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“George,” the Maciunas Film: An Emerging Portrait of an Influential Enigma

The young George Maciunas in an archival clip from Perkins’ film-in-progress (photo by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic)
The young George Maciunas in an archival clip from Perkins’ film-in-progress (photo by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic)

The Lithuanian-born, New York-based American artist, graphic designer, architect, urban-housing activist, and art-culture-and-society visionary George Maciunas (1931–1978) is best remembered as the conceiver and self-appointed leader of Fluxus, an international network or community of avant-garde artists, which a few decades ago was especially active in the United States, Japan, and Europe.

The heyday of Fluxus stretched from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, and its membership included such artists as George Brecht, Ay-O, Yoko Ono, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, Jonas Mekas, Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, Mieko Shiomi, Ben Vautier, Jean Dupuy, Jackson Mac Low, Eric Andersen, Henry Flynt, Joe Jones, and numerous others.

George Maciunas, "Self-portrait" (1961), black-and-white photograph (image courtesy of George website)
George Maciunas, “Self-portrait” (1961), black-and-white photograph (image courtesy of George website)

Artists of the Fluxus era continued to create works in its spirit after Maciunas died. Today, too, certain art-makers who were not even alive during the most ebullient Fluxus years are still carrying a torch for their path-clearing forbears’ clever, expansive, playful, utopian and subversive ways of thinking about, producing and presenting art — radical attitudes and creative experiments that marked a time when the art world and the art market were not so unabashedly fueled by hype and money-grubbing.

For Fluxus artists, Brecht once observed, traditional galleries, museums and concert halls were “mummifying” places. Instead of worshipping at the altar of establishment-sanctioned “fine art,” Fluxus artists sought to make art out of the most ordinary, even banal materials, objects or gestures. They wanted to change the nature of art and the common understanding of what art could be. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they wanted to change art history and, through their art-making, the world.

Film-maker Jeffrey Perkins at his studio in New York, December 2014 (photo by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic)
Film-maker Jeffrey Perkins at his studio in New York, December 2014 (photo by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic)

Brecht, an American professional chemist who was born George Ellis MacDiarmid, invented the “event score,” or simple, written instructions that could be realized by any performer-participant and served as the starting point of many a Fluxus action-work. The “score” of Brecht’s self-explanatory “Drip Music (Drip Event)” (1959–62) stated, in part, “A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel.” Other Fluxus works encouraged viewers to become art-making participants, as in Yoko Ono’s “Painting to Be Stepped On” (1961), which invited gallery-goers to walk across a scrap of canvas the artist had laid on the floor via a written instruction that had been placed beside it.

Since 2010, the Manhattan-based artist and filmmaker Jeffrey Perkins, who met Maciunas several times and has long been associated with many of Fluxus’s key figures, has been gathering research material and shooting interviews with surviving Fluxus luminaries for George, a documentary film he is producing that will chronicle the life and achievements of the avant-garde group’s legendary leader.

George Maciunas, "Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dimentional, Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms" (c.1973), offset, printed in black, with pen, 68 x 23 inches (The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York)
George Maciunas, “Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dimentional, Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms” (c.1973), offset, printed in black, with pen, 68 x 23 inches (The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York) (click to enlarge)

Perkins says his project has been filled with discoveries about Maciunas’s eccentric behavior, his relationships with the artists in his immediate circle and wider orbit, and the scope and complexity of his artistic and often half-baked entrepreneurial projects. (Maciunas reportedly ate very little and one time became involved in a scheme to sell canned foie gras; it also turns out that, unbeknownst to many of his friends and colleagues, he was an avid cross-dresser and masochist, who liked to be whipped.)

Recently, at his studio in Manhattan, Perkins showed me excerpts from some of the interviews he has shot so far. He also told me about “The Dematerialized Auction,” an unusual event that will take place at the Emily Harvey Foundation’s space in Soho, in downtown Manhattan, next Saturday, January 10, at which time a group of conceptual artworks will be sold. Proceeds from the Fluxus-inspired sale will help fund the final phases of his film-in-progress.

“Several well-known Fluxus artists, including Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Eric Anderson and Geoffrey Hendricks, as well as several contemporary artists, are going to offer works for sale,” the filmmaker said. “Their buyers will be free to realize them however they may wish to do so.” The event’s organizers say the auction’s lots will include everything from works involving “computer-processing instructions” to “poetic operas of the mind.”

A polymath who was known for his erudition and intellect, and for obsessively researching whichever subjects seized his imagination, Maciunas immigrated to the United States as a child, with his family, in 1948. (George’s father was an architect and engineer, his Russian-born mother a dancer.) He studied graphic design at Cooper Union, architecture at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now part of Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh and art history at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. While studying at NYU, Maciunas started developing his “learning machines,” or graphically complex charts that visually summarized vast sweeps of artistic, cultural or political history. They reflected his penchant for meticulous information-gathering and his interest in classification systems.

