Bend Us, Flexus

Gee whiz, the kids grow up fast! Hard to believe Fluxus is 50 already.

Flux who?

Even though begun half a century ago, there are still those who haven’t yet experienced Fluxus, the playful, boundary- breaking neo Dadaist movement made popular by Yoko Ono.

Through radical and experimental music, performance, poetry, visual art, film, printed matter and found objects, Fluxus focuses on the unpredictable, ordinary and ephemeral moments of everyday life.

Ken Friedman, a first generation Fluxus artist, summed it up as “an international laboratory of ideas—a meeting ground and workplace for artists, composers, designers and architects, as well as economists, mathematicians, ballet dancers, chefs and even a would-be theologian.”

The word Fluxus comes from the Latin word “to flow,” and was first coined by George Maciunas, a graphic artist from New York who, in 1970, organized the Flux-mass at Rutgers. With that, the State University of New Jersey became an epicenter of Fluxus. To celebrate the 50-year anniversary, the Zimmerli Art Museum on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus is exhibiting at/around/beyond: Fluxus at Rutgers September 24 2011 to April 1, 2012.

From sculptural objects, assemblages, prints, multiples, ephemera and books, to films, sound works, photographs, and performance documentation, more than 60 works will be assembled at the Zimmerli from the museum’s permanent holdings and private collections. Performance was integral to Fluxus, so there will be interactive works and a concert.

Before there was Fluxus, there was experimental composer John Cage who, in the 1950s, with his notions of indeterminacy, or chance, influenced George Maciunas. Also at that time, performance art pioneer Allan Kaprow, on the Rutgers faculty, began staging his “Happenings” at sculptor George Segal’s farm in South Brunswick. Although not himself a Fluxus artist, Segal was close to its practitioners.

The Happenings were theatrical events, scripted by Kaprow. Sometimes they took place in small storefronts, and would be completed without resolution to the narrative. They were spontaneous and unpredictable, and often the different elements did not relate to one another.

Rutgers faculty members George Brecht and Robert Watts organized a series of Yam (May spelled backwards) events – lectures, performances, demonstrations — which preceded the first official Fluxus festival organized by Maciunas in Germany in 1962.

“In a way,” says Zimmerli Curator Donna Gustafson, “Fluxus grew out of these experiments in the late 50s and early 60s. John Cage was an important influence, both in his music and silence. Silence was not the absence of music, but another kind of music. Others were experimenting with new forms of dance and poetry, and some of those were crossing boundaries. Artists were looking to work between mediums, visual arts and poetry, or theater and dance, creating ‘intermedia.’”

Prior to Fluxus, Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollack were creating paintings by putting the canvas on the ground and flinging paint. “This was seen as a performance, and people started to think about the frame outside the canvas,” says Gustafson.

As early Fluxus artists were talking about the gap between life and art, and making art part of everyday life, Gustafson was just barely an infant herself. Born in Brooklyn and raised in the New York borough, as well as northern New Jersey, Gustafson’s mother worked in a hospital and her father ran his own business. She graduated from Montclair State College in 1980 and earned her Ph.D in art history at Rutgers in 2009, where she became familiar with the Fluxus artists.

As a curator, Gustafson is interested in Fluxus because “it opens peoples’ minds to new ways of thinking and engaging with the world, expanding your consciousness,” she says, “

To that end, she is team teaching an undergraduate seminar at Rutgers, open only to freshman, to introduce students to ideas of Fluxus through performances, objects, music and games.

How does she expect 18-year-old students to respond to an avant-garde movement half a century old? “It still seems cutting edge to most people,” says Gustafson. “Fluxus is still bringing art into everyday life, in a world in which museums and performance spaces keep it separate. Fluxus brings art to the street, in a much less formal presentation.”

