said I could have them when we got to school. So went the 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B.
I was constantly drawing pictures and none of it was saved and I have no memory of how and what. It was all automatic expression, in a way. Equal to reading. I read a lot. In Jr. High School I acted in plays and made scenery.
My brother Gordon and I were as close as ham and eggs growing up. He was about a year and some months younger than me and we had a friend, Jimbo Breslin, who lived on our corner in a big house. I was, say, ten, Jimbo was nine and Gordon was eight and a half. We played together a lot and our games often took an intellectual bent. Together we began to put out a newspaper called "The Daily Flash." We would pool our money till we had together three or four cents. Then we'd go to Irving Worship's candy and news stand and buy a copy of the News and Mirror. Using it as a news service we constructed our own newspaper called, "The Daily Flash." I was the oldest, a Libra; Jim was on the Scorpio side of Libra and Gordon, the youngest, was a Sagittarius. In a friendly way we squabbled about news stories and comic strips. Jim Breslin has an aunt who has copies of this hand printed newspaper. A dentist and an Italian barber always bought a copy for five cents. I have no memory of drawing in the comic strips.
Next, Jim's mother, Fran Breslin, arranged for Jim and I to go to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to attend the Saturday morning art school for children gifted in art. Jim was a kid much like Calvin in the Calvin and Hobbes comic. I would have been content to just go and make some pictures, but Jim became involved in a student protest movement against the teacher (a nice girl who's name is probably in the Pratt records somewhere). We made handbills and put them up in the halls and handed them out to other Saturday morning art school students. On several occasions she put us out in the hall and locked us out of the classroom. It must have been before WW II but I remember in one classroom there was a howitzer painted with camouflage markings and a tent of netting over it with leaf shapes.
With puberty my art experience became socially oriented. Boogie Woogie music, zoot suits, WW II battles had replaced the gang warfare in the daily newspapers that typified the Thirties press. In my early teens I was successful in schoolwork. I remember being fascinated with copying comic strip figures. I would do this by eye and to my astonishment an older cousin, John Thorsen, showed me how to place the drawing on a window, place the blank paper over it and make an exact tracing! I found this fascinating but to me it was more interesting to copy things by eye.
I found school boring. Discussing my marks with John Thorsen I said that most of my marks were in the eighties and only a few in the nineties. He said, "What's the problem? Sixty-five is passing." That was the end of boredom with school. In High School I was soon just attending classes on Friday to take weekly tests and spending the rest of the week wandering around Manhattan exploring the monster city.
The night of Dec. 6, 1941 my parents had a gathering and Sunday morning there were highball glasses, coffee cups and dirty cake plates throughout the house. Jim Breslin had come by and I was piling the dishes up in the kitchen and rinsing glasses. The radio was on and we heard the announcement that Japanese aircraft were bombing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. WW II.
In 1943 I joined the Victory Corp. This was composed of 16 year old boys who volunteered to work on a farm for the summer because of the manpower shortage. We got thirty dollars a month, room and board. I remember doing some drawings of the boarding house dairy farm (Fig. 4). The farmer was Charl Moeschler and he and his wife were Swiss French.
I'm sure I always did art and read books voraciously but I have little memory of early art yet I remember many, many books, stories and family-told tales. I do not know why this is. It's just the way it was.
I was in the Army of Occupation Anfang 1946. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a rusty old troop ship. We landed in Le Havre. Many half sunk ships dotted the harbor. A long train ride to Erlangen--the replacement depot.
In a Little Rock, Arkansas night club a veteran soldier asked us young recruits how long we had been in the army. When we said three months he said he had been in the front lines of combat longer than that. In a bar in Erlangen a German war veteran with a wooden leg asked us how long we had been in the army. When we said four months he said he had been in battles in the Afrika Korp with Rommel for longer than that. I got a feeling of the International condescension of older soldiers for younger soldiers.
In the same Erlangen cafe an old man told of artists who worked abstractly but on small papers half the size of a postcard so they could be hidden behind a loose brick in a cellar wall. Also if the S.S. broke into your house suddenly you could eat them or burn them quickly.
