Notes on Soho And a Reminiscence By Hollis Melton
“Although once thought as a ‘movement’, with all the appropriate manifestos and positions, Fluxus is not a movement as such, but a tendency which cuts across the oeuvres of various artists rather than encompassing them totally. This brings Fluxus into total harmony with the art trends of the 1970s.
What distinguishes Fluxus from other trends is that it itself is the locus of various trends—or, rather, of various arts. Music, theater, dance, literature, visual art, and even non-art factors inform Fluxus—without forcing it, as they might force other forms of intermedia, to identify its principal roots. Unlike happenings, conceptual art, current performance art, visual poetry, and new forms of dance, music and theater, Fluxus exists at a point equidistant from all the arts.”
Peter Frank—Experimental Music in “Fluxus New York,” in New York-Downtown Manhatta: Soho, catalogue for Berliner Festwochen. Sept. 5 – Oct. 17, 1976. Academie der Kunste, Berlin. P. 177
The determination of his individual dwelling lies, as it has with the residential housing throughout history, on his financial means, technical know-how, and personal whim. Only in this way can we open the way to the essential quality of organic diversity within the urban environment which has been the natural outcome of human settlement in the past. This diversity is an imponderable no architect can forsee, only the inhabitants and time can create. The architect provides construction whose relationships suggest a certain way of life; the people make of those shells a city.
–Roger Katan, New York: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, World Cultural Guides, Dore Ashton, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, 1972, p. 202
The 43 block area bounded by Houston Street on the north, Lafayette Street on the east, Canal Street on the south and West Broadway on the west has been designated as a landmark for cast iron architecture. The style of the cast iron buildings is called palazzo, an American adaptation of the Renaissance palace for the 19th century business. These statuesque buildings line Broadway, Mercer Street, Broome Street, Greene Street, Spring Street, Wooster Street, West Broadway, Crosby Street and Lafayette Street. What used to be called The Valley by the city planners, or Hell’s Hundred Acres by the Fire Department (because there were so many fires caused by violations in the buildings) is now called Soho, the name taken from the City Planner’s map of New York: So.Ho. (South of Houston Street)
The history of Soho’s survival and renaissance is related to the history of artists in search of living/working spaces. After World War II artist started moving into commercial buildings in lower Manhattan. On Broadway just south of 14th Street (De Kooning, Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko), on Greene Street (Marie Menken), on the Bowery (Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, Elaine De Kooning), in the East Village, and further downtown in places like Coenties Slip (Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Ken Jacobs), which was demolished in the Sixties, and a highrise erected on the site (the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art is now located there). The artists lived in the commercial buildings illegally and their occupancy was tenuous. They could rent the raw space very cheaply, renovate it and then the landlord could refuse to renew the lease in order to rent the improved space (improved at no cost to the landlord) to another tenant at double the rent.
In 1962, the City Club had published a study called “The Wastelands of New York City,” which listed Spring, Broome, Mercer and Greene Streets as Commercial slum area No.1 and recommended demolition and rebuilding. “The analysis clearly showed,” said the study, “that there are no buildings worth saving.” (Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times, May 24, 1970.) The developers were ready to move in with the bulldozers and the area south of Houston Street would have been demolished and built up into highrise dwellings for the middle class had it not been for the Rapkin Report. Chester Rapkin, a city planner, made a city finance study in 1963 to determine the value of the area south of Houston Street to the city. The study revealed that some of the industries in the area recycled wastes—rags into paper, newspaper waste into paper boxes. These and other industries in the area employed thousands of minority workers, many of whom did not speak English and would have been otherwise unemployable. There were also many small manufacturers who were just starting their business and could not afford a higher rent area. The City Planning Commission flowed the recommendation of the study and decided to protect the industries by forbidding any form of residency in the area.
This move perpetuated the history of artists’ evictions and harassments by the city. But artist continued to move into the area despite the illegality of loft living; there were many unoccupied lofts, even whole buildings had been abandoned as the industries shut down, or moved away, seeking better alternatives, often across the river in New Jersey. The landlords were happy to rent to artist who could improve the space, and who could then be easily evicted since they had no legal protection.
The general consensus is that the major influx of artist to Soho was in 1966, and again the general consensus attributes this factor to the vision of the late George Maciunas, founder of Fluxus (a loosely organized art movment) who introduced the concept of artist owned and run cooperative buildings.
