Lithuanian-American Curator, Performance Artist, Graphic Designer, and Musician
Summary of George Maciunas
George Maciunas was a figurehead, organizer, and galvanizing force more than an artist in the conventional sense. However, he also helped to bring about a radical shift in our perceptions of what art was and could be which meant that the activities he undertook came to be viewed as inherently artistic in and of themselves. The primary polemicist, in-house critic and curator of the Fluxus movement, Maciunas surpassed his Dada influences by proselytizing for a form of art entirely integrated with everyday life, such that the boundaries between the two could not be fixed. He also helped to devise many of the media and means of production - from the modern artists' co-op to the idea of the Happening - which made that mode of creativity possible. In this sense, his influence on the contemporary art world cannot be overstressed. It is evident in the work of many of the commercial behemoths of contemporary art, from Marina Abramović's body art to Damien Hirst's advertising-as-art philosophy.
- George Maciunas was the driving force behind the Fluxus movement: a fact for which he is not always credited, partly because of the movement's very emphasis on collective creativity and erasure of individual authorship. He wrote "The First Fluxus Manifesto" in 1963, managed the movement's headquarters and mailing list and, through galvanizing events such as the famous Fluxus festival held in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962, was largely responsible for bringing the movement into existence in the first place.
- Maciunas was one of the first modern artists not to leave behind a physical body of work as his primary achievement. His "oeuvre" rather consisted of the collectives and spaces which he set up and managed, the events and actions which he curated, the compendiums of work produced by his peers that he assembled and marketed. At that time, his activities might have seemed those of an impresario or patron rather than an artist. But with hindsight we can see that his career enacted the disintegration of the art-object - the painting or sculpture as the primary product of artistic endeavor - which marked his era.
- One of Maciunas's most striking inventions was the Flux Kit, a box or case containing anonymous works by a range of Fluxus artists, sold through a mailing list and shippable to anywhere in the world. In creating these "three-dimensional magazines", as he called them, Maciunas was part of the melding of fine art and advertising which defined the development of postmodernism from the 1960s onwards. This stood in conflict with the simultaneously radical political agenda and collectivism of Fluxus, but the marketing of art objects as household items was, for better or worse, exemplary of its era.
Biography of George Maciunas
George Maciunas was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1931, with the Lithuanian name 'Jurgis.' His father, Alexander, was an engineer and architect who had previously lived and trained in Berlin. His mother, Leokadija or 'Lily', was a Russian-born dancer with the Lithuanian National Opera, and later a private secretary to the Russian politician Aleksandr Kerendsky, a role in which she helped him to write his memoirs. The family were comfortably middle-class, and Maciunas's early childhood was stable and loving. He was particularly close with his mother and his sister Nikole. Maciunas was a sickly child, prone to bouts of illness from a young age, who often spent time in sanatoriums in Switzerland. But he had a flair for creativity and playful thinking. Hollywood Reporter critic John DeFore, reviewing the biopic George, observed that the young Maciunas "constructed double-decker houses out of snow, and was a fanatic for toy soldiers he could make do his bidding."
Important Art by George Maciunas
Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dimensional, Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms (Incomplete) (1973)
Maciunas's Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and other 4 Dimensional Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Forms, often refereed to simply as The Chart, is a diagram of artistic movements and groups uniting Maciunas's interests in different sensory and cultural dimensions of artistic creation and experience. It shows a quixotic level of detail, and was constructed downwards from 1948 to 1971, but with offshoots, lines, and boxes that connected new sections to earlier ideas, movements, and events. The unique boxy font and layout make the 'look' of the chart quintessentially Fluxus.
George Maciunas studied graphic design amongst his many other pursuits at university, and brought this talent to bear on his interest in timelines and historical diagrams. Throughout his University years, from the late 1950s onwards, Maciunas kept reams of notes, charts and diagrams, attempting to categorize artistic movements and groups: as the Fluxus historian Astrit Schmidt Burkhardt puts it, diagrams were Maciunas's "life theme". The culmination of these project, which became known as Maciunas's Learning Machines, was 'The Chart'. It presents a narrative of interacting historical movements over many centuries building to the climactic movement, as Maciunas saw it, of Fluxus. From Roman circus and medieval fairs to Vaudeville, Happenings and Futurist Theatre, the chart argues for a natural progression in the history of performance art culminating with the Fluxus collective, with the work of John Cage placed at the very center of this milieu. Maciunas enacts his role as impresario and director by deciding exactly who and what is given a space on the chart. In some ways highly organized, the chart is also eclectic and non-linear. The diagrammatic format allowed Maciunas to adopt what we might call a three-dimensional viewpoint on the history of art, in opposition to the linear, canonizing approach he railed against. The chart also noticeably does not confine itself to the Western world, expressing the internationalist stance Maciunas sought to project through Fluxus.
Maciunas stopped working on 'The Chart' in 1973, while stating it was still incomplete. By that point he had been arranging and re-arranging it for over a decade. The chart is a striking art historical statement, completely different in approach to the formalist theories of art history, preoccupied with the canonical media of painting and sculpture, that defined the era of Abstract Expressionism, epitomized by the criticism of Clement Greenberg. For Maciunas to focus on performance and anti-art, and give them the same detailed platform as other, more highly-regarded art forms, was a huge departure from this approach. Equally significantly, our interpretation of 'The Chart' as itself a piece of art indicates the very way in which Maciunas's diagrams and timelines redefined the boundaries of the 'artistic'.
