New York

Al Hansen

Andrea Rosen Gallery

“I am not at all interested in having a retrospective exhibition of my work,” artist Al Hansen (1927–1995) wrote toward the end of his life, adding that such a show “would take up at least an airplane hangar or two.” Putting together an overview of the innumerable assemblages, collages, paintings, and other objects that Hansen produced over the course of his lengthy career would indeed be a daunting task. But poignantly if implicitly absent from Hansen’s imagined hangars are works that challenge curatorial acumen not through unruly profusion but through evanescence. Somehow Hansen’s performative work—Happenings, music and spoken-word pieces, actions based on “scores”—seems even more difficult to recapture than that of other members of the New York Fluxus milieu he was part of. His art and persona were imbued with an antic, hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show kineticism that seemed to owe as much to vaudeville as to Dada, and that feels particularly ill-suited to the white-cube setting. A recent exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery gracefully negotiated both problems. Instead of attempting to outline Hansen’s entire material oeuvre, the show offered a focused grouping of objects; and instead of shoehorning monitors with grainy video footage into the gallery, presented a one-night, multimedia event that partly recaptured the spirit of the artist’s live work.

The exhibition, housed in the gallery’s project room, comprised thirty-six modestly sized collages and sculptures dated from 1962 to 1994, most depicting Hansen’s favorite motif, a stylized and refreshingly endomorphic female figure he called Venus. This buxom lady, sometimes constructed from meticulous agglomerations of matchsticks or cigarette butts, is clearly descended from the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, but she’s also a cousin of Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude”—a Pop goddess, as neatly summed up in the punning title of Hansen’s ShopRite product-label collage Venus of Shop-Ritedorff, 1965. For both Wesselmann and Hansen, that archetypical pictorial subject, the female nude, was a site on which mass media’s alternately exhilarating and alienating dislocations of subjectivity could be writ large—in Hansen’s case, literally so. Many of his collages from the ’60s and ’70s, including a number of the Venuses (others had different subjects or were nonrepresentational) are made of bits of Hershey bar wrappers or other printed matter, which Hansen cut into anagrammatic fragments. HEY, SHE, HER, HERS, YES are just a few of the words he put together from the letters on Hershey labels. Artfully composed so that elements featuring typography of differing sizes create a sense of syncopation, the word collages are about sound as much as image, and can be located in the nexus of language/performance experimentation that ranges from William S. Burroughs’s cut-ups and bebop via the Beats to the aleatoric methods of John Cage (who taught Hansen experimental composition in 1957 at the New School for Social Research in New York).

Cage’s influence was again in evidence at the performance event, where Hansen’s daughter Bibbe, grandson Channing, and a group of the artist’s friends and collaborators showed interview clips and documentation and restaged various actions, including a semi-improvised Happening. Some of the works presented here were out-and-out hilarious (like a spoken-word rendition of Car Bibbe, 1958, which in its original form was a sort of demolition derby/dance piece for one hundred automobiles), others rather moving—none more so than Elegy for the Fluxus Dead, 1987, performed by Channing Hansen, who added Allan Kaprow’s name, and Hansen’s, to the rolls.

Elizabeth Schambelan