Obituaries: Dick Higgins

DICK HIGGINS'S first book was entitled What Are Legends: a clarification. Higgins was himself a bona fide legend, for the books he published rather than wrote.

A seminal figure in the Sixties avant-garde, in that astonishing decade of innovation and experimentation whose legacy seems dimmed today by a return to formalism, he was typically protean: poet, performer, composer, visual artist and filmmaker. Yet it was as founder, designer and publisher of the Something Else Press that he remains best known.

Between 1964 and 1975, based in Manhattan and Barton, Vermont, Something Else published over 60 books by an improbably wide range of creative eccentrics, not to mention a veritable avalanche of posters, newsletters and flyers. Something Else's chief importance was not the richness of their list, nor the elegance of the books, but the ambitious scale of their dissemination.

Higgins was the first publisher in the arcane realm of alternative art presses who as well as being an expert in the history and practice of printing and typography was also a genius at distribution. Something Else books thus turned up in the most mainstream bookstores or even on supermarket shelves. This was very much in tune with the revolutionary cultural ideas of the era, in opposition to the traditional livre d'artiste, whose exclusivist preciousness was the antithesis of Higgins' aesthetic.

Higgins reprinted at random and aimed for print-runs that were outrageously optimistic, with the result that Something Else titles can still be found in bookstores today and are notably inexpensive compared to most such publications. Indeed the 1966 Something Else edition of Daniel Spoerri's Anecdoted Topography of Chance can be found in catalogues for $10, whilst the Atlas press edition of the same book republished in 1995 costs $25.

Such crude issues of costing were of course anathema to Higgins and his cohorts. As with all the best publishers Higgins's own choices were firmly backed by family money. His wealth came from Wooster Press Steel of Massachusetts (a rather grittier "Press" than his own). He was in fact born in England, in Cambridge, in 1938, and was impeccably educated at New England private schools before Yale and Columbia, where he took a degree in English literature.

He also attended the Manhattan School of Printing, and most importantly John Cage's classes on the Composition of Experimental Music at the New School of Social Research, the Summer of 1958 class which included Higgins, Jim Dine, and a host of figures in the nascent performance scene such as Allan Kaprow and George Brecht. The courses were the playground for a generation of American experimenters and flowered into a variety of movements from Fluxus and free jazz to improvisational dance and Concrete poetry.

What Are Legends was published in 1960. By this time Higgins was fully involved in New York's SoHo downtown set, performing in "Literary Evenings and Musica Antiqua et Nova" with the first minimal composer, La Monte Young, and the renowned choreographers Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer.

The first Something Else book was also by Higgins, two titles bound back- to-back, Postface/Jefferson's Birthday, an edition of 1,200 copies whose dust-jacket carried a manifesto and order form for the press on its verso. The jacket photograph of a crazed Higgins was taken by Wolf Vostell, inventor of video art, and was later a source for Jack Nicholson's performance in the film The Shining (1980).

Higgins's own most influential work was the 1969 compendium foew&ombwhnw (freaked out electric wizard & other marvellous bartenders who have no wings) which was disguised as a leatherbound prayerbook and contained his key essay on "Intermedia", artworks "between" media, beyond the traditional "compartmentalised approach" to art or life. Other authors Something Else published included Gertrude Stein and George Herbert (whose 17th- century pattern poems predated Concrete poetry), Charles McIlvaine's One Thousand American Fungi, a 1971 Anthology of Fantastic Architecture, Claes Oldenburg's famous Store Days (1967) and early work by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

There were also books by Marshall McLuhan, Brion Gysin, Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources (Higgins had studied with the composer) and the groundbreaking Aesthetics of Rock by Richard Meltzer. Higgins was a founding member of the Fluxus movement - the first genuinely multi-media art movement, and many books were related to that group, such as Robert Filliou's Ample Food for Stupid Thought (1965), Al Hansen's Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (1965) and Cage's Notations (1969) along with his How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), published in 1967.

There is a thorough Something Else bibliography by Peter Frank (1983) and a charming memoir by Barbara Moore, entitled Some Things Else About Something Else (1991).

Dick Higgins was involved in every nook and cranny of underground creative activity for three decades and constantly updated his 50-page CV which contained sections such as Visual Art, Music & Sound Art, Movies & Videotapes, and Conferences. It was at a colloquium in Quebec City, having performed his composition Danger Music No 3, in which he lit incense in the dark, that Higgins died of a sudden heart attack. Perhaps an appropriately random, foreign end for a guru of international "hazard".

Richard Higgins, artist, writer, composer and publisher: born Cambridge 15 March 1938; died Quebec City 25 October 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker