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.
Progression of Art
Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dimensional, Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms (Incomplete)
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'.
Offset Lithograph - MOMA, New York
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.
Prepared piano and performers - Staged during Fluxus Internationale Festpiele Neuester Musik, Hörsaal des Städtischen Museums, Wiesbaden, Germany, September 1, 1962
Flux Year Box 2
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."
Box filled with multiple objects
USA Surpasses All The Genocide Records
Maciunas's 1966 poster The USA Surpasses All The Genocide Records partly expresses his love for data accumulation and visualization. The piece consists of a large American flag with skulls and crossbones in place of stars, the stripes formed from lines of statistics detailing the international and domestic atrocities of the US in comparison to those of various totalitarian and imperial regimes. Maciunas critically interrogates the idea of the "land of the free and home of the brave", calling the viewer's attention to the real face of North America's foreign policy, as well as its historic massacre of the country's native inhabitants.
Much of George Maciunas and Fluxus's output was intended to mock the unrelenting seriousness of the art world: to be silly and eccentric, celebrate the fun and peculiarities of the everyday world. However, just as Fluxus wanted to cut through the dullness of the art establishment, it also wished to cut through the falsehoods of the American Government's propaganda machine, particularly regarding its escalating involvement in Vietnam. Maciunas strongly objected to the image of the USA as a force for good in global politics and warfare, perhaps reflecting his experiences as a refugee and outsider in its culture. He was also determined that Fluxus would represent a commitment to political action as well as Neo-Dada absurdity. USA Surpasses All the Genocide Records is one of the works that records that commitment. While we now know that it was created by Maciunas, it was listed only as a Fluxus creation. The curator Jon Hendricks speculates that "Maciunas particularly wanted the poster to be anonymous so that its impact would be seen for itself, not because of a name associated with it."
Maciunas's dedication to research is further demonstrated by his compilation of an essay with further facts and statistics for which the viewer could write off to Fluxus headquarters, as detailed on the poster. The piece thus encourages the viewer to take action having viewed the work, to educate themselves and perhaps fight for change. This idea of avant-garde art as activism - or incitement to activism - was relatively new in the 1960s and 70s, but has since become a mainstream concept. For this reason, the piece is important, but it is perhaps best-known today for its celebrity admirers. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were famously pictured standing next to the poster, which probably such inspired their own politically engaged performances, such as the Bed-Ins for Peace in 1969, and their War is Over poster campaign, launched in 12 major cities in the same year.
Offset lithograph on paper - Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College [one of multiple versions]
In 1967, George Maciunas purchased a property at 80 Wooster Street, in New York's SoHo district. Though not intended to be a domestic space, Maciunas envisioned 80 Wooster Street as the first of many FluxHouse Co-operatives, spaces in which Avant-garde artists could work and live simultaneously, integrating their everyday lives with their artistic endeavors. He bought the building, previously owned by the Miller Cardboard Company, for $105,000, gathering together a $21,000 down-payment from loans, deposits from artists who wished to rent spaces in the building, and - in a typically risky move - the sum total of Maciunas's life savings, including almost all the (relatively little) money he had made through previous Fluxus projects. The former cardboard company offices became the site of multiple actions and activities: on the roof of the building, Charles Ross made his first solar-burn drawings; Joe Schlichter walked down the front façade; the whole first floor of the Co-op was dedicated to Jonas Mekas's Cinematheque, a major venue for indie and avant-garde movie screenings. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s many artists lived illegally on the premises, which were not allowed to be lived in. Children and families were raised right amongst the art shows, happenings and performances at 80 Wooster Street. Maciunas fitted out his own illegal basement apartment where he lived with his mother, with a secret tunnel to the Cinematheque upstairs, as well as booby-traps designed to frighten away city officials who were in legal battles with Maciunas over his use of the building.
