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A POOR MANS KEYS TO THE NEW ART

by
Barbara Moore
Dick Higgins was one of my three transformative tutors in the avant-garde. All three
were at or about my own age, but lightyears ahead in their knowledge of and
involvement in experimental art. In the pre-internet early 1960s there was already
a burgeoning international network steadily enlarged by mail, phone and
personal travel of ground-breaking artists. These three individuals seemed to
know them all.
First in my personal chronology was the high-spirited performer and composers
muse Charlotte Moorman, whom I met in 1963 at her first Annual New York Avant
Garde Festival. Charlotte, always a fierce advocate for new work, contagiously
passed on her generous and ecumenical enthusiasm for innovation.
Then there was the incisive provocateur George Maciunas, who I first spoke to in
1961 at his AG Gallery, but didnt get to know until the New York series of Fluxus
concerts in Spring 1964. George introduced me to a rigorous, pragmatic and
idealistic conceptuality for creating art.
It was in the context of Fluxus that I also got to know Dick Higgins, who was no less
energetic in his enthusiasms. When Dick appointed me founding Editorial Director at
his Something Else Press (Director of a mythical staff I was the only employee)
my horizons expanded considerably. Here was an unparalleled opportunity to
interact directly with that international array of artists whose visual art, writings and
performances I had been familiar with mostly from the viewpoint of an enthusiastic
observer. They were drawn from the same pool of author/artists as those who
contributed to Fluxus and the various avant-garde European publishers that
Something Else, in one of Dicks missionary gestures, distributed in the U.S: Editions
Hansjrg Mayer, Franz Mons Typos Verlag, Wolf Vostells D-coll/age, Bernard
Hkes Edition Et, and the Spanish Zaj. It was an atmosphere of bracing intellectual
exchange and intense camaraderie, the only exception being Dicks more
competitive relationship with Maciunass Fluxus, from which he was somewhat
estranged at the time.
This was a heady experience for someone like myself from a culturally rich but
distressingly conservative background. I have vivid memories of my baptism by fire:
a mammoth cut-and-paste edit of Al Hansens wine-fueled, handwritten and audiotaped ramblings that turned into
A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (1). Soon after I found myself immersed in
the much more meticulously conceived text that became my editorial Everest:
Daniel Spoerris vibrantly complex An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (2). With its
convoluted structure and myriad erudite and witty footnotes by the author, Emmett
Williams and others, the
Topo was as stimulating a challenge as any copy editor might hope for.

I have far fewer memories of the editorial process pertaining to the series of 20
Great Bear Pamphlets that Dick published, half of which were issued or were under
way before I left my editorship in late summer 1966 to have a baby. My editorial
experience would appear to have been very different from what Dick once
complained was the modus operandi of my successor as editor. Emmett Williams,
Dick said, would spend as much time polishing one simple Great Bear Pamphlet as
working on a whole book. (3) I suspect that Emmett was more engaged in
socializing with the authors than slow editing. The Great Bears were relatively
straightforward and records show that they were speedily produced the first ten
in 1966, the rest completed by January 1968.
Nothing exemplifies the presss aesthetic range more than this chapbook-like series.
There are Fluxus-style scores (Zaj, Bengt af Klintberg, Alison Knowles, Philip Corner),
happenings (Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow, Wolf Vostell, Al Hansen), poetry
(Emmett Williams), plays (Jackson Mac Low), theory (George Brecht), chance
operations (John Cage), historical precedents (Jerome Rothenberg, Luigi Russolo),
indescribable literature (Robert Filliou, Higgins, David Antin), and inscrutable art
(Diter Rot), not to mention a lively collection of manifestos by most of the above
and more.
These categories are, of course, false and irrelevant. (It was Dick himself who
coined the term intermedia to neatly solve the naming problem.) More
importantly, the Great Bears constitute an engaging, accessible microcosm of the
presss ambitious agenda of disseminating experimental work. Their uniform
understated character, typographic sameness and identical 16-page format (except
for the 32-page Manifestos), although in contrast to Dicks more flamboyant designs
for the presss heftier books, were part and parcel of the same marketing strategy.
Something Else Press targeted librarians by disguising radical concepts in
conformist packaging, Dicks intentional rejoinder to the more unconventional
shapes and boxes issued by Maciunas as Fluxus editions.
Our office space was similarly disguised. Avant-gardism may have been theraison
detre, but the place where we worked was comfortably old fashioned. Located in a
bland commercial building on Fifth Avenue in the twenties (what is now known as
the Flatiron District), it was far from any bohemian enclaves. Miss Wormser, the
stenographer down the hall, dutifully transcribed our tapes and retyped manuscripts
for the printer. Our walls were undecorated and we had conventional 1960s nonelectronic office accoutrements.
Prominent among these was a period necessity from the most prominent purveyor
of such things, which fortuitously provided Dick with a linguistic readymade. Years
later he described the moment of appropriation on a hot summer day in 1965 when
he went to get a cup of cold water from our office water cooler, which we got from
the Great Bear Company, named (I presume) for my favorite constellation. On my
desk was a folder of Alison Knowles performance pieces, too few for a book, but
enough to make an attractive unit of some kind. Why not, I thought, make a series
of 16 page pamphlets, miniatures in a sense of our books, and (hopefully) as
refreshing as this water Im drinking? (4)

To add to their appeal, that refreshment extended to price. Dick called the Great
Bears A poor mans keys to the new art (5) and treated them as promotional loss
leaders that would attract new readership. Even within the presss modest preinflationary price structure they were ridiculously cheap, with prices starting at 40
cents (for Alison Knowles By Alison Knowles) and topping at $1.50 (for John
Cages Diary).
Dick also recognized possibilities for the Great Bears unconventional distribution.
The pamphlets, all twenty of them, were able to get places that the larger books
couldnt, he related gleefully. For example, in the late 1960s they were sold from
a rack beside the produce stand at the Berkeley Coop ; we were always delighted
by the notion of a shopping basket containing ice cream, the makings of a good
salad and our pamphlets! (6)
Looking at this series now, Im struck by how, like those groceries, the Great Bears
directly and unpretentiously fulfill their function. Its no secret that some authors of
the presss regular books were less than happy with Dicks elaborate, often flashy
designs for their volumes. The Great Bears offer no such eccentric mediation. They
may be plain to look at, but theres nothing simplistic inside. When I was a neophyte
they taught me well.
_____________________________________________________________________________________
______
1. Al Hansen.
A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art
. New York: Something Else Press, 1965.
2. Daniel Spoerri.
An Anecdoted Topography of Chance
. New York: Something Else Press, 1966.
3. The Something Else Press notes for a history to be written some day by Dick
Higgins.
New Lazarus Review
. Vol. 2, No. 1. Utica, NY, 1979. p. 38.
4. The Something Else Press notes for a history to be written some day by Dick
Higgins.
New Lazarus Review
. Vol. 2, No. 1. Utica, NY, 1979. pp. 29-30
5. Ad for the first 10 pamphlets in
Something Else Newsletter
. Vol. 1, No. 4, Aug. 1966. p. 5
6. The Something Else Press notes for a history to be written some day by Dick
Higgins.

New Lazarus Review


. Vol. 2, No. 1. Utica, NY, 1979. p. 30
2008 by Barbara Moore