“If man could experience the world, the concrete world surrounding him, in the same way he experiences art, there would be no need for art, artists, and similar ‘nonproductive’ elements.” -George Maciunas (1)
George Maciunas (1931 – 1978) often asserted that Fluxus was not an art movement but a way of life. He became known as “Mr. Fluxus,” a chameleon persona whose first incarnation was a self portrait from 1962. In this reprise of his own passport photograph, Maciunas wears a bowler hat, a suit with a high starched collar, and a monocle; the photographic style mimics the 1930s. Mr. Fluxus’s attire and mock seriousness parody masculine rationality and bourgeois values. He looks a little like Matisse, but the more direct reference is to Marcel Duchamp.
Fluxus’s pioneering explorations of artistic collaboration, sexual politics, power, racial diversity, and nothingness are notable when viewed within a wide spectrum of alternative artistic practices percolating during the 1960s. The movement set out to undermine notions of authorship and economic value, and challenge ostensibly firm distinctions between artistic genres. Fluxus artists conjured paradoxes around ordinary things, and many of their works still present fascinating conceptual “naughts.” Who owns an idea? they endlessly ask. Whether or not Fluxus was an art movement per se, its influence on contemporary art is increasingly recognized, if difficult to gauge. Maciunas’s anarchic flair attracted like minds who infused Fluxus with intelligence and wit.
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Where did Mr. Fluxus come from? The period of transatlantic migration that brought so many Europeans to the US during the upheavals of WW1 and WWII carried with it the young George Maciunas, born Yurgis Maciunas in 1931 in Lithuania. His family emigrated to New York in 1948 from postwar Germany. Maciunas undertook his education in the US with vigor. From 1949 – 1952, he studied architecture, art, and graphic design at Cooper Union. He further studied architecture and musicology at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology from 1952 – 1954, then art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts from 1955 – 1960.
While he pursued academics, Maciunas poured his prodigious energy and polymath genius into vast hand written charts. His training as an architect and a classical musician provided him with skills for rendering information in logical graphic layouts, like blueprints or scores. They often traced developments between languages, the arts, technology, and history from ancient times to the present. A desire to reintegrate existing disciplines of knowledge may have fueled these impossibly complex genealogies. In hindsight, they bear a resemblance to flow charts.
During the 1950s, a number of visionary people were exploring the interdisciplinary potential of information theory, electronics, and video broadcasting. John Cage and Jonas Mekas were among those in the arts who perceived that the early 20th century avant garde art movements’ synthesis of visual communication, politics, and performance in the public sphere formed a logical precedent for the artistic use of new technologies. John Cage’s “intermedia” events in the US and at international venues were gaining influence.
Maciunas’s far-ranging ideas drew the support of both Cage and Mekas. The beginning of a 27 year friendship between Maciunas and Mekas dates from 1951, when they first met and began working together. Mekas was his senior by nine years; he too had emigrated to New York from Lithuania because of WWII. The alternative film venue Mekas founded, Cinematheque, had begun to attract a diverse audience of artists and intellectuals in New York.
Maciunas, meanwhile, was also informed about lesser known avant gardes such as the Soviet LEF movement and the 1960s Lettrisme movement in France. By 1961, he had resolved to launch an ongoing, multifaceted, international, and interdisciplinary underground anti-art movement. He initially described it as “Neo Dada,” declaring its roots to be in Dada, Futurist performance, silent film comedy, Vaudeville, and gaming. Cage’s interest in Zen was an important influence as well.
Macunias coined the term Fluxus in 1961 from a Latin root meaning “flow.” The word’s etymological history includes Italian and French usages pertaining to medicine, metallurgy, alchemy, and metaphor – a rich premodern brew. Maciunas enhanced the word’s conceptual flexibility by devising ingenious logos and innumerable graphic designs for Fluxus projects. They played with typographic codes ranging from vaudeville to Zen calligraphy and much inbetween. On one hand, they attest to Maciunas’s appreciation for political – cultural differences recorded in printed language systems. But equally important, they could be hard to decipher, and gave the movement a phantom, guerilla-like presence amidst the public sphere’s semiotic mix of advertising and police power.
From 1961 through about 1965, Maciunas produced Fluxus performances and exhibitions in several European countries as well as New York. Thereafter, his failing health increasingly kept him from long periods of travel. He devoted his life to Fluxus from 1961 until his untimely death, of cancer, in 1978.
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What is Fluxus? Key to Maciunas’s vision was the participation of artists who shared his maverick sensibility. Together and individually, they set out to explore all that art was not, even to the point of dissolving the very concept of art within everyday reality. Musical performance provided a basic structure: performers, audience, and a score. A score, like a recipe, an algorithm, or a scientific experiment, is a set of instructions encoded into some kind of notation. Like software, it exists in itself and lies dormant until set in motion by the executor of the instructions. Fluxus performances, films, and objects (which were often “scores” of some type) were designed to encourage the audience’s participation and awareness of its own role. Whereas Happenings, according to Alan Kaprow’s model, could entail many events occurring simultaneously, Fluxus events concentrated upon a single occurrence unfolding in time.
