Obituaries: Dick Higgins
Wednesday 25 November 1998
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.
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