Design in Flux

George Maciunas: Flux Year Box 2, 1967, 3¼ by 8 by 8⅜ inches, with mixed-medium work by 17 Fluxus artists including George Brecht, Yoko Ono and Ben Vautier. Courtesy Walker Art Center.

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According to George Maciunas, artists should have a 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).” 1  Maciunas wrote out this daily schedule in 1964, believing it represented the deepest values of Fluxus, the network of avant-garde artists and composers he had, almost inadvertently, brought together two years prior. Though geographically dispersed and stylistically diverse, the group’s members (Nam June Paik, Philip Corner and Alison Knowles, among others) shared a common interest in John Cage’s assault on traditional notions of authorship. Through strategies of concretism, chance operations and indeterminacy, they sought to eliminate intention, taste and personality from their work, thus transferring the production of meaning to the listener or viewer. Maciunas’s interpretation of Cage pushed even further. He conceived of Fluxus as a catalyst for dissolving the role of the professional artist entirely. Once the myth of genius was scuttled, the entire support system for a fine-arts elite would collapse as well, forcing artists to abandon their idle lifestyle and devote themselves instead to “socially constructive and useful work.” The Fluxus way of life prepared for this eventuality by insisting artists find a day job, most likely in what Maciunas called the “applied arts”—”industrial design, journalism, architecture, engineering, graphic-typographic arts, printing etc.”

Maciunas’s division of the day was ideologically driven, yet its basic contours likely strike many as simply a matter of survival. Both now and then, numerous artists have worked a day job in the “applied arts” while maintaining their own practice in the evenings. This segmentation of time traditionally distinguishes between two forms of creative labor, one executed anonymously under contract for a client, the other pursued out of personal interest and consecrated by a signature. However, anyone who has experienced these divisions firsthand can attest to how difficult they are to uphold. For all the apparent rigidity of his tone, Maciunas himself is a case in point.

Consider the item illustrated on the following pages, a pamphlet advertising 101 Days in Europe, a so-called “expedition to the significant monuments of art and architecture in Continental Europe,” offered for the all-inclusive price of $1,420 by the anonymous-sounding company Comprehensive Tours, Inc. 2  A two-page itinerary, typed out in the font News Gothic on an IBM Selectric, details the ambitious schedule. After landing in London, the tour group immediately crosses the Channel into northern France, wends through Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy and southern France, then circuits Spain. Re-entering France, the travelers plod north and commence a tighter loop through the continent’s center, passing once again through Germany, Austria and Italy before ending in Paris. A return to London and a flight back to New York quickly follow. Along the way, each day spans multiple locations: “4th.day, see the late Gothic Flemish towns of Tournai, Bruges, Ghent, and Louvain . . . 46th.day, see the Pisan Romanesque cathedrals of Pisa, Lucca, Pistoa and Prato.” The pace is relentless: the tour’s 100th day is the first and only period of time set aside for leisure.

Brief mentions of Comprehensive Tours pop up among the multiple (and oftentimes contradictory) résumés Maciunas assembled over the years. Beyond that, there is scant evidence outside the pamphlet to explain the circumstances of its production, or to account for the El Al Israel Airlines logo on the cover. This much can be surmised: Maciunas prepared the pamphlet in 1959, while enrolled in art history coursework at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (IFA), and it represents an attempt to apply his academic training and knowledge toward commercial ends.

As an entrepreneurial scheme, 101 Days is wholly quixotic; the itinerary is far too rigorous, grueling even, for its intended clientele of college-age students. As a feat of information graphics, however, the pamphlet is astonishing. The tour’s entire course of transit is vividly summarized in two maps, across which zips a red line. Destinations are marked with hollow black, solid black or red circles depending on whether they possess Greek and Roman monuments, medieval monuments, or Renaissance, Baroque and later monuments. Each circle’s relative diameter is a gauge of art historical significance. Letters following a city’s name indicate the presence of notable churches (ch.); castles (c.); secular buildings or bridges (h.); museums (m.); monasteries, abbeys or cloisters (mo.); palaces (p.); or well preserved town sections (t.). Exhaustive research underpins the image. Like a one-man Baedeker editorial team, Maciunas had methodically entered onto index cards the hotels, restaurants and significant sites of each included city in preparation for the tour package announcement.

Maciunas’s enrollment at the IFA was never full-time. Throughout the mid- to late 1950s he drew his paycheck from the “applied arts,” first as a drafter at the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and then as a designer at Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation and the modern furniture manufacturer Knoll Associates. It’s doubtful Maciunas much enjoyed these positions—to say nothing of finding them “socially constructive”—considering how often he schemed to leave them. Comprehensive Tours was but one of several short-lived enterprises Maciunas launched, among them Instrumenta Antiqua, which sold replicas of antique instruments to high schools and universities, and Universal Structures Corporation, which advertised a system of prefabricated walls for construction. These efforts speak to a certain daring and imagination, but also an utter lack of business acumen. For instance, in 1961 Maciunas and a fellow Lithuanian, Almus Salcius, opened AG Gallery, which operated according to a deeply flawed financial model: they exhibited only artists willing to cover the month’s rent. This limited their program to mediocre but well-heeled painters in search of a vanity show—a sparse and uninspiring field of candidates. Yet it was out of these inauspicious circumstances that Maciunas’s one truly lasting initiative emerged.