Maciunas himself often anonymously funded, produced, and archived Fluxus projects as well as he could, considering that he was broke and ill much of the time. The movement also expanded and benefited greatly thanks to Maciunas’s collaboration with Mekas. In addition to extensively filming Fluxus activities as a creative documentary record, Mekas helped to produce Fluxfilm Anthology, a work consisting of films by some 35 Fluxus artists. (2) Film posters and schedules designed by Maciunas for Mekas’s Cinematheque venue in Soho are visual and historical records of many screenings.
Fluxus was also a deeply political movement, one attuned to the fragility of life. Relationships, friendships, and love were highly valued. Life and art/non art were understood to be deeply intertwined. Fluxus: For George With Love provides a space to reflect upon art as a social activity where collaboration prevails over artistic ego, yet doesn’t subsume it altogether.
Despite an emphasis upon ephemerality, Maciunas intended for Fluxus to enter the historical record and have lasting influence. Indeed, to put the politics behind Fluxus into action, Maciunas played a literally grounding role in the creation of an art community in Soho by forming the first real estate co-ops and collectives for artists’ lofts in that neighborhood.
Maciunas’s architectural background came to the fore as he observed the obsolescence of well built, cast iron manufacturing spaces in Soho during the early 1960s. He devised a financing system whereby several artists could contribute to a down payment on an entire building, buying out the owners so that whole floors could be adapted for live / work space. He was justly proud of the success of these ventures. The personal sacrifices Maciunas endured in order to pioneer the zoning changes that transformed Soho into a neighborhood of artist’s lofts have yet to be acknowledged. This was no routine matter; New York City was in a state of serious decline by the 1960s, and Maciunas had to confront underworld forces in real estate as well as legitimate ones. The pamphlet he designed to attract artists to a cluster of Soho co-ops is on view in Fluxus: To George with Love. Mekas recalls that Maciunas considered this real estate venture to be one of his greatest achievements, although it didn’t benefit him monetarily.
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The works in Fluxus: For George With Love are drawn from the personal collection of Jonas Mekas, who curated the show. Mekas carefully preserved a number of unique graphic layouts that Maciunas himself designed. Among them is a series of logos for several Fluxus artists, including Ray Johnson and Yoko Ono. Ono’s logo, a simple yet ingenious geometric interplay of squares, circles, and diagonals, became particularly well known. Another rare item is a No Smoking sign designed by Maciunas. Seeming to appear out of the black and white typography, it starts to communicate and then disappears. Its paradoxical presence / absence conveys the evanescence of smoke, language, and sociability.
Mekas’s collection also includes mailed versions of multiples sent to Maciunas or himself. Ben Vautier, a French artist inspired by the Lettrisme movement in France, sent Mekas two versions of a “concret,” a visual and typographic communication directed to the people at large. One of them, printed in simple black letters on a white paper bag, reads NO ART in German, French, and English. Another version was printed with red letters on yellow newsprint pulp.
Mekas also preserved a rare sculptural prop that Maciunas made for Fluxus performances. It is a hollow die made of white painted plywood big enough for him to “load” with his body, and roll around the floor. Combining Duchampian notions of gambling and Cage’s fascination with chance, Maciunas brought the artist’s physical investment in art making art to an extreme with this piece.
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ZEFIRO TORNO: SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF GEORGE MACIUNAS
by Jonas Mekas
Zefiro Torno: Scenes From the Life of George Maciunas by Jonas Mekas is a moving tribute to his friend. This film is a beautifully interpretive as well as documentary record of Maciunas’s life. Maciunas loved music and found special inspiration in the great Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi. The phrase Zefiro Torno refers to an aria from one of Monteverdi’s operas. Mekas included an old recording of this aria on the film’s soundtrack, as rich in analog sound scratches as the film’s surface is with grain.
Mekas montaged many 16mm film clips of Maciunas over the years to create a form that might be called biographical cinema. Footage that Mekas shot between 1951 and 1978 while the two friends were close collaborators predominates; the film concludes with the memorial service after Maciunas’s death. Mekas narrates as scenes flicker by.
Mischievous yet tender, the visuals and voiceovers in Zefiro Torno: Scenes From the Life of George Maciunas describe Maciunas’s very body as a Fluxus project. Mekas’s signature experimental techniques in shooting, editing, and montage are all in play. Shot in different 16mm film stocks as chance and choice would have it, some cuts are balanced for daylight while others transpire in monochrome blue. Transitions are often simple black intervals. Available light at interior gatherings creates dramatic chiaroscuro, while bright sunlight renders some outdoor scenes nearly too bright to see. The camera’s physicality is given its due at every moment, especially in a scene where a dinner party is treated to one complete 360 degree rotation.
From a historical perspective, it’s noteworthy that Andy Warhol appears in a number of the vignettes that comprise Zefiro Torno: Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas. Warhol can be seen enjoying dumplings with Yoko and John at one of the dinners George cooked for friends, for example. Twenty-two minutes or so into the film, Mekas’s narrative considers Maciunas’s and Warhol’s mutual interest in nothingness.
