AL HANSEN TALKS TO JAN VAN RAAY- A DIGRESSION
7 AUGUST 1979
ARTZIEN Vol. 1 No. 9, September 1979
A Monthly Review of Art in Amsterdam
Al Hansen blew into town on July 1st with two changes of clothes and a suitcase full of books, clippings and various sundries. Within a week he'd arranged an exhibition at Harry Ruhe's "Gallery A" from August 4th to September 1st, but Al had no work with him. In the weeks that followed, he'd developed a rigorous daily schedule of collecting garbage and cigarette butts from the streets by night, and working on collages with that material by day. The end result was a phenomenal collection of more than 40 collages, with the glue scarcely dry. On his last day in Amsterdam, August 7th, I taped the following interview with him.
JVR: This is your first exhibition in Amsterdam?
AH: Yeah. The first time I've been to Holland except to go through the airport and I just love it.
JVR: Let's talk about where you're coming from, what you've been doing the last few years. People have been out of touch with you.
AH: Well, one of my main continuities is the Hershey Bar Wrapper Collage, which is the silver-on-dark-brown American candy bar wrapper, which I got interested in in advertising in the middle of the fifties because they don't advertise. It was well known in advertising and I was looking into several materials, trying to find something that had continuity. The reason I needed continuity was that people would come and look at my work and it would look like it was done by ten different people. There would be a wood assemblage, a couple of drawings, a painting and a word-structure and a sound poem...And gallerists looking at that would continually say 'It lacks integrity' which I understood to mean it was not all of a piece...you should have all sound poems or all collages, etc. But that was in the middle of the late fifties, and I thought if I could just find some item or thing or material or words -- I put words into everything -- I liked to include words or sounds through things. I remember, in Brooklyn they had these cheap cardboard posters, placards they'd put up, pink and red and blue with set-type, wood block type, and it would list the three days of movies at a local movie house, and the telephone poles they were on would just get studded with nails and staples and tacks and stuff which is really an interesting type of primitive Congo urban totem stuff -- build ups. In terms of Spoerri's theories of snaring, snaring art or art situations by actually setting a trap for them, fastening things down, trapping and snaring it -- the telephone pole snare, random collections of nails and staples and stuff. Oldenburg kind of used words and did things with words that really talked to me. Allan Kaprow had a large painting made of scraps left over from paintings.
JVR: Is this in the early sixties?
AH: It must be late fifties. He'd fastened all the scraps together onto a large field. In Kaprow's bedroom down there in southern New Jersey he had a large painting that had been about four by three feet. It was like muddy coal-tar black, and he'd left white canvas that said "HA" so it was a laughing canvas, and that really stuck in my mind. And I just began tearing up posters, making simple words, "AHA" and "HEY" and odd names though they would all have the word "TIME" in them and I'd tear them apart and repaste it. We had seen, from time to time, in foreign art publications the Affiche people in Paris. I don't know whether it was separate from or a spin-off of the Cobra Movement, but just taking torn...this wonderful tascist (sic) abstract-expressionist look when you tear down a huge wall encrusted with movie posters and stuff...tearing it apart -- what's going on in the center is certainly interesting aesthetically. And I decided I wasn't really getting anywhere with these torn up pieces of cardboard, perhaps the thickness of the cardboard slowed me down. I thought I had to do studies in several other directions. One of them was Hershey Bar wrappers.
JVR: Were you working on wood at that time or cardboard?
AH: I think they were on cardboard or very thin box wood. I hadn't gotten into using pine shelving. I bought several different sizes of Hershey Bars and cut them up and did several fields of letters.
JVR: How large were these?
AH: The first ones were four or five inches by six inches.
JVR: Were you involved with collage before you became involved with Happenings and performance or did they coincide?
AH: I think I never really was conscious of doing collages that much. I was more involved with combining varieties of experience.
JVR: Were the Hershey Bar Wrapper Collages all women in the beginning?