Finally, stationed in Frankfurt AM/Main with the 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment, we did guard duty in the Bahnhof, suburban warehouses and on the gates of the Allied compound. The devastation in Frankfurt, Cologne and Berlin from aerial bombing was awesome; a surreal, lunar landscape of skeletal buildings, ruins, bomb craters and mounds of rubble.
Out of the army in December of 1948 I went to Greenwich Village, New York's bohemian artist's quarter. I studied at the Art Student's League on West 57th Street. And this was my first formal art training. My drawing teacher was John Groth; he had been the first art director of Esquire Magazine. He advocated drawing heavily, even to carrying a sketch pad and drawing people on the street walking ahead of one. Drawing people at other tables in cafes, bars and luncheonettes.
I had a floor through on the Bowery across from Sammy's Bowery Follies, a show bar featuring turn of the century music hall stars and Bowery bum characters. I knew I wanted to do something new and different but the concept of avant-garde art had not been revealed to me as yet. I made a sign that featured an artist's palette and the words "Weird Art." I did a lot of fantasy allegorical drawings. This late Forties period was the beginning of artists renting light manufacturing spaces called lofts where one could live and work. I was taken with the demoniacal characters of Salvador Dali and read all his books. In the late Forties I hitchhiked between New York City, Miami Beach and New Orleans. I did fantasy pictures and sent them to science fiction magazines and they returned them with rejection slips. I sent articles and ideas for stories to New Yorker, Esquire and other magazines and received them back with rejection slips. Years of reading and thinking and hanging out in cafes and bars formed a pattern of working, talking and research that continues today.
Everyone seemed to say you must put yourself in your work and somehow I began to work for a while with black ink and spit. The spit was organic and made tiny bubbles in the ink. I discovered it by accident. Some friends were totally disgusted by it.
I fell entranced by a young woman from New Jersey. It was love or whatever it is. I did some pictures using sawdust and glue. One of some little nuns crossing the street in front of the Flatiron Building on a windy day comes to mind; another was of a little shack on the roof of a building on Bleeker Street where I lived with Nikki. Her real name was Audrey and together we had Bibbe, our daughter.
During this time I had been busy in the social bar and cafe life and I dabbled in art but I was busy educating myself. I worked as a chartist for Sloan Kettering Institute and Memorial Center for Cancer Research. I made charts and graphs and did mechanical illustrations for scientific periodicals. The marriage fell through and I reenlisted, this time in the Air Force. Stationed at Mitchell Air Force Base on Long Island was a gas. I was assigned to the base newspaper, The Beacon. At this time I was doing black and white paintings, abstractions of Braque-like still-lifes.
Perhaps I should have been more ambitious as a young artist but I was a very social individual and I took doing art for granted. I did not do as much art as a doctor or a lawyer who painted Sundays would do. And I read a lot of books. I was transferred to an Aerial Port Squadron at Donaldson AFB in South Carolina. Because I had been a paratrooper they seduced me into combat control teams; this meant parachuting and more money.
I had been friends with Jacques Istel who was popularizing sport parachuting in America. He had commissioned me to do a painting commemorating the friendship between French and American sport jumpers. I am not sure whether it was corny or candid. The first modern parachutists were balloonists so the Montgolfiere Brothers balloon with a goat, a lamb and a pig were in it; and the Wright Brother's airplane and an early French plane. Bleriot?
I also did some wonderfully dumb direct (corny-candid) signs for the different units or departments of the Aerial Port Squadron.
I had an art studio in the base HQ building and I painted insignia pictures very large on sheets of marine plywood. I did some small paintings using glue and sawdust to create an uneven textured surface. Fortunately none of them exist today.
I applied for a scholarship to Cooper Union Art School in New York City. One assignment was to do a yard (hof) with wash hanging on clotheslines. I was accepted but could not get an early discharge from the Air Force. Finally, I returned to New York and through an employment agency I got a job with McGraw-Hill Pub Company working as an Assistant Art Editor for the company's engineering magazine.
I took an art history course at Brooklyn College with Andrew Terris who was a delight and a wonderful, charming lecturer. I registered at Pratt Art School in Brooklyn and attended night school in the graphic arts curriculum. Lucian Krukowski, an interesting neo-plastic painter, had become Chairman of the Foundation Year at Pratt. Tony Smith became my mentor and on his advice I changed to the newly opened Art Education Bachelor of Science Degree program.