Comparisons between Maciunas and Warhol have not been extensively considered to date, perhaps because Warhol’s cultivation of fame and a highly public artistic persona were regarded by many as antithetical to Fluxus. Warhol was born 1928 in the US to Czechoslovakian immigrant parents; Maciunas in 1931 to Lithuanian parents who emigrated to the US, as noted earlier. Both artists studied at Carnegie Institute of Technology in the 1950s, and both became fascinated by the benday dot and other kinds of halftone screen patterns. (They were not alone, of course; the influence of graphics on fine art was widespread during the 1960s in art of the US and internationally.) In quite different yet parallel ways, Maciunas and Warhol both established a contrary position regarding the artist’s role in society. Each had deep artistic insights into the power of mass media technologies including film; the politics of gender; and performance as an art form. Both were exposed to avant garde film through Mekas. For all that they differ, Maciunas and Warhol presented a destratified spectacle of everything that was commonplace – from opposite ends of the anti-art spectrum, as it were.
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Maciunas’s anticipation that Fluxus would creatively disrupt hierarchical conventions of postwar art proved to be on point. Its novel strategies, particularly in time-based media and performance, helped set in motion new forms of artistic expression. Influenced by the work of John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, the Fluxus group shifted the emphasis from what an artist makes to the artist’s personality, actions and opinions. At the same time, a sense of community developed around the social aspect of art making, and thereby bolstered the sanity and survival of artists who found themselves at odds not only with formalist aesthetics but also with political currents of the 1960s. Fluxus: To George With Love offers suggestive new evidence of how deeply the very being of George Maciunas was woven into this remarkable movement.
1. Rothfuss Armstrong, In the Spirit of Fluxus (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1993, p. 156 – 157).
2. Brief notes on Fluxfilm Anthology: A broad spectrum of avant garde films were made during the 1960s. Fluxfilm Anthology was Maciunas’s idea, and his simple descriptions of them are interesting and helpful. Several films are collaborative, but most are credited to individual artists. Maciunas’s Numbering approximately 40 altogether (a few have been lost), the films are excellent demonstrations of Fluxus principles even as they maintain their own artistic integrity. Each strives to concentrate upon a single event – fingers striking a match; xrays of the head speaking, chewing, swallowing; a mouth smiling, then not; a shadowed profile languorously exhaling smoke. Inventing a playful zone between the ephemerality of performance and the structural possibilities of a support – in this case 16 mm film and movie cameras that could shoot up to 2000 frames per second – Fluxfilms experiment with the mechanics of an apparatus and the mechanics of the psyche.
Fluxfilm No. 1, by Nam June Paik, entitled Zen for Film (1964), entails the projection of clear leader film for some twenty to thirty minutes (accounts vary.) Dust and scratches from repeated projections were intended to be part of the film. Combining metaphorical and concrete strategies, the visual brilliance of Zen for Film elevates the busy maya of illusionistic screen images toward sartori-like illumination. Meanwhile, it serves as a light source within any screening room, so that an audience can watch the film while experiencing itself in the act of watching the film. On a subtle level this points to the uniqueness of each audience. The political implication is that the people who gather to watch a film create a fleeting polis. Nothing overtly directs this reading, of course.
Fluxfilm No. 16 by Yoko Ono, entitled Four (n.d.) is a fine example of the body working in tandem with the camera and psychic desire. The viewing frame is quartered by a stationery shot of nude buttocks pacing at a leisurely gait. The sex of the artist personalities who walked upon a treadmill before the lens remains a mystery. Fluxfilm No. 4 splits the viewer’s response between the lizard brain and rational consciousness, deftly invoking some of surrealist photography’s deepest insights from the early 20th century.
The title of Macunias’s own Fluxfilm, 10 Feet (1966), refers to ten feet of clear film on which Maciunas applied presstype numbers from 1 to 10. The film is made into a measuring tape. Another in this genre, 1000 Frames (1966), follows a similar format, with a presstype numerals applied to each frame.
Armstrong, Rothfuss. In the Spirit of Fluxus. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1993.
Hendricks, Jon, ed. What’s Fluxus? What’s not! Why [O que é Fluxus? O que não é! O porquê] General coordination and graphic design, Evandro Salles ; essays by Arthur C. Danto … [et al.] ; historical texts by Fluxus artists George Brecht … [et al.]. Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil ; Detroit, Michigan : Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Foundation, 2002.
Paik, Nam June. “2 x Mini Giants.” Artforum: Vol. 29 (March, 1991), p. 90 – 91.
Phillpot, Clive, and Jon Hendricks. Fluxus: Selections from The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988.
Schmidt-Burkhardt, Astrit. Maciunas’s Learning Machines: From Art History to a Chronology of Fluxus. Detroit: The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection, Detroit, in association with Vice Versa Verlag, Berlin. NP, ND (2003)
Williams, Emmett, and Ann Noel. Mr. Fluxus: A collective portrait of George Maciunas, 1931 – 1978. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
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