AH: No. First they were fields of letters. I thought to vary that with what it would look like as a picture. So, what was in my mind at the time, which is on my mind all the time, was a woman. So I made a shape of a woman, but they were very tascist and lumpy., they were very de Kooning's woman, but they were very direct. It was torn out. I cut out the pieces and then I tore them up. I would tear this way and that way so there was a movement of white or black edge. They were quite abstract-expressionist, but the tilted horizon was in them in the beginning. And making words -- I didn't realize I was doing it consciously at first, but I didn't want to make it look like a ransom note. All of the words would be the same type-size letters. And that was working in terms of the field, of space implying aesthetically that the little "HE" was the same size as the big "HE" which also wasn't true because one was virtually seeing at the same time that the thing was flat. So it was like equivocal planes in the thing with these letters.
JVR: You made an entire series of these?
AH: Yes. For some reason they were all named "Charlie." The only two I remember are Charlie Chan and Charlie Chaplin -- it had nothing to do with the people. The first one I gave to Henry Geldzahler.
JVR: Were you in school during this period?
AH: Dore Ashton and several other people advised that Pratt Institute was one of the pieces still honoring the G.I. Bill, so if I was unhappy with Brooklyn College I could go to Pratt, and I did. That was in 1957. I was working full-time and going to Pratt full-time nights. The summer of '58 I decided to take a rest and take the summer off. Somewhere past the middle of the catalogue for the New School for the summer of '58 I found John Cage's course in experimental composition and music. No previous experience or ability to play or read music was needed and it would involve all the latest things in avant-garde music, electronic music, etc.
JVR: Where were you working then?
AH: I had been working at McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. I'd gotten very involved with Harvey Gross of the film department there and I'd been reading Eisenstein's "Film Form and Film Sense" and Eisenstein' talking about all the art forms meeting in the fill frame. I was always interested in the way you could go further. The way a karate man breaks a board is aiming at a point below the board. And the way a boxer is a good hitter and knocks somebody out is aiming at a point beyond the person's jaw, so there's no psychic subliminal slowing up as he's hitting it, 'cause he's going beyond it. It seemed obvious to me to go further with Eistenstein's idea of all the art forms meeting in the film frame -- all the art forms actually met in the eyeball. Or the retinal wall of the brain which received these images. So one could fool people that a film was going on or everything that's implied by that.
JVR: Who was in Cage's course with you? That was a very interesting group of people.
AH: Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, George Segal, Claus Oldernburg, Jim Dine -- the last three I don't think signed up for it but they'd come and sit-in and listen. Cage was sort of totally unknown in the art world at the time.
JVR: Were you doing action pieces yet?
AH: Yes. Sometime in the middle of the late fifties.
JVR: And how did your performances or your actions and happenings start? What form were they taking?
AH: I remember when I was little, in the 30s, we were fascinated by Green Hell and different jungle movies...Mandrake the Magician and things like that. We would cut all the people out of comic strips and we'd hammer pieces of twigs into the ground, stakes. We'd tie all these people to the stakes and then we'd make a corral, a wall of twigs, and put fried grass around the people and light them one by one...I was just driven to express myself in that way. I was always combining.
JVR: Did you ever paint?
AH: In the mid-fifties. The hard edge paintings I did -- there was one series in particular that was three by four foot canvases with a line drawing in half and then a circle in each half. Then I'd alternately fill in spaces black and white. I did one series of black and white paintings trying to do something with integrity. You see the gallerists would always project their lack of integrity or complete knowledge of what was going on in my work.
JVR: I'd like to discuss the show here now. You came to Amsterdam five weeks ago?
AH: After being urged by good people for years to come to Amsterdam, not thinking they were paying me a compliment, I never quite got around to it. I must have been ready for it.
JVR: How did the concept for this show begin? You're using new material.
AH: Once Earth Day went by, and Kent State and the Whole Earth Catalogue, we had this whole new perception. Somehow, Buckminster Fuller pointing out that there was just so much of each industrial material for humans to need and use, there were just so much supplies, as if Earth was a spaceship and we had just enough supplies for a certain length voyage and there was very little conservation or saving going on. With getting into recycling stuff and what-not, one could look at picking up candy bar wrappers off the street, or odd bits of junk as using ordinary mundane flotsam and jetsam of urban like as art supplies. One was actually recycling or taking some garbage and making something beautiful...beauty, we use beauty in the old-fashioned way of saying "having aesthetic possibilities." Being broke, which happens frequently in my rambunctious way of living, and thinking what would be directly recycling something which is garbage, I had a plan for a building called YORKER. There's a guy in Japan who'd developed a hydraulic press. He mixed amounts of garbage from lumber and dry stuff, and under tremendous pressure crushed it into a block and then coated it with a long-life durable plastic as a building material so that garbage could be made into a building material for dikes, seawalls, foundations, whatever. So I designed this building YORKER which could be made from recycled garbage. Once they got to be ten or fifteen miles high a platform would be made and then the second stage of the building would go up. It was like a giant skyscraper that would be thirty or forty miles high with laboratories on the top. Whether the drag of the earth would crumble that, I don't know.
