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George Brecht

American Artist

Born: August 27, 1926 - New York, USA
Died: December 5, 2008 - Cologne, Germany
Movements and Styles: Fluxus, Conceptual Art
George Brecht Timeline
There is perhaps nothing that is not musical. Perhaps there's no moment in life that's not musical... All instruments, musical or not, become instruments.
George Brecht Signature

Summary of George Brecht

George Brecht's artworks and musical compositions express a certain modesty, in an era often associated with Neo-Dada flamboyance. His training as a chemist may explain something of the air of formal clarity, the lack of emotion and ornamentation, that he brought to his chance-based event scores and installations. So too might his tutelage under John Cage, the grandfather of minimalistic chance-based art practice. Like Cage, however, Brecht's influence on contemporary art belies his unassuming persona. In creating scores for spontaneous musical performances with non-instruments - or with instruments used in non-musical ways - and artworks constructed from everyday objects designed for viewer interaction, Brecht anticipated many of the fundamental tenets of avant-garde art since the 1960s. From the Fluxus movement he helped to define to Conceptual Art, Performance Art, Minimalism, Post-Conceptualism, and experimental music, Brecht's mark on today's artworld extends far and wide.

Accomplishments

  • George Brecht was instrumental to the development of Fluxus in the early 1960s. Though the movement as such was founded by his colleague George Maciunas, Brecht's works sum up the idea of limitless possibility, the freedom from generic constraint, that Fluxus stood for. He was also centrally involved in some of the founding events of the movement, such as the 1963 YAM Festival and the establishment of the Fluxus "headquarters" in Manhattan the same year.
  • Brecht was one of the first individuals to develop a creative practice at the threshold of visual art and experimental music. His tutor John Cage, and peers of Cage such as Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, were primarily recognised as classical composers, but Brecht was amongst a number of younger artists, also including Allan Kaprow, who applied Cage's logic of chance-based composition to the world of visual and multimedia creation. In so doing, Brecht helped to lay down the groundwork for much of our modern understanding of Performance Artists, and also Conceptual Art, much of which utilises notions of time, chance, and performance.
  • In the early 1960s George Brecht began mailing his event scores to his friends and collaborators. This was partly a practical means of circulating his work, but he also began to define the mailing process as part of an event-based artwork, establishing a kind of 'press' as a vehicle for sending out his works in order to formalise the process. Like his friend Ray Johnson, and Conceptual Artists such as On Kawara, Brecht was helping to establish the parameters of Mail Art.

Biography of George Brecht

George Brecht Photo

George Brecht was born George MacDiarmid in New York in 1926. He lived in the city with his parents until his father, Ellis MacDiarmid, died when George was eight. Ellis was a flutist, and probably the person who brought music into his son's life. He also suffered from alcoholism, which eventually killed him. During one performance, in the middle of an episode of mental imbalance, he began to disassemble his instrument on stage, an event that later inspired Brecht's Flute Solo. Brecht's early experiences also shaped his interest in science. Upon visiting the American Museum of Natural History he was hugely taken with the display cases, in which numerous and varied specimens of all sorts were contained. He later described this experience as like viewing the "theatre of life".

Important Art by George Brecht

Chance Paintings (1957)

The Chance Paintings were created by bunching ink-soaked marbles up in bedsheets in different formations and allowing the process to stain the sheets. The paintings were part of a larger study of the role of chance in artistic practice that Brecht began in 1956. This study included Chance Imagery, his essay on the same theme, which he finished in 1957 but published in 1966. He exhibited these pieces at his first solo show in 1959 at the Reuben Gallery, after completing John Cage's classes in experimental composition at The New School for Social Research.

These paintings are significant as the first mature works that Brecht completed. They also exemplify his sense of his work as documenting a multifaceted and ongoing exploratory process, in that they accompanied a written essay - which, in turn, served as his point of introduction to John Cage. As such, the paintings were not intended to be assessed on their aesthetic merit. The way they looked was a by-product of the creation process, which was the real object of interest. This was an idea partly inspired by Marcel Duchamp's approach to his Readymades, and which subsequently formed the philosophical basis of Conceptual Art. None of the marks on the 'canvas' of the Chance Paintings were generated in their precise form deliberately, or even by the artist's own hand. Brecht simply initiated the process that created them. This was, in part, a method for subverting the traditional role of the artist in relation to the artwork.

The influence of both Duchamp and Jackson Pollock on Brecht's work at this point is clear. Brecht, in fact, referred to Pollock's Drip Paintings as "Chance Paintings" in his text A Project in Multiple Dimensions, noting that Pollock's "integrated use of chance" was "a means of unlocking the deepest possible grasp of nature in its broadest sense." At the same time, this statement reveals the unique perspective that Brecht would bring to chance-based practice, of which the Chance Paintings serve as an exemplar. The point of chance, for Brecht, was not simply to enact a relinquishment of individual artistic control, but to reveal the creation process as an instance of Nature in action.

The Case (1959)

The Case has been exhibited in several versions. Its original realisation was at Brecht's solo exhibition at the Reuben Gallery in 1959. In this form it consisted of an average-sized packing case filled with "actionable" objects, including balls, gloves, cards, a seashell and a yoyo. In the brochure for the exhibition, the piece was described as follows: "The Case is found on a table. It is approached by one to several people and opened. The contents are removed and used in ways appropriate to their nature. The case is repacked and closed. The event (which lasts possible 10 - 30 minutes) comprises all sensible occurrences between approach and abandonment of the case." This event, or the sum total of all the events employing The Case, can be considered the art object rather than the case itself. Brecht was simply setting up the environment in which the event took place. As with later pieces such as Une Chaise avec une Histoire, each interaction with the objects would be different, and each would impact the next.

The Case is one of several similar pieces from the Reuben Gallery exhibition, such as The Cabinet and The Dome, which took Duchamp's Readymades as a point of inspiration. Duchamp created several versions of a similar work (using a suitcase) between 1935 and 1941, naming the work Boîte en valise ("box in a suitcase"). The suitcase contained reproductions of Duchamp's most famous pieces, carefully and deliberately packaged together. When displayed in exhibitions, this case was shown already unpacked. But there is a crucial difference in approach between Duchamp's and Brecht's. Whereas Duchamp was primarily interested in expressing the commodification of the art object, Brecht's case more clearly invites participation from the viewer, setting the parameters for a collective artistic event involving a strong degree of chance. His message was at once more concerned with indeterminacy and more optimistic about the possibilities of art itself than Duchamp's.

It is possible that The Case was an inspiration for Robert Rauschenberg's 1961 piece Black Market, which consisted of a canvas mounted on a wall attached by a rope to a box on the floor. Viewers were encouraged to take or add things to the box and to attach items to the clip boards on the canvas. The influence is especially likely as The Case was included in a group exhibition in 1960, Group 3, in which Rauschenberg also participated. If true, the impression that Brecht's work made on Rauschenberg signifies its germinal importance to the development of modern art as a whole at this time. Similarly, though Brecht made this piece before the birth of Fluxus, it bears many similarities to the Flux-kits which the group would later create.

Drip Music (Drip Event) (1959-62)

Drip Music is Brecht's most famous and most performed piece, having been included in numerous Fluxus and Fluxus-inspired events over the years. The indeterminate score allows for a strong degree of freedom in performance, though most interpretations of the piece involve the performer dripping water from one vessel into another. In a 1963 performance of Drip Music, at Fest Fluxorum-Fluxus in Düsseldorf, George Maciunas performed this action from the top of a ladder (as above).

The score for Drip Music expresses Brecht's interest in sound - especially the sounds made by non-musical objects- and in the everyday. Many people pour liquid from one vessel into another on a daily basis. Drip Music simply slows this action down and compels us to focus on its formal and sensory dimensions. This is an approach to musical composition and performance strongly associated with Brecht's mentor, John Cage. Equally important to the work is its shared ownership. Drip Music does not exist in any one form, location, or time, but can be said to comprise any or all of its potentially endless reiterations.

Works like Drip Music show the range of Brecht's influence over modern art and music. In one sense, the piece is a quintessential expression of Fluxus philosophy. Withdrawing from personal authorship of the work, and therefore rejecting the 'cult of the artist', played a central role in all Fluxus practice. At the same time, Brecht's use of text and chance-based scores stands at the forefront of much experimental compositional practice, including the 1960s work of his associate Cornelius Cardew.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
George Brecht
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Artists
  • George Maciunas
    George Maciunas
  • Alison Knowles
    Alison Knowles
  • No image available
    Cornelius Cardew
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Nancy Nicholson

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"George Brecht Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Nancy Nicholson
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 16 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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