Gustafson will assign “The Creative Act,” an essay by Marcel Duchamp, to her students. “The artist creates a work of art but the spectator has his own responsibility to decipher and understand,” she says. “Fluxus is a good entry point to the wider discussion of the art experience and engaging it with everyday life.”

Visitors to at/around/beyond will be able to interact with the exhibit and play chess with, say, fresh lemons as pawns on Larry Miller’s oversize Fruit and Vegetable Chess board or with identical wooden pieces on Takako Saito’s Sound Chess. For Saito’s game, players will shake the chess pieces to distinguish the pieces by their rattles.

Also on view is Chieko Shiomi’s Fluxus Balance, where visitors can weigh words and ideas by placing them on a tiny scale, and Ay-O’s Finger Box Kit, where users may insert their fingers into the mysterious holes of 15 small wooden boxes.

Maciunas created Flux boxes, filled with little artworks. He drew on his graphic design skills to design titles and labels, and also created games, events and performances.

“Games have always been a way to metaphorically experience life,” says Gustafson. “Chess is a game of strategy, a game of war, pitting yourself against someone else, exploring through imagination. Fluxus artists thought about art and the life as experience, using a game as a way to create experience for the spectator. Working your way through a game engages you in the artwork. You were no longer passive, but physically and mentally engaged. They liked the idea of playing, thinking of things in new ways, and games gives that opportunity, to approach life open-ended.”

Interestingly, Marcel Duchamp, at the forefront of the Dada movement, ended his art career to become a full-time chess player.

One section of at/around/beyond brings together works by the most influential of the Fluxus artists at Rutgers, including Robert Watts, Geoffrey Hendricks, and Al Hansen, who were teachers; Larry Miller, MFA graduate 1970; and George Brecht and Philip Corner, who were each an important presence on the campus.

Watts, who taught at Rutgers for 35 years, is represented by a number of seldom-seen objects on loan from his estate, including a chrome pencil, a pair of Fluxus underwear, and a stamp machine loaded with his own stamps. Other notable objects by the Rutgers artists include Brecht’s Water Yam (1963), a box of Brecht’s printed instructions known as event-scores, or fluxscores, which could either be performed in public or left to the imagination, and Geoffrey Hendricks’s Flux Divorce Box, a wooden box inside which is Hendricks’s own wedding album, sliced in half.

Women artists are well represented in Fluxus, and at Rutgers. Some of these are on view in Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life at NYU’s Grey Gallery, through Dec. 3, such as Carolee Schneeman, who works in painting, photography, film, video, performance and installation art, often on the theme of body, sexuality and gender. Schneeman has both taught and exhibited at Rutgers.

The Zimmerli will also present a number of Fluxus films, including 89 Movies by Robert Watts, and the Fluxfilm Anthology, compiled by Maciunas. In the reading room, visitors will be able to peruse Fluxus books like Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and editions from the Great Bear pamphlet series published by Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press.

Although approaching middle age, Fluxus is alive and well and still vibrant today. Larry Miller, a pioneer of performance art, is still working as a Fluxus artist.

A highlight of the exhibition is the presentation of a Fluxus concert led by Miller and performed by a contingent of Rutgers students from the seminar at the Zimmerli on November 2, from 6 to 7 pm as part of the museum’s Art After Hours program. After the concert, visitors will be invited to participate in games of Sound Chess, Fruit and Vegetable Chess, or to play Shiomi’s Fluxus Balance game in the galleries.

“It’s hard to define Fluxus as an art movement, because all Fluxus artists are all individual with their own points of view,” says Gustafson. “It’s not a style shared by group of artists such as impressionism, but rather a way of thinking or an attitude toward life and art, a laboratory for people to explore and experiment, and in which play is an important component.”

The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at the corner of George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 4:30 pm, and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 pm; first Wednesdays of each month September through July, 10 am to 9 pm. Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for adults over 65, and free for museum members, Rutgers students, faculty and staff (with ID), and children under 18. Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 732.932.7237, ext. 610 or visit the museum’s website: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu

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