At AG, Salcius took care of locating artists to exhibit, which left Maciunas in charge of hosting events: concerts catering to the lute-enthusiast customers of Instrumenta Antiqua; screenings of films selected by the Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas; and readings hosted by Frank Kuenstler, editor of the literary journal Bread&. Before long, Maciunas’s most significant programming collaborator was the composer La Monte Young, whom he met while both were taking a course on electronic music at the New School. Extensively connected, Young introduced Maciunas to much of New York’s avant-garde, and together they presented performances at AG by, among others, Jackson Mac Low, Dick Higgins, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Henry Flynt, Simone Forti, Walter De Maria and Ray Johnson. The two also came to work together on An Anthology, a collection of scores and other works that Maciunas offered to typeset and print when Young’s initial publishing plans fell through. Much of An Anthology‘s preparation took place during one extended work session, with Maciunas laying out the mechanicals while others retyped pieces on his IBM Selectric. “I remember George as sitting at his drawing table for two and a half days solid,” recalls Mac Low, “producing the now-famous designs for the title pages and section titles of An Anthology.” 3  Here, Mac Low refers to the multipage sequence that spells out the volume’s full title, An Anthology of Chance Operations, Concept Art, Anti Art, Indeterminacy, Plans of Action, Diagrams, Music, Dance Constructions, Improvisation, Meaningless Work, Natural Disasters, Compositions, Mathematics, Essays, Poetry, which Maciunas rendered as blocks of energetically jumbled text packed into the book’s square pages.

By mid-summer 1961, Salcius had run out of artists willing to cover the rent. AG defaulted on its bills and quickly shuttered. “If you can,” wrote Maciunas to Young, “come to AG Sunday, July 30, 12 pm with a hammer or axe (if you have one) to help us disassemble the place.” 4  That fall, Maciunas moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, for a design job with the U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service. There he began contacting artists and composers he had met or learned of through Young regarding his plans for a new publication called Fluxus. Like An Anthology, Fluxus would present compositions, essays, poetry and related genres, but Maciunas no longer assumed a secondary position to Young. Instead, he declared himself Fluxus’s “chairman” and listed Young as one of several regional editors. Records from this period make it clear that Maciunas devoted many hours on the Air Force clock to writing letters seeking submissions or asking for recommendations of additional contributors. (“Thanks for your long & explicit letter,” he wrote to George Brecht. “I will write with hand rather than typewriter since I can do so unnotisably [sic] in the office.” 5 ) As his network of contacts expanded, he used the Army Post Office’s equipment to reproduce missives en masse and took advantage of its discounted postal rate to mail them out. That is, to make Fluxus a reality, Maciunas stole considerable time and resources from his day job.

One announcement for Fluxus assumed the form of a brochure, handsomely bound in blue tissue paper. Within, Maciunas outlined a scheme of Fluxus “yearboxes,” all dedicated to surveying new work from specific geographic regions (save for the thematically conceived “Fluxus No. 5 Homage to the Past”). As an article of design, the brochure was a hybrid between An Anthology and 101 Days. It shared An Anthology‘s square format and advertised Fluxus’s multiple genres in similar-looking blocks of erratically arranged text. Like 101 Days, it made use of textured papers and devoted pages to full-bleed images—in this case, a reverse-print reproduction of a dictionary entry defining “flux.” Moreover, the brochure is the product of extensive compilation. Just as he had entered the details of cities across the continent onto index cards for 101 Days, Maciunas arrived at his plans for the yearboxes through a card file summarizing the information he had gathered on individual contributors located in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

Perhaps the Fluxus brochure most resembles 101 Days simply in its doomed ambition. Perpetually delayed, only two yearboxes would ever be published, and none would follow Maciunas’s rubric of geographic groupings. In order to raise funds for printing, Maciunas organized Fluxus concerts across Europe, but even the best attended of these events, which featured performances by a rotating cast of Fluxus associates, still operated at a loss. However, these shortcomings yielded an unanticipated success: the individual artists and composers who received Maciunas’s mailings, who found themselves listed on an editorial committee without prior consultation, or who participated in the concerts, began to identify with the Fluxus moniker. Gradually the word ceased to refer solely to Maciunas’s publication and instead became the rallying point for a whole network of like-minded practitioners. In the space of less than two years, Maciunas had gone from hawking medieval lutes to becoming a central figure in an international neo-avant-garde movement—a rapid transformation largely subsidized by the Air Force.

In 1963, Maciunas returned to New York and soon thereafter established his routine. While he took the lead in organizing Fluxus concerts, editing Fluxus publications and assembling Fluxus multiples, he earned a living in the “applied arts,” either as an employee at the design firm Jack Marshad Associates or on a freelance basis. To a remarkable degree, his graphic designs throughout the 1960s reiterated the features first formulated in 101 Days and An Anthology, no matter whether they were executed under the sign of Fluxus or under contract from a client, like the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

One might account for this consistency simply by ascribing to Maciunas a limited range, a set of principles he applied regardless of the context. But the 101 Days pamphlet raises deeper, more pointed questions. How did Maciunas conceive the relationship between Fluxus and earlier projects like Comprehensive Tours? That is, to what degree were his collaborations with the avant-garde patterned after his wrangling with travel itineraries, anachronistic instruments or prefab walls? Unambiguously, those prior efforts were gambits to get out of regular employment. If we deem them relevant precedents, then Fluxus began as avant-garde entrepreneurship, launched under the dubious presumption that publication sales and concert tickets would eventually pay the bills. Yet, Maciunas was writing manifesto statements calling for the elimination of fine art as a profession at Fluxus’s very outset. From one perspective, Fluxus promised to release Maciunas from his day job; from another, its ultimate ideological goal would ensure his return. It’s only apposite, then, that Maciunas’s design work would continually collapse the distinction between contracted labor and free expression. Whether the hours were 9 to 5 or 5 to 10, either everything was idleness, or everything was work—the only surefire respite being sleep. Eight hours is enough.     

Colby Chamberlain is a New York-based art historian.