by Mark Van Proyen
Can an archive box be seen as a self-contained exhibition space? Fluxus Reverb: Events, Scores, Boxes and More answers that question in multiple ways, while also addressing the query that has always loomed over the Fluxus enterprise: what, exactly, was it? An international movement in art and performance? Kind of, but not exclusively. A post-World War II resurgence of Dadaism? Yes, but after 1960, what wasn’t? An interconnected group of eccentric friends having a very peculiar kind of fun? We should all be so lucky. Semantics to the rescue! Fluxus refers to the state of flow that is the mercurial opposite of lifeless calcification. According to the unspoken Fluxus creed, lifeless calcification is what happens when works of art are subjected to institutional fetishization, which Fluxus artists mocked with wicked abandon until about 1990 when their efforts became the subject of institutional concern. Up to then, they were guided by the realization that “the purpose of art, as Robert Filliou put it, “is to remind us that life is more important than art.”
More than 75 works comprise Fluxus Reverb, all extracted from BAMPFA’s permanent collection by curators Christina Yang and Stephanie Cannizzo. It serves as contextualizing companion to the concurrent Alison Knowles retrospective located in an adjacent gallery. The late Constance Lewallen initiated the show, which is posthumously dedicated to her long tenure as curator at the museum. During that time, she augmented her interest in West Coast Conceptual art by overseeing the museum’s acquisition of many Fluxus objects and ephemera.
Two sentinels guard the threshold of the exhibition and set a bifurcated tone. One is a work by John Cage titled Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel/ Plexigram II (1969), a series of eight transparent sleeves containing cryptic inscriptions that can be rearranged to create aleatory musical notations or fragmentary sound poems. The other is Marcel Duchamp’s Boitte (1946), a tidy kit containing an array of miniature reproductions of several of Duchamp’s earlier works comprising an assembly of editioned relics.
Nearby, evidence of musical performances can be accessed in the form of listening stations, three of which provide audio documentation of Alison Knowles events (from 1977 to 2022) that are oddly absent from her retrospective in the adjacent gallery. Then again, not so odd when you consider that Knowles, along with her husband Dick Higgens, George Brecht and George Maciunas, are widely thought to be the founders of Fluxus, with Maciunis usually upheld as the group’s mastermind. This section also features two vinyl LPs by the Czech artist Milan Knizak, both from the late 1970s, providing evidence of willful violations of their playing surfaces, anticipating the “scratch” DJ aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s. There are also musical scores by Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick and John Cage, some formed from collage processes, all evincing the idea of propositional plans that might function as alternative scripts for realities that may never be manifested.
Yoko Ono, affiliated with the Fluxus group before her fateful meeting with John Lennon, gets pride of place with a selection of works. A copy of the untitled catalog box for her 1971 Everson Museum exhibition is of particular interest. It is displayed unfolded, revealing a maddeningly complex inner architecture surrounding the artist’s 1964 book Grapefruit. Nearby is one of the few video works in the exhibition, a single-channel piece by Andy Warhol titled Water (1971), featuring a close-up view of a water cooler, with a soundtrack capturing random banter from a few Factory regulars, including Warhol. In spirit, Water is very much of a piece with the Fluxus project, but it’s the first example of Warhol’s work I’ve seen included in this context. That said, it is interesting to consider some of the relationships between Pop Art and Fluxus, especially their mutual evocation of a kind of populist Dadaism as well as their exploitation of the distributional possibilities of new mechanical image-making technologies.
Some of those possibilities challenge the rarified distribution protocols of the artworld. One of the ways that Fluxus developed a network of collectors was to unite them around Fluxist newspapers, those being early vehicles for mail order art collecting, foreshadowing by 50 years the now-common practice of buying art on the Internet. Eight such newspaper/catalogs appear in the exhibition, all edited by Maciunas, with most dating to 1964-65, peak years for the Fluxus enterprise. The graphic personality of these documents seems like a strange mixture of European Lettrism and Hippie nostalgia—all appearing like Sears Roebuck catalogs tinctured with circus typography and psychedelic craziness.
Much of the work in Fluxus Reverb follows the lead of Duchamp’s Boitte and fits into the general category of boxes. Many take the form of kits that suggest cryptic preparation for absurd adventures, as can be seen in George Brecht’s Valoch: A Flux Travel Aid (1957-2008) and Robert Watts’ Flux Atlas (1978). These and several other pieces were gifted to the museum by Alice Hutchins, who is also represented by works of her own, including Jewelry Fluxkit (1980), a small plastic box containing jumbled press type. Another of her works, Untitled Self Portrait (c.1967), substitutes part of a face with more press type, recalling some of Hannah Hoch’s work from the 1920s. Joseph Beuys, like Yoko Ono, was another peripheral Fluxus member, represented by a small wooden box containing a signed piece of chalk, no doubt an invitation for the viewer to imagine executing one of Beuys’ Rudolf Steineresque blackboard drawings. Oddly, the one box that might be the earliest Fluxist object, by Maciunas titled Fluxus I (1964), is located in the adjacent Alison Knowles exhibition.
So, on one hand we have propositional scores for performance events that may or may not have happened, and on the other we have an array reliquary boxes that contain incomplete evidence of eccentric artistic processes. In some cases, we might want to substitute the word souvenirs, or even branded anti-merchandise for the word relics, the latter implying some form of sainthood to authorize their status. But the point here is that while living artists were central to the Fluxus project, their works stand as secondary epiphenomena to the ineffability of their lives. This might be a hard point to grasp in Fluxus Reverb (just as it was in the 1994 Spirit of Fluxus exhibition at SFMOMA) because the works in question are ensconced in vitrines, making them seem much more like specimens than art objects. Still, even a collection of dead butterflies manages to retains its living beauty, reminding us that Fluxus offers important and worthwhile things to experience and contemplate.
# # #
Fluxus Reverb: Events, Scores, Boxes and More @ BAMPFA through February 12, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.