Nivea Cream Piece by Alison Knowles. Performed February 14, 1993, during the In the Spirit of Fluxus opening by L. Van Wieren, J. Anfinson, S. Shinazaki, B. Sobocinski, and T. Carlsom. Alison Knowles dispensing Nivea cream.
It’s been more than fifty years since Alison Knowles’ event score Proposition #2, Make a Salad premiered at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London in 1962. This seemingly simple piece, which consists of amassing, washing, chopping, and tossing vegetables into a giant salad that gets served to the audience, has since been performed more than a dozen times around the world, most recently at the High Line in New York in 2012. Knowles, who last made an appearance at the Walker in the early nineties for the exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus—returns next week to re-stage Make a Salad on Open Field with her collaborator Joshua Selman. Other work by Knowles and her Fluxus peers is on view in the exhibition Art Expanded, 1958-1978.
Below is an excerpt from the oral history interview with Alison Knowles (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution by Judith Olch Richards, , June 1-2, 2010), which sheds light on the evolution of this iconic salad.
MS. RICHARDS: You had created a number of Fluxus event scores and I wanted to ask you about a few of them. One of the early ones, 1962, was Make a Salad, which you’ve done subsequently. How did the idea for that piece come about? Was that the first time that you were making something using food that people would eat?
MS. KNOWLES: Well, I’ve become sort of known for the food art thing with the Identical Lunch .
Alison Knowles, The Identical Lunch with Anne Brazean, 1971. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Walker Special Purchase Fund, 1989
MS. RICHARDS: Right, but that was a little bit afterward. Make a Salad was earlier.
MS. KNOWLES: The Make a Salad is earlier. Actually I don’t call it a Fluxus event score. I think my event scores, some of them, I mean, they were done during that time.
MS. RICHARDS: Yes.
MS. KNOWLES: It’s during the Fluxus time but often evades the, what I would call, a strict definition, if you even could do it for Fluxus.
But for me, they are event scores and they’re more based on the work of John Cage than they are on I think – or George Brecht, let’s say, than what became Fluxus performances that many people were doing and adding to. So what’s meant by a Fluxus performance? I really don’t know until you describe it to me. But with the Make a Salad event score, you knew exactly what’s going to happen.
MS. RICHARDS: So if you knew exactly what was going to happen, you’re making a distinction between that and something where you didn’t know what was going to happen.
MS. KNOWLES: Well, between what you know is going to happen and things that happen from what you have done is what differentiates I think the event score from something like happenings where there was much more of an “anything goes attitude” and it was more important that certain people were there or that the site where it happened, like one of Kaprow’s happenings.
MS. RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.
MS. KNOWLES: When I say you know what’s going to happen in the event scores, for something like Shoes of Your Choice , you’re going to have someone describing their shoes.
You’re not going to have someone telling a story about when they went to India and with Make a Salad you’re not going to have someone serving hors d’oeuvres. So that’s what I mean by there’s a known quantity and then there’s all the things that happen around it. But the salad might be made in Indonesia and you have to work with very different ingredients than you would in New York City.
Jackson Mac Low describes his shoes to the audience. Viking Ship Hall, Roskilde, Denmark, May 29, 1985. Photo: Michael Lange
MS. RICHARDS: When you made that, did you think that it might turn out to be a piece that would be done again and again and that people would respond to it so?
MS. KNOWLES: No, absolutely not. I remember how the piece happened. I was riding with Dick [Higgins] in a cab in London and a performance was going to be the next day and I think I was expected to come up with a lot of the pieces on the program.
It was one of those concerts where somehow just Dick and I were there along with Richard Hamilton in the audience. George was not there. George Brecht, George Maciunas was not there. And it was the Museum of Contemporary Art. So Dick said, “Well, you know, what are you doing to do?”
MS. RICHARDS: The Institute of Contemporary Art?
MS. KNOWLES: Is it called the institute?
MS. RICHARDS: Yes.
MS. KNOWLES: The Institute of Contemporary Art and they used to have – they had a very nice little audience room. So it wasn’t a big hall. It was a nice sized room and I had decided in the cab with him, I said, “What can I do? Why don’t I do something with food? Why don’t I make a salad?”
