PITTSBURGH — There are hardly any figures in the Alison Knowles exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, but the presence of bodies, especially that of the artist, resonates throughout the prints, scroll books, and multimedia installations. The show features the artist’s work starting with the Fluxus movement, which she helped found in the 1960s, to her participatory “event” scores, or series of written instructions for participatory performances, transforming the gallery into an artful playland.
Knowles performed during the opening night, including a renewed “Celebration Red” (1962), one of her notable instructional “event” scores. For the occasion, hundreds of Pittsburghers brought found red objects, including shoes, an album cover, and candy boxes (Knowles brought her own tiny, red rose), creating “Archive of red objects” (2016), now brightly arranged in the vast entryway. The pristine grid arrangement of the nostalgic, random items in Fluxus spirit exemplifies that everything is art.
Knowles’s voice is heard throughout the exhibition, emanating from an audio recording in the provocative installation “The Boat Book” (2014–15). The eight-foot tall wood book, bound to a central spine, is derived from Knowles’s original “The Big Book” (1966), where visitors climbed through the structure in order to read. Knowles, now 82 years old, scaled the new multimedia work on opening night, and dedicated the piece to her fisherman older brother through the personal ephemera adorning the work: books, toys, shipyard items, and beans. Though viewers cannot touch this nautical-themed work, one can get up close, hearing Knowles tell stories about the ocean, the sounds of waves and seagulls, and becoming engrossed in the artist’s persona.
Such tactile and personal work fills the tight gallery space, allowing the viewer an intimate encounter with the artist and the breadth of her art. The multigenerational works, displayed alongside one another, demonstrate the artist’s persistent interest in collage and traditional printmaking, and the beauty in everyday simplicity. “In and Out the Window (Banner)” (2010), a 33-foot long collaged scroll, is installed along a wall, with “Bean Rolls” (1963), a series of tiny paper scrolls of found text set beside an open can of beans (one of her early experimentations with the sculptural potential of the book), displayed in a glass pedestal underneath. Above hangs “Shoe Print” (1972), a sepia blueprint paper depicting a single used shoe. And, nearby, is “Book Jacket” (2006), a collage of found objects, such as ink and graphite on paper, cotton, handmade flax, pins, paperclips and string, all framed in a wood rectangle without a distancing glass frame. Together these works emit Knowles’s presence and compilation of life, literature, and art.
Knowles asks us to physically experience the now, which is refreshing in a society with a relatively short attention span. Viewers are invited into “Bean Garden” (1976/2016) a large wooden box filled with navy beans, a favorite and reoccurring item in her work, as well as a common meal of her upbringing. Feeling the beans between your toes, you feel closer to the earth, sharing a giggle with other gallery-goers. Each shuffle echoes via microphones at the bottom of the bin, each movement audibly present around every corner of the exhibition. Tiny beans scatter across the floor, like sand after a beach trip, a reminder of the carefree moment that has passed.
More is to be observed: the ephemera and slides from Knowles’s Spring Street studio in New York; her handmade flax paper instruments and ghostly, gorgeous screen prints of everyday objects; and her poetry, including a collaboration with fellow Fluxus artist Philip Corner.
Knowles continues to create and perform profoundly, seemingly around mostly men (though she has collaborated with Yoko Ono). While this isn’t a story about another overlooked female artist, perhaps the most renowned Fluxus members are Knowles’s colleagues, George Maciunas, much credited for solely founding the movement, and Allan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, and Dick Higgins. As an artist who happens to be a woman, Knowles began her career during a time period also known for socially minded, innovative feminist art, though there is no explicit indication of gendered inquiry in her work. There is no mention of feminism or gender in any of the exhibition text, which instead often refers to collaborations or relations with her male cohorts. There is, however, a small Venus of Willendorf replica inside “The Boat Book” installation, perhaps a quiet reminder of women’s strength and art historical precedents, whether ancient or her contemporaries.
Knowles’s work strikes me, above all, as being approachable. Calming and humble, the work bridges art and life in a way in which viewers can coolly connect with, and maybe walk away with a new outlook, if subconsciously, for seeing art in the everyday.
Alison Knowles continues at the Carnegie Museum of Art (4400 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh) through October 24. Various participatory activities will take place throughout the duration of the exhibition. Please visit the museum website for hours and information.