Much of Maciunas's time and energy from 1967 onwards went into realizing his vision for FluxHouse Co-operatives, which went onto encompass four successful properties in total. He raised money for each new property through artists' deposits, although this wasn't always a popular method with the artists themselves. Not only did Maciunas face increasing legal pressure as the cooperatives expanded, but he also had to contend with everyday squabbles and clashes between tenants.
Some argue that the experience of running the FluxHouse Co-operatives exhausted George Maciunas. Certainly, his reckless approach to financing them led to a horrific incident in 1975 when he was badly beaten up as a punishment for unpaid loans, leaving him with life-changing injuries and in poor health. The co-ops also represented a large financial investment with relatively little monetary gain, leaving him with very little money towards the end of his life. But the co-operatives had a huge, long-lasting and positive impact on the SoHo district. Previously a dilapidated, run-down area known as 'Hell's Hundred Acres', SoHo became a haven for creatives and countercultural figures. Maciunas's vision for integrated living/working spaces for groups of artists also introduced a new model for artists' studios that became more and more popular over the 1970s-80s. The FluxHouse Cooperatives were, therefore, a long-term success in many ways. Poignantly, in 1979, only a year after George Maciunas died, the lofts at 80 Wooster Street were finally granted a certificate of occupancy.
Property at 80 Wooster Street - SoHo District, New York
Roslyn Bernstein, Fluxus member and artist, was present in a loft at 537 Broadway in 1978 for one of George Maciunas' final performances, his own wedding to the poet Billie Hutching. Bernstein recalls: "The wedding on February 5, 1978, was the Fluxus event of the era. There was a Flux feast of erotic foods, including a penis-shaped pâté brought by sculptor Louise Bourgeois. For the ceremony, Maciunas and Hutching both wore bridal gowns, while their bridesmaids Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller were dressed in drag and their best man, Allison Knowles, wore tails. Geoffrey Hendricks who wrote the script for the program, conducted the ceremony and officiated as the priest. The Flux cabaret after the ceremony including Ben Patterson's Lick, where Olga Adorno was covered with whipped cream and the crowd licked it off and Maciunas and Hutching performed a piece called Black & White. The pair entered the space, he in black tails and she in a white satin gown with long white gloves and a wig. While a recording of Monteverdi's madrigal 'Zefiro Torno' played, they proceeded to undress and put their clothes on a chair, Then, down to their underwear, they redressed in each other's clothing. According to Christian Xatrec this took place on the exact spot where Maciunas was beaten."
The sense of humor, irreverence, and rebellion that had been present throughout all of George Maciunas's work was just as present at his own wedding, surrounded by Fluxus friends, in the SoHo area he had helped to transform. The wedding became far more than a wedding; rather, it was a performance piece, that carefully and playfully picked apart and twisted the gendered nature of the ceremony and the performative nature of formal celebrations in general. Later, the photographs, marriage certificate and guest registry were published as a performance score. Thus, Maciunas lived out his belief that every part of life, be it birth, marriage, divorce, death, or simply walking down the sidewalk, could be imbued with artistic meaning. This innovative idea has been influential on performance artists who make their personal lives a spectacle, such as Marina Abramović, who states: "art comes from life, not from [the] studio."
Just a few months after his wedding, Maciunas's funeral was held. Just as extravagant and artistic as the FluxWedding, the FluxFuneral involved a Flux Feast of only white, purple and black foods. George's mother, who had previously never quite understood her son's visions, attended the funeral and later wrote in her 1979 essay "My Son" of his coffin as his last Fluxbox; "When looking at his last 'box (drawer/chest)' in which his emaciated body lay, and at the lid where a huge bouquet of Nature's gifts - springtime flowers - shone perfectly, his 'children' gathered again, his friends, and his spirit saw them and rejoiced."
Event at 537 Broadway, New York
Biography of George Maciunas
Childhood and Education
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."