JVR: Getting back to the show...
AH: So, thinking in terms of YORKER I thought, "What would be a recycle thing to do artwork with that no one would ever dream of using?" and I thought -- "Cigarette butts." So I made the kind of Goddess or superwoman or earth-mother, all-mother OM figure that had been in a lot of the Hershey Bar Wrapper Collages. They were also involved with a bonelessness, or pneumatism that you find in Southeast Asian sculptures where the woman with the kind of rubbery arms and almost inflated breasts is in the process of taking what in Southeast Asian religions is called an akkushed breath. An akkushed breath is like to be filled with God-ness. And that's why they're all so pneumatic. The sinewy arms, like a lot of the Buddha figures. It's not of this world. It's not human.
JVR: And the cigarette butts were all from the Amsterdam streets?
AH: The ones in this show, yes. But the first ones I did on the Bowery in Carrie Fisher's Intergalactic Art thing were I did a constant summer thing throughout '75 and '76 on the idea of the Hamlet of Gertrude Stein.
JVR: That's when the cigarette butts started?
AH: Yes. And the first one I did life-size to the arms and thighs of a woman and in the happening sprayed the figure silver while a woman, naked, held it in front of her. And I did some three-dimensional figures like a head and torso and a centaurette. So when I arrived in Amsterdam with absolutely no work for a show I thought I would work with stuff I found in the street or in dumpsters, garbage piles. Thinking to do a cigarette butt piece I was picking up cigarette butts, and also the shag, which to a New Yorker looks like someone was smoking a marijuana cigarette and threw it down. By the time I'd pounced on two or three shag butts and smoked them I found out that it was ordinary shag. I just kept picking up cigarette butts from ashtrays in all the bars and pubs I hung out in, and collecting them from friends and long talks to make cigarette butt figures and the show started to come together from that.
JVR: You've also done several collages with burnt match sticks.
AH: In Hollywood I did some of the superwoman/female goddess shapes with match sticks, too. In some I would carefully place them, and in others, I'd make them three-dimensional, really build them up.
JVR: It's a phenomenal amount of work you've created since you got here.
AH: Well, I really like to work. I try to keep myself from doing as much as I'd like to if there's no opportunity to show it. I'm trying to rehabilitate myself into taking some of my mad focus on turning out a lot of work and exploring an idea from a lot of directions into applying some of that energy and focus on the business aspects of the thing. Disparate work lacking integrity -- I really had to figure out what galleries meant by that. So I began to hang out in galleries. One of the hottest galleries for experimental new things at the time was Leo Casteilli with Ivan Karp. I would just go and sit by Ivan's desk and chat with him for half an hour every day, or every other day. We chatted so well, got along well, liked each other's rap. I would save him from being bored at the gallery and he'd go off and do something for an hour and then come back and we'd talk for another hour just about sundry topics, like a contemporary anthropology/sociology thing. I would sit and listen to Ivan talking French to a French gallerist, then to Park Bernet or Southeby's. He'd ask if I'd mind taking a de Kooning to the conservatory. He'd give me taxi fare -- I'd walk and save the money. It was like going to school and working as a social worker.
JVR: We're back in the late 50s now?
AH: Yeah. I actually met Ivan Karp saving ornaments from buildings. That was one of the things we were both interested in and we kept bumping into each other on sites where they were tearing down whole blocks of New York. We'd go wherever there was a building coming down and try to get the ornaments or carvings. Then someone at the Brooklyn Museum gave us some room (for storage) and it was in the basement for a long time -- The Anonymous Arts Recovery Society -- and then money was found to mount it all.
JVR: They have a permanent installation now, behind the Brooklyn Museum with a garden. Did you form that society with Ivan Karp?
