LETTER TO NEW YORK:

ACTIONS ET AL

PETER FRANK

 

Al Hansen, "Untitled (Sketchbook
#1,229), mixed media,
14 x 17", 1972.

 If you wish to continue in English, press 1. . . .

I know, that's a peculiar way to begin a letter. Why, then, isn't it a weird way to begin a phone call? Never mind. It is a weird way, I'll admit, to begin a letter to you after having not seen you for so long. I may be getting into town the same day as these words but, just like last September, I won't be staying long. This time, at least, I won't be hampered by medical concerns and lack of stamina; the post-op healing process is pretty much done, and thank you very much, I have more energy than I've had in years. Hey I lost 18 pounds, I had a nice, relaxing summer, everybody made a big fuss over me, I'm in better shape than ever--y'know, I recommend open-heart surgery to everyone [Frank underwent heart surgery in June, 1997--Ed.].


Actually, what's keeping my trips short is that there is so much to do in L.A. The art world recession here is definitely over, and the shows, presentations, and general atmosphere have revved up mightily. Every dealer I talk to speaks excitedly, even wonderingly, of their sales, and the public sector is also presenting some of its best stuff in years--hell, ever. Bergamot is still the epicenter. Now that the legal feud between various among its founders is over, the gallery colony continues its growth apace. Two or three whole sheds are opening up with galleries--and the Santa Monica Museum, finally getting off the ground after shuttering its Main Street premises and staying underground for far too long.

And what is SMMOA opening with? A survey of sorts of the work of Al Hansen--in conjunction with that of one of his grandsons. Singer fella, name of Beck. You didn't know Al was Beck's forebear? Well, at least you remember Al as fondly as the rest of us do. I thought you'd be pleased to hear he's finally getting some serious recognition in this country (albeit posthumously)--and if it takes a hook in with a pop star, well, there's a certain justice to that. In his own spiritedly cockeyed way Al was a star-chaser--he got a charge out of hanging with Warhol and the Factory crowd, a different kind of charge than he got out of being with his Happenings and Fluxus cohorts, or even that he got out of doing Happenings. I'm glad he lived long enough to see his flesh and blood--the kid who used to come visit him in Germany and help him do his performances--achieve international fame (Beck is doing an opening night benefit performance at and for the Museum; Karen Finley is also involved [This was on May 7th--Ed.]).

Beck Hansen, "Vesuvius
Jacuzzi" (detail), mixed
media, 12 x 12", 1990.

I'm also glad Al lived long enough to see his own reputation spread across Europe and begin, just begin, to seep into the thick consciousness of the American art world. He influenced so many of us in New York--and in Europe, and even here in L.A.--in the '60s and '70s. Al was my first brush with the avant garde. Didn't I tell you about boppin' around to the galleries as a 13-year-old pimply-faced kid, meeting Al at Castelli (where he was kind of a gopher, employed at the suffrance of Ivan Karp), and his slipping me sheets of Bob Watts postage stamps? Hooked me on Fluxus once and for all (Two years later Al sold me his book on Happenings and introduced me to its publisher, Dick Higgins --another of my Flux-mentors).

Al wasn't sufficiently appreciated here--in the U.S. that is--in his lifetime; but he didn't exactly lack for advocates on this side of the pond (or border). His childhood buddy Jimmy Breslin would mention him from time to time in his columns as the guy who could draw better than anyone else in the neighborhood, and who was always organizing puppets shows and other presentations.

Last time I saw Al (at the Troy Cafe, the coffeehouse in Little Tokyo run by his daughter Bibbe--yup, it's where her son Beck got his start, both as a musician and as an artist), I gave him a Breslin Newsday column I'd just found that mentioned him (I'd picked it up about a week before, just happening on a complete Newsday resting on a seat in the subway. Yes, the New York subway. And yes, I have finally ridden the L.A. underground. On a Sunday evening, so I can't say it was a typical crowd. It was a sparse one, that's for sure. No graffiti, no garbage, no newsstands. . .it's like BART, only more self-conscious.). Anyway, I'd no idea when I found the Breslin column that I'd be seeing Al within several days. It was serendipity--especially as it made him extremely happy, happy not in his usual impish manner but in a tender, touched, more-than-halfway-to-crying way that I'd not seen before but knew was in him. I think on his way back to Cologne, Al passed through New York and contacted Breslin. And then, the next thing anybody knew, Al was gone--found slumped over his drawing table, mid-collage. And the next time Breslin wrote about Al it was a whole column in his memory.

Yves Klein, "Untitled Anthropometry,"
dry pigment on canvas,
78 3/4 x 196 7/8",1960.
Photo courtesy Yves Klein Archives.

 

Carolee Schneemann, "Eye Body/Four
Fur Cutting Boards Installation,"
mixed media, 1963.
Photo: David Sundberg.

Al's been haunting us in other ways, too. In fact, the whole international performance-art milieu he floated and cannonballed through is coming back around on the jukebox, this time as art history. Yayoi Kusama's retrospective is still up at LACMA,surveying her objects and installations (it comes to MOMA in the fall, so do not miss it), and I'm sure you've heard about the Out of Actions mega-show at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary [see Marlena Donohue's review in the April issue--Ed.], right across the street from where I last saw Al. I know you can't make it out before the show closes, so maybe you should use it as an excuse to go to Europe (it'll be in Vienna, Barcelona, and I forget where else). This one's a keeper. It rests on a premise that is spooking some performance folks, namely that the objects prefiguring or produced in conjuction with, or as residue to, the performance art of the 1950s, '60s and '70s--from Gutai to Punk, if you will--have been central to the performances' own creation and impact. A real curator-fetish angle, I'll admit, but Paul Schimmel makes it stick (without making it a more credible argument than the orthodox one of performance artists wanting to transcend, or even do away with, the art object). Even if I had problems with Paul's POV I would've forgiven him: the show itself if just so complete, so well-selected, so coherently installed, and so fascinating, that the installations (Oldenburg's Store, Daniel Spoerri's restaurant, several Allan Kaprow Happening "environments"), the costumes (Atsuko Tanaka's Gutai light-dress, Lynn Hershman's Robert Breitmore get-up), the relics ( from bloody Viennese Aktions, for instance, or Chris Burden's equally corporeal events), and all the other mega-chachkes, from paintings to pianos, bring an era--no, a string of overlapping and interacting eras--back to life.

Or does the postwar-perfo history come back to life for me because I studied so much of it and sat through so much more? Going through Out of Actions was like visiting the house I'd grown up in but hadn't visited for twenty years. The opening was Old Home Week--and not just for me; some of these folks hadn't seen each other in decades (or hadn't ever met before!), and a lot of them hadn't seen the often seminal works that represent them in an even longer time. They stroked their old performance props, in many cases directing their installation, and in a few cases recreating them from the git-go, reperforming their own histories and leaving behind remnants of memories; they looked at their younger selves in the extensive photo and video documentation (the extent of which pleased even the performance purists); and, instead of waxing nostalgic and lugubrious, they seemed to a woman or man reassured and reinvigorated in the knowledge that their lives, spent doing these elaborate and peculiar things, hadn't been pissed away. It was kinda reassuring to me as well. All that enthusiasm my adolescent self expended on second- and third-hand accounts of a few people engaging in some loopy activity a few years earlier or thousands of miles away, and all that time and ink my young-adult self expended on trying to make (or avoid making) sense of the 1970s performance explosion--I'd dig out my old SoHo Weekly News performance reviews, just for (more) old time's sake, if I weren't in the middle of moving and could find them--is recaptured in and by the Out of Actions show.

So it's official: Like my performance pals, I'm no longer "emerging," I'm "mid-career." After the operation I feel livelier than I have in years; but, between having the quadruple bypass and seeing my entire youth effectively recapitulated in an art exhibition, however huge and endlessly fascinating, I do have to admit: I'm an old fart. Well then, mon vieux--mes vieux?--so are we all. And ya know what? All it takes to enjoy at least the beginnings of old farthood are a few vitamins, a good exercise regimen, and a revival of interest in all the things and thoughts and causes and people you once lived for. All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my retrospective. . . .

Keep the faith, daddy-o.

P.