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. 58, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 100-102 Published by: College Art Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/777864 Accessed: 08/10/2010 19:01
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Fluxus Revised and Revisited
Elizabeth Beckman and jonathan Applefield
Joan Marter, ed. Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963. Exh. cat. Newark: The Newark Museum and New Brunswick: Rutgers
University Press, i999. Essays by Simon
for anyone to play. For fifty cents one could buy a book of Watts's stamps from his Stamp Machine (1962). Whitman's Shower
(1962), an assemblage of running water,
Anderson, Joseph Jacobs, Jackson Lears,
Marter, Kristine Stiles. 199 pp., 31 color
ills., 80 b/w. $60, $30 paper. Emmett Williams and Ann Noel, eds. MR. FLUXUS:A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas, 1931-1978. London:
Thames and Hudson, 1997. 352 pp., b/w
transparentshower curtain, and projected film footage of a woman bathing, created a new sense of voyeurism for viewers. An index finger pointed visitors from one section or "event" of the exhibition to the next. A trademarkof Fluxus typography, the finger made reference to the sign painter's detail in Marcel Duchamp's Tum' (1918). This sign has been interpreted as representing the declarative, performative act of seeing, naming, and redefining the found object.' This is precisely what many of the works in the exhibition did as these artists realized Duchamp's concepts to their fullest extent.
wrote to the curator, "It is within the spirit of the work that (as in life in general) parts may be lost, broken, spilled, stolen, replaced, contributed, soiled, cleaned, conBut in both Frog Game structed, destroyed."2' and Repository, the visual pleasure of only the work remained, and the original concept of play was short-circuited. Kaprow side-stepped this problem by "reinventing" one of his early Environments. BeautyParlorIV (i958/99), originally
ills. $34.95. Ken Friedman, ed. The Fluxus Reader. Chichester, England: Academy Editions, 1998. Essaysby Friedman, Owen Smith, Simon Anderson, Hannah Higgins, Ina Blom, David T. Doris, Craig Saper, Estera Milman, Stephen C. Foster, Nicholas Zurbrugg, LarryMiller, Susan L. Jarosi,
Dick Higgins. 309 pp.
The "RutgersCircle"-George Brecht, Robert Watts, Robert Whitman, Roy Lichtenstein, Allan Kaprow, Lucas Samaras, George Segal, and Geoffrey Hendricks-was the subject of OffLimits: Rutgers University andtheAvant Garde, 1957-1963, an exhibition organized by the Newark Museum this spring. Curated by Joseph Jacobs, this was one of the most challenging exhibitions in years-for the curator and visitors alike. At a time when museums seek to prioritize entertainment over education, the exhibition entertained and educated simultaneously. It became a funhouse of Fluxus, Pop, Happenings, and whatever category in which one places Samaras'swork. At
moments it effectively reanimated the original concept of the art on display, while at others, the work remained "off limits"-preserved as documents of the past. Brecht's Solitaire(1959), a game consisting of twenty-seven playing cards with instructions, was displayed in a vitrine. A facsimile of the original deck sat on a table
made in 1958 for the Hansa Gallery, was reinvented before, in 1991 at the Fondazione Mudima, Milan.3 In its Newark reinvention, the Environment gave viewers the feeling of being in an arcade with clear plastic walls, mirrors, and colored lights. For two dollars, one could step into one of four photobooths for a snapshot while wearing one of the funhouse masks borrowed from a nearby rack. Visitors could then hang their self-portraits on the wall. Most of the Happenings and Eventswere presented through documentation consisting of photographs, handwritten sketches, notebooks, score cards, and film. There was a large section dedicated to the Yam Festival, the year-long series of Events, Happenings, exhibitions, and mailings organized by Watts and Brecht in
1962-63; a new documentary on Whitman's
Some of the work was "off limits." While one would not think of touching a canvas such as Look (1961), Mickey Lichtenstein's first comic strip painting, everyone loves to play with games. Watts's Game Frog (i96o), a mechanized assemblage that resembled a pinball game with windup toys and blinking lights, was embalmed in a museum case. The game's coiled-up electrical cord laid dead just inches from the wall outlet that could give the toy-art life. One could read the instructions but no longer play the game. Another inactive interactive piece was Brecht's Repository (1961). Although the artist originally intended for viewers to replace the shelved objects with substitutes of their own choice, it too was installed in a museum case. On the occasion of an exhibition of a similar work, Medicine Chest(i96o), Brecht
American Moon(i96o); and audio recordings from John Cage's famous classes at the
New School (1957-59). This solid and visu-
ally attractivehistorical presentation was not as much fun or as edifying as experiVehicle Sundown (Event) encing Brecht's Motor
(I96o), which the New Jersey Symphony
Orchestraperformed at the closing of the exhibition across the street in Washington Park. LarryMiller, the Fluxus artist and former student of Watts, conducted. Robert Watts. Tablefor Suicide Event (detail), 1961. Painted wood table, ink drawing collage, various objects. 34%x 30Y x 27X (88 x 78. x 69.9). Courtesy Robert Watts Estate. Photo Larry Miller.
