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Sandwiches, Silkscreens, Swatches, and Scores: A Conversation with Alison Knowles

Academic journal article Afterimage

Sandwiches, Silkscreens, Swatches, and Scores: A Conversation with Alison Knowles

Article excerpt

"A tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast with butter and lettuce, no mayo, and a cup of soup or glass of buttermilk." Alison Knowles first began eating the Identical Lunch in 1969, but did not conceive of it as a performance until her friend Philip Corner pointed out she was eating the same lunch at about the same time each day. Soon she invited friends to eat the same lunch and record their experiences. Their accounts were compiled into the Journal of the Identical Lunch (1971), and a close reading reveals that no eating of the lunch is exactly the same.

Tuna fish sandwiches, Nivea hand cream, beans, and shoe soles are. but a small sampling of the objects Knowles has used in her career of more than half a century. She is a founding member of Fluxus, having performed at the group's inaugural 1962 show in Wiesbaden, Germany. After a tour of Europe, she returned to New York City with her partner Dick Higgins and continued to perform with Fluxus. She expanded her oeuvre to include music compositions, radio shows, papermaking, sound installations, and artist books.


Knowles's work has recently received a wave of attention as interest in Fluxus has piqued across the globe. In 2008 she performed Make a Salad to a crowd of over 3,000 at the Tate Modern in London. She was the artist-in-residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in the fall of 2009. In January 2011, she served the Identical Lunch to select participants at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Several of her artist books were included in the small exhibition ''Experimental Women in Flux'' (August 4-November 8, 2010) at MoMA, as part of the recently donated Silverman Fluxus Collection. As part of the exhibition, Knowles discussed her early career and influences with art historian Julia Robinson. Knowles sat down with me at her New York apartment in December 2010 to further discuss her early collaborations with Fluxus artists Higgins, Nam June Paik, and Ben Vautier, as well as with artworld luminaries John Cage and Marcel Duchamp.

HARRY WEIL: Alison, let's begin at the beginning. At your recent MoMA lecture you discussed your early work in silkscreening. Could you elaborate more on that?

ALISON KNOWLES: When I first got married [to Higgins] I had to get a job, and I started working at a silkscreen studio. We made advertising signs for airports for backlit plexi[glass] panels. Air France was one of our customers. My job was not to design the typeface, but to configure the proportions of it for the sign. I would then take that into the darkroom, make a film positive, and make the silkscreen that would be used for advertisement.

HW: Did you train in silkscreening while an undergraduate at Pratt, or was the process new to you?

AK: There weren't any silkscreen courses at Pratt. I took painting with Richard Linder and Adolph Gottlieb. Linder also taught book design. There was etching and drypoint, but that didn't really catch my eye. When I graduated I had to get a job right away, and that is when I started working with silkscreens. The owner humored me. He liked me and I got away with shorter hours--four or five hours a day and more pay than I deserved at that point.

HW: So you are a painter by training? How long did that last?

AK: When Dick and I moved to Chelsea on 22nd Street, I stopped painting. It wasn't that Gottlieb disappointed me, but I had my first show with these huge abstract expressionist paintings. I wasn't too pleased. This was before 1962; it was pre-Wiesbaden. I put up all those canvases and had the feeling that I wasn't a painter. I formed that [idea] very definitely when I listened to people around me; people much brighter than myself. They said the work looked very derivative, and they asked if I wrote poetry. To go in another direction.

HW: Had you ever written poetry before?

AK: I have always written [. …

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