During the Second World War, Lithuania was occupied first by the Soviet Union (following the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939) and then by Germany, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. In 1944, when George was only 13, his family fled Lithuania to escape the advancing Red Army. They lived in Germany for 4 years, initially under Nazi control and then under the occupying forces, before settling in Long Island, New York, in 1948, when George was 17. It was at this point that his name "Jurgis" was changed to the anglicized "George". Maciunas's experiences in both Germany and the US, as a refugee and displaced citizen, were highly impactful, and he was greatly informed by his sense of being an Eastern-born citizen in the center of the Western world. The musicologist Brigid Cohen, whose research focuses on the history of music and migration, argues that Maciunas's later work was strongly influenced by "a childhood history in Lithuania of Soviet and Nazi occupations, refugee experience in Germany in the 1940s, and contemporary dilemmas of US citizenship during the Cold War", particularly in its focus on multi-nationalism, its sense of chaos and spontaneity, and its emphasis on non-ownership. It can also be speculated that Maciunas' later life compulsion, bordering on obsession, for categorization and organization in both his work and personal life stemmed from a desire to control and document his home environment, after the upheaval of his childhood. While Maciunas was not Jewish, his experiences of Nazi-occupied Lithuania - where Jews were persecuted with particular brutality - and of refugee life, as well as his many close relationships with Lithuanian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants to America, gave him a sense of empathy with the Jewish experience.
Once he turned 18, George Maciunas took advantage of all that America's higher education system had to offer. First he studied Art, Graphic Design and Architecture at Cooper Union, then Architecture and Musicology at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, and finally History of Art at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, focusing on European and Siberian art of the mass migration period.
He became engrossed in a large array of subjects, including architecture, performance art, literature, sculpture, graphics, and music, and was information-hungry, absorbing material and processing it in his own original way. This often manifested itself in his creation of hugely expansive notes and charts, beautifully presented using his training in graphic design, which attempted complex, overlapping explorations of different artistic, cultural, and historical themes. These charts were never truly completed; even those he began during his university years he continuously added to over the next decades.
Through his studies Maciunas developed the view that learning should be an all-encompassing, immersive experience. He saw Western education as too specialized and narrow-minded, particularly in the way it taught art and art history. For Maciunas, 'Art', like education, should be a state of mind and being rather than a set of self-contained processes or materials separate to the self and day-to-day life. He was particularly influenced by his studies of the Dadaists in this respect. By the time Maciunas had completed his 11 years of higher education it was 1960 and he was 29 years old. He was ready to apply his mercurial philosophies concerning the nature of art and education to the real world.
Immediately after graduating in 1960, Maciunas opened the AG Gallery on Madison Avenue, with fellow Lithuanian artist Almus Salcius. Their plan was to host artists who were willing to pay the gallery's rent for the month: a deeply flawed financial model. Maciunas also wanted to host events, largely music and performance-based, and to import exotic and rare musical instruments. It immediately became clear that the gallery was not a viable prospect, and it closed by the summer of 1961. However, it was through the AG Gallery that Maciunas met many of the avant-garde New York musicians and artists who would influence his development of the epoch-defining concept of Fluxus.
Artists such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Ray Johnson exhibited during the few months that the AG Gallery was operational, and Maciunas came away from the experience with a new appreciation for New York's multi-national avant-garde art scene. He began to consider the possibility of creating a loose-knit movement that would draw together artists from a range of disciplines with similar artistic philosophies, to produce collectively minded art informed by a strong sense of the absurd that would blur the boundaries between creative expression and everyday life, generating a state of "flux": a condition of play or experiment in which life would become art, and art would become life. This was similar to the philosophy that the Dadaists had developed in Europe half a century earlier.
With the seeds of these ideas sown in his mind, Maciunas moved to Wiesbaden, Germany with his mother Lily, in the fall of 1961. He took up a job as a graphic designer for the US Air Force to pay some of his mounting debts. It is interesting that Maciunas chose to stay close to his mother, bringing her to Germany with him at this critical point in his career. Maciunas and his mother had travelled together to Brazil twice during the 1950s-60s, as well as Belgium, Holland, France, Italy and Austria. The two became especially close after the death of Maciunas's father in 1954, and for the entirety of Maciunas's life his relationship with his mother was one of his few sources of stability.