For me Pratt was an intellectual party. Courses in psychology, sociology, education, history and lots and lots of art. I worked full time on the magazine and went to Brooklyn College nights and then Pratt. Quitting my job and going to school days was like falling through the looking glass.
To help financially Tony Smith arranged for me to oversee an art class for kids at Hartley House in the West 40's near the Actor's Studio. I had carried a full course load of subjects and decided to take the summer off.
My second wife Marvyne and a friend Pauline Goldfine were going to take a course at the New School For Social Research. It was an hour long seminar on Art In World History, Thursday evenings about 5 to 7:30. I looked through each course given at that particular time. Three quarters of the way through the catalog I spied John Cage's course in Experimental Composition of Music. New Music.
At McGraw-Hill, through the annual Employees Art Show, I had become friends with Harvey Yale Gross, a filmmaker, who worked in the Text Film Department. Whenever he received films to be considered for distribution that were interesting, we would look at them in the screening room.
In the middle fifties the New Wave films from France and Italy were popular in the New York art world, Chabrol, Visconti, Truffaut, Di Sica, Fellini... Harvey insisted I read Serge Eisenstein's The Film Form and The Film Sense.
We drank and talked art, movies and books. I had, in that I seemed to be born and an artist, spent almost thirty years as an artist but I had not been hit by an idea, a symbol, a message or a mode to work in. I had been such a gad about in all the arts, I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever settle into committing myself to one form of expression. I was reading plays heavily and going to the theatre. I briefly did public relations for the Chelsea Playhouse; a westside communist theatre. One old timer told me that in the Thirties many of them went to fight in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain and John Garfield went to Hollywood. I was reading novels and science fiction, writing short stories, poems, outlines for novels, drawing and painting. Eisenstein said that the filmmaker must be conversant with all the art forms and the one I knew the least about was music. So here we were; I signed up to study with John Cage. Maybe it would save me from being a dilettante.
I arrived a bit late for the first class and John said the class had just finished saying why they had taken the class so now it was my turn. I briefly ran through my preceding litany up into Eisenstein and finished by saying that I was here to learn what the new avant-garde music was.
J.C. "And what instruments do you play?"
J.C. "But you've composed music?"
J.C. "But you can read music?"
J.C. (Beginning to smile as if delighted) "So, you can't read or write music and you don't play any instrument..."
Al "I can remember music, popular tunes, I could whistle a tune or sing a song...But you could blow a pitch pipe all day long and if I got any Do, Re Mi's right, it would be an accident."
J.C. "Well, I think that's wonderful..." He waved his arm at the class, "They know an awful lot, and I'll have a problem unteaching them...but you don't know anything, so you have nothing to unlearn. I think we'll get along fine."
We did, and the magic thing was that in the class were many of my future friends from Action/Happenings, Event Art and Fluxus: Allan Kaprow, Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Jackson MacLow and Steve Addis. Visitors to the class were: Chris Wolf, Dick Maxfield, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine and many others. Julian Beck and Judith Malina were building the Living Theatre at 14th Street and 6th Avenue, a few blocks north of the New School.
I began to visit Jimmy Waring's dance class and Aileen Passloff's as well. I became drawn into the Judson Church art community. Reverend Moody felt a church should serve the needs of its neighborhood and being in the heart of Greenwich Village, he created the Judson Gallery, The Poet's Theatre, The Judson Dance Group and there was a space called the Hall of Issues where anyone could put up anything or perform or whatever they wanted. The Sixties were opening up.
From Cage's class in the late Fifties, George Brecht and I did "Blues For Marcel Duchamp," a piece of undeterminate length to be performed between 5th and 6th Avenues on 12th Street where Marcel Duchamp lived. We went to put an ad in the Village Voice then we went to Marcel Duchamp's door and I put in 13 blue rubber bands into his mail box. George Brecht returned to New Jersey and mailed Marcel a blueprint of a chocolate grinder. Dick Higgins and I did a concert of New Music at Kaufman Hall featuring works by him, me, John Cage's Water Music, Chris Wolf and Dick Maxfield. Happenings were beginning to happen.