AH: Yeah. I'm not on the papers but I am one of the founders. At one point vandals got in (the museum) and smashed a lot of them. It was Buckminster Fuller's theory of externalization, looking at things in nature and seeing how they work in life that helped me figure out the gallerist thing. After working in five or six galleries - - Kornblee, and for Leo and Ivan, Paul Bianchini, Florence Westerman and the Something Else Gallery in Dick Higgins' living room on 22nd Street, and the OK Harris Gallery for two summers in Provincetown. Also the Gertrude Stein Gallery, Robert Elkon and the Primitive Museum. And throughout, the gallery people would always say "I don't know why I'm in this business .I don't know how it works," and they were continuously doing outrageously dumb things. Baby Jane Holtzer would come in and buy two portraits of herself by Bob Stanley and they'd be trying to decide whether she'd taken one or two. I'd call her up and ask her and they'd be horrified. They'd be in the bathroom putting cold water on their face, like, what if she doesn't want both of them? I was always involved in just communication, just moving it around and what-not, making things happen. This whole theory of looking at things in terms of -- like a bird can't fly around with an egg in it so it externalizes the womb into a nest, which it puts the egg in. Depending on the species of the bird, the male or the female watches the egg while the other one goes to eat.Then this womb becomes a kangaroo pouch when the eggs all break and they go get food and bring it to them. And then, at the right time, they throw them out of the nest they either crash down and are eaten by wild foxes or fly away and go off looking for a bird to have eggs with and so on. And it dawned on me, in that the artist can't price his work and say how much its worth, of handle selling it, and in many cases think about letting people see it -- and to the extent that you don't let people see your work or show it, you're involved with an expressive form of therapy. The artist personality works better if it has this kind of person who's the gallerist. There's absolutely no reason why an artist whould have a gallerist. An artist should have a place, a large room, a salon, and they should invite people who would collect or write or see regularly -- have a little dinner and show them their work. They externalize that need into someone called a gallerist. What most people don't realise is that the artwork is actually a tool to exercise your feelings with. For Americans that's very hard. When Americans go skiing they run up and down the hill all day. Europeans and Orientals know where it's at. They go to the ski place, they go up to the top, they sunbathe, have a nice lunch, sunbathe a little more, have a few drinks. Then they'll ski down, go up, ski down again and start getting ready for dinner. In the evenings Americans are asking each other "How many runs did you make?" Ten, fifteen, twenty -- from dawn to dusk they're going up and down all day. Orientals, like Japanese Shoguns would, after a particular dinner, take out the artwork, slowly unveil it, and everyone would sit and either smoke or drink or have tea and just address themselves to the painting for an hour or two. Americans, from the time they go on the first bus trip are being marched from room to room, try to see an entire museum. They wouldn't just go and sit and look at Tchelechev's "Tree of Life" and just sit and address themselves to it. That's pretty much what artworks are for --they develop the ability to feel. To just look at them, stay blank and let whatever happens happen. Most people operate on a level of associations -- like whether that really looks like a farmhouse you could walk up to. How to get that across to people fascinates me and maybe part of the understructure of my work or main goal in terms of being involved with teaching and communication would be to really use common, ordinary flotsam and jetsam from the streets and garbage to really have the point implied in that there is beauty in an ashtray. Spoerri's fantastic thing with snaring meals has to be relevant to my making things from cigarette butts.
JVR: Do you intend to continue doing performance?
AH: Yes. I would not want to do a performance piece anymore unless it was for film or video.
JVR: You've been in Holland for over a month now, and tomorrow you're going up to Scandinavia, first to Denmark?
AH: Yeah. And I'm taking along a certain amount of leftover cigarette butts and matches with me and maybe a few pieces of stuff to do them on. Maybe I'll work on the train, but basically I plan to do the same thing there as here. Do things just by walking around and seeing what's in the trash piles or what could be obtained frequently, etc.
JVR: And from there you're off to Oslo, Norway in connection with the Al Hansen room being organized at the Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Museum?
AH: Yeah. The first three weeks of September they've made available to me -- the Minister of Culture's Suite, and I'm really looking forward to it. I much prefer Europe to America. I only have to go back (in the fall) for a film being made in Hollywood by the Dutch "New Wave" filmmaker, Renee Daalder. He's doing a film with the punk rock group the "Screamers." I'm going to be the oldest person in it. I'm going to stay in Europe as long as I possibly can.