The first successful Fluxhouse Cooperative to be organized was 80 Wooster Street. Maciunas purchased the empty loft building for the cooperative in 1966, with the monies put up by the Film-Makers Cinematheque, and his mother, and loans from Kaplan Fund and the National Foundation for the Arts.
Among the first to join the cooperative venture was Maciunas’ friend Jonas Mekas. Mekas had been looking for a permanent home for the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque since 1961. Prior to this the group had been screening films in rented spaces, often chased from one space to the next, the group never had the security of a permanent home. The dream of the Cinematheque was to design and construct its own theater suitable to the needs of the independent avant-garde cinema. With the help from Jerome Hill, a friend film-maker, Mekas secured the seed money for the deposit on the 80 Wooster building, and secured the ground floor and basement space for the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. The Building Department, however, refused to issue the Film-Makers Cinemathque a Certificate of Occupancy, and then refused to issue them a theater license because there was no Certificate of Occupancy. The Cinemathque was presented with a list of thirty-seven violations, the major one of which was the artists, fellow cooperative members, who were living illegally on the floors above the Cinematheque. Mekas called a meeting of artists from the neighborhood on April 22, 1969. He wanted the neighborhood to organize itself and push for the legalization of loft living. Out of this meeting came the Soho Artists Association (SAA). The group published a newsletter, met periodically with members of the City Planning Commission and helped to save Soho from the Broome Street Expressway, along with another group, Artists Against the Expressway.
The SAA sponsored the first Soho Artists Street Festival in May 1970; its opening coincided with the Kent State Massacre; in lieu of canceling the festival the SAA draped the fire escapes of the Greene Street Cooperative buildings in black crepe and Yvonne Rainer led a procession of mourning for the dead at Kent State. Thousands of tourists came. The festival received attention from the media and John Lindsay, the mayor, and Nelson Rockefeller publicly recognized Soho as a healthy entity. The artists had succeeded in drawing attention to their plight with the city to legalize loft living. Finally in September 1970 the City Planning Commission passed a resolution permitting artists to live in Soho lofts whose size did not exceed 3,600 feet. Buildings owned cooperatively would be legalized regardless of their size. However, the new law required that all cooperatives file a prospectus with the Attorney General’s office.
Jim Stratton, author of a book about lofts, Pioneering in the Urban Wilderness (Urizen Books, 1977) used to write a column in the Soho Weekly News about lofts. In the November 28, 1974 issue he devoted the entire column to the law that requires a cooperative to file a prospectus with the A.G.’s office. He said:
“The main function of the prospectus in to increase the price of the building to the person co-oping it and to restrict the developer population to only those who can afford it. Legal fees to a good lawyer for drawing up a prospectus can run to $10,000. Then there are engineering reports, surveys, accountings and all of them cost money.
The prospectus, therefore, assures that the developer will be monied and shrewd, out for big profits, and the lofts will go for a bundle. Then the A.G. is happy. The buyers have no more than they would have had without a prospectus, except it cost more. That’s the American way.
Curiously, most ‘illegal’ offerings I’ve seen can be read like an open book by any layman who wants to dig a little and ask a few questions. A phalanx of lawyers, however, know no more about a building after reading the prospectus than they did before they opened it.
Except that now they know they can’t sue [the seller].”
Maciunas organized fifteen co-ops between 1966 and 1975 without ever filing a prospectus. This brashness infuriated the Attorney General’s Office. A warrant was sent out for the arrest of Maciunas in 1974. Maciunas’ response to the warrant out for his arrest was characteristic, He designed a series of elaborate disguises for wearing out in the street and kept right on with business of forming co-ops, renovating lofts, and made a Fluxus kit of disguises for the A.G.’s office.
The cooperative owners were safe, there were increasing numbers of them, they were homeowners, paying taxes to the city. The status of ownership gave them greater stability and clout politically. Maciunas who had studied architecture and whose father was an engineer, was always very forthright with those whom he dealt with; he knew the building code inside and out and knew exactly what the structural problems of each building were. He never recommended fixing anything that wasn’t necessary to the safety of the building and the people living there. His methods were unorthodox and his financial manipulations were staggering to a normal person, but he was never dishonest and his vision w3as so far reaching that one could always forgive his transgressions, provided one could appreciate his particular vision. And many couldn’t. many of his initial cooperative buyers revolted against his iron rule and forced him out of their co-ops.
