CMOA Exhibit Explores Long Career Of Artist Alison Knowles

May 19, 2016

Alison Knowles handles a "bean turner," an interactive art piece of her own creation, made of a stiffened cotton tube that’s filled with beans – reminiscent of a rain stick.

She's encouraging visitors of her upcoming exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art to pick up the bean turner and see what kinds of sounds they can make with it. While they're there, guests can peruse a variety of pieces gathered from across the octogenarian's five-decade career, which first began flourishing in the Fluxus performance art movement of the 1960s and '70s. 

Beans play a prominent role throughout the artist’s entire body of work: her Bean Rolls of 1963 involve small scrolls held inside tin containers bearing the word Fluxus. Each scroll contains pages worth of information about beans, whether it’s text, photographs or even a song.

“Ich bin ein Star, ein Kinostar (I am a star, a movie star),'" she sings in German. "Something like that.”

The melody came from her travels to Dusseldorf, Germany, where Knowles and other members of the Fluxus movement were financed to come and perform. But she says most of the bean lore that’s scattered throughout her artworks came from New York City's public libraries:

“Here it says, ‘The Trobriand islanders blessed the beans when they plant the seeds. Among Christians, the flower of the bean is associated with All Souls’ Day, and it is then that the garden beans are blessed,’” she reads from one of the many scrolls.

Another one of Knowles’ interactive pieces at the Carnegie Museum is The Bean Garden, where visitors will be able to tromp around in a bed of dried beans and have the sounds amplified loudly in stereo.

She explains that beans have a personal significance for her.

“I lived through the war years in a rather poor family, and beans were our staple, so even cooking and preparing them became very artful for my father,” she says.

Also on display is a portion of House of Dust, a pioneering piece of computer-aided poetry created by Knowles and composer James Tenney in the late 1960s.

“A house of snow / In a place with both heavy rain and bright sun / Using electricity / Inhabited by those who could achieve success,” reads one of the stanzas.

Although the Carnegie exhibit focuses on the more concrete side of the artist’s output, Knowles is perhaps better known for her performance pieces, like 1962’s Make a Salad, where she turns the simple act of food prep into art and then feeds the result to the onlookers.

The underlying idea is almost existential: to persuade the people in the audience to think deeply about the little moments that make up their lives.

"And the hope is they go back to their own kitchen and they listen while they make the salad – the refrigerator door, the chopping knife," says Knowles. "They’re not thinking about what they’re going to do tonight; they’re right there, and I think that gives the day value – objects and sounds of the everyday.”

Knowles says her conceptions of sound and performance were influenced deeply by her friendship with the revolutionary composer John Cage, who she met in New York in the ‘60s. Cage’s music was sometimes “aleatoric,” leaving some elements up to chance or to the decision of the player. That philosophy heavily influenced the performance pieces of the Fluxus artists, who would create “scores,” or written instructions that gave general outlines for acting out artworks.

Carnegie Museum curator Eric Crosby says Knowles has been engaged by museums across the world and even the White House for her performance art. But he says this may be the first time that this many of her studio works – which carry the same “in the moment” theme -- will be displayed in a single room.

“I’m always fascinated by her interest in shoes, (and) the soundtrack that shoes make in our daily lives, the click-clack of heels and the shuffling around of your rubber soles," Crosby says. "We just don’t listen to that, and her work aims to attune our senses to those things that we don’t normally pay attention to.”

Visitors can come to the Carnegie Museum of Art for free from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, but they should be prepared to participate: each guest is being asked to bring in an everyday object to fit into any of about 800 1-foot-by-1-foot squares on the floor of the museum. The only rule, says Crosby, is that the objects must be red.

The full Alison Knowles exhibit opens to the public tomorrow and runs through October 24.