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Hannah Higgins Takes On the Grid

Art historian and White House wife Hannah Higgins on politics and patterns

Hannah Higgins with Austin the family’s five-year-old Portuguese water dog

WASHINGTON — Struggling artists have a pal in the Obama White House’s extended family — art historian Hannah Higgins.

While the vivacious and brainy Higgins downplays her newfound clout, there’s no denying it: Her husband Joe Reinstein, the administration’s deputy social secretary, helps oversee the White House guest list, one of Washington’s most coveted commodities.

“I don’t want to get into territory that I don’t really understand,” says Higgins. “I certainly don’t expect Joe to turn around and include the artists I’m writing on in his world. I have my research and Joe has his projects. It will be interesting to see how they connect. He’ll come home and say, ‘We’re thinking of inviting so and so’ and I’ll actually know who that is and what they’ve been doing for the last 25 years.”

And Obama supporters certainly see plenty of promise in the Higgins-Reinstein partnership. “It’s an interesting set of relationships,” says Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, who advised the Obama transition team on climate change. “Joe is really doing a lot to shape who moves in front of the President.”

Shortly after Barack Obama won the White House, Higgins says, her husband, a marketing executive working for MedLine Industries Inc., a health care products company, offered his services to incoming White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers. The two met in the mid-Nineties when Rogers ran the Illinois state lottery and Reinstein, then at an ad agency, was in charge of the account.

“She had a list of people to consider, and all of a sudden, three days before the Inauguration, there we were,” says Higgins, who’s on leave from the University of Illinois at Chicago to teach as a senior fellow at the Phillips Collection Center for the Study of Modern Art.

She may insist their worlds are separate, but Reinstein hasn’t wasted any time reaching out to the arts community in his new job assisting Rogers. In May, he helped organize an off-the-record White House meeting billed as a gathering of arts, community and social justice advocates committed to “national recovery.” The group contained more than 60 artists and creative organizers from across the country.

“It’s fabulous to have someone like Hannah in the community,” says Nora Halpern, vice president of Americans for the Arts and an independent curator who helped put together Yoko Ono’s current exhibition in Venice. “Hannah brings the perspective of a major art historian, along with the perspective of someone who has lived and breathed the artist’s life since she was born.”

Higgins’ parents, Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, were founding members of the Fluxus movement and pioneers in the use of computers for digital art. Dick Higgins, who died in 1998, coined the term “intermedia” in a 1966 essay he wrote to describe his approach to art. Knowles, as well as Hannah’s twin sister Jessica Higgins, are both New York artists who continue the Fluxus tradition, which Higgins explored in her first book, “Fluxus Experience,” published in 2002.

Now Higgins has a new book, along with her new job and new D.C. address. In “The Grid Book,” published by the MIT Press in March, she analyzes the grid pattern as more than just an icon or a symbol but rather as an organizing principal throughout history used to shape, organize and manipulate the world.

Today, Higgins, wearing a stylish black-and-white dress, stops by the Phillips Collection to see where she’ll be working come fall. Accompanied by her two daughters Zoe, 13, and Nathalie, 9, the trio is clearly excited about their move from Chicago. Their new house in the tree-lined, family friendly Chevy Chase neighborhood is still filled with boxes from the previous inhabitants, who have not yet completely departed. The girls are buzzing about starting at their new respective public schools.

While her husband started work right after the Inauguration, Higgins delayed her move to Washington until July to make time for the launch of her book.

“She went from writing about Fluxus, all about thinking outside the box, to writing a book which is all about the box,” says Halpern, who explains, “Part of being a Fluxus art work is not being able to define it. It takes you back to Dada and antiart, but with a more humorous and loving approach. It’s not antiart. It’s about love, the idea that everything is part of the art movement.”

Even that disaster erroneously attributed to Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which is how Higgins begins her book. “When I first moved to Chicago,” says Higgins, who got her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, “the story of the Chicago Fire of 1871 started me thinking. Everywhere around me were grids, supposedly dating back to the rebuilding of modern Chicago. It seemed logical to apply that same concept of the grid to painting, to the invention of movable type, to architecture and ledgers, to look critically at the familiar argument that when a grid appears, the world becomes modern. The grid in urban planning takes you from pastoral to urban, et voilà — cities. My point is that it’s not modern.’’

