Obituary: Al Hansen

Alfred Earl Hansen, artist: born New York City 1927; twice married (one daughter); died Cologne 18 June 1995.

Al Hansen was best known as an early Fluxus, Happenings and Pop artist.

His informal way of life and his aversion to documenting his activities made Hansen the subject of many legends. One was that he spent most of 1965 riding the New York City subways. This was untrue, though he was indeed "making himself scarce'' over a legal matter. At the same time he was working on his only large book, A Primer of Happenings and Time/Space Art (1966), which was the most popular book on the field for many years.

Born in New York City, Hansen showed a talent for drawing from an early age, and as a teenager, together with James ''Jimbo'' Breslin, the journalist and a schoolmate, he published the Daily Flash, a newspaper for which Hansen drew cartoons. His career in journalism came to an abrupt end when he was drafted into the 82nd Airborne Division, in which he served from 1945 to 1948. He experienced in 1956 an epiphany of sorts when he was stationed in a bombed-out piano warehouse in Frankfurt am Main and was ordered to push a number of pianos off the edge of the top floor.

On his demobilisation Hansen's art interests developed both in purely visual terms and in event-making. He studied at Tulane University, the Art Students League, the Hans Hoffman School of Art and, after 1957, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Here he was exposed to the music of John Cage. Finding it ''complete noise, a hopeless mess'' which he could not understand, he decided he must study with Cage, which he did in Cage's still-discussed course in ''Experimental Composition'' at New York's New School for Social Research in 1958 and 1959.

It was in Cage's class that I met Hansen and, along with George Brecht and Jackson Mac Low, and others, we performed in coffee shops around New York City, using the name "The Audio-Visual Group''. This climaxed in a performance of Hansen's Alice Denham in 48 Seconds on 7 April 1959, at New York's august Kaufman Auditorium of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA. The musicologist Paul Henry Lang, then the New York Herald Tribune critic, described it as a ''nightmarish show'', with the performers using toys and home-made instruments. Such pieces became, after 1962, the repertoire for the Fluxus group.

Through Cage's class Hansen met Allan Kaprow, James Dine and the other early Happenings artists, and he took part in shows and performances with them at the Reuben Gallery, the Living Theater and other venues in and around New York. Although most of the Happenings artists had slowed down or stopped performing by the mid-Sixties, Hansen kept going. In 1966, with the German Happenings artist Wolf Vostell, he placed advertisements in New York newspapers for ''Happenings in Your Home''. He performed in Alison Knowles's Cafe Au Gogo series in New York, my own The Tart at Sunnyside Gardens Boxing Arena (1966), and in his own works at the various incarnations (studio, gallery or whatever loft he happened to be living in) of his Third Rail Gallery, which ran from 1962 to 1969.

Hansen's visual work of the Fifties was mainly geometrical abstraction. He had a fine formal sense in spite of, or perhaps because of, his having complete red-green colour blindness. He understood, however, how colours were supposed to work and frequently invited friends to mix and label colours for him. As late as 1965 Hansen produced a series of irregularly shaped stretched canvases painted in bright, complementary colours, with mixed geometrical and popular culture imagery.

From 1960 Hansen turned increasingly to collage and constructions made out of detritus - Hershey chocolate-bar wrappers and cigarette butts for example, remained a principal focus for the rest of his life.

From the late 1970s, because of the increasing conservatism of the New York art world, Hansen spent more and more time in California and in Europe, first in Copenhagen and Amsterdam and finally in Cologne, where he had finally settled permanently by 1982.

His last American show was at the Gracie Mansion Gallery in 1989, but he also showed regularly at the Galerie Elisabeth Konig in Vienna. At the time of his death, the Poszti-Bott Gallery in Cologne was working with two German museums, organising a Hansen retrospective.

Good documentation of his work exists at the Henie Onstad Museum near Oslo, Norway (Hansen was partly of Norwegian descent), the Archiv Sohm in Stuttgart, Germany, and at the Getty Institute for the Arts and Humanities in Santa Monica, California.

Even to his death Hansen's capacity to inspire legend pursued him. As rumour had it, Hansen was sitting on a bar stool in a German pub drinking with a friend and perhaps lighting up a joint (actually Hansen did not smoke marijuana) when he sighed and fell off the stool dead. On the other hand, according to his daughter he went to a pub with friends, complained that he did not feel well and went home. A friend later found Al Hansen dead, presumably from a heart attack, behind a large portfolio which was beside his favourite chair to work in.

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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup