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George Maciunas - Biography and Legacy

Lithuanian-American Curator, Performance Artist, Graphic Designer, and Musician

Born: November 8, 1931 - Kaunas, Lithuania
Died: May 9, 1978 - Boston, Massachusetts
Movements and Styles: Fluxus, Neo-Dada, Conceptual Art, Performance Art
George Maciunas Timeline

Biography of George Maciunas

Early Life

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.

Education

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.

Early Work

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.

Mature Period

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.

The First Fluxus Manifesto (1963). Written and produced by George Maciunas.

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.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas' <i>USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!</i> (c.1970)

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.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

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

"George Maciunas Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 26 Aug 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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