George Maciunas

41 Cooper Gallery at Cooper Union
41 Cooper Square
December 11, 2012–February 2, 2013

View of “Anything Can Substitute Art: Maciunas in SoHo,” 2012–13.

In Fluxmanifesto on Fluxamusement, 1965, George Maciunas writes, “To establish [the] artist[’]s nonprofessional, nonparasitic, nonelite status in society, he must demonstrate [his] own dispensability . . . he must demonstrate that anything can substitute art and anyone can do it.” To rephrase, the role of the artist is, paradoxically enough, to eliminate the role of the artist. Maciunas’s ambivalence, if not outright hostility, toward art as a profession accounts for his reluctance to identify as an artist; he preferred to introduce himself as an architect, a graphic designer, or as the chairman of Fluxus, the neo-avant-garde movement he named and instigated in 1962. In “Anything Can Substitute Art: Maciunas in SoHo,” curator Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt surveys Maciunas’s remarkably varied output. In addition to scores, multiples, and publications, this includes floor plans, historical charts, advertisements for both Fluxus and freelance clients, papers from his graduate studies at the Institute of Fine Arts, newsletters for the Fluxhouse Cooperatives he managed in SoHo, day-planners, passport photos, postcards, even his 1952 diploma from the Cooper Union. In short, Schmidt-Burkhardt puts Maciunas’s proposition that “anything can substitute art” to the test by presenting material more readily associated with architecture, scholarship, publicity, real estate, and bureaucracy than artistic practice.

Given his collaborative working methods, it’s impossible to consider Maciunas in isolation. The show in particular underscores the connection between Maciunas and his fellow Lithuanian, the filmmaker Jonas Mekas. Most of the material on view comes from the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center in Vilnius, and Mekas’s beautiful 16-mm Zefiro Torna, or Scenes from the Life of George Maciunas, 1992, screens continuously. Mekas’s personal footage of Maciunas stretches back to 1952, and it’s striking to see that these two indefatigable organizers—between them the founders of Fluxus, the Fluxhouse Cooperatives, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and Anthology Film Archives—first met through a suburban Long Island community of émigrés from a country that was, as Mekas memorably puts it, “sacrificed on the altar of Yalta.” Anything can substitute art, but art can also be a substitute, a home for those in perpetual flux.

— Colby Chamberlain