He said, “Fine, make a salad,” and that would always be Dick’s backup for an idea. He would say, “Good, talk about your shoes,” or, “Fine, go take the train at 8:00 a.m.,” or you know, he just was very quick to back up a thought. It’s almost like he wanted to be thinking about something else.
MS. RICHARDS: But it served to validate your ideas.
MS. KNOWLES: Yes, absolutely. I never remember him saying, “No, don’t do that.” He just completely trusted what I would say for this occasion and there was no time to do anything but buy the vegetables in the morning. That’s all the time there was. And meanwhile, of course people were expecting some huge show or whatever.
MS. RICHARDS: Well, when you approached that coming performance that you knew you would be doing, was it actually a very positive approach that you waited until the last minute, was that a usual approach?
MS. KNOWLES: Usually we had no time. We usually had just taken the train the day before from Nice. We probably lost a passport. I mean, absolutely a hair-raising tour, absolutely, across France, Germany, and you’d get somebody to pay your train fare and that’s about it.
MS. RICHARDS: One might have taken all of these already created performances with you and not had to have created them at all at the spur of the moment. So I’m just trying to imagine that maybe –
MS. KNOWLES: Well, who would perform them? You’d have to train a group or you’d have to write ahead what you were going – what people were going to do.
MS. RICHARDS: I’m wondering whether it was in a way purposeful that they were made at the last minute because in fact it’s possible they could have – you could have come up with Make a Salad before you left New York.
MS. KNOWLES: Oh, I see. No, I think that the spontaneity of the imminent event was useful.
MS. RICHARDS: It focused you.
Make a Salad at the High Line, New York City, 2012. Photo: Liz Ligon, courtesy of Friends of the High Line
MS. KNOWLES: Because probably back in New York I would have decided to do something more elaborate, or involve more people or – but I love Emmett Williams’ phrase. “We have no time and we had to present a united front.” In other words, within the group there were people who didn’t get along.
As human beings, they didn’t get along with this or that idea or this or that person. But people always thought they were meeting this completely compatible group getting off a bus. But by the time we got to present at the theater, we certainly had a pretty good idea what we were going to be doing.
We met the night before and put our ideas together and then often there was George Maciunas who would act as our director, whatever, and was very good as a, you know, what do you want to call it, the man who presents on a television show.
MS. RICHARDS: Emcee?
MS. KNOWLES: Yeah, he was a great emcee. He looked strange. He wore a monocle and full dress suit, black with a monocle and spoke with a decided accent. He used more of an Eastern European accent. When you consider that most of these are American artists exhausted, traveling around, you know, from place to place with Emmett who was a wonderful performer and brilliant and who was putting in a lot of very good pieces.
MS. RICHARDS: Why were you doing all this touring in Europe? Was it just a much more welcoming artistic scene that you couldn’t find in the U.S.?
MS. KNOWLES: It didn’t exist here at all and even when we came back after the first Wiesbaden Museum presentation and then went through Europe, we came back to New York and we tried to put on an event on Canal Street in Dick Higgins’ space, his studio. And I think he didn’t properly manage the promotion because George had always done that in Europe. All we had to do was get there.
So here I think we all made a few phone calls but there couldn’t have been more than 20 people in the audience and not plausible – it was very haphazard. We did a piece of mine called String Piece  where I kind of tie up the audience and make chairs get tied to me and I get tied to the mike and it was kind of a nice web piece, which could be done when something else is being read.
So the Make a Salad was a totally amazing event. He also did Shoes of Your Choice that night with Richard Hamilton’s performance. Anyway, with Make a Salad, I got there and the little man in a red jacket who served the drinks, he said I couldn’t use any water because he needed the water to wash the glasses.
And I said, “But I have to wash a lot of lettuce.” He said, “I’m sorry, I knew nothing of this,” and he began to raise his voice and my friend Robert Filliou was standing by the door. And he walked in and this man had little red lapels on his little dinner jacket.
And he lifted this little guy by his lapels right up off the floor. And he shook him and he said, “You give her whatever she wants,” put this guy down, completely turned him around and he left and I turned on the water ad washed everything. I didn’t see him again.