George Maciunas, "Fluxshop Stationery (recto)" (nd), offset, printed in black, 13 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches (The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York)
George Maciunas, “Fluxshop Stationery (recto)” (nd), offset, printed in black, 13 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches (The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York)

Perkins said, “He was a compulsive organizer. Among his own artworks were the Excreta Fluxorum ‘fluxboxes’ — wide-ranging collections of turds from various animals, including a unicorn, that he started making in 1972. Each specimen was neatly packed in a tiny, clear-plastic box, each of which was placed in its own compartment in a larger, clear-plastic box. It was all very scientific.” (Today, in New York, such works can be found in the Museum of Modern Art’s Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, which it acquired in 2008.)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s in New York, avant-garde artists in the visual arts, music, dance and other fields experimented wildly with the form and content of their respective genres, blurring their boundaries and overlapping their concerns. Several of these artists were influenced by the ideas and so-called chance operations of the composer John Cage, who studied Zen Buddhist thought and taught experimental musical composition at the New School for Social Research (now the New School). Long before certain “alternative spaces” became institutionalized as venues for exhibitions or performances, artists presented their creations wherever they could. By 1961, Ono’s loft on Chambers Street had become known among avant-gardists as one such lively outlet, where the composer-musician La Monte Young and other artists presented their works.

Jeffrey Perkins watches artist Yoko Ono in her interview for his film about George Maciunas (photo by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic)
Jeffrey Perkins watches artist Yoko Ono in her interview for his film about George Maciunas (photo by Edward M. Gómez for Hyperallergic)

In her interview for Perkins’ film, Ono recalls her first encounter with Maciunas, in 1961. The Japanese-born artist had heard that, at his uptown AG Gallery, which he operated with a partner, Maciunas had followed her example and had begun presenting avant-garde art events, too. To Ono’s surprise, one day he called her and invited her to meet him, only to offer the artist her first-ever solo, commercial-gallery show. He also told Ono that he had landed on a name to apply to the new kind of art that, like her own, represented an attitude and spirit upon which he had been reflecting. He proposed the Latin word fluxus, meaning loose or flowing. More in accordance with his aesthetic-theoretical interests, it also meant flushing or purging. Two years later, in his “Fluxus Manifesto,” he would write, “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art … ”

In practical terms, Maciunas created Fluxus by grouping together under its umbrella those artists who, he thought, shared its attitude and values. (In effect, Fluxus, for whose publications and art-object editions he provided a cohesive, graphic-design look, was his grandest organizational project.) He became an admirer and proponent of Ono’s work. In her filmed interview, Ono recalls that, in late 1961, Maciunas departed for West Germany, where he would live and work (as a graphic designer at a US military base) for a few years before returning to New York. She notes that the Fluxus leader wanted her to accompany him. Ono says, “If I had gone with him, the avant-garde scene would have changed a lot.”

At that point, Perkins paused the image on his computer monitor, turned to me and gasped, “Did you hear what she said? That’s a very significant observation. If Yoko had left New York and moved to Europe at that time, who knows what the history of late 20th-century, avant-garde art or pop culture would look like today?”

Perkins has known Ono since 1963, when he first met her and her then-husband, the American filmmaker Anthony (“Tony”) Cox in Tokyo. Perkins, then a U.S. Air Force serviceman, was stationed at a nearby American military base. Later he moved to Los Angeles, where he co-founded a psychedelic light-show ensemble, which performed with the Velvet Underground, Cream, Sly and the Family Stone and other rock acts. Perkins also got to know the L.A.-based abstractionist Sam Francis and between 1968 and 1977, he filmed the artist and recorded interviews with him, creating material he later assembled into a documentary, The Painter Sam Francis (2008).

Since the 1980s, Perkins has lived and worked in New York. He has made paintings of his own and, while driving a taxicab for many years, he tape-recorded more than 500 hours of conversations with his passengers. Those tapes became several different editions of an audio-montage work, Movies for the Blind. “It was Nam June Paik who said I should become the first Fluxus taxi driver and gave me money for a tape recorder,” Perkins recalled. Paik included an early version of Movies for the Blind in the Fluxus Festival he organized at Anthology Film Archives in 1996. A more recent edition of the work was presented at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris in late 2011. Perkins will soon show his paintings on paper at an art fair in Switzerland.

In her filmed interview for George, the video artist Shigeko Kubota, the widow of performance and video artist Nam June Paik, fondly recalls Maciunas and refers to his pioneering efforts decades ago to create what are now known as co-op buildings, filled with living/working lofts for artists, in downtown Manhattan’s SoHo district. Kubota recalls, “We lived in a community. Fluxus is sharing. […] All artists have ego, but how you share ego together with one goal — that’s Fluxus.”

Jon Hendricks, the consulting curator of MoMA’s Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, the compiler of the Fluxus Codex (1988) and a renowned, walking encyclopedia of all things Fluxus, says of Maciunas in his George interview, “He envisaged Fluxus, I’m convinced, as a movement. He was very aware of art history.” Hendricks notes that Maciunas understood the scope and aspirations of social, political or artistic movements, and that his interest in creating Fluxus events, documents and manifestos reflected that understanding and his own ambition for the radical-humanistic outlook he had developed. From the start, Hendricks emphasizes, it was characterized by a sense of “internationalism.”

Perkins pointed out that “Fluxus ideas were so simple and yet infinitely expandable; they predated the systems we’re now so involved with today, like the hyper-linking Internet, multiculturalism, global language or global culture.” He added, “What I have to do is not just bring to the screen Maciunas’s life story but also make cinematic some of the big ideas that swirled around and shaped and characterized Fluxus. My job is to make the ephemeral visual. I think George would have appreciated the challenge.”

The Dematerialized Auction: A Fluxus Fundraiser for George,” will take place at the Emily Harvey Foundation, 537 Broadway, second floor, on Saturday, January 10, 2015, starting at 6:30 p.m. For more information and to reserve a seat by January 5, contact [email protected]

Special thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Communications for photos of Maciunas artworks.

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