In a history full of -isms and manifesto-spouting collectives, few major entities in the art world are as hard to nail down as Fluxus. Was it a movement, theory or a collective whose members didn’t always want to wear its name? Was it just a branding exercise? After nine years of research, Jeffrey Perkins finds that Fluxus was, above all, George Maciunas — an entrepreneurial Lithuanian emigrant who coined the name near the dawn of the ‘60s and spent the rest of his life decreeing what was and wasn’t in Flux. Quite enjoyable even if it leaves viewers hardly feeling they understand the enigmatic man at its heart, George will play well to lovers of esoteric art and should have continuing appeal on video.
The film starts stylishly, with split screens and superimpositions evoking the anarchic, mix-and-match spirit of the art Maciunas would later promote. He was born in 1931 to a loving family, with an “unusual delicate connection” to his dance-loving mother and an early affinity for planning: He constructed double-decker houses out of snow, and was a fanatic for toy soldiers he could make do his bidding.
An always colorful look at a short but exuberant career of avant-garde utopianism.
After his family moved to New York to escape the Russians, Maciunas studied music, architecture and design; privately, he began creating vast family-tree-like charts with which he tried to organize all of art history’s many styles and impulses. He also met Anthology Film Archive founder Jonas Mekas in his early days, and the alt-film icon offers some of the doc’s most revealing observations.
Perkins sees how Maciunas applied that taxonomic impulse to the unruly art world springing up around him. Yoko Ono and La Monte Young were hosting edgy concerts downtown; John Cage was freaking the music world out in classes at the New School; artist George Brecht was starting to use chance happenings and think of instructions as artworks. Working with peers in a variety of formats — from starting his own gallery to designing publications and helping produce concerts — Maciunas arrived at his notion of Fluxus as a descendant of the (still much more famous, but also confounding) European Dada movement. According to his sister, it was all a joke; but it was a joke he stuck with until he died.
Ono, one of the few of the film’s many artist interviewees to have found widespread fame, recalls a general sentiment among her contemporaries: We’re all independent artists, George; we don’t need your label. She came around eventually, as did many others, partly because Maciunas was indefatigable. Over the years, he’d turn everything into Flux. A series of annual box sets would each contain a trove of prints, zines and weird ephemera from the artists he championed; there was a Flux Shop, Flux Chess and a Flux Hall on Canal Street; later came a walk-in Flux Labyrinth, where visitors could have full-body sensory experiences.
Maciunas was unusually willing to do the grunt work of putting a complicated show together — he’d arrange for venues, do the promotion and make contact with like-minded souls around the world. He was not as good at following up, and George watches as he flees the country to evade debt collectors, installs booby traps to keep process-servers at bay and ignores pesky details like city building codes. If he’d been more paperwork-oriented, he would have made millions: With his Fluxhouses, Maciunas organized groups of artists to buy old manufacturing buildings downtown and rehab them for studios and living space. “There simply wouldn’t be SoHo without George,” we’re told, yet he made no money in the process of creating 28 co-ops throughout the now-gold-mine neighborhood.
The doc’s most personal revelations are withheld until its last half-hour, as the ailing entrepreneur moves out to the country and starts what may have been his first intimate relationship. Sickly from childhood on, he suffered immensely at the end from liver cancer and was taking morphine every day. Even so, he mounted a grand Fluxus party for his wedding, and appears to have engineered one final artwork with the idea it would be complete only after he died. Perkins ends the doc with a clip of Fluxus veteran Nam June Paik laughingly telling an interviewer that Fluxus was a name for “middle-class artists,” meaning artists who weren’t very famous or successful. George shows the movement’s creator to be as scrappy, scroungy and happily provocative as any of the pioneers he championed.
Production company: Jeffrey Perkins Productions
Director-Producer: Jeffrey Perkins
Executive producers: Josef Bogdanovich
Editor: Jessie Stead
Venue: Doc Fortnight, Museum of Modern Art