At Pratt, Tachism ruled the day as it ruled the New York art world. If you didn't paint abstract you were dead as far as the uptown galleries were concerned. In the late Fifties I was fascinated by very severe geometric compositions. I would get tapes of dots or circles and little squares and place them on a graph paper page. I filled several little books with these compositions because what I was interested in was composition; the placement of figures in a field.
Through Murray Israel, an artist/psychiatrist, I got a job as a summer programming arts and crafts director at a fantastic place called The Girl's Service League in Grammercy Park. It was a halfway house for sexually disturbed teenage girls between the mental hospital and home. It was an American "Belles of St. Trinians."
Tony Smith told me that if, for a year or two, I made the little geometric compositions as larger canvases painted, he could get me a show at the Betty Parson's Gallery. He had also been close to Peggy Guggenheim and he helped Jackson Pollack do the first Jack the Dripper painting. He had also worked with Frank Lloyd Wright and was an architect and a sculptor. But my nose was in another direction.
Unconsciously I was involved with bringing together into the picture all my different interests. On the other hand I was making what went on in a picture to conform to three or five aesthetic positions. I began to write sentences across my canvases. I took an armchair and propped it up like a book and painted words on it. The energy in an abstract expressionist painting is surging off the canvas as if you were looking through a square frame at a maelstrom. There was equivocal space and a positive negative aspect.
I always did a dozen or more solutions to assignments. I wanted to get to the picture behind the picture and the picture in front of it as well as the ones above, below and to each side. So rather than one piece I fell into doing studies and series. I was fascinated by ransom notes (letters made by gluing a message by cutting up print from different fonts of different type faces (Fig. 5).
John Payne, my English professor, had people come to visit our class like Albee of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Zoo Story" and Beckett of "Krapps Last Tape." I had seen these plays in the Village. George McNeil, a very good painter who couldn't play the art world social scene, taught art history from a sociological angle. He would make flow charts on the blackboard showing progressions in art history, who studied in the studio of what predecessor; then he would connect all the artists Berthe Morisot had had something to do with. He delighted us with art history gossip. Bob Mallory also taught and John Pile's "Theory of Visual Form I and II" was brilliant. He played diverse music and showed everything in art and design in controversial relationships. Ruben Nakian was my sculptor teacher. We would work for hours carving a buxom model in clay and he would go around the room smashing them with his big fist. He would tap his forehead with his forefinger and exhort us, "I want it to happen here--not there!" Sybil Maholy Nagy was there and, of course, Tony Smith.
They closed down the Girl's Service League and Mary Dowery, a director, got me a job as a street club worker for the New York City Youth Board. The main office was in Long Island City and I was assigned to the Halsey Street Bops, a teen fighting gang in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
I was supposed to hang out in the neighborhood, take the gang members for pizza and give them someone positive to relate to. It was only two or three elevated train stops from Pratt and the F train ran from Pratt to Long Island City.
By now I was becoming a Senior and teaching the Saturday morning school. I began to smuggle in kids, from the poverty ridden neighborhoods I was a social worker in, into the Saturday classes of fellow student teachers. None of the faculty teachers noticed there were a sprinkling of third world looking kids in the classes and Pratt, at the time, was pretty much a cashmere sweater school for kids from good families.
Because of my experience with the Girl's Service League and the Youth Board, I was able to do my student teaching at a 600 school for girls in the West Village. A 600 school is a special school for kids who have a criminal record. Dr. Esther P. Rothman was the Principal and wanted me to teach there when I graduated but something else happened.
America is schizophrenic and Europe is paranoid. In America anything is possible; in Europe they think about "Will it work?" first. Now, as theSixties unfolded, all my diverse impulses came together in Happenings, assemblage, mixed media, and conceptual art. Neo Dada had become Happenings, Fluxus and Performance. I called my studio flat on Hall Street, near Pratt, "The Third Rail Gallery Of Current Art." The third rail is the one that supplies electricity for trains. Touch it and you fry die.
