New York

Al Hansen

Onnasch Gallery

 The gallery walls on the night of Al Hansen’s performance were hung with drawings, photographs, letters, newspaper clippings—the vagrant stuff of studio walls—and two series by other artists, Andy Warhol’s soup-can serigraphs and Eleanor Antin’s postcard series 100 Boots. The lights dimmed periodically, making it difficult to examine the work on the walls. 

A jagged line of tape on the floor divided the gallery, acting to confine the crowd in the area of the “show.” Beyond that line the gallery was dark. The crowd was slow to grow aware of the three assemblages there: a canvas on an easel near an array of paints; an old radio on a table flanked by framed photographs; and a large cardboard box with a hole cut in it and a plugged in electric saw. Near the box a note lay on the floor: “We are tired from waking hard and alone and have gone out for beers. Signed, Al.” 

A man asked the crowd to sit and remain quiet—that is, to become an audience. People grew impatient. Lights flashed more insistently and several photographers began to snap at the audience. 24-hour votive candles were lit, the door was locked, and an unease set in—something was being perpetrated. A loud buzzing came from within the cardboard box, and a videotape of objects being carried into the gallery began. The first half hour spent in the gallery was build-up, a period of precognition of the piece to come. Once the performance was underway, the space became a stage, and the groups of objects—the “assemblages ”—began to read as sketchy sets for stage action. 

After a long struggle with the box, Hansen emerged shirtless in dirty dungarees. As the videotape showed him in various self-parodying guises and situations, Hansen turned on and tuned the old radio, then advanced on the canvas, heaved a sigh, and began to paint. Hansen presented the artist as worker, as tired veteran confronting familiar problems: how and what to paint, and what to bring to a performance. 

When he had finished the painting, Hansen moved across the stage and hung a black curtain. On videotape, he delivered a lecture about baby alligators flushed down toilets who grew to size in the sewer system and had to be caught. Hansen, whistling tunelessly, then staged a series of battles between fruits. He finished his piece by sticking his head through the hole in the curtain to explain that the fruit represented emerging nations. He apologized that grapes had not been available. “It’s a good idea,“ Hansen said, ”but we need to work on it." 

During the last decade, Al Hansen presented Happenings and environments derived from the work of Dine, Grooms, and Oldenburg. A clarity of parts moves this new work beyond the painter’s theater that Allan Kaprow described as an extension of assemblage and into a realm of more purely theatrical concerns. Hansen is more clearly concerned with the problem of the artist as performer, and he structures the audience/performance relationship as an address to it as well.

The “assemblages” (and the note clue on the floor) read as invitations to the audience to make their own art. In the first half hour of the piece, anyone there could have assumed the role of artist to influence the impending course of events. The idea of presenting the audience with a choice to participate or simply observe has been heavily worked in theater. The Living Theater structured the choice as a moral imperative intended to awaken a bourgeois audience. Hansen’s use of it here initiates a similar critique of an audience intent upon passivity.

When he emerged from the box to face a blank canvas, Hansen’s disappointment was clear. The heroism implicit in the image of his lonely struggle to make art became a function of the audience’s failure to act on the elements that had been presented to them. Only after the choice had been offered and refused did Hansen proceed to the task of entertaining.