Dick Higgins reviewed in Bookforum: “An unruly guide to publishing & preserving one’s cultural present”

Reviews

June 27th, 2019

(Review) Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins

BOOKFORUM

A Man Apart: The Unclassifiable Writings of Dick Higgins

BRIAN DILLON

Originally published in the April/May 2019 issue

The polymath Dick Higgins once wrote that a book is “the container of a provocation.” With this in mind, he started Something Else Press in 1963, delivering a remarkable number of provocations to a mainstream audience before the imprint’s dissolution a decade later. Higgins packaged neo-avant-garde ideas in mass-market formats, producing books by contemporary artists like John Cage, Claes Oldenburg, Merce Cunningham, and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Something Else also reissued neglected works of the historical avant-garde in deluxe editions, notable among them Gertrude Stein’s vast, long-out-of-print novel The Making of Americans and Richard Huelsenbeck’s 1920 anthology of dada writings. And the press put out the Great Bear Pamphlets—short works by the likes of Alison Knowles, George Brecht, and Allan Kaprow—for two dollars each, in a size and format that might easily be photocopied. In addition to all this rather manic production, the Something Else catalogue promised items it could never deliver: Among the bruited but unpublished books were Oldenburg’s poems, Erik Satie’s collected writings, and an illustrated edition of Stein’s Before the Flowers of Friendship Faded Friendship Faded.

Higgins was an artist, poet, theorist, and composer, as well as a tireless raconteur of his own avant-garde history; his intention, he wrote, was “to publish source materials in a format which could encourage their distribution through traditional channels, however untraditional their contents or implications.” Today, Higgins is primarily associated with Fluxus, the capacious and democratic artistic movement that from the early 1960s onward aimed to smudge distinctions between object and event, art and the everyday. In this new and fascinating selection of his writings, Higgins, who died in 1998, retells the story of how Something Else Press came about. George Maciunas, cofounder of Fluxus, had promised to publish Higgins’s book Jefferson’s Birthday, a complete collection of all Higgins had written, good or bad, between April 13, 1962, and the same date a year later. While Maciunas dithered, Higgins told Knowles—they were married, twice—that he’d like to start his own publishing house and call it Shirtsleeves Press. “That’s terrible,” she replied. “Call it something else.”

Higgins, who was born in 1938, liked to say that his first word was hypotenuse. His family owned and ran a steel plant in Massachusetts, and Something Else was funded by an inheritance he received in his mid-twenties. Arriving in New York in 1958, he studied music with Henry Cowell at Columbia and with Cage at the New School for Social Research. In Cage’s class, he met future Fluxus artist Brecht; he then met the mail artist Ray Johnson in a café (after mistaking him for Jasper Johns). Higgins and Johnson “often wandered together through the Lower East Side, where he lived like a Troll under the Brooklyn Bridge investigating strange cheeses in jars or fishes in barrels.” Higgins met Maciunas in 1960, and Higgins and Knowles traveled with him to work on the first Fluxus festivals, in Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. For the scant decade that it existed, Something Else Press was both an outlet for Higgins’s own writing and a prodigious contribution to the printed corpus of contemporary art, drawing a good deal from the Fluxus milieu. According to Higgins’s accounts of the period, he wore himself (and his inheritance) out putting this work into the world.

Continue reading at Bookforum.