An Anthology: The Education of Mr. Fluxus by John Held Jr.

An Anthology: The Education of Mr. Fluxus

The well-publiciazed angst of the Abstract Expressionist painters, laid bare on canvas and by in-fighting among themselves, rose from inner demons and newfound success. John Cage and colleagues, just as fiercely focused on their art as the Ab Ex’ers, labored unheralded during this same period, feeling besieged, misunderstood, and as a result, banded together for mutual support.

Many of these artists, including George Brecht, Dick Higgins and Alan Kaprow, came together at the New School for Social Research in 1956, where Cage began teaching a class on Composition. In a 1988 interview I did with Kaprow, I asked him about John Cage and the class he took with him at the New School.

“He was a kind of train station. People would sort of gather there and wait for the next train. I actually was a student of his. That was not the case with all of them. Many of them were occasional visitors. But I was already teaching at Rutgers by then. That was 1957, and I knew him slightly. Knew his work, of course. But at that point, I was trying to introduce a richer range of sound into the environmental stuff that I was doing parallel with the early happenings that were done. So I went to the class – I had been on a mushroom hunt with him, that’s what it was, with George Brecht, who was a neighbor of mine at that time in New Jersey – and I asked John at that time about the problems I was having with the sounds. There were mechanical gadgets that I had gimmicked up as best I could, you know, those wonderful toys the Japanese made – gorillas that growl, cows that moo, and things like that – and these were interesting, but after awhile they got boring, rather mechanical and expected, so I asked him what to do. And he said, ‘Why don’t you come to the class next week.’

I drove in for the class, and he explained rather quickly that I could use tape decks, a half dozen cheap tape decks, make all the sounds in advance, and put them on in some sort of random order, or program them as I wanted, and then distribute loud speakers around the room, and these things would have a much greater richness, done in a collage fashion, which I could understand readily, having done that, then any of the mechanical toys I had done. So I thought that was – he explained it in five minutes. You just take sticky tape and stick all these things together which you’ve previously recorded and put into envelopes. And he said, ‘Why don’t you stay for the class?’ Fine, I said.

At the end of the class, I was so fascinated with what was going on I asked him if I could attend it regularly, and he said, ‘Sure.’ And that’s where I actually did the first proto-happenings with the participation of the rest of the class members. Everyone was given homework every week and came in with a piece. And that’s where I began doing that sort of work.”

Kaprow’s happenings defined the era, serving up the first serious salvo against the sovereignty of the Abstract Expressionists. It took painting out of the studio and into an environment mixed with sound, dance, concept, sculpture, paving the way for the inter-medial decade to come, host to a multitude of new movements including Pop Art, Minimal Art, Earth Art, Conceptual Art, Op Art, Video Art, Visual Poetry, Mail Art, et al.

By the beginning of the sixties, experiments with old and new creative mediums exploded. In Cage’s wake, music became sound and sound reduced to silence. Lou Harrison, La Monte Young and others were incorporating Eastern influences into their compositions. Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell began investigating the new medium of television, trailblazing the development of Video Art. Poetry was turned on its head by the concrete experiments of Emmett Williams, Bern Porter and Jackson Mac Low. Henry Flynt was talking about something called Concept Art. Dick Higgins invigorated the term “intermedia.” Yoko Ono and George Brecht were touting “events” and “instructions” as art.

With the waning of Abstract Expressionism as a dominate decade long American Art movement, it seemed as if the center would not hold, and something new was slouching to be born. Kaprow’s happenings became a mainstream hit, part of the “crazy beatnik” art scene. Pop Art, with Warhol as superstar, became the darling of media, society and investment firms, alike. Little noticed at the time was the development of Fluxus, an attempt to link the disparate radical underground of cultural New York and beyond.

It’s renovation nearly killed him, certainly hastened his death, but in 1962 George Macunias, a Lithuanian immigrant, renovated and opened the AG Gallery with his friend Almus Salcius. Maciunas had attended a class in 1959 taught by the composer Richard Maxwell at the New School for Social Research, who had taken over the composition course taught by John Cage. He consulted on the gallery’s programming with the assistant teacher of the class, La Monte Young, who had already staged a series of performances at Yoko Ono’s loft.

