Dick Higgins

Center for Book and Paper Arts, Columbia College Chicago

ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF FLUXUS in the early '60s, Dick Higgins (1938-98) lived long enough to witness the '90s revival of interest in the movement. Before the term “interdisciplinary” existed, Higgins called his work and that of his colleagues “intermedia,” referring to the collaborative and cross-pollinating performative approach that defied media-based categorization. Such an approach also reflected Higgins's overriding emphasis on freedom: He and his fellow Fluxoids pursued liberating impulses into realms bordering on anarchy, in an often irreverent effort to collapse the distinctions between art, life, and play.

This homage/retrospective was organized by the artist's daughter, art historian Hannah. Higgins, and Fluxus scholar Simon Anderson, and as an exhibition it seemed every bit as uninterested in categories as the artist himself was. Sheets and bedding, films, paintings, prints, drawings, aural pieces, poems, books, maps, photographs, mirrors, banners, and typography abounded—some art, some stuff, with little to distinguish the two. It was unwieldy but not chaotic: While lacking the elements that usually define an artist's oeuvre (style, consistency), the work was conceptually linked by a kind of attentiveness and a surprising earnestness. An air of sober expectancy permeates what at first reads as seditious iconoclasm.

Higgins's commitment to diversity also informed his Something Else Press (whose christening is a typically Fluxus tale—when Higgins proposed a possible name for the press, his wife, artist Alison Knowles, suggested calling it something else, so he did). The range of authors he published between 1963 and 1973, from Gertrude Stein to Marshall McLuhan, Dieter Roth to Daniel Spoerri, is eclectic and diverse, indicative of Higgins's pursuit of the interesting and speculative, no matter what its thesis. To see these once marginal and almost underground books now encased in the soothing capsule of a museum vitrine was to encounter a model for the entire retrospective, as the challenge to orthodoxy that Higgins represented inevitably becomes tamed by and in history.

Higgins decided in 1968 to compose 1,000 symphonies, a project unfinished at his death. Aka means to composition, the artist had blank musical scores machine-gunned; then treated the holes and tears as notes—a violent version of John Cage's 1952 Music for Piano I, in which Cage used the tiny imperfections embedded in a blank score as the sole indications for his notes. What in Cage's work is Zenlike, a collaboration with chance, an act of uncovering, benign and modest, becomes in Higgins's hands something more shocking and blatant. Inscribed on the scores (several of which were on view), the Satie-esque instructions included such phrases as “slow and vile” and “repulsive but rapid,” inviting a collaborative playfulness in their interpretation.

In the late '80s and '90s Higgins concentrated on easel painting, the art form that had interested him least and in many ways represented what he aimed to displace in his earlier work (for its ties to the market, antitechnological bent, and long, established tradition). His late paintings are arcane and mannered, blending almost mystical symbols (snakes, maps, arrows) borrowed from old prints and the like with fragments of his own poetry. Yet it's not so much that at last he turned inward, away from his earlier critical strategies, as that he found introspection to be one more zone of discovery, recognizing history as yet another intermedia event.

James Yood