of Not since Blam:TheExplosion Pop, & Minimalism Performance i958-i964, the exhibition and catalogue prepared by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1984, has such an extensive, well illustrated catalogue charted this aesthetically diverse period. It contains interviews with six of the artists in the exhibition and one with Letty Lou Eisenhauer, in which the work of Watts and Brecht is discussed. The interviews primarily focus on the artists' connection with Rutgers and their relationships with one another. Jacobs provides an essay that relates Cage's classes and his 1958 lecture at Rutgers to the art in the exhibition. The catalogue also includes a serviceable bibliography, an extensive chronology, and a number of previously unpublished black-and-white and color photographs. An important coda to the publication is "Projectin Multiple Dimensions" (i957), a previously unpublished proposal by Watts, Brecht, and Kaprow outlining a program for art education that foregrounds multimedia, new technology, and scientific methods in studio practice. However, one flaw in the presentation (especially evident in the catalogue) is the role with which Rutgers is credited in the formation of the artists' experimental approaches to art. In fact, the progressive teaching at the school was less the product of a philosophy endorsed by the administration than the fortuitous arrivalof new faculty consisting of Kaprow, Hendricks, Watts, and Lichtenstein. It sometimes sounds as if an act of nostalgic romanticization or institutional boosterism takes place here. One reason for this is to strengthen the exhibition's raison d'etre-that is, to unify the eight players featured. The catalogue's editor, Joan Marter, reprints a lengthy excerpt from Kaprow to add some local color to the "stimulating ambiance on the New Brunswick campus" (2). But this excerpt is more interesting
for what she omits: "The university was sunken in poetic indifference, in a blank sleep preserved by campus dons and ladies' clubs .... Ironically, Rutgers was the catalyst in all this, in spite of itself. For the record, it never encouraged, and often opposed, what we were doing in that forlorn place."* Thus, it was ironic that Book,
originally a part of Samaras'sM.A. thesis, was included in the exhibition. The administration wished to censor it, since it contained language they found unacceptable, but Kaprow ardently interceded on his student's behalf. Samaraseventually received his degree, but Kaprow, passed over for tenure shortly afterwards, left Rutgers. This is all paradoxical considering the catalogue makes repeated comparisons between Rutgers and Black Mountain College. A Portrait George of Mr.Fluxus: Collective Maciunas, compiled and edited by three Fluxus insiders, Emmett Williams, Ann No6l, and Ay-O, gathers in kaleidoscopic fashion reflections and primary documents from seventy different voices that bring to life the idiosyncratic, amazingly prolific characterwho was the prime engine of Fluxus. From Yoko Ono to the Deputy Assistant Attorney General of New York, from Kate Millet to the artist's own mother, a truly collective portrait unfolds as easily and amusingly as if one were listening in on a party line. This is not only due to the content of the contributions, but also the way they are arranged. The reader's tactile senses are aroused as one shuttles back and forth to the index to find the author of each entry. Like TristanTzaraor Andre Breton, Maciunas's persona has become the subject of caricature, but this polyphonic approach grounds the better known images and anecdotes in a meaningful context, illuminated by first-hand impressions by intimate friends, colleagues, and occasional foes. The three hundred entries (usually no more than a few paragraphseach), are arranged in thematic and chronological chapters. They take the reader from "The Old Country" (Maciunas was Lithuanian) and "The European Festivals"to "Seeing Red" (on Maciunas's politics), "Don Quixote in SoHo" (his pioneering role in establishing artists co-operatives in SoHo)
and "Leaky Dreamboats" (his plans to "set up a Fluxus island, a colony, you know, like a real country, with a United Nations delegation and all that" ). These last two chapters show the breadth of Maciunas's idealism. "His achievement was not only Fluxus, but also Soho," writes Nam June Paik (194). This development
of "Hell's ioo Acres" (the fire department's term for pre-artist colonized Soho) is thoroughly documented with Maciunas as primogenitor. It is he we may thank for "illegally" planting the first trees in front of 8o Wooster Street. There are humorous, touching, and even tragic Reviews moments in the story as well, which help to explain the look and attitude of Fluxus in general, as well as the personal relationships that defined the group. For instance, one gains a sense of Maciunas's aesthetic predilections in the midst of his legal imbroglio over taxes with the Attorney General's Office. His reply to bureaucracy: a "Flux-fortress (for keeping away the marshals & police: various unbreakabledoors with giant cutting blades facing out ... trick doors and ceiling hatches, filled or backed with white powder, liquids, smelly extracts" [i85]). Such gags are in keeping with many of the humorous boxes he produced under the Fluxus imprimatur. (Years later, he would construct a similar Flux Labyrinthat the Akademie der Kiinste in Berlin). Another example of the relation of his personal life to Fluxus history is the way his friends joined Maciunas in his last months of fighting cancer, assembling more Fluxus boxes to raise much needed money for his medical bills. The most valuable aspect of this literary portrait comes not from anecdotes or historical facts, but from the more intangible aspects of his art that one gleans from Maciunas's temperament, mannerisms, personal habits, tastes, and obsessions. His penchant for cleanliness, drive for systematic organization, compulsive thriftiness, and love of practical jokes extended far beyond the confines of his life to infuse every aspect of Fluxus. All boundaries between personal biography and Fluxus seem to collapse, making Mr.Fluxus illuan minating account not only of Maciunas the man, but a window into the larger conceptual and aesthetic field he dominated. Fluxus is further explored in TheFluxus edited by longtime Fluxus chronicler Reader,