“He was just a great guy, but as far as art was concerned I had to teach him everything he knew practically. He didn’t know what to present. I remember Henry Flynt and I were telling him one day, he was saying to Henry and me, ‘I want to present (Otto) Luening and (Vladimir) Ussachevsky.’ He said, ‘Why I can’t present something that represents the way I feel?’ I would say, ‘I don’t want to be lost back there in the past with these guys, I want to present the kind of work that I understand is going on today and is the cutting edge of the avant-garde.’

I published Henry’s first essay on concept art in An Anthology, which was a collection of scores, poetry, dance constructions, and other avant-garde work that I had collected on my desk in Berkeley for performances. When I came to New York I continued to collect.”

(An Interview with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela By Gabrielle Zuckerman, American Public Media, July 2002.)

Macunias used the collection that La Monte Young had gathered as a foundation on which to bond the international avant-garde, one of whom was the American poet Emmett Williams, then living in Germany.

“La Monte Young had seen some of my concrete poems in a book called Movens published by Limes Verlag in Wiesbaden in 1960, an anthology of avant garde writers, artists and composers. La Monte wrote to me for permission to reprint some of this work in an anthology he was editing in New York. His An Anthology, a source-book of early Fluxus classics, was designed by George Maciunas. And George Maciunas, the Lithuanian-born father of Fluxus, invited me to join Fluxus at the world’s first Fluxus festival in Wiesbaden in 1962. I love the way all these things are interrelated! What networking – even way back then!” (interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2004)

When the poet Chester Anderson, publisher of Beatitude, exited New York for California in 1959, he asked La Monte Young to edit Beatitude East, knowing that the radical musician had been collecting performance scores from friends in Berkeley and New York. In this he was aided by Jackson Mac Low, who had attended Cage’s composition course at the New School for Social Research, and worked at the Living Theater with Julian Beck and Judith Malina.

When Beatitude East failed to materialize, Maciunas stepped into the void.

Mac Low and Young provided Maciunas with connections to a new ideology rising from the ashes of the “beat generation”, encouraging him not only to present radical programming at AG Gallery, but to design An Anthology, composed of the materials co and prompting him to organize the 1962 Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, to present some of the performative works found in An Anthology.

Maciunas supplied the paper, design and some money for the publishing of An Anthology, according to Henry Flynt, and had it ready for printing by October 1961. It was finally published by Young and Mac Low in 1963 as:


The first edition (A second edition was reprinted in 1970 by Heiner Friedrich) contained 67 leaves and three inserts. It included multicolored and onionskin paper, card stock and two envelopes. The text was printed in offset with a heavy paper cover, collated manually with a staple and perfect binding.

The very first work contained in An Anthology, “Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event),”by George Brecht, is dedicated to John Cage. Cage himself contributes the work, “Excerpt from 45’ for a Speaker,” which contains the line, “The thing to do is keep the head alert but empty.” Being alert to ones surrounding and culture without preconceived expectation, best summarizes an approach furthering appreciation of An Antholgy.

What other way than to approach the poem by Diter Rot (aka Dieter Roth), “White Page with Holes,” composed of irregularly sized punched circles into an insert of heavier paper than the bound pages? The inserts of Rot, La Monte Young’s, “Composition 1960 #9,” printed on an envelope attached to the book’s endpaper, and an uncredited musical score, fall out of the world of bookworks and into that of the artist multiple, which Maciunas was to develop after publication of An Anthology.

Maciunas had fully assimilated lessons learned through Young’s research material, contacting many of the artists, taking their ideas on the road with him to Wiesbaden and planning for a follow-up publication to be called “Fluxus.”

Maciunas edited from a new generation of experimental artists in New York and beyond to create a functioning cadre of cultural workers. Maciunas gathered them under the banner of Fluxus, more attitude then movement, with a revolving cast of characters allowing Maciunas to present and promote performances, publications, film screenings, street actions, multiples and exhibitions both nationally and abroad.

Designing An Anthology was an education for Maciunas. It not only brought him into contact with the most challenging artists of his era, but by absorbing their new visionary art, helped him to conjure “the most radical and experimental art movement of the sixties.”

John Held, Jr.

San Francisco