Art from Letters and Paper By Thomas Kellein on George Maciunas

Art from Letters and Paper By Thomas Kellein on George Maciunas

Maciunas’ efforts to improve the world by finding new economies in various realms also extended into his daily life. He took a keen interest in what had been bought and for how much and how it was then used – he wanted to see neither material or financial waste. The professional experience that he brought to bear in the cause of Fluxus, besides his knowledge of art history and architecture, involved above all his skills as a typographer. Until the late 1950s, he worked as an architect. From 1961 onward he used his graphic talents to lay the creative foundations and make some profits for Fluxus. As a rule, he designed all the products himself. In an advertisement from 1965 he summed up his range of services as “trademarks, logos, letterheads, envelopes, mail-pieces, posters, announcements, 3-D announcements, 3-D displays, exhibits, environments, packaging, labels, box-design, books… magazines, newspapers, etc.”

He would take on any task, however small, that required a graphic designer.

Building on the experience gained in these commercial assignments, he developed a trift-ideology for Fluxus whereby every design – from the visiting card onward – was to be realized so economically that it cost virtually nothing. This was not only to the benefit of Fluxus – the artists were to learn how to save. “Don’t spend any money!!!” he repeatedly told his colleagues. And he reiterated the same homily to his mother and his sister. Nijole had been running a florists’ business in Connecticut since her marriage.

In aesthetic terms, Maciunas’ vision was founded on his virtuosic handling of texts in conjunction with recycled paper and pictorial motifs, from which he made decorative products. Since his studies at Cooper Union he had specialized in making collaged, alienated combinations of letters with unusual pieces of card stock and synthetic materials. Despite having trained as an architect, he had become a skilled professional typographer.

Maciunas took his basic font from an IBM Composer Typewriter, an “Executive 065,” that he used for his main source of income after 1964, when he took over the production of the journal Film Culture for his friend Mekas. In his view, the ideal paper was what he could find by way of surplus stock and wastage. He had already designed and produced his own letterheads as an “import merchant” and invitation cards to events in his own AG Gallery since 1961. As a one-man graphic design business working for Fluxus, up until 1967 Maciunas never once thought of submitting accounts or invoices for his own services to his own art monopoly. As the owner of the publishing house and its only employee, he in effect cost nothing. And even when it came to designs for other clients or printing elsewhere, he always wanted money to play as small a part as possible.

In November 1961 Maciunas, with his mother and his IBM Executive, left for Germany because there was an opening for him at the United States Army and Air Force Exchange Service at Wiesbaden. This job brought him seven thousand and three hundred dollars a year. Ever since the pre-Fluxus activities in New York, Maciunas had suffered severe asthma. The wages he received from the U.S. Air Force had to cover food for his mother and himself, rent, and medicine. At first he worked in an architecture department; after a while he was able to transfer into a graphic design office. He and his mother moved into a rather large room at no. 6 Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Strasse in Wiesbaden. As in spring 1961 in New York, his day job was used to finance the bigger project that was going to carve out a new direction for art production. Maciunas actually wanted to be a publisher and impresario. However, his mother was to be sheltered from all of this. While she and his sister knew virtually nothing of George’s Fluxus activities, the Fluxus artists knew nothing about his professional life.

At first, as his mother recalls, “Fluxus” was to be the name of a journal that Maciunas wanted to produce fro his father’s Lithuanian Society. However, the proposed presence of artists with Communist leanings at the founders’ meeting in early 1961 was regarded as an affront by the board of the Lithuanian Society. The Society’s members hoped that they had left the Stalinist system and the Hitler era behind them once and for all, so the planned meeting was cancelled at short notice. From that day on, Jurgis, who refused to tolerate this painful rejection, insisted that his name was now George. He cut his ties with his Lithuanian past, concentrated exclusively on his new artist friends and, from this point onward, devoted himself to achieving more international goals.

Neither in New York nor in Germany was Maciunas able to cover his colleagues’ material costs or pay them a fee. He constantly had to find ways around this lack of funds. But he did not want to tackle these financial problems as such as long as he felt there was still potential for reducing costs, by whatever means, or for benefiting from favors. With the help of United States Army in Wiesbaden he was soon promoting a dream postal system. As he told his colleagues, it was possible to send large consignments of goods from the United States to Germany and back at greatly reduced rates. All military personnel stationed overseas had access to the Army Post Office. This meant that in the spring 1962 he started collecting contributions from his fellow artists. He wrote to the filmmaker Mekas in some excitement:

