George Maciunas:In Memoriam By Ken Friedman

Posted on Posted in 2008-02 Fluxus: To George With Love, Essays

GEORGE MACIUNAS: IN MEMORIAM

George Maciunas, long-time organizer of Fluxus activities in New York and around the world, died in early May of cancer. Born in November, 1931 in Kaunas, Lithuania, Maciunas has for two decades been an influential presence in the art world. Though his name is not widely known to the general public—to a great degree the result of his own insistence on individual anonymity and public presentation through group effort—his works and projects have indelibly shaped the structure and visible forms of contemporary art.

Maciunas studied art and architecture from 1949-53 at the Cooper Union in New York, later undertaking work in architecture and musicology at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology. Between 1955-59 he studied art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

In the early’60’s, he helped to found the Fluxus group, working with friends and colleagues such as Dick Higgins, Bob Watts, Yoko Ono, Alison Knowles, and George Brecht to develop the performances, publications, concerts and tours of the early sixties. Widely-respected for his talent as a designer, he worked for a number of years at top Madison Avenue agencies to support the avant-garde productions he edited and published for Fluxus. His design talents also appeared on such products as An Anthology edited by Jackson Mac Low and La Monte Young, the classic 1963 anthology which first widely publicized works of art labeled concept art, and including work by many Fluxus members as well as others who have worked within the Fluxus framework form time to time, such as Robert Morris, Walter de Maria and Ray Johnson.

During the early years of the Fluxus movement roughly 1961-66, Maciunas presided over the Fluxus activities as an editor and coordinator. The first major push he organized was that of a series of magazines, modular and revolutionary, using ideas later adopted by many new art publishers from Aspen magazine to Lightworks. The second effort was a series of concerts and tours through Europe, by the end of which many of the most significant members of Fluxus—including Joseph Beuys, Name June Paik, Ben Vautier and Wolf Vostell—had come to join Higgins, Knowles, Brecht and the others in one of the first genuinely international movements since Dada. The third important process was the program of publishing of objects, multiples, games and other materials which Maciunas almost single-handedly organized at his New York center. These modular, well-designed artifacts range from Brecht’s Water Yam and Watts’ Events to the museum-in-a-box versions of the Fluxkit and the many exquisite Fluxus chess games. These activities altogether helped to herald in a number of the transformations in art which swept in the ‘60’s, ranging from the development of multiples as art objects to the dematerialization of art and finally the introduction of intermedia in an art where content—rather than the presence or absence of form—is the crucial issue. Maciunas’ fourth great project began in 1966, the development of artists’ cooperative housing in what is now called the SoHo of New York, an area in which Maciunans had been one of the first permanent residents. It has been said that as a visionary architect and urban housing activist, George Maciunas was more responsible than any other man for the development of the area now including SoHo, NoHo and the new TriBeCa as a center for art energy and activity.

By 1967, Maciunas had become interested in even more progressive housing-living schemes, including a Fluxus Island which never materialized, and a Fluxus Farm, which finally did. He spent the last few years of his life on the farm in Western Massachusetts, where he has been carrying out his work and his activities together with friends and colleagues.

INFLUENCE AND REPUTATION

It is impossible to gloss more than a few of the major activities of the extraordinary Maciunas in less than a book. In fact, there exist books in several languages filling hundreds of pages with nothing more than indexical notes to other sources of full description. During the twenty years he affected the art world, George Maciunas was productive, active and continually experimental, developing and playing out new themes in an energetic and forceful way .he has been an influence on art and the world through object-making, film-making, publishing, design, urban design, architecture, editorial planning, politics, music, performance art, and art historical research.

An individual of uncompromising integrity, Maciunas was widely-known as a difficult man to work with. He was legend among his friends for his explosive temper and his occasional “purges” of the Fluxus group, when for one ideological reason or another, he ultimately “purged” Fluxus at one time or another of all but four members whom he considered the “core”. Nevertheless, for all his capacity for wrath, he was a loyal, good friend…and none of his ideological expulsions were taken very seriously by anyone, including George himself. Where integrity really mattered, Maciunas took firm and often dangerous stands. During the last few years in New York, this resulted in numerous legal battles with the Attorney General and in a physical attack against him by a mobster which cost him the sign of one eye.

His reputation began to grow during the Seventies. It seemed at one point that almost everyone had a Maciunas story or two to tell. He was always controversial, but it must be said that of the many people who hated him or thought they hated him, almost none knew him directly. A complex, quizzical person, a person who had the capacity to irritate others as much as he himself was irritable, Maciunas was nevertheless appreciated and respected by those who really knew and worked with him. All of his many friends have unfinished business with him—and bones yet to pick. It is characteristic of the loyalty he earned that the unsettled matters and little problems he left behind him remain treasured by his friends as gifts, just as they had previously been treasured as anecdotes.

When one Fluxist received word of Maciunas’ fatal illness, she found words appropriate to the feelings many hold toward him. She said, simply, “Whenever we get to wherever we’re going, George will have the program organized for us.”

Maciunas, a life-long bachelor, was married to Billie Maciunas only a few months before his death in a Fluxus ceremony. It is customary in a tribute or obituary to state that he is survived by his wife. In the case of George Maciunas, he is survived by his wife; by many devoted friends; by thousands of “children” and “grandchildren” in the generations of young artists who have grown to maturity under the influence of his often-anonymous but far-reaching work; by an art world which he left much different than it was when he and his colleagues first came to it.

– Ken Friedman

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