A POOR MAN'S KEYS TO THE NEW ART
Dick Higgins was one of my three transformative tutors in the avant-garde. All three were at or about my own age, but lightyears ahead in their knowledge of and involvement in experimental art. In the pre-internet early 1960's there was already a burgeoning international network -- steadily enlarged by mail, phone and personal travel -- of ground-breaking artists. These three individuals seemed to know them all.
First in my personal chronology was the high-spirited performer and composers' muse Charlotte Moorman, whom I met in 1963 at her first Annual New York Avant Garde Festival. Charlotte, always a fierce advocate for new work, contagiously passed on her generous and ecumenical enthusiasm for innovation.
Then there was the incisive provocateur George Maciunas, who I first spoke to in 1961 at his AG Gallery, but didn't get to know until the New York series of Fluxus concerts in Spring 1964. George introduced me to a rigorous, pragmatic and idealistic conceptuality for creating art.
It was in the context of Fluxus that I also got to know Dick Higgins, who was no less energetic in his enthusiasms. When Dick appointed me founding Editorial Director at his Something Else Press ("Director" of a mythical staff -- I was the only employee) my horizons expanded considerably. Here was an unparalleled opportunity to interact directly with that international array of artists whose visual art, writings and performances I had been familiar with mostly from the viewpoint of an enthusiastic observer. They were drawn from the same pool of author/artists as those who contributed to Fluxus and the various avant-garde European publishers that Something Else, in one of Dick's missionary gestures, distributed in the U.S: Editions Hansjörg Mayer, Franz Mons' Typos Verlag, Wolf Vostell's Dé-coll/age, Bernard Höke's Edition Et, and the Spanish Zaj. It was an atmosphere of bracing intellectual exchange and intense camaraderie, the only exception being Dick's more competitive relationship with Maciunas's Fluxus, from which he was somewhat estranged at the time.
This was a heady experience for someone like myself from a culturally rich but distressingly conservative background. I have vivid memories of my baptism by fire: a mammoth cut-and-paste edit of Al Hansen's wine-fueled, handwritten and audio-taped ramblings that turned into
A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (1). Soon after I found myself immersed in the much more meticulously conceived text that became my editorial Everest: Daniel Spoerri's vibrantly complex An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (2). With its convoluted structure and myriad erudite and witty footnotes by the author, Emmett Williams and others, the
Topo was as stimulating a challenge as any copy editor might hope for.
I have far fewer memories of the editorial process pertaining to the series of 20 Great Bear Pamphlets that Dick published, half of which were issued or were under way before I left my editorship in late summer 1966 to have a baby. My editorial experience would appear to have been very different from what Dick once complained was the modus operandi of my successor as editor. Emmett Williams, Dick said, "would spend as much time polishing one simple Great Bear Pamphlet as working on a whole book." (3) I suspect that Emmett was more engaged in socializing with the authors than slow editing. The Great Bears were relatively straightforward and records show that they were speedily produced -- the first ten in 1966, the rest completed by January 1968.
Nothing exemplifies the press's aesthetic range more than this chapbook-like series. There are Fluxus-style scores (Zaj, Bengt af Klintberg, Alison Knowles, Philip Corner), happenings (Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Wolf Vostell, Al Hansen), poetry (Emmett Williams), plays (Jackson Mac Low), theory (George Brecht), chance operations (John Cage), historical precedents (Jerome Rothenberg, Luigi Russolo), indescribable literature (Robert Filliou, Higgins, David Antin), and inscrutable art (Diter Rot), not to mention a lively collection of manifestos by most of the above and more.
These categories are, of course, false and irrelevant. (It was Dick himself who coined the term "intermedia" to neatly solve the naming problem.) More importantly, the Great Bears constitute an engaging, accessible microcosm of the press's ambitious agenda of disseminating experimental work. Their uniform understated character, typographic sameness and identical 16-page format (except for the 32-page Manifestos), although in contrast to Dick's more flamboyant designs for the press's heftier books, were part and parcel of the same marketing strategy. Something Else Press targeted librarians by disguising radical concepts in conformist packaging, Dick's intentional rejoinder to the more unconventional shapes and boxes issued by Maciunas as Fluxus editions.
Our office space was similarly disguised. Avant-gardism may have been the raison d'etre, but the place where we worked was comfortably old fashioned. Located in a bland commercial building on Fifth Avenue in the twenties (what is now known as the Flatiron District), it was far from any bohemian enclaves. Miss Wormser, the stenographer down the hall, dutifully transcribed our tapes and retyped manuscripts for the printer. Our walls were undecorated and we had conventional 1960s non-electronic office accoutrements.
Prominent among these was a period necessity from the most prominent purveyor of such things, which fortuitously provided Dick with a linguistic readymade. Years later he described the moment of appropriation on a hot summer day in 1965 when he "went to get a cup of cold water from our office water cooler, which we got from the Great Bear Company, named (I presume) for my favorite constellation. On my desk was a folder of Alison Knowles' performance pieces, too few for a book, but enough to make an attractive unit of some kind. 'Why not,' I thought, 'make a series of 16 page pamphlets, miniatures in a sense of our books, and (hopefully) as refreshing as this water I'm drinking?'" (4)
To add to their appeal, that refreshment extended to price. Dick called the Great Bears "A poor man's keys to the new art" (5) and treated them as promotional loss leaders that would attract new readership. Even within the press's modest pre-inflationary price structure they were ridiculously cheap, with prices starting at 40 cents (for Alison Knowles' By Alison Knowles) and topping at $1.50 (for John Cage's Diary).
Dick also recognized possibilities for the Great Bears' unconventional distribution. "The pamphlets, all twenty of them, were able to get places that the larger books couldn't," he related gleefully. "For example, in the late 1960's they were sold from a rack beside the produce stand at the Berkeley Coop... ; we were always delighted by the notion of a shopping basket containing ice cream, the makings of a good salad -- and our pamphlets!" (6)
Looking at this series now, I'm struck by how, like those groceries, the Great Bears directly and unpretentiously fulfill their function. It's no secret that some authors of the press's regular books were less than happy with Dick's elaborate, often flashy designs for their volumes. The Great Bears offer no such eccentric mediation. They may be plain to look at, but there's nothing simplistic inside. When I was a neophyte they taught me well.
1. Al Hansen.
A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art
. New York: Something Else Press, 1965.
2. Daniel Spoerri.
An Anecdoted Topography of Chance
. New York: Something Else Press, 1966.
3. "The Something Else Press -- notes for a history to be written some day" by Dick Higgins.
New Lazarus Review
. Vol. 2, No. 1. Utica, NY, 1979. p. 38.
4. "The Something Else Press -- notes for a history to be written some day" by Dick Higgins.
New Lazarus Review
. Vol. 2, No. 1. Utica, NY, 1979. pp. 29-30
5. Ad for the first 10 pamphlets in
Something Else Newsletter
. Vol. 1, No. 4, Aug. 1966. p. 5
6. "The Something Else Press -- notes for a history to be written some day" by Dick Higgins.
New Lazarus Review
. Vol. 2, No. 1. Utica, NY, 1979. p. 30
©2008 by Barbara Moore