Object/Poems: Alison Knowles’s Feminist Archite(x)ture

Nicole L. Woods
Alison Knowles and Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1967.

Alison Knowles and Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1967.

You see you have to get right into it, as you do with any good book, and you must become involved and experience it yourself. Then you will know something and feel something. Let us say that it provides a milieu for your experience but what you bring to it is the biggest ingredient, far more important than what is there.

—Alison Knowles1

The world of objects is a kind of book, in which each thing speaks metaphorically of all others…and is read with the whole body, in and through the movements and displacements which define the space of objects as much as they are defined by it.

—Pierre Bourdieu 2

In 1967, American artist Alison Knowles was invited several times to Marcel Duchamp’s New York apartment to collaborate on a project entitled Cœurs Volants with the famed provocateur and the experimental poet Emmett Williams. A photograph from one of their meetings shows the artists in a state of mutual concentration. While Duchamp studiously looks on, Knowles is seen leaning just over his shoulder, casually holding a lit cigarette in her right hand and carefully flipping through colored paper samples of the flying hearts image she recreated for the cover of Williams’s book of poems, Sweethearts.3 Decades later, Knowles would vividly recall their exchange, making a point to note the arbitrary, even comical, nature of the final selection process:

Some visits later I arrived at his door with eleven color swatches…[Duchamp] chose one and set it aside on the buffet. After lunch, his wife Teeny picked up the swatch and said, “Oh Marcel, when did you do this?” He smiled, took a pencil and signed the swatch. The following year Marcel died. Arturo Schwarz wrote me suggesting I had the last readymade. Teeny and Richard Hamilton assured me that I did not, but that I had a piece of interesting memorabilia.4

This brief experience with one of the most prolific and influential artists of the twentieth century was but one of many chance encounters that would characterize Knowles’s artistic practice for more than four decades. The experience of seeing the readymade process up close served to reaffirm her sense of the exquisite possibilities of unintentional choices, artistic and otherwise. Indeed, Knowles’s chance-derived practice throughout the 1960s and 1970s consistently sought to frame a collection of sensorial data in various manifestations: from language-based notational scores and performances to objet trouvé experiments within her lived spaces, computer-generated poems, and large-scale installation works.

For Knowles, the formation of her multimedia practice was a fortuitous and unlikely outcome of her artistic training. Having spent several years studying abstract painting with Adolf Gottlieb at Pratt Institute, trying to perfect her own trademark of expressionism, Knowles would eventually reject the Abstract Expressionist ethos of existential suffering and embrace a way of approaching art (influenced by John Cage and Duchamp) that found enormous aesthetic potential in the everyday world. This trajectory of chance-based work formally commenced in 1962, five years prior to meeting Duchamp, when Knowles was actively engaged in the founding of Fluxus, one of the most significant and innovative groups of visual artists, poets, composers, and musicians to emerge from the ashes of post-WWII Western Europe and North America. As an original Fluxus member, and the only female among its early ranks, Knowles was pivotal in developing a notion of artistic labor that relied on unconventional materials and uncommon strategies in fusing the bridge between art and life. Like their contemporaries in Neo-Dada, Assemblage, and Pop art, the contributions by Fluxus artists to the history of cultural production are unquestionable. Even among an impressive roster of avant-gardists, Knowles has always been a unique, if underappreciated, voice precisely for the ways in which she expanded the field of chance procedures beyond even experimental borders.

Within this context, I would like to reconsider two large-scale projects Knowles developed in the late 1960s/early 1970s—The Big Book and the House of Dust—that independently merged the forms of installation with performance, technology, and poetry into a large-scale investigation of the spacio-temporal conditions of reading and living. One of my aims is to consider how the works modeled a new form of spectatorship using spaces/metaphors of the home to foreground certain political questions arising out of the nascent feminist art movement. Here, the critical terms of Knowles’s Fluxus practice—indeterminacy, the event-score, and performance—were extended to include a consideration of the physical and metaphorical use of the built environment and the ways in which ideas and experiences about the home in the postwar era were tacitly gendered and critiqued.

  1. Alison Knowles, letter to Emmett Williams, Jean Brown Papers, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
  2. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 76.
  3. Emmett Williams, Sweethearts (New York: The Something Else Press, 1967).
  4. “Notes Toward an Indigo Island: A Conversation Between Alison Knowles and Hannah Higgins,” Indigo Island: Artworks by Alison Knowles, texts by Hannah Higgins, Alison Knowles, Bernd Schulz, and Kristine Stiles (Saarbrücken, Germany: Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, 1995), 101–02. Since Knowles made and owned the printed swatches, she later silkscreened the image over t-shirts and sold them at various art auctions. Alison Knowles, conversation with the author, December 15, 2006, New York City.