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.
- 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.
Important Art by George Brecht
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 - The 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 - The 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 - The 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.
Biography of George Brecht
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".
After his father's death Brecht moved with his mother to Atlantic City where, nine years later, he enlisted to fight in the Second World War. This took him to Germany, near the Black Forest. It was here that the 19-year-old decided to change his name to Brecht, possibly in an effort to distance himself from his father. He later stated that his choice of name had nothing to do with the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, and that he simply liked the sound of the word. This joy in the sound of language was a characteristic that would be central to Brecht's later work.
Education and Early Career
After returning home from Germany, Brecht began a degree in Chemistry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. He was already developing an interest in art, and took life drawing classes at the Fleischer Memorial School while earning his degree. Following his degree he met and married his first wife, Marceline. The couple moved to New Jersey in 1953, where George was offered a job at Johnson and Johnson, and the pair had a son, Eric. Brecht enjoyed a distinguished career at Johnson and Johnson as a research chemist, remaining with them until he left the United States in 1965.
During his scientific career Brecht's fascination with art continued to grow. He eagerly sought out exhibitions between 1953 and 1956, in 1954 visiting the Stable Gallery in New York, where he saw Robert Rauschenberg's Growing Painting. For this piece, Rauschenberg had planted grass seeds within a box frame and watered them every day, eventually leading to the sprouting of grass. Brecht was very strongly influenced by the ever-changing nature of the piece, and the relative lack of control which Rauschenberg had over that change. This piece, and others by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, and John Cage, led Brecht to explore the role of chance in both science and art. Brecht saw that Pollock's drip paintings "integrated use of chance as a means of unlocking the deepest possible grasp of nature in its broadest sense".
He published his investigation as a booklet entitled Chance Imagery in 1957, which he sent to John Cage for his opinion. Cage wrote back arranging to meet Brecht the next time he was in New Jersey.
After seeing work by the artist Robert Watts exhibited at Douglas College, Brecht sought him out to establish a creative relationship. Watts had trained as a mechanical engineer, and the two men's similar analytical perspectives on art meant that their work had much in common. Brecht was exhibiting his Chance Paintings at the time, and invited Watts to view the exhibition. From this point onwards they would meet once a week for lunch, either at Rutgers University, where Watts taught, or at Brecht's laboratory. These meetings were often attended by fellow artist and lecturer Allan Kaprow. Kaprow, as it turned out, was Brecht's neighbour, and the three men developed a strong friendship.
Brecht introduced Kaprow to John Cage, who suggested that the pair take his course in experimental composition at The New School for Social Research. It was during Cage's classes that Brecht developed his most famous genre of work, the event score. The class's focus on aural composition gave him the idea of using musical scores to incorporate time and space into his work in a structured way. Both Brecht and Kaprow formed a bond with Cage during his classes, but Kaprow recalls that Brecht in particular was "very attuned to Cage", and that their work on chance was very complimentary.
On the conclusion of Cage's classes Brecht opened his first one-man show. This was held at the Reuben Gallery in New York in October 1959, directly after Kaprow's show at the same gallery. Brecht named the exhibition Towards Event: An Arrangement. The exhibition consisted of "event objects", constructed pieces which visitors were invited to interact with. From this point onwards Brecht continued to exhibit regularly in galleries, and to perform event scores in theatres, until he left the United States in 1965.
In 1960 Brecht started to mail his event scores out to his friends. Over the next few years he also began to be included in more group exhibitions, and increasing demands were placed on his time as an artist. In 1962 he scaled down his work with Johnson and Johnson. The same year, in Wiesbaden, Germany, a Lithuanian artist by the name of George Maciunas came across Brecht's event scores. Maciunas was loosely attached to the group around Brecht in New York, as he had attended a later version of the experimental composition course at The New School for Social Research, taught by Robert Maxwell. Maciunas began putting on the first proto-Fluxus events in Germany, including realisations of Brecht's work. Using his skills and resources as a graphic designer working for the US Airforce in Germany, Maciunas packaged up 72 of Brecht's event scores, creating what was to become the first Flux Kit.
Later in 1962, Brecht and Watts began to devise the concept for the YAM Festival, held the following year. The pair and their contemporaries, including Kaprow and the artist George Segal, who had also taken Cage's class, wanted to create an alternative context for exhibiting art to the commercial gallery system. The YAM Festival grew into a month-long roster of events spread between New York and Segal's family farm in New Jersey. It was to offer a space "for all manner of immaterial, experimental, as yet unclassified forms of expression", with none of the exhibited works available for purchase. For some time before the planning of the festival, Brecht had been sending out his event scores in the post to his friends, and to others whom he knew would appreciate them. This new process of distribution established a de facto advertising network for the YAM Festival group, who could use Brecht's mailing list to build anticipation around the events. The organisation of YAM sowed the seed of the Fluxus movement, in so much as it provided a forum for the development of a collective philosophy. All of the artists involved wanted to escape from the myth of the artist as God or genius, and to avoid the commodification of their work through the capitalist gallery system. Brecht, Watts, Kaprow, and their friends quickly became famous on New York's avant-garde art scene.
On George Maciunas's return to New York in 1963, shortly after the YAM Festival, he set up the Fluxus "headquarters" on Canal Street. The Majority of the YAM festival artists and musicians, including Brecht, were encouraged to base themselves there and become "Fluxus Workers." Despite sharing Maciunas's interest in promoting non-commercial art and eschewing myths of the artist, Brecht always struggled with the political aspects of Fluxus. Maciunas had based the ideology for the movement on a Russian communist organisation developed in the 1920s, a modelling Brecht was slightly uncomfortable with. Despite this, he continued to contribute to the movement until Maciunas's death in 1978, and was considered integral to the group by Maciunas, who once called Brecht "the best man in New York".
