Art
When Making a Salad Became Groundbreaking Performance Art
Performance of Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962, at the High Line, 2012. Photo by Liz Ligon. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Performance of Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962, at the High Line, 2012. Photo by Liz Ligon. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

What is it about women and salad? The two are inextricably linked in popular culture, with the popular series of memes “Women Laughing With Salad” mocking the ubiquity of the trope. Decades ago, the artist put a new spin on the common meal with an artwork at once absurd and elegantly simple.
The event score for Make a Salad proposes the obvious: “Make a salad.” The work—equal parts musical arrangement and participatory performance—entails prepping and tossing vast quantities of vegetables in dressing and serving it to attendees. When it debuted at a concert held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1962, impresario immediately declared the work “New Music”—high praise from a man who once staged a composition that called for 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence (4’33”, 1952).
Knowles’s performance connected art, community, and food decades before artists such as , who, in 1992, transformed New York’s 303 Gallery into a working kitchen, serving up free bowls of rice and Thai curry to gallery visitors. Contemporary “” such as these, which prioritize social interaction and participation, have their roots in 20th-century Fluxus experiments.

Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, at MoMA PS1

A founding member of Fluxus and a doyenne of New York’s downtown scene in the 1960s, Knowles has produced a mix of installation, performance, and sound works—including Make a Salad—that share the rebellious, anti-commercial ethos of the avant-garde movement. According to , the de facto Fluxus leader, artists should strive to produce “non art reality” for “all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.” In essence, Fluxus was meant to break down the barriers between art and life. Knowles’s event scores, she once explained, are a “one- or two-line recipe for action.”
Some of her previous projects had also engaged with food and the routines surrounding it. Bean Garden (1971/2016) invites gallery visitors to step on dry beans, the crunch underfoot amplified by microphones, creating a kind of soundtrack. For one of her more well-known scores, The Identical Lunch (1969), she invites people to join her for her habitual daily meal: “a tuna fish sandwich on wheat toast, with lettuce and butter, no mayo and a cup of soup or a glass of buttermilk.” Such simple actions invite reflection on the mundane activities usually taken for granted. “It was about having an excuse to get to talk to people, to notice everything that happened, to pay attention,” Knowles explained on the occasion of a 2011 performance of The Identical Lunch in the Museum of Modern Art’s cafeteria.
Knowles has taken pains not to comment on her position as one of only a few women—including —formally included in the Fluxus movement, so feminist readings of Make a Salad prove difficult. Julia Sherman, founder of the blog Salad for President and organizer of Knowles’s 2014 performance of Make a Salad at MoMA PS1, clarified: “It’s really about rituals. This everyday gesture is such a good example of that because we all do it, and it’s really relatable.”
Performance of Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962, at the High Line, 2012. Photo by Liz Ligon. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Performance of Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962, at the High Line, 2012. Photo by Liz Ligon. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Performance of Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962, at the High Line, 2012. Photo by Liz Ligon. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Performance of Alison Knowles, Make a Salad, 1962, at the High Line, 2012. Photo by Liz Ligon. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

The rendition of Make a Salad that Sherman organized at PS1, however, certainly took on a more culinary flair than the original 1960s piece (which had featured a straightforward mix of American staples like cucumber, tomato, and iceberg lettuce).
Sherman discovered that Knowles wasn’t fussy about what ingredients were used. At PS1, the artist drew her materials from the garden of unusual plants—Purslane! Shiso leaves! Bronze fennel fronds!—that Sherman had planted at the museum. “These unfamiliar, strange vegetables changed the performance in a way,” Sherman said. “But this [piece] was never about salad or cooking or gardening or the vegetables. It was about taking the domestic act to the next level.” Sherman was also impressed by the artist’s edict that no food be wasted: At the end of the performance, Knowles made sure that everyone actually ate the salad.
Anyone who missed the previous iterations of Make a Salad will have another chance on February 15, 2019, when Knowles will perform the piece as part of the upcoming Fluxus Festival in Los Angeles, produced by the L.A. Philharmonic in collaboration with the Getty Research Institute.
“There’s something really special about a work that’s so intentionally open-ended that it can continue to interest an artist and an audience for so many years,” Sherman continued. “That’s kind of my thing about salad: It seems so specific, but somehow it opens up all these doors. Anything can be a salad.”
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Art History Editor.