Al (Alfred) Hansen was born in 1927, in New York City. At school he took classes in drawing and painting and, early on, participated in theater performances. In 1945, he was drafted into the army and was sent to Germany. In 1946, he was stationed in Frankfurt/Main. Here, Hansen caused a stir by dropping a piano from the window of a bombed-out five-story building. The Action was later expanded and was entitled Piano Drop. After returning to the U.S., Hansen moved to the Bowery, New York, in 1948 and started studying at Hans Hoffmann School. He also worked as a set designer and experimented with sound, noise, and language. In 1949, he transferred to the Art Students League and, as a student in John Groth’s drawing class, mostly focused on traditional artistic forms. Because of financial difficulties, he then returned to the army. There, he kept up his artistic interests, initially concentrating on Braque’s Cubism. Back in New York in 1955, Hansen worked as a graphic artist and illustrator. In his search for new forms of artistic expression, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in the graphic arts, but then changed to education. Beyond his studies, theater, film, and his own literary projects remained areas of special interest. This eventually led the artist – he did not have any training in music – to enrol at the legendary New School For Social Research, New York, and study experimental music with John Cage. Changed forms of expression, intuition, and coincidence now became important elements of expression. In the late 1950s, Hansen intensely participated in artistic/social projects. Also, he came to know artists like Jackson MacLow, La Monte Young, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and Allan Kaprow who were to significantly shape the international Fluxus Movement of the 1960s. Starting in 1967, he taught at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and, in 1970, at the Parsons School of Design. In 1980, Hansen was Artist in Residence at the Munch Foundation, Oslo. In 1988, he taught at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst (Art Academy), Hamburg.
With his Mixed-Media Environments, Hansen became one of the pioneers of Performance Art and Happenings – his work being strongly influenced by the experimental approach of John Cage: »It is part of the experiment to determine and perform certain steps in the work process without previously knowing where they will lead or what the results will be. In my Happenings, there are roughly sketched instructions for the performers. But I do not exert influence on the way this is actually performed. The product then is whatever happens – indeed, the Happening. In other words, I only prepare the skeleton and then invite people to put meat on it and see what the animal looks like in the end« (Hansen in: Ausst.-Kat. Introspective, 1994). His piece Alice Denham, drawn up in 1958 while still at the New School For Social Research, was the beginning of Hansen’s engagement with the multi-media Happening. Alice Denham was performed at Kaufmann Concert Hall, together with pieces by Cage and Higgins. This was followed by events performed in the context of the »New York Audiovisual Group« where Hansen showed superimposed slide projections, the Multi Films. With the Living Theatre, Hansen also participated in theater projects, doing the stage sets or acting. Since the late 1950s, his works increasingly moved from prominent geometrical works on canvas to assemblages and collages. These techniques – an example is Hep Amazone(1959) – are more closely related to the Actions. Soon Hansen’s Happenings practically stood for new beginnings in the art scene, for the unpredictability and provocations of a movement that wanted to free itself from traditional terms of genre as well as from the notion of the genius and the established art world.
In the mid-1950s, the experimental use of art materials led Hansen to collages that were language-based or drew on Pop Art (Hi-Flyer #1, 1965). Hansen combined elements of texts and materials found, such as discarded paper packages of Hershey chocolate, into onomatopoetic phrases. He also created 3,650 collages, assembled like a picture book, for each day of the 1960s. The Happenings that still went on in the context of the »Monday Night Letters« or in Hansen’s »Third Rail Gallery« – with titles such as The Gunboat Panay, Oogadooga, and Poon’s Moon – brought together artists who then became members of the Fluxus scene, among them Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Robert Filliou. Together with Charlotte Moorman, Hansen worked to stage the »Festival of the Avantgarde« in 1965 and, in 1966, participated in the »Destruction in Art Symposium,« London, where he got to know Hermann Nitsch and Günter Brus, internationally expanding his contacts.
At the Cologne exhibition »Happening und Fluxus« (1970), curated by Harald Szeemann, Hansen assembled collages, Happening scores, and a photo series to create the Mini-Happening-Event-Performance. Following the Cologne exhibition, Hansen started to commute between New York, Cologne, and Berlin. He took part in Happenings and Actions in the Rhein/Ruhr region (»Bochum meets fine arts«, 1972), traveled in Italy and, in 1975, founded the »Institute for Contemporary Arts« in Newark, New Jersey. Hansen’s artistic strategies are closely tied to his involvement with education, and he engaged in open projects to develop alternatives and find new approaches in art and art education. Hansen’s pluralist concept of life and art is documented in his work as set designer and actor – his films range from fictional work to sex education – and in the fusion of various mediums in Actions and Happenings. It also shows in his discovery and use of discarded products found in the streets, for example, in the Junk Art he developed in Los Angeles, creating reliefs and sculptures from cigarette butts.
Hansen’s decision to keep working with Happenings, »the women figures like the Hersheys, only with cigarette butts,« led him to move to Europe in 1979. After going to Amsterdam and after several journeys through Scandinavia and a stay in Greenland where he established contacts to the art academy in Nuuk Godthab, he eventually found a new context for his artistic work. Following the Fluxus exhibition »1962 Wiesbaden Fluxus,« he settled in Cologne, a city with a Fluxus tradition since the 1950s where he could easily establish himself. Evoking his first Action in Frankfurt in 1945, the Yoko Ono Piano Drop was performed at the Stollwerck factory, Cologne, in 1983. To the accompaniment of Lisa Cieslik’s saxophone playing, several pianos were dropped from a window during one event. On a stipend in Berlin, Hansen continued his Fluxus-oriented work with Viking Dada – Berlin Neodada und Sophistofluxus (1983) and participated in new Fluxus compositions. During the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, his wandering through cities, his traveling, changing of locations, and the notion of a democratic, non-hierarchical art and education kept shaping his work. Together with Lisa Cieslik, Hansen founded the »Ultimate Akademie« as an alternative art location in the tradition of Fluxus in Cologne, in 1987.
Through self-organized Actions and exhibitions, for example, at the New York gallery Reuben, Hansen’s works became known in the U.S. in the late 1950s and, especially in Germany, in the early 1980s. Since then, Hansen’s assemblages, collages, and Action relicts have been shown at numerous locations. More recently, exhibitions such as »Fluxus und Freunde,« shown at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (2003), and at the National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavik (2004), as well as »Konzept. Aktion. Sprache« at the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig), Vienna (2008), have documented Hansen’s activities in the context of Fluxus, Happening, and object art.
Al Hansen died in 1995, in Cologne. Following the artist’s wish, a Fluxus burial was performed with artist friends.
Fluxus, 40 Jahre: Fluxus und die Folgen: Ausst.-Kat. hg. v. R. Block, R. Bärthel, Wiesbaden 2002
Al Hansen. An Introspective: Ausst.-Kat. Kölnisches Stadt Museum, Köln 1996
Al Hansen Œuvre/ Flashbacks: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstverein Rosenheim, Rosenheim 1995
Fluxus Virus: Ausst.-Kat. Galerie Schüppenhauer u.a., Köln 1992
Block, René (Hg.): 1962 Wiesbaden Fluxus 1982 - Eine kleine Geschichte von Fluxus in drei Teilen, Wiesbaden/ Berlin 1983
Hansen, Al: A Primer of Happenings and Time Space Art, Something Else Press, New York 1965