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George Brecht Photo

George Brecht - Biography and Legacy

American Artist

Born: August 27, 1926 - New York, USA
Died: December 5, 2008 - Cologne, Germany
Movements and Styles:
Conceptual Art

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.

Robert Watts, who remained one of Brecht's closest friends and collaborators throughout his career

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.

Mature Period

Allan Kaprow, Brecht's friend, fellow student of Cage and father of the Happening

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.

George Maciunas, <i>Fluxus Manifesto</i>, 1963

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.

Later Career

Villefranche today

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.

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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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