- George Brecht, Events, A HeterospectiveOur PickBy Julia Robinson, Alfred M. Fischer
- Fluxus: The History of an AttitudeBy Owen F. Smith
- Chance-ImageryOur PickBy George Brecht
- Assemblages, Environments and HappeningsBy Allan Kaprow
- Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant Garde 1957 - 1963By Joan Marter
- An Introduction to George Brecht's Tumbler on FireBy Henry Martin
Progression of Art
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.
Ink stained bed sheets - Private Collection
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.
Case and various objects - Private Collection
Drip Music (Drip Event)
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.
Event Score and Performance
Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event)
Motor Vehicle Sundown was the first of Brecht's scores to include the word "event" in its title. It was also one of the first event scores that Brecht mailed to his friends and associates. Far longer than his later scores, it takes the form of a set of assembly instructions, much like those we might expect to accompany a household appliance or machine. But what is to be 'constructed' is a concert, involving sounds produced from interactions with motor vehicles. The piece was dedicated to John Cage, and bears strong similarities to Cage's compositional style, notably in its emphasis on non-musical objects. Indeed, Motor Vehicle Sundown is often seen as the last of Brecht's works to show a very strong influence from Cage, and as a point of departure for his later practice.
The distribution method for the work was as significant as its written content, and signalled one of the ways in which Brecht was beginning to forge his own approach to conceptual and chance-based work, following his tutelage under Cage. Posting scores was a way of pushing back against the traditional gallery system while also providing a cheap, practical means of distribution. The posting of the score also became an integral aspect of the art event. Before sending out this score, Brecht established Contingent Publications, a press or, as Brecht put it, "arrangement" for circulating his work. The infrastructure of Contingent Publications consisted of no more than a postal address in New Jersey, but its naming added a degree of formality to an otherwise anonymous process. Brecht would occasionally include notes when posting his scores, reading: "Contingent Publications is a non-profit arrangement for disseminating work of an exploratory nature. Income in excess of mailing costs is applied to publishing additional material. If you would like to support this arrangement, we welcome your payment. Otherwise please accept this material gratis, with our compliments." In 1962, when Brecht and Watts were developing the YAM Festival, they posted scores to build anticipation around their programme of "non-material" art.
Brecht described the process of mailing his scores as like sending "little enlightenments I wanted to communicate to my friends who would know what to do with them." Along with the work of Ray Johnson, whom Brecht knew, and the Flux Kits which Maciunas later posted out, Brecht's mailed event scores signalled the beginnings of the Mail Art movement. His importance to this movement is further evidence of the breadth of his influence on modern art.
Event Score - Museum of Modern Art, New York
Three Chair Events
Three Chair Events was first performed in 1961 at the Martha Jackson Gallery, New York, as part of the exhibition Environments, Situations, Spaces. In material form, the piece consisted of several event scores, one of which is shown above, and three chairs, one black, one white, and one yellow. For the 1961 performance the chairs were positioned in unexpected locations in and around the gallery: the black chair in the gallery bathroom, the white chair in the exhibition space, spot-lit with a stack of event cards on the nearby windowsill, and Brecht's name on the wall, and the yellow chair on the street outside. During the exhibition the black chair ended up as a storage spot for bags and coats, while the yellow chair was used as a socialising spot. The white chair, probably because of its placement, was the only chair to receive attention as an 'artwork'.
Three Chair Events represents a significant development in Brecht's practice. This was the first time he had placed event cards alongside everyday objects in a gallery setting, allowing the audience, as it were, to perform the score using the props provided. This represented an important synthesis of the concepts he been developing around the formal appreciation of everyday objects, and the performative nature of everyday life. A few years later, Brecht wrote a series of bullet points entitled Ways of treating objects in order to see them, which described the thought processes underpinning works such as Three Chair Events:
• Place them in much empty space.
• Place them near one or more other objects with which they form a new (possibly more interesting) whole.
• Light them to set them off.
• Consider their relation to people involved with them, that is, focus on an event, rather than an object.
• Use them so they modify what is around them.
• View them for a long time (until they are seen).
The bullet points express in microcosm much of the spirit of modern art since the early 1960s, particularly in its aestheticization or "setting off" of non-artistic materials.
After Brecht's exhibition in 1961, the artist and writer Robert Morris summed up something of the bewitching power of Brecht's event scores: "[s]itting in Brecht's white chairs one can forget about them... Was the glass of water I drank at Brecht's [chair] Glass of Water? Was the moment of quiet Brecht's Silence?... Closing the door to leave did I make Brecht's Action? Becht casts a spell; a witch doctor whitening things up, painting out the names, giving back the vast white place where all delicate multiplicities are admitted and can come to life. Brecht crowds out nothing, but gives everyone a little more room." That Morris would later become famous for his contributions to the Minimalist movement in sculpture, founded partly on a belief in the use of non-artistic materials, indicates the sway which Brecht's ideas held over much of the North American art scene during the early 1960s.