Whilst in Wiesbaden, Maciunas gathered his contacts from New York and organized the first Fluxus festival, which took place in September 1962. This comprised 14 performances, both musical and artistic, from artists including John Cage, George Brecht, Nam June Paik, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Terry Riley and Brion Gysin, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Benjamin Patterson, Robert Filliou, and Emmett Williams. One performance, Piano Activities by Phillip Corner, became especially well-known and was widely covered in the avante-garde press. The troupe of artists and musicians then toured around Europe giving the same performances staged at Wiesbaden, a series of so-called Fluxfests. At this point, Maciunas left his job with the Air Force and moved back to New York. It was here that he began to work on the concept of Fluxus in earnest, despite the fact that many of the loose group of artists were resistant to being labelled in this way. Acting as leader, impresario, manager, and philosopher, Maciunas was to use his sheer force of personality to make Fluxus a reality.
Upon his return to New York in 1963, Maciunas took up a job as a graphic designer with New York design firm Jack Marshad Associates. This was the first of many graphic design and architecture-related jobs that Maciunas would hold down over the coming decade to pay the bills, all of which were secondary to his energetic commitment to Fluxus.
Maciunas set up Fluxus's 'headquarters' in Canal Street in 1963, and began to approach the movement as a business as well as a philosophy and way of life. He decided that Fluxus should be a "fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children's games and Duchamp", and should bring fun and creativity to the streets of New York and eventually the world. This would be achieved through the creation of multi-media activities and sensory experiences breaking down the boundaries between the art world and wider society, between art and life, but which would convert life itself into a playful, artistic condition in the process: a state of flux. Maciunas expected those involved in Fluxus to be fully dedicated to the movement, and advised that members should live by the following routine: "9 am to 5 pm: working socially constructive and useful work - earning your own living. 5 pm to 10 pm - spending time on propagandizing your way of life among other idle artists & art collectors and fighting them, 12pm to 8am: sleeping (8 hours is enough)." Maciunas himself famously ate and slept very little, seemingly existing on endless bounds of manic energy and enthusiasm.
In his 1963 manifesto, Maciunas set out his plans for an international Fluxus collective. Fluxus would aim to "PURGE the world of dead art...abstract art, [and] illusionistic art..." leaving only truly creative "concrete art" that was rooted in the world around it. Fluxus was also to purge other elements of "bourgeois sickness", snobbery, professionalism, and commercialism in art. Fluxus would rid the world of "Europanism" by practicing an open-ness to other cultures and artistic practices. Work would be produced in a spirit of collectivity and credited to the Fluxus group rather than individual artists.
Despite decreeing that Fluxus should be strongly opposed to the commodification of art, Maciunas was in many ways a master at branding and packaging art for the mass market. According to the art historian David Hopkins, "Fluxus advocated anti-art, [but] it also, paradoxically, commodified itself", rather like its sister movement of Pop Art. A short-lived venture under Maciunas's leadership was the Flux Shop, essentially a showroom where the general public could buy objects created by the group such as Flux chess sets and Flux posters and newspapers. Also sold were the so-called Fluxboxes or Fluxkits; small boxes containing cards, posters, objects and records assembled by various Fluxus artists, somewhat like three-dimensional magazines. Maciunas branded all Fluxus products in his own signature style, using the same font for most products to create brand consistency.
Whilst overseeing this notoriously financially unstable production roster, Maciunas continued to organize festivals, street actions, films and musical events for Fluxus throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Fluxus group became well known in New York circles for their bohemian, eccentric lifestyles that often overlapped with their bizarre street shows. The involvement of John Lennon and Yoko Ono throughout this period raised the profile of the collective, and George Maciunas became a close personal friend of Lennon and Ono, working with them on their 1971 Syracuse exhibition This is Not Here. Maciunas also decorated their apartment in the Dakota Building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Many of Ono and Lennon's art pieces from this period, such as their 1969 Bed In, were connected to the Fluxus movement. By the mid-1970s Lennon and Ono had fallen out with Maciunas, but they reconciled towards the end of the decade.