At that time he lived rent free in the basement of 80 Wooster Street, owned by the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. His room was filled with five or six big Norfolk pine trees and some huge rubber plants, which he put outside in summer. Tools were hanging up along the wall and from the ceiling beams, there was a white harpsichord that he had put together himself, and a metal table with a glass top and white metal chairs around it. The chairs weren’t very comfortable. Though neat, the room always seemed to be bursting with its contents. Full length windows looked outside to the courtyard where he had designed a tiled garden. He slept on a cot in a tiny room off the main room and had built a secret escape tunnel to the adjacent Mekas’ film editing room. From there he had cut a hole in the ceiling that led to the ground floor and gave access to the street, just in case he needed to escape from inside to get away from the A.G.’s men. The escape hole was designed only for his thin body to get through; no normal size police type could even squeeze himself through the escape hole. In addition, he had fortified the door to his room with an extra panel, in between the panel and the door he had installed rows of very sharp blades. The Fire Department forced him to cover the blades with the panel, “to protect innocent visitors from harm.” A sign on the door warned visitors of the blades behind the panel. To gain entrance in those days one had to know the secret knock and then announce oneself in a clear voice that was not a shout.
I used to visit him a lot in 1975. I was President and Treasurer of the 491 Broadway co-op he had organized for us—the last co-op he did organize—and I needed a lot of help, which he was always willing to give. He showed me how to keep the books, how to organize all of the bills, how to pay the real estate taxes with a certified check so that the building would have an instant receipt to show the Mortgagee. He passed to me all of the summonses made out in his name for violations on the building and when I went to the court to straighten it out the woman clerk couldn’t believe George was walking around free, with so many warrants out for his arrest. He always stressed that we should learn to run the building ourselves, and gradually I became more confident and began to enjoy work for the co-op. We had some terrible arguments, but I could never remain angry with him for long; he had a strong quick temper that would erupt and then everything would be calm as if there had been no outburst. He said his quick temper came from taking cortisone injections every day for his asthma and the outbursts were the result of the cortisone in his system. I came to respect and trust his judgement; he had an incredible purity and singularity of vision rarely encountered nowadays. Sometimes he reminded me of Don Quixote. He used to say that lawyers and artists were parasites and used to make jokes about them. He said he thought home-making was the greatest art. He was always wiling to help anyone who had a plan or a dream and was always encouraging people to make up Fluxus games and jokes. He had a dream of buying a big ship and going around the world, everyone on the ship would be a useful expert—doctor, nurse, botanist, engineer, fisherman, mechanic, biologist, sailor, navigator, etc. he spent long hours making a tape anthology of this favorite music—Monteverdi, Schuetz, Machaud, Adam de la Halle, Couperin—he didn’t like anything classical after the Baroque period, but he liked Bob Dylan. He would sell the records he had taped for his selected anthology to friends at big discounts. He liked to cook Borsht, Mousaka, Beef Bourguignon. Whenever he came to visit he would bring a big bottle of semi-sweet German white wine. He knew all about the history of food and machines and he was working on a map of the world which would encapsulate the history of art and civilization. He greatly admired the culture of Burgundy in the 14th century. Sometimes he spoke of going to Japan to study the art of archery.
On November 8, 1975 (his birthday) two men lured him to a vacant loft on Mercer Street, under the pretense of being prospective buyers, and beat him up with metal pipes. They broke two ribs, collapsed a lung and damaged his left eye so that he lost the sight. He said they were from the electricians union. He owed them money for some poorly done work; they beat him up because he told them they would have to wait for the money. It was a bad time. He was trying to raise $130,000 to meet the balloon mortgage on the co-op at 141 Wooster Street. The other shareholders were beginning to turn against him and threatened to sabotage the deal because they didn’t want George to remain a controlling factor in the co-op, then known as Good Deal Realty (a typical Maciunas corporate name), the balloon payment was met, though at great cost to George’s health. Soon after that he found a 40-acre farm in new Marboro, Mass., which had been formerly owned by a family who bred race horses. There were many barns and outlying structures on the property and George persuaded his sister Nijole Valaitis, and his partner, Robert Watts, to put up money to purchase the farm. He slowly began moving his belongings (an enormous collection of odds and ends salvaged from empty lofts he had renovated—boxes full of ribbon, mannequins’ heads, artificial roses, etc.—all the things he had collected during his 15-year stay in Soho. The move to the farm coincided with his withdrawal from the real estate business. “Too risky,” he said, and he didn’t want to lose his other eye. Getting away from the city and the pressures of the A.G.’s office and the Soho real estate business transformed him. He worked on the renovation of the farm, spent more time making Fluxus objects, helped Jean Brown, the biggest Fluxus collector, to organize a Fluxus archives in her home in Tyringham, Mass. By the second summer the farm was like a resort. Friends came and rented rooms and George dreamed of making the farm into a school, patterned after the Black Mountain School.