Philip Corner's Piano Activities piece was performed by the Fluxus artists George Maciunas, Emmett Williams, Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik, Benjamin Patterson, Dick Higgins, and Alison Knowles as part of the Fluxus festival held in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962. Corner was an American multi-instrumentalist, composer, and visual artist. His composition consisted of a formal score along with instructions for players to manipulate the sound of the piano with objects such as chains and bells, and by plucking the strings and rubbing them with glass or sticks. Corner did not attend the Wiesbaden festival, and rather than following his instructions, the Fluxus artists dismantled the piano over a number of days using hammers, drills, and saws, breaking it apart and clambering over it before auctioning off parts of the destroyed instrument. The piece was performed to a frenzied, excitable audience, their reactions captured on a series of recordings still available today. Although this was clearly a spontaneous, collectively realized artwork, the guiding vision behind it was Maciunas's.
By 1963 Maciunas had built up the loose network of artists, musicians, and performers that he considered to constitute the Fluxus collective. His gallery in New York had failed and he was working in Wiesbaden, Germany as a graphic designer for the US Air Force. It was there that Maciunas held the first ever Fluxus festival, inviting many of his network to come and perform. The festival was, in many ways, a process of public experimentation for the group, to work out exactly what Fluxus was to be, what it would represent, and who was to be part of it. But it was the group performance of Piano Activities that would come to encapsulate these decisions, and in so doing raise the profile of Fluxus to an unexpected degree. As the Fluxus artist Emmett Williams wrote of the performance, "the noise was heard around the world", gaining coverage in the international art press. Maciunas wrote to a friend after the festival: "[a]t the end we did Corner's Piano Activities not according to his instructions since we systematically destroyed a piano which I bought for $5 and had to have it all cut up to throw it away, otherwise we would have had to pay movers, a very practical composition, but German sentiments about this instrument of Chopin were hurt and they made a row about it."
While Maciunas was probably being facetious in claiming that they destroyed the piano to avoid movers' costs, he was certainly correct in his summary of German critical responses to the performance. A journalist writing for the Wiesbaden Kurier stated that the performers behaved "[j]ust like children" (little did he know this was exactly as Maciunas had intended it). When Corner heard of the performance, he was shocked that the Fluxus artists had ignored his intentions, and was uncomfortable with its destructive nature. Interestingly, he specifically remarked on the power of Maciunas's persona, which seemed to have overcome the directions he had given as composer in the eyes of the other performers. But Corner later expressed his respect for the boldness and commitment of performance. While the piece may have had destructive aspects, the performance was also joyous, playful, inventive, and exhilarating, while simultaneously expressing Fluxus's commitment to anti-art and group collaboration.
Maciunas envisioned his Fluxkits (marketed from 1964 onwards, and released throughout the 1960s-70s) as three-dimensional magazines, each containing a number of small cards, objects, and games contributed by different artists and designers. Each was presented in a customized attaché case, the first kits advertised at a price of $100. The contents would vary from piece to piece, but a typical kit would include newspapers and announcements strapped inside the box lid, with a built-in noisemaker by Joe Jones housed in the central compartment. Alongside this would be Mieko Shiomi's Endless Box, a handheld sculpture made of nested paper cubes, Ay-O's Finger Box, a wooden box with a finger hole and soft or tactile material inside, an edition of Alison Knowles's Bean Rolls, a box filled with tiny scrolls containing facts and poems about beans stored alongside real dried beans, and around 12 additional works, many of them performance scores, secured in latched plastic cases.
The Fluxkits grew out of the earlier concept of Fluxboxes, which Maciunas hatched in 1962. The idea was much the same, with Maciunas intending to perhaps release 12 boxes a year, or a series of boxes to represent different locations around the globe. The aim was to consolidate the newfound Fluxus network he had built up by creating small, easily marketable art collectors' items that could be sold in the Flux Shop or via the group's mail-order system, offering a snapshot of the collective's work. In preparation for the first Fluxbox, Maciunas sent out requests for "critical or non-critical, rational or irrational essays; scores, instructions ... visual compositions for reproductions, collages, photographs ... solid objects, scraps, smears, junk, garbage, rags, ready-makes, found objects ... or an object (like a flat painting) cut into 200 parts." The production of the first Fluxbox, Fluxus 1, ran into many technical difficulties, and the work was eventually released in 1964. Fluxus 1 was presented in a mailing crate and included individual items packed in envelopes bound with detachable metal bolts. The work did not have the critical or commercial impact Maciunas had wished for, thus he launched his formally ambitious Fluxkits. As well as being able to buy an entire kit, customers could purchase the single boxes contained within it for $1-5 dollars each. If a customer decided to buy a complete Flux Kit, it came with a random selection of different boxes and other objects inside. In form and concept, the Fluxkits were influenced by Marcel Duchamp, who had devised the idea of a mobile museum of his work which could be sold to customers many decades earlier. But a key point of distinction was that the Flux Kits embodied Maciunas's principles of collectivism and collaboration, with most of the works included only credited to particular artists in retrospect.
The Flux Kit sums up many of the complexities of Maciunas's vision for Fluxus. While taking art out of the elitist and bourgeois space of the gallery, he also moved it explicitly into the consumer market. Indeed the word "kit" implied that these objects, no matter how bizarre or silly they might have seemed, were intended to have some use or function for the customer. Nonetheless, the objects were also intended to make you question the boundaries of the conventional consumer lifestyle by bringing artistic experience into the center of that world. This emphasis on artistic experience as an integrated element of daily life was truly innovative. As George Brecht said in 1978, Fluxus introduced the idea that "every object is an event... and every event has an object-like quality."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on George Maciunas
- Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHoBy Roslyn Bernstein and Shael Shapiro
- Mr. Fluxus: A Collection portrait of George Maciunas 1931-1978Our PickBy Emmett Williams and Ann Noel
- Fluxus and the Essential Questions of LifeBy Jacquelynn Baas