Another important aspect of Maciunas's career was his work as a property developer. He envisioned himself creating an artists' co-operative in SoHo, perhaps replicated later around the world, where artists could live and work in the same space, allowing spontaneous "happenings" and performances that would transgress the boundaries between (collective) life and work. Through a mixture of loans, savings and artist's deposits, the first successful FluxHouse Cooperative was established by Maciunas at 80 Wooster Street. Maciunas lived rent free in the basement with his mother while Jonas Mekas operated a film studio upstairs. As more houses were developed, artists were able to host extraordinary immersive art pieces, such as the "Fluxus medical clinic". For this piece, according to Roslyn Bernstein, "artists including Bob Watts dressed in doctor's coats and measured the tongues of passersby." The Cooperative also hosted "a daredevil performance of Trisha Brown's Man Walking Down the Side of a Building by her ex-husband Joseph Schlichter in a harness", and "New Year's Eve Flux Dinners with themes like purple food or erotic food."
Maciunas's activities contributed to the transformation of the previously run-down area of SoHo, helping to make it the artistic haven it became during the 1970s-80s. However, in doing so he contravened many planning laws and began to evade the authorities in bizarre ways, especially after 1974, when a warrant was sent out for his arrest. His life became a kind of mad performance of someone evading the law, as Jonas Mekas's wife Hollis Melton recalls:
"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's 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 [Attorney General]'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."
Later Life and Death
By the mid-1970s, Maciunas's unpaid bills and illegal property developments had caught up with him, and in 1975 he suffered a severe beating as a punishment for unpaid debts, leaving him with four broken ribs, a deflated lung, 36 stitches in his head, and blind in one eye. Following the attack Maciunas decided to leave New York, as he felt he could not run the risk of another similar incident. He moved to New Marlborough, Massachusetts and bought a dilapidated mansion and stud farm, which he aimed to convert into a new Fluxus hub and arts center.
He renovated the farm during 1975, while also working on a Fluxus archive project with the collector Jean Brown. In the summer, friends and artists came to visit, renting rooms and using the space to work on collaborative projects. In 1976 Maciunas organized a large Fluxus exhibition back in New York. However, by this point his health was failing, and he struggled to put so much energy into Fluxus. During the late 1970s George's mother Lily moved to the farm to live with him, as they both were in poor health. Again, it seems that Lily provided a rare stable and loving relationship for Maciunas, despite his huge circle of friends, artist-clients, and acquaintances.
Fluxus member Hollis Melton writes that "[i]n 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."
Maciunas was determined to carry on living and working to the full for as long as he could. "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 [but] his health kept deteriorating and he decided to enter the hospital for tests right after Christmas. The tests revealed nothing, but exploratory surgery showed 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 so-called Flux Wedding took place only three months before Maciunas's death, when he married his longtime friend and companion Billie Hutching. Interestingly, before the late 1970s, Maciunas seemed to identify as asexual, having had no documented long-lasting sexual or romantic relationships. However, when he met Billie Hutching, this changed. The couple experimented with cross dressing, and Hutching recalls how Maciunas began to dress in women's clothes and "walk round Canal Street where people knew him, but seemed not to bat an eye." She told the art historian Susan Jarosi that "one of George's fantasies was that we travel in Europe as elegant sisters, as he put it. So he always saw us as two women - as a couple. I think he just wanted to wear a dress too." George and Billie also explored sado-masochistic practices, which she has written about candidly in her memoir, speculating that for Maciunas these experiments were a way of processing the trauma and illness of his childhood, as well as distracting him from the pain of his cancer towards the end of his life.
At their Flux Wedding, the couple stood before an audience of friends, both in wedding dresses, and afterwards performed a piece in which they swapped traditional gendered clothing. This was followed by the erotic Flux Cabaret, staged in the same loft in which Maciunas had been attacked 3 years previously. Roslyn Bernstein writes that this was the "Fluxus event of the era."