Event Score and Installation - Museum of Modern Art, New York
This is one of the last examples of what is sometimes called Brecht's 'first wave' of event scores. It was famously inspired by his childhood memories of his father, a musician and alcoholic, who during one period of mental instability dismantled his flute in the middle of a performance. Flute Solo is one of several works by Brecht that draw attention to the material and sensual qualities of musical instruments without using them to generate 'music' in the conventional sense. In a sense these provide the counterpoint to works such as Motor Vehicle Sundown, that generate musical sounds from non-musical objects. But both types of works are underpinned by Brecht's belief that "Life is much larger than Music...No matter what you do, you're always hearing something."
This piece, and others involving musical instruments such as Solo for Violin, Viola, Cello or Contrabass and Piano Piece 1961, became staple works for Fluxus performances, perhaps because they were more closely tied to traditional notions of musical performance than Brecht's works with everyday objects. For that reason, they also performed a more explicit commentary on the act of musical performance, as well as on the act of listening to music, and the relationship between performer and instrument.
Works such as Flute Solo perhaps indicate Brecht's importance to modern experimental music more than his significance as a proto-Conceptualist, Fluxus artist, or Mail Artist. Indeed, in his genre-defining 1974 book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, the critic and composer Michael Nyman granted extensive space to Brecht's practice, emphasising its role in pushing experimental music beyond the far limits already broached by John Cage and his peers.
Event Score - Museum of Modern Art, New York
BLINK Project (The Scissor Bros. Warehouse)
In 1963 Brecht collaborated with the Fluxus artists Alison Knowles and Robert Watts on the collective project The Scissor Bros. Warehouse. Together, they produced a series of works called the BLINK Paintings. Initially, the three artists collaborated on a screen print. The top section of the print showed a New Guinian tribal dance, with the word BLINK occupying the centre of the frame. Below this, taking up the largest space, were three pairs of scissors shown in different moments of opening or closing. Each artist was responsible for a different section though who was responsible for which was never revealed. Based on this initial design, the group created a series of paintings, exhibited at the Rolf Nelson Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963. During the show the group's friend Letty Eisenhauer modelled a wide selection of BLINK emblazoned merchandise, including clothes, bedspreads, and luggage. Each work was sold for a price derived by chance methods.
BLINK was significant in its satirical yet pointed opposition to Pop Art. Brecht saw a problem in the way that a Pop Artist's fame or personality could generate a luxury commodity by reproducing an everyday object, noting that Pop Art reinforced "the object-like nature of painting in a world of process." BLINK combatted this in several ways. Firstly, the authorship of the work was deliberately withheld, with none of the three artists accepting ownership over any section. The project also undermined Pop Art's emphasis on painting as reproducible commodity by reinstating an element of chance-based uniqueness, placing the scissor blades differently in each work. At the same time, the deliberately arbitrary pricing system resisted the commodification of individuality itself: the commercialisation of the artist's 'aura' associated with Abstract Expressionism.
Brecht's resistance of the mercenary instincts of some Pop Art shows that, for all its emphasis on chance and spontaneity, the Fluxus movement was a politically and sociologically engaged one. Whereas artists like Andy Warhol offered a nihilistic celebration of the artwork as commodity, Brecht and his peers inspired and reinforced a long tradition of resistance to this notion.
Une Chaise avec Une Histoire
For this piece, Brecht placed a red notebook on a chair beneath a brass plaque engraved with the title of the event. The book, though initially empty, was to be filled with the experiences of different viewers sitting on the chair. It therefore became a collaborative written chronicle of an art event. The plaque was originally intended to read "Please make a record of events involving this chair." But Brecht decided that the presence of the book was invitation enough. Instead he used the plaque to encourage a more detailed and abstract appreciation of the chair, denoting it as an 'artwork' as well as an element of the time-bound artistic process in which the viewers were taking part.
This work indicates a formalization of Brecht's emphasis on viewer interaction. By placing the book on the chair he ensured that if a viewer chose to interact with the artwork they would have to place themselves within it, becoming one of its props. He also invited a deeper contemplation of the formal properties of the chair - by inviting the sitter to record their thoughts about it - and of the collaborative and time-bound nature of the art event, by allowing readers to explore other entries in the book. The work can therefore be considered a development on Brecht's earlier chair events, which has built into its formal infrastructure the means for ensuring a detailed and ruminative record of the artwork.
The title of the work allowed Brecht to reference both the grand idea of "history" and the more relatable and playful idea of a "story" (through the phonetic echo of "histoire.") As well as indicating his love of wordplay, this showed the importance he placed on the mundane, granting a mere story the grand status of history. The chair was also a motif in early works of Conceptual Art such as Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965), which also involved exploring the boundaries between an artwork and its own documentation. This again indicates Brecht's significance to the emerging tenets of Conceptual Art during the mid-1960s.