During the fall of 1976, Maciunas participated in a large show entitled New York-Downtown Manhattan: Soho, sponsored by the Akademie der Kunste and the Berliner Festwochen, in Berlin, to commemorate the American Bicentennial. He designed a Flux-Labyrinth and participated as a performer. The catalogue for the show is over 400 pages, with illustrations, biographies of the participating artists, and articles about Soho by Rene Block, Lawrence Alloway, Peter Frank, Lucy Lipard, Douglas Davis, Stephen Reichert and Joan La Barbara.
In the summer of 1977 Maciunas organized a big Fluxus exhibition which was sponsored by the city of Seattle. He came back very elated with anecdotes and jokes, but he was very thin and complained of pains in his stomach. He joked and said he was losing weight so he could fit into the antique clothes he had found in a trunk on the farm. Throughout the fall he kept losing more weight and his doctor gave him morphine to kill the pain. He was planning to organize a Flux New Year’s Cabaret in which everyone would have to perform an erotic cabaret act or bring an erotic dish for an erotic Flux feast his health kept deteriorating and he decided to enter the hospital for tests right after Christmas. The tests revealed nothing, but exploratory surgery revealed a tumor in his pancreas, and the cancer had spread to the liver. But George kept making plans. He decided to get married and have a Fluxus wedding combined with the erotic Flux cabaret. All the time he was actively investigating cures for cancer. His energy was phenomenal; he would come thundering into the city in his high boots and riding pants, wearing an orange leather coat and leather captain’s cap and race around buying up toys, and odds and ends from Canal Street and Job Lot, the raw materials for Fluxus objects.
The wedding and cabaret were on February 25, 1978 at Jean Depuys loft at 537 Broadway. George kept a very tight control over the whole event. For the wedding both Billie Hutchins, the woman he married, and he wore bridal gowns. Geoff Hendricks prepared a special Fluxus ceremony and officiated as the priest. The bridesmaids, Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller, were in drag and the best man, Allison Knowles, in tails. Jonas Mekas was dressed as a Franciscan monk and only spoke Lithuanian. There was a wonderful feeling at the wedding feast but poor George couldn’t eat any of the food; his digestive system had become so frail that any intake of food resulted in tremendous pain. For the cabaret he and Billie performed a piece called Black and White. While a recording of Monteverdi’s madrigal Zefiro Torno, a duet, played, George and Billie walked into the performance space dressed very elegantly; he in black tails, she in a wig, and a long white satin evening gown, with long white gloves. Very slowly, very carefully they performed an exchange of clothes. The piece had an overwhelming dignity and was very beautiful; classic.
After the Flux wedding and cabaret George and Billie returned to the farm Larry Miller and Joe Jones went to help him assemble the Fluxus objects which he would give to those who had contributed money towards his cure. His cancer had progressed. One of the doctors from Sloan-Kettering Institute told him there was no hope; his pain would get worse and he would grow weaker; he gave him two to four months to live. He went to a clinic in Jamaica that specialized in nutrition and vitamin therapy; he kept getting weaker, bravely holding on. He died in a Boston hospital on May 9, 1978.
He left no will; he had removed his name from all property deeds because of the problems with the Attorney General, and a suit brought against him by the 141 Wooster Street co-op. the farm had been sold. The estate is in litigation. But his legacy remains. Fluxus lives on. The last concert, a retrospective of Fluxus works, at the Kitchen in May 1979, sold out and many younger artists are interested in Fluxus now.
George Maciunas Foundation Inc.
454 W19th St. New York, NY 10011
tel: (212) 675.4392