It also proved to be Maciunas's last major creative project. He died in May 1978, aged only 47, surrounded by his friends from the Fluxus movement in a Boston hospital.
The Legacy of George Maciunas
Whilst Fluxus was not financially successful during Maciunas's lifetime, it made an impact in avant-garde circles, and during the 1970s and 1980s became more widely recognized as an important contribution to the development of twentieth-century multi-media art. Artists involved with Fluxus praised Maciunas for his artistic drive and vision and his absolute commitment to a new way of making art. According to George Brecht, "Fluxus is a Latin word Maciunas dug up. I never studied Latin. If it hadn't been for Maciunas nobody might have ever called it anything. We would all have gone our own ways, like the man crossing his street with his umbrella, and a woman walking a dog in another direction. We would have gone our own ways and done our own things: the only reference point for any of this bunch of people who liked each other's works, and each other, more or less, was Maciunas. So fluxus, as far as I'm concerned, is Maciunas." Maciunas became a revered, almost mythologized figure in the SoHo scene even before his death, although he is remembered as enigmatic and erratic. As the Fluxus artist Milan Knizak puts it, "he was beautiful, foolish, dogmatic, charming. Impossible".
Many critics feel that Fluxus ultimately didn't achieve its aims. However, it is now seen as a vital element of mid-twentieth-century artistic thought. As the art critic Adrian Searle succinctly puts it, "Fluxus inevitably failed, and came to be seen as old hat. It was partly a problem of packaging, though Maciunas was a very good graphic designer for whom no detail was too small to be worried over. Fluxus's aim to eliminate music, theatre, poetry, fiction and all the rest of the fine arts combined was doomed. Only the mass entertainment industry might achieve such a thing." However, Searle cites the influence of Fluxus over a wide range of subsequent artistic practices: "Richard Long's walks, Gilbert and George posing as living sculptures, Sarah Lucas's early work and a million other small gestures, actions and ephemeral objects can trace their origins back to Fluxus. It was a conduit through which ideas and personalities flowed, and still flow today."
The Fluxus artist Ben Patterson argues that, after George Maciunas's death, Fluxus grew from strength to strength, implying that his control over the movement may paradoxically have prevented it from becoming what he truly desired: "I do believe that Fluxus not only survived George, but now that it is finally free to be Fluxus, it is becoming that something/nothing with which George should be happy."
Recent years have seen a wave of interest in Fluxus, including the retrospective show The Dream of Fluxus at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in England during 2008-09, Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962-1978 at the MoMA in 2012, and FluZUsic/FLUXUS MUSIC at the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery in 2017. The MoMA currently holds over 10,000 Fluxus and George Maciunas-related items in its collection.
The Stendhal Gallery has held multiple George Maciunas exhibitions, including Fluxus: To George With Love, From the Personal Collection of Jonas Mekas, and George Maciunas 1953-1978: Charts, Diagrams, Films, Documents and Atlases (both 2006). The George Maciunas/Fluxus Foundation became active in 2011, and the documentary film George, about Maciunas's life, was crowdfunded and released in 2018.
With renewed interest in Fluxus, it is clear to see how Maciunas's collective has influenced artists in the decades since. Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee writes that "[i]t's detectable in the bombast-puncturing gestures of artists like Gabriel Orozco and Francis Alÿs; in the politicized prodding of Ai Weiwei; in the god-, sex-, and death-baiting provocations of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin; in the philosophical restlessness of Olafur Eliasson..." The rise of the internet enabled a vibrant post-Fluxus community to develop online, notably through the website Fluxlist, and through digital multi-media art projects such as OtherMind's 2011 performance at the SOMArts building to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fluxus.
Finally, Maciunas's legacy is felt through his role as 'the father of SoHo', who helped to give the district its trendy image and influenced the fashionable reuse of warehouse spaces worldwide.