I’ve Ripened to the Genius of George Maciunas
By John Held, Jr.
I’ve ripened to the genius of George Maciunas. It wasn’t easy “getting him” as a young artist. I aged into him. In the process of learning about art, with each new level of understanding attained, I drew closer to a place where Maciunas began making sense. Understanding Maciunas is fruition of a life lived in art.
He didn’t make pretty things. Elegant, not pretty. He worked behind the scenes. He wasn’t afraid of looking stupid. He was a Utopianist. He wanted a community surrounding him and found it in organizing performance festivals and producing flux kits with an international community of artists. He wanted a Flux Island. He wanted a concrete ship that could spread Fluxus among all the people. He pioneered a community of artists living and working in SoHo.
I met Maciunas in 1977 at his estate in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a year before he died. My wife (at the time) and I were supposed to spend the evening with Jean Brown, whose home, a former Shaker Seed House in nearby Tyringham, I frequently visited. But this visit, Jean had another overnight guest, and my wife and I were directed to George’s farmhouse to spend the evening.
I had read about Jean Brown in a popular monthly magazine, in an article written by critic Katherine Kuh. Jean was described as an art collector who looked at the margins (including “the vagaries of rubber stamp art,” which I was just beginning to discover)) for insight into the contemporary.
Some years earlier, while driving Marcel Duchamp to the train station after a college lecture, Jean asked him what the artist of the future would do in the face of an increasingly commercialized artistic climate. “They will go underground,” Duchamp replied. And so she looked to the underground for guidance and discovered George Maciunas and Fluxus.
Previous to meeting Maciunas, Jean and her late husband Leonard were collectors of Dada and Surrealistic ephemera. Not the artworks themselves, but the correspondence, the publications, the posters…items that scholars use in recreating histories of artistic movements.
The collection is currently ensconced at the Getty Research Center. While at the Shaker Seed House, I had free run of the materials. At that time, Jean probably had one of the largest collections of Mail Art in the country and was one of the few patrons of the movement.
For example, Jean sponsored the Mohammed Center for Restricted Communication in Milan, Italy. Artist Plinio Mesculium sent out letterheads, to which his contributors added and returned with a list of twelve names and addresses. Mesculium would then color photocopy the returned letterhead, and distribute to the twelve persons named by the contributor. Each letterhead distributed was given a unit number, and as a sponsor of the project, Jean had them all. No one except Mesculium had access to this “restricted information.” But thanks to Jean, I did and was able to gain a greater understanding of the project, to which I frequently contributed.
Maciunas had built Jean’s archive located on the second story of the Seed House. He fashioned it in the style of the Shakers – plain and simple. Wooden drawers retracted into matching wooden walls. A long table of aged wood in the center of the room revealed recently received treasures from around the world.
George had built Jean’s archive after relocating from New York City to Great Barrington, some twenty miles from Jean’s Tyringham. His eye had just been extracted by the Mafia, with whom he had been loan sharking to support his SoHo flux-cooperatives. The New York State Attorney General was after him for breaking zoning codes. It was time to get out of Dodge. One of his reasons for choosing Great Barrington was its proximity to Jean Brown, one of his few steadfast American supporters.
George’s famous “No Smoking” signs were scattered around the main house. It was a fairly dark and dank place, as I recall. I was thirty at the time. I didn’t have questions to ask. I didn’t know what to ask. But George was a gracious host, set my wife and I up for the evening in an upstairs room, and entertained us by leafing through medical books with photographs of deformities, in the manner of the Flux Smile artist postage stamps.
The next morning, we went for a tour of the property- George, my wife Claudia and I, and Nam June Paik’s wife, Shigeko Kubota, who was there for a visit. We walked several hundred yards behind the main house to a large barn, which George intended to renovate as a performance space. It was filled with farm machinery, at the time. Later in the day, Shigeko, my wife and I, went to Tanglewood Music Festival and listened to music on the famed great lawn.
A year later, George had married and died. A year following, I moved from Utica, New York, some two hours driving from Tyringham, to Dallas, Texas. My frequent visits with Jean ceased. Throughout the 1980s, I waited for the rest of the art world to climb aboard the Fluxus bandwagon. It didn’t. I continued to corresponded with Jean, and when in New York City, visited with Barbara Moore and Jon Hendrick’s, who had acquired much of the Maciunas archive, and were distributing it via their New York bookstore and gallery, Bound and Unbound.
The last time I saw Jean Brown was at a flux festival at SUNY Purchase. I gave her my newly published book, “Mail Art: An Annotated Bibliography,” She called it my masterpiece, and I was vaguely disturbed. I thought I had plenty of time left for a masterpiece. She was right. I was wrong.
In the early 1990s, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, put together the first substantial exhibition of Fluxus under the name, “In the Spirit of Fluxus.” For the first time, reviews and scholarly histories appeared spreading knowledge of Fluxus beyond the insular art world.
Reputations wax and wane, and Fluxus continues to rise. In April 2010, while in New York to curate the exhibition, “Greetings from Daddaland: Fluxus, Mail Art and Rubber Stamps,” I went to the Museum of Modern Art. New to the permanent collection was a room devoted to Fluxus, the result of a recent donation by Detroit collectors Gilbert and Lila Silverman. A large retrospective of the movement is due in the next few years. Get ready. It will be a biggie and boost the reputation of Fluxus higher then it’s ever been.
So what did I learn from Maciunas? With his considerable public relations ability, he could have pushed his own art. He didn’t. He painted in the 1950s. And made charts. But he witnessed a gathering artistic sensibility in the early 1960s, and took it upon himself to harness it for the benefit of all. Many artists rebelled. Some were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was, above all, unselfish in his unstinting desire to advance the cause for all. That’s what I find admirable.
For me, that’s a good enough role model. Someone in contrast to the heroic Modernist artists, a self absorbed Picasso or Matisse. Or the angst driven, frequently found among the Abstract Expressionists. George’s role models were Duchamp, Cage, Ray Johnson, and the other artists he surrounded himself with. Artists infused with a sense of community. They’re my role models too, confirming the continuing influence Maciunas exerts on contemporary culture.