I did some rectangular 2 X 4 foot canvases in black and white with two overlapping circles like a figure eight; the areas were divided arbitrarily into black and white. I also made a large assemblage construction called "The Hep Amazon." It was a door in which I cut a hole in which fit a tubular vacuum cleaner. A shelf in front supported a large wooden disk which turned slowly through a motor on an arm which stuck out. One eye was an electric razor whose plastic shell I had filed so it was thin enough to see the sparks from inside. An upside down chair made a kind of Greek crown mask. Different sized bulbs were the eyes and a long Noguchi pleated paper tube lamp sheath hung down like hair or a scarf. On the disk pebbles, thumb tacks, bits of wood came around and closed micro switches which gave electricity to the many components. It was in the Below Zero Show at the Reuben Gallery and again at the Living Theatre in the lobby area.
It and 5 or 6 black and white paintings were in the flat of a friend on the Lower East Side. Paul F. decided to spend the summer in a teepee in Vermont and drug fiend friends used his apartment as a shooting gallery for junkies. People coming through just helped themselves to the paintings. I call this the "Walking Show," for over that summer of the early Sixties my paintings were carried this way and that by junkies on the Lower East Side.
On telephone poles in Brooklyn movie houses would nail the weeks films on a piece of shirt cardboard. I took these and tearing them up made different, often nonsense, poetry that had a beat feeling. These didn't please me and John Pile discussed the Hershey's chocolate bar as a phenomenon because it was very successful and they didn't advertise. So I began a series of collages with torn Hershey's chocolate bar wrappers. The first five or six had Charlie in the title. The first was "Charlie Chan" and I believe it is in the collection of Henry Geldzahler. Others were "Charlie Chaplin," "Bicycle Charlie," "Charlie Moon," etc. They were all rough figures, like early Dubuffet shapes and the respelled Hershey words were equivocal in that small ones could be seen as the same size as the larger ones if they were further away. Schwitters and Rauschenburg and Kaprow were strong influences on me. Usually I tipped the horizon of the letter words. It was at this time in the early Sixties that I first became involved with the Mother, Goddess, Venus, Valkyr, Shamaness figure.
In the early Sixties Dick Bellamy came to see my work and what I showed him was ten or eleven works and they were, as if, by ten different people. As I remember I had some word and figure collages, an arranged pile of dirt in one corner, some found object things ala Raymond Hains, a painting of a pistol with words going across that began outside the frame left and continued off the frame right, a sheet of plastic, etc.
Anyway, Dick said he felt my work lacked integrity. It was very eclectic, also, it was what I felt like doing at the time. I pondered this and while reading Sam Hunter I realized what Dick meant. My work didn't have a signature look. The signature look was something DeKooning, Leger, Gorky and others coming to New York City to escape WW II had taught the New York art world. You had a personal image/look to your work and there was no need for a proprietary signature. Across a large museum room you could see easily: Franz Kline, Paul Jenkins, Marisol Escobar Escobar, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Indiana, Bontecou, Stella, Wesselman.
A year or so later, Bruce Naumann had a show at Leo Castelli that looked like the works were done by ten or eleven different artists. He had an arranged pile an amount of sand in one corner, foto works, a work involving neon, etc. The card for the show portrayed him spitting water and the title was, "The Artist Is A Creative Fountain" .
John Cage once told me once when he was studying with Schonberg, in Paris in the Thirties, he was very interested in architecture, particularly Buckminster Fuller, and Schonberg said he must decide for one or the other. Music or architecture.
He said,"You must pick a wall to bang your head against and even if no cracks appear in it, it's still your wall."
So, as this Mama Venus figure made itself known to me, I felt it and took it. I decided Hershey's chocolate bar wrapper collages and the earthmother figure would be a wall I would bang my head against for a long time. Meanwhile, if such an important gallerist felt my work lacked integrity, I decided I had to find out how the gallery system worked.
I had, for a few years, gone to exhibitions regularly but now I stepped it up and increased their exposure to me. I would hang out for hours with Ivan Karp at Castelli, chat with Conrad and Carroll Janis at Sydney Janis, Jill Kornblee, Bob Elkon, Lefebre Iolas. I became such a part of the gallery operation in the Madison Avenue, 57th Street area, that I began to run errands. I would regularly spackle up nail holes, paint walls. I was painting podesten white for a John Chamberlain show at Castelli when Millicent Tremaine came up the stairs crying. "The President's been shot!" she sobbed. "The President of what?," Ivan Karp said. "Our President, JFK, has been shot in Dallas," she said.