“As soon as I get it we can exchange with bulk – just any bulk – send N.Y. Times, old rugs – anything by parcel post – it’s very cheap.”
With euphoric delight he conveyed the same information to the composer La Monte Young, including in his letter a copy of a medieval depiction of torture, an illustration of the strain that Fluxus would put on the Army Post Office. Ever since he had become friends with three Lithuanian colleagues, namely Jonas Mekas, Almus Salcius, and Stanley Buetens (it seems the last, a musician, had been the one to encourage him to deal in antique musical instruments), he had wanted to become the editor of a journal of his own. In the first instance, “Fluxus” could not appear because the Lithuanian Society prohibited its publication. Then, Maciunas and Salcius had to file bankruptcy for the AG Gallery on Madison Avenue, which they had jointly leased and which had been intended to fund the journal. However, by this time art lovers in New York had already been promised a new publication, which was to take the form of An Anthology. Once again, there were no funds to support the project. The tragicomedy of this whole situation for Fluxus was that the publication had to be postponed repeatedly for two years, but Maciunas himself coped well with the pressure. For him, Fluxus meant simply continuing undaunted and laughing at failure.

An Anthology contained original contributions that the composer La Monte Young had been collecting from international artists, writers, and composers – twenty-six in all – since 1961. These were then given to a printer in New York. Contributions had even been invited from very young European artists such as Claus Bremer and Dieter Roth. The musical compositions and conceptual works mainly came from contributors associated with the classes of Richard Maxfield and included both prominent and less prominent figures – such as John Cage, Earle Brown, Robert Morris, and Walter De Maria. In order to save money, Maciunas wanted the contributions to be copied on colored, almost square copy paper, pasted together, and sold as a low-cost book.

On 27 November 1961, Maciunas wrote to Young from Wiesbaden, explaining that he was sorry not to have got An Anthology finished before he left the United States. However, in order to save money, he had typed up all the pieces again on his IBM Executive. As a cost-conscious publisher, he felt that any extravagance in the layout was an unnecessary expense. He was also against any special wishes with regard to the final choice of paper. He asked Young to please convey these economies to the co-publisher, Jackson Mac Low, forthwith. As a precaution, he took the chance to drive something of a wedge between the two artists:
“The worst of the problems is Jackson. –You should have convinced him that cheap mimeo [paper] is nice.”

On the same occasion he also confronted Young with the story of his own personal ill health, pointing out that the expenses he had incurred for the sake of the book meant that he had not been able to pay for Cortisone, which in turn almost led to him sinking into a coma. He had been admitted to hospital and given oxygen. After this treatment, he was left with no money whatever. Now he would have to start earning money again to cover the cost of producing An Anthology.
A month later, Maciunas was reproaching Young for the fact that the printer in New York, already contracted to carry out the work, was demanding six hundred dollars for the work done so far. In Maciunas’ opinion, this was out of the question. He therefore proposed that Young not take delivery of what had already been printed, or, as a hostile alternative:

“Try to seal from him about 12 books for me and a quantity for yourself.  Tell him that we must sell the books to get money for him.”

In 1961, barely two years before the publication of the first Fluxus item, An Anthology set the pattern for the future. As a publisher, Maciunas promised books that would not only pay for their own productions costs through sales but, as was his fond wish, also prove to be a considerable source of income. In that sense Fluxus was a utopian credit system that had its roots in the optimism of the “economic miracle” years in Germany but perhaps also in the easy success that Maciunas’ father had enjoyed. The Chairman demanded this utopian approach like a general insisting on absolute obedience from his subordinates, but even as he promised future profits, the modest, existing funds were siphoned off for other urgent projects, or money was borrowed from Fluxus artists. Meanwhile, Maciunas cultivated a humorous approach, as though thrift were the only answer to the missing funds. On 7 March 1962, as “George Mao Chu Nas,” he made a sparkling presentation to Young of the idea of writing so much text on a postcard that the recipient would have to use a magnifying glass to read it. And there he would find the words:

“I use a magnifying glass, I am saving on postage.”

On 27 June 1962, Young himself received a reprimand because he had ignored the decree of thrift: He had “unnecessarily” backed his compositions with thick card
when he mailed them and had paid postage of eighty cents:

“Why waste all that money? you could have stuffed those few sheets in an envelope for 14 cents!”

In view of this constant insistence on thrift, the most economical Fluxus projects were given precedence – and Maciunas sometimes put the more expensive ones off for years. This policy certainly had an influence on the impact of Fluxus. It explains why this form of avant-garde art – unlike Pop Art or Minimal Art – never scaled the heights of financial success. Right from the outset, it lacked a visual or commercial elixir that would promise worthwhile returns to potential collectors.