The end of 1963 brought the end of Brecht's marriage to Marceline. Around this time, he moved in with his partner Donna Jo Brewer. During another collaborative event with Watts and Knowles, Brecht met the French artist Robert Filliou. Filliou made an impression on Brecht, who later dedicated an event score (Cloud Scissors) to him.
In 1964 Brecht began to conceptualise his work in a new way, referring to his oeuvre as a book, with each piece forming a page. He named this book The Book of the Tumbler on Fire. The fact that the mid-1960s signalled a new direction for him creatively is clear from the title of his solo exhibition of new box pieces held in 1965 at the Fischbach Gallery: The Book of the Tumbler on Fire: Pages from Chapter 1. A sense of continuity with his early creative life is obvious, however, in that he initially called these boxes "exhibits," recalling the display cases that had fascinated him as a child in the American Museum of Natural History.
In 1965, Brecht gave up his job in pharmaceuticals for good, and left America for Europe. His departure was mourned by his peers in the Fluxus movement, especially Kaprow, Watts and Cage. What followed was a period of travel and experimental projects.
Brecht and his new partner Donna Jo Brewer moved first to Rome, then to France. Settling in the southern coastal town of Villefranche, Brecht opened up a shop with Robert Filliou, with whom he had been in regular contact. They called the shop La Cédille qui Sourit (The Cedilla that Smiles). Based in a former sweet shop, the venture was described by Filliou as "a sort of workshop of a shop, of nonshop would we say now, for we never commercially registered, and the Cédille was always shut, opening only upon request of visitors to our homes". The shop carried many books and works by Fluxus artists, but it was mainly used by the two men as a studio space, despite the fact that they spent most of their time in cafes discussing ideas. They never 'finished' any work during the three years the premises were "open", instead proposing endless ideas for constant reconfiguration. In the end, however, they were unable to continue paying the rent, and the two gave up the shop in 1968. The same year, Brecht moved to London.
In England, Brecht met a new set of artists, including the graphic score designer and composer Cornelius Cardew. Here Brecht began his next theoretical project, forming the company Brecht & MacDiarmid Research Associates, a nod to his former surname. The company's sole focus was Brecht's Land Mass Translocations project. For this project, Brecht used his scientific knowledge to systematically plan the movements of various landmasses, often proposing to drag them along with icebergs. The moves themselves were obviously unachievable and ridiculous, but the methodology took on a kind of open-endedness, with audience members able to creatively interpret the moves Brecht was devising. Meanwhile, Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra, an improvisation group started by Cardew which had long been performing works by Brecht, developed Realization of the Journey of the Isle of Wight Westwards by Iceberg to Tokyo Bay as a response to one of the journeys proposed by Brecht. The piece consisted of, among other things, a large and prolonged fog-horn, to announce the movement of the island.
Brecht's ever more pronounced emphasis on the intangible and theoretical placed his work at the forefront of developments in Conceptual Art. Indeed, despite his naturally reserved nature, he had garnered huge international acclaim from his fellow artists by the time he moved back to Germany in 1969. He settled first in Düsseldorf before moving in 1971 to Cologne, where he remained for the rest of life.
Following George Maciunas's premature death in 1978, Brecht officially 'retired' from Fluxus. From this point onwards his retiring personality began to mellow further, and he became somewhat reclusive. The year of Maciunas's death saw Brecht's first major retrospective, Eine Heterospektive von George Brecht, at the Kunst Halle in Berne. This would be the first of two major retrospectives under the title of Heterospective - Brecht only agreed to the first exhibition on the condition that it was so named, reflecting the heterogenous, inconclusive nature of his practice. A decade later, in 1988, Brecht's other lifelong friend and colleague, Robert Watts, also died.
In 2002 Brecht married his second wife, Hertha Klang. The pair announced the marriage on a four-word invitation card posted to their friends. It simply read "George Brecht, Hertha Brecht." Three years later, the second Heterospective was held in Cologne and Barcelona. In 2006, Brecht received the Berliner Kunstpreis, the crowning achievement of a quietly but immensely influential career. He died in Cologne in 2008.
The Legacy of George Brecht
Despite his modest reputation outside art circles, Brecht left a lasting legacy. His friends were often the ones to ensure this as he was famously opposed to self-promotion. In 1991 Brecht's close friend and collector Hermann Braun worked with Walther König to publish his notebooks, in an effort to convey the artist's credo to the public. Lucy Lippard, the writer and art academic references his events in her seminal 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of The Art Object from 1966 to 1972, citing them as the forerunner of many later Conceptual artworks.
Brecht's influence was also tied to that of the Fluxus movement, which has had a profound impact since the 1960s. The Fluxus artists' conception of art and life as inseparable - summed up in Joseph Beuys's assertion that "every man is an artist" - is one of the most iconic expressions of the role of the artist in the later twentieth century.
Along with the work of his friend, the artist Ray Johnson, and Maciunas's Flux Kits, Brecht's posted event scores also marked the beginnings of a whole movement, subsequently known as Mail Art. The simple, handmade quality of the event scores themselves influenced the pared-back, anti-commercial aesthetic of this movement, that ran counter to the machismo of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Finally, the performative aspect of Brecht's work - including his live expressions of his event scores - along with Kaprow's Happenings and Cage's performances, signalled the advent of Performance Art in its modern guise, a movement that is today internally recognisable and rich in subgenres.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on George Brecht
- 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