More and more I worked in and got to know the galleries and worked for quite a few sometimes as a sort of cum babysitter semi director. I discovered that most gallerists had no idea why or how they were in the business. Someone wrote a theory of "snapping." You have a friend and you don't see them for several days and then you run into them on the street and they are Moonies, Bagwans, Jesus freaks. They have snapped into a new life. This is how most galleries come into being. A very few are clever enough to work in a gallery for a few years before they open their own. But I am not sure preparation would change anything.
There is a psycho social understructure; a hidden sub-design for life based on the needs of people. I call it the Psycho-Social Imperative. Any community of peoplekind of any size requires so many bus drivers, and mechanics who repair buses and keep them in order. You also need bus cleaners and office workers, bakers, sales people, Kiosk magazine distributors, publishing companies, sign painters, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, people who lay up and fix the roads, doctors, nurses, hotel desk clerks and any size community of people has a certain number of people who are called to be artists. Many are called, few are chosen.
Art as we know it is a fairly modern thing. In prehistory it was involved with magic and early religions. Its original use is no longer known but I feel the magic in art very heavily. Just to do it, any kind of it, sets up warm vibrations...
Artists are as necessary to groups of people as lawyers, fishermen, telephone operators, computerists, astrologers, gossip columnists, actors, poets.... Because art is still heavily involved with non-verbal feeling related to its magic beginnings there is no reason why art should be about money at all. That is why artists find it so hard to say how much a work of art should cost. A bird can't fly around with an egg in it so it externalizes the womb into a nest. Through the Psycho-Social Imperative of art and culture, the artist externalizes its need to price its work into the body politic and, Boing! Gallerists pop up. People are going to the bank or to work or to have lunch with a friend and, Boing! They decide to have a gallery. The proof of this is that most gallerists will readily admit they have absolutely no idea how they got into this business.
Ivan Karp ran the HCE gallery in Provincetown summers on Cape Cod. He put me in it as a sitter, director or whatever when he opened the O.K. Harris Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. That was 1964 - 1965 and over that period I was drawn to explore pop art. I made a series of American flag kite shaped canvases. They were pop geometric and I explored varying the widths of red, white stripes and the sizes of stars on a blue field.
Early in 1965 I was working at the Bianchini Gallery on 57th Street when my book, "A Primer OF Happenings And Time/Space Art" was published by Dick Higgin's Something Else Press. I was heavily involved in the Destruction In Art Symposium in London in the fall of 1966. There I met the Vienna Institute For Direct Art: Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl, Gunter Brus, and others like, Peter Weibel, J.J. Lebel, Vostell, Robin Page. It was like a family clan meeting.
Throughout the sixties I worked mostly in Hershey bar wrapper word figure collages, free form Happenings and the pop art flag kites. In December of 1969 I took part in the Happenings Fluxus Show at the Cologne Kunstverein. It was the Hans Sohm Documentation Archive. Dr. Sohm's archive was unique in that he had made a chronological listing of Happenings, Fluxus events and performances. The whole Happening family was there: Vostell, Kaprow, Higgins, Vautier, Filliou, Schneeman, Knowles, Nitsch, Brus, Muehl and many, many others. Then Rene Block managed to fly the entire menage to Berlin and put us up in Mike Steiner's hotel in the Albrecht Achilles Strasse. We performed in the Forum Theatre in Kurfurstendam. Addi Kopcke, Tomas Schmitt, Eric Andersen and Emmett Williams. I fell in love with the Vienna Institute for Direct Art from the London DIAS and the Cologne and Berlin meetings.
In the early Sixties I had a show of Hershey's chocolate bar wrapper word field collages and in the middle Sixties I had a show of shaped canvases of kite shapes and rocket ships. I had been picking up objects from the street and from trash cans; the sort of urban detritus and scraps of decay that Kurt Schwitters used in his collages. Schwitters was very important to me. Above all he was a master composer in the way he placed objects in relation to each other.
