Museum visitors of all ages walk around, look at, and participate in the exhibit.

Celebrating the Playful and Ephemeral Art of Alison Knowles

For the past five months, I’ve looked at the world through red-colored glasses. Alison Knowles’s playful and ephemeral artwork has a tendency to inspire everyday life in that way. Her devotion to giving attention and value to specific, yet accessible details blurs the line between personal and public art by encouraging outsiders to interact with the work that she creates. Focus and purpose in the everyday merely requires being alert to your surroundings, whether it’s the color red, the sound of shoe heels, the act of making a salad, or just eating lunch.

On May 19, more than 500 Pittsburghers of all ages, backgrounds, and identities came to Carnegie Museum of Art eager to witness Knowles’s art in action. The Hall of Sculpture and Forum Gallery buzzed with excitement at the presentation, showcasing the connection between art and life in her practice. But the performance of here event score Celebration Red (1962), also called An Homage to Every Red Thing, stole the spotlight as it offered a space for meaningful public participation. With the only stipulation that the item you bring must be red, the possibilities of contributions were endless. Take a moment and think about all the red objects in your life. It takes a minute, but gradually you begin to realize how many of these items you own: a red pen, book, colander, T-shirt, tea pot, candlestick, record player, chair. One CMOA staff member even crocheted a three-dimensional slice of red watermelon, her favorite fruit, and stuffed it with paper bags, each of which contained some text or design in red. Once you slow down and pay closer attention, you notice the abundance of red in your everyday surroundings.

The instruction in Knowles’s original Celebration Red event score, written in 1962, was simple: “Celebrate every red thing.” However, in an interview with the Archives of American Art, Knowles shared how some people questioned what exactly that meant. But to celebrate red was her only intention. That’s how Knowles’s work draws you in, through simple concepts that challenge visitors to keep an open mind.

This appreciation for experiencing the everyday is present in much of her work. Listening to the sound that beans make when encased in small boxes, or preserving the happenstance position of onion skins tossed onto a scroll about to be printed, are just two examples. With Celebration Red, a participant must replace the initial conception of an object’s functionality with the recognition of its sculptural existence. It is no longer about how a bowl functions as a bowl or how a shoe functions as a shoe. Instead, bowls are turned upside down to form hills of busily etched patterns and a red boot transforms into a vessel to hold a wigged, Muppet-like creature of red tinsel. And with hosting the grid in the generous space of the Hall of Sculpture, there was no shortage of possible additions or rearrangements of these objects-turned-artworks. Even the artist was impressed at the scale. The grid, which at the last rendition of this event score had totaled 12 squares, was booming to over 350 on this night. And while size is certainly not everything, the expanded opportunity for participation that comes with a larger version was certainly embraced.

This engagement and commitment was most visible among the youngest participants. Kids of all ages dove head first into the involvement. For one young girl, whose favorite color was red, it was obvious that being in a sea of red objects was a dream come true. The 2-year-old’s mother and I watched as she trotted through the grid in her red, strawberry dress picking up as many red objects as her arms could carry before placing them somewhere new. A young boy, age 8, stood on the sidelines after placing his object, watching as his red drawing passed from one square to the next, eagerly waiting to see who would choose the piece as their souvenir. A 20-year-old man later picked up the drawing and struck up a conversation with the young boy, who talked about the dragons and red creatures in his artwork. Knowles’s work created more than a visually engaging sculpture of ever-changing red elements, but a means to connect art with life and life with art.

Artist Alison Knowles discusses her exhibit with museum-goers.
Alison Knowles talks with a young museum visitor during the Celebration Red event on May 19, 2016. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
Instructions detailing interactive aspects of Knowles’ “Celebration Red” exhibit.
Homage To Each Red Thing (1996), Alison Knowles’s event score, set the stage for Celebration Red. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
Red objects such as bowls, lightbulbs, and paperweights on the Hall of Sculpture floor, arranged in a grid.
Red objects populate the grid in the Hall of Sculpture during Celebration Red. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
Close up of a child's hand holding sparkly red rope.
A young museum visitor with his red object. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)
Museum visitors of all ages walk around, look at, and participate in the exhibit.
Museum visitors participate in the Celebration Red event held on Thursday, May 19, 2016 in the Hall of Sculpture. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Alison Knowles is the 77th installment in CMOA’s Forum Series and will be on view through October 24, 2016.

This exhibition is organized by Eric Crosby, Richard Armstrong Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Carnegie Museum of Art. Support for the Forum Series is generously provided by the Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation. Alison Knowles is sponsored by Orr’s Jewelers. General operating support for Carnegie Museum of Art is provided The Heinz Endowments and Allegheny Regional Asset District. Carnegie Museum of Art receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.