Ken Friedman. It is a collection of twelve essays and two interviews by art historians and other scholars (including one "Fluxkid"-Hannah Higgins) and three Fluxus artists, LarryMiller, the late Dick Higgins, and Friedman himself. Most of the selections focus on the frequently asked question, What is Fluxus?While it must be admitted that the literature dedicated to this difficult subject is dominated by exhaustive inventories of people, places, and events, rather than any critical analyses of the actual works of the artists, few essays here offer original interpretations. The anthology begins with "Three Histories" that rely heavily on primary sources. The essays explore whether Fluxus was a movement, its similarities and differences from Dada, and other academic concerns. Although useful as a chronology of performances and publications with a description of group polemics, this section presents an eviscerated history, with nothing more than a list of events describing the circumstances surrounding various Fluxus pieces. Predictablebows to Maciunas and Cage complete a compendium of superficial information. Thankfully, Ina Blom's "Boredom and Oblivion" picks up the pace. She explores more than the usual erasure of boundaries between life and art that writers so often talk about without saying anything substantial. Instead of dropping Cage's name with the typical historical information that he was key to the avant-gardein the late i95os, Blom discusses the central difficulties Cage's theories presented to the Fluxus artist. For instance, she illustrates how Paik and Dick Higgins probed into change, chance, and variation strategies that became foundations for many Fluxus artists. She also examines why an artist would purposely explore a concept as apparently dull as a melting ice cube. This discussion is in relation to Brecht's interpretation of the
law of thermodynamics "as just a summation of a very large number of individual chance events" (71). She examines the meaning of boredom in a Fluxus work, explaining how it is a catalyst to fade the work into the environment-destroying boundaries. Two other essays worth mentioning
are Dick Higgins's "Fluxus: Theory and Reception" and Friedman's "Fluxus and Company." Higgins demonstrates what Fluxus borrowed and rejected from three avant-garde movements: Futurism, Dada (a comparison he finds "extremely annoying" ), and Surrealism.Significantly, he analyzes how a Fluxus piece affects a participant. He concludes that the more an audience interacts in or with a Fluxus work, the more enjoyment it will experience. According to Higgins, an essential part of being Fluxus is not catering to collectors, gallerists, and museum curators. The most interesting part of the essay manifests itself when Higgins asks who can be a Fluxus artist; he even mentions criteria for new Fluxus artists to follow, suggesting that Fluxus is not dead. Friedman also addresses this endlessly argued polemic. Some historians end Fluxus with the death of Maciunas. They ignore the "twelve core issues that can be termed the basic ideas
of Fluxus" (244), which Friedman defines
does come alive, however, when put alongside the two other publications under review. Taken together, catalogue (admittedly with its broader focus), biography, and anthology offer a well-rounded history of Fluxus.
I. BenjaminH. D. Buchloh, "Ready Made, Objet Trouv6, Idle ReCue,"in Dissent: The Issue of ModernArt in Boston (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1985), 107-22. 2. George Brecht, "Notes on Shippingand ExhibitingMedicine Cabinet," November 16, 1961, artist's file, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 3. Allan Kaprow, "Introductionto a Theory," in G. DiMaggio,ed., bullshit 01 (Milan:Multhipla Edizioni, 199 1). 4. Allan Kaprow, in 10 FromRutgers,exh. cat (New York: BianchiniGallery, 1965), 3. ElizabethBeckman is an artist and art historian who teaches at the National Museum of the American Indian,Smithsonian Institution,New York.JonathanApplefield (Columbia University, M.A., 1991: M.Phil., 1993) is a Research and Writing Associate at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
meticulously. He insinuates that Fluxus is an evolving entity: "it has undergone a continuous process of co-creation and renewal for four decades," and he continues to say, "We are still here" (253).
If after all this, you remain at a loss as to the question of "What is Fluxus?"read Miller's "Maybe Fluxus (A ParaInterrogativeGuide for the Neoteric Transmuter,Tinder, Tinker and Totalist)," arranged as a series of twenty-three scenarios. Miller takes on important philosophical quagmires that puzzle us all, such as, "Maybe you wonder if there is a certain attire for Fluxperformance-should you get any common worker's uniform, get nude, get a tuxedo and gown, cross-dress
or simply come-as-you-are?" (212). Or
more imperatively: "Maybeyou think Fluxus, dead-or-alive, is just neo-Dadashould we therefore anticipate either a
post-appropriationism or a post-plagiarism with the appearance of neo-Fluxus?" Not surprisingly, The FluxusReader concludes with a hefty thirty-eight page chronology of events. While useful for checking a date or location, such inventories, an unfortunate commonplace in Fluxus literature, tend to deaden the subject and dampen reader interest. The book
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