I had several boxes and packages of this stuff and I decided to do a series of collages exploring the possibilities that would come up. So much of it was Schwitter's like material that I decided to uncompose it, that is, instead of composing and melding them into unified wholes, I would put them together in a way that jarred, that made apparent that they did not go together. So, in a way, they were deconstructed from a proper way to construct or compose them. There were labels, seals, tags, pictures of teeth, candy wrappers, box ends, feathers, caps, box tops, etc. I bought a few dozen rag boards and proceeded to take objects out of a box and fasten them down. I put them down in ways they did not go together. I also drew on the boards. I began to work on five, six, seven or ten at a time. I got a few 20 x 30 cm sketch books and I would go through pasting a different piece on each page. Then I would go through gluing a second scrap down but not in a way that harmonized with previous integrals.
As important an idea to me as Existentialism and Zen Buddhism was, and is, Gestalt Theory. Individual relationships in varying groups of individuals, it ocurred to me, was the same to the initiated observer as the relationships between the different areas, integrals, colors, shapes and textures in a work of art. The experienced art observer takes this for granted. It is so much a basic "given" that it is below the surface of consciousness.
By now I had 9 or 10 sketchbooks and I would have four or five at a time; gluing another piece to a page and then turning the page. I became very glib at this. Upon turning a page I would see the two or three things already there and easily place a new scrap in a way that it did not "go" or work with each other. So there was an underlying sadness on the one hand like a train station at 2 in the morning and the different lonely types stranded there coupled with a trash carnival effect of how things clashed. I decided to do one collage for each day of the Sixties, that unique banner decade. The books had 100 pages, there are 365 days in the year, ten times that would be about 3,560 pages. One way all the pieces related was that very rarely was type or a picture upside down.
As the Seventies opened up there were only two Fluxus kunsthandel or gallerists in the world. Rene Block and Armin Hundertmark in Berlin. Now Vostell announced there was to be a third. Inge Baecker in Bochum. Vostell and I decided to have a party celebrating this in my loft on the Bowery Diamond Coast of Chinatown. Vostell, Sohm, and Inge Baecker would come to New York from Europe. Allan Kaprow would come east from California. All the Fluxus Aktion Artists in New York City would be there. Harald Szeeman, Amman, and Beate X came from Switzerland. Carolee Schneeman, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and many others were there. Valerie Herouvis and Maria Niferatos cooked mousakka (Greek lasagna). Yoko Ono and John Lennon also came. It was a classic gathering where people eat as much as they want and there is lots to drink.
John Lennon became fascinated with the un collage books and spent hours looking through them, turning the pages slowly. He understood and felt them perfectly. Inge Baecker wanted to take them with her for my show at her gallery in Bochum. I explained it was a work in progress and if the books went to Germany the process would be altered. Also the pages, let alone the books, were unfinished so they couldn't be for sale. So what was the point? She insisted people would enjoy looking at them. So she agreed to just display them and they would not be for sale. Dumb me. I agreed.
She took four or six to Europe with her and when I arrived at the Dusseldorf flughaven she met me with her car. Every artist knows that regularly gallerists and dealers show up and they are so enthusiastic one doesn't think to go to their side and look in an ear to see if one can see clearly what the weather is like out the other side. I really wish I had done this with Inge Baecker because on the ride in her car to Bochum she announced brightly with a big smile, "By the way, I sold three or four of the collage books to a Fluxus collector!" April fool!
During this time between Cologne, Berlin and Bochum I met Stefan Wewerka, Jurgen Klauke, Michael Buthe, Sigmar Polke, Andre Thomkins and began to put my feet down in Europe. A show with Rene Block came next and for that I did some radierung and a Rolling Stone Edition of stones in matchboxes. I also did some Fluxus Challenge Partituren. These were architect plan sheets, each dedicated to a Fluxus artist, the idea being that each one should attempt to perform his Challenge Partitur.
Next, in 1973, I had an exhibition of Hershey's chocolate wrapper collages at Heinz Stunke's Galerie Spiegel. But the Venus, goddess figure was always there. I continued exploring it endlessly with inexpensive trash materials.