She traces the grid paradigm from the design of man’s earliest cities, such as the Neolithic, underground, the trading city of Catalhöyük in Turkey, to modern Chicago skyline, along the way linking it to the logic of Descartes, the music of Bach, computer spreadsheets and fractals. It’s a mind boggling array of topics and subjects that somehow all loop back to Fluxus and, in a way, her family. To Higgins, everything human beings create is informed by the pattern of grids.



And although Higgins won’t stretch that far, some believe the grid even informs presidential politics.

“Fluxus is a process of elevating simplicity, of taking grand things and rooting them in ordinary context. It’s anti-Washington as you think of Washington, with lobbyists controlling access,” says global warming expert Hendricks, the son of Geoffrey Hendricks, another Fluxus artist. “The Fluxus approach is very compatible with Obama-defined politics where you change ownership of access. So much of Obama’s presidency is about giving the country back to the people, grounded in community organizing and the patterns and structures of democracy.”

Which is why Higgins’ and Reinstein’s arrival on the Washington scene is so intriguing — and could have a quiet, but powerful, impact. Higgins is sensitive to the economic problems facing many aspiring artists, having absorbed some of her father’s disappointments. “I’m so in awe of what artists do, the way they put themselves out there alone. The idea that I would somehow be able to turn it into a living and thrive institutionally when so few of these artists have been able to do that is agony,” she says. “My father died penniless, actually penniless.’’

After graduating from St. Paul’s School, Dick Higgins “broke with that way of living,” she says. “He entered the art world and spent every dime he had on something called the Something Else Press, which was the first press to publish Merce Cunningham, Claes Oldenberg, and a very early [John] Cage book called ‘Notations.’ He brought Gertrude Stein back into print and published the memoirs of Raoul Hausmann [co-founder in 1917 of the Berlin Dada movement].

“He was so angry about the basic distribution process that appends to books that he cut himself off. He would only deal with small, independent distributors, and of course he went bankrupt,” continues Higgins. “That was his generation’s way of rebelling.”

The Higgins family patriarch John Woodman Higgins amassed a fortune manufacturing steel, just like Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection where Higgins now works. “He held the patent on pressed steel used to make helmets and mess kits in World Wars I and II,” Higgins says of her great-grandfather.

Whereas Duncan Phillips collected modern art, John Woodman Higgins had a passion for suits of armor, at one point buying the armor collection of William Randolph Hearst (now on display in the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Ma.). “He used to waltz around town giving away candy to children in the street while wearing his armor,” recalls Higgins. “That was one of my father’s strongest childhood memories. It was his first experience with performance art.’’

Higgins describes her own formative “experience being raised by avant-garde artists and going to a fancy prep school,” as “disparate things that don’t sit so comfortably one with another.”

Attending the Dalton School when she was 11 years old, she says, “We lived in SoHo. A lot of my friends weren’t allowed to visit me down there because people wouldn’t let their kids downtown. I had this friend, Susanna Goldmann. Her father, William Goldmann, was a famous screenwriter [winner of two Oscars for the screenplays of ‘All the President’s Men,’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’]. I basically had an open invitation to their house at any time, and lived there sometimes for weeks at a time.’’

Higgins’ parents divorced in 1970 when she was six years old when her father, she says, “discovered he was gay.” In 1984, her father “remarried my mother as a gay man. We think of complex family arrangements as something invented five years ago, but it’s just not the case.”

Speaking as a child of counterculture activists, Higgins is not adverse to working within the system, especially now when she sees the possibility for real change led by the Obama White House. “Any number of us have this way of being in the world where you try to bring new ideas into these very established organizations as a way to be functional, to render large-scale change.

“Considering my childhood, the most rebellious thing I could do was go to college, marry an advertising executive, and then move to Washington, D.C.,” she says.

And now that she’s at the very epicenter of the system, or at least her husband is, the challenge is how to deconstruct America’s biggest political power grid from the inside — capitalizing on it to further her passion for the arts.

“Joe has a marketing background; I have this art background. We had always in a very kind of idealistic way talked about how sad it was that our worlds are so separate,” says Higgins. “Wouldn’t it be great to see his ideas about outreach, connection and mattering connect to the world of the arts?”

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Caption: Hannah Higgins with Austin, the family’s five-year-old Portuguese water dog, and Hannah Higgins at the Phillips Collection Center for the Study of Modern Art)

 

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