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Hannah Higgins Takes On the Grid

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

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.

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