From 1974 till 1979 I stayed in America. In 1975, at Cary Fisher's Intergalactic World Brain Bar Studio Space on the Bowery, I did the first Venus figure with cigarette butts and gave it to Jeanie Black who was in the audience for a happening performance I did with Cary Fisher.
In the late Seventies I was living with my daughter Bibbe, her husband David Campbell and my two grandsons Beck and, his younger brother, Channing Maccabee. I had no money to buy Hershey's chocolate. In New York, on the Lower East Side, there were candy stores frequented by junkies. Junkies eat lots of candy, lots of chocolate, and Hershey Bar wrappers would be all over the sidewalk. There was a nickel (five cents) bar you could only get from machines in the subway, so I had letters in three type fonts: small, medium and large.
In Los Angeles, not being able to afford to buy them, I looked around for something equally invaluable, throwaway, worthless and I discovered, from a large bowl ashtray on my side porch studio, cigarette butts and burnt matchsticks. I also made Venus figures fashioned from burnt paper matches. Paper matches are not unknown in Europe but they are quite rare.
At one time, when Beck and Channing must have been eight and six years old, I gave each of us a plastic shopping bag and we scoured Sunset Boulevard from La Brea west almost to Fairfax and back again east to Yucca. The three shopping bags full of cigarette were all the art materials I needed. All I had to buy was glue.
Using paper trash: tickets, receipts, labels, postcards, movie posters and candy bar wrappers was one thing. A big smelly shopping bag full of cancerous cigarette butts and burnt matches was so stinking filthy that one couldn't escape the fact that one was recycling garbage. It also slowly became apparent as I began to sell my work regularly that I was a successful alchemist. I was literally turning shit into gold. Found money.
In 1979, at the insistence of a performance artist Jan Van Raay, I returned to Europe. It was the dawn of the popularity of Fluxus in the market place. She said everywhere she went in Europe, people were talking about me. I had to come back to Europe. So in autumn of 1979 I came to stay with her in Amsterdam had an exhibition and went up to tour Scandinavia on a chromosome trip. Exhibitions, performances and guest artist gigs in Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and I even visited an Eskimo school at Nuuk Godthab on the west coast of Greenland. Most of 1980 I had a commitment to work acting in a feature film called "Mensch" directed by Rene Daalder, a Dutch expatriate filmmaker, in Hollywood.
Fall of 1980 I returned to Europe and lived between A-Dam, Denmark, France, London and Berlin. Exhibitions and sales were few and far between and I had no money. Looking back I am not at all sure how I did it; I could write a book called "Europe On Five Dollars A Week."
In 1982 I returned to Cologne for the Art Fair. I hadn't been to Cologne for seven or eight years and in the Bahnhof several people smiled, waved and said, "Hi, Al!" I began to realize that Cologne was some kind of artist heaven.
I began to make 3 dimensional Venus figures in wooden fruit boxes, cardboard boxes, and drawers. All my materials always comes from trash, containers and garbage; all I had to buy is the glue. This Venus/Goddess wall I had chosen to bang my head against forever turned out to be incredibly interesting and satisfying to me. Kippen paper, cardboard beer coasters, all were grist for my Venus mill. My Venuses had become a continuous symbol. My work had integrity.
When you have set yourself in such a pattern it is fun to break out of it once in a while, if not regularly. Perhaps due to my fondness for bananas and the mail artist Anna Banana, I, now and then, do banana aquerels and banana art. I sometimes make wooden assemblages from scraps and odds and ends. The maquette, or basis, for a 3 dimensional cigarette butt Venus is toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls. Recently I began to make figures from the cardboard tubes from fax paper rolls.
Once, after making a film in Denmark, I stayed in a farmhouse on the coast of southern Sweden. We were snowed in for a month during the winter, Mama Bear and I. She had a dummy book all white and I began to draw pictures out the window. The snow was thick and white and deep all around so on the white pages I would only draw with ink what you could see. I call it The Snow Book. Another thing I did was to draw and paint a geometric design around a cardboard mailing tube then stand it on a phonograph at a slow speed so in turning slowly it changed.
I will deal with my films, videos, installations, performances, happenings and event art and sound works in another place. This is an incomplete outline, ramble, rap of and over the different kinds of visual art I have done in my life.