New York

Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Geoffrey Hendricks and Ray Johnson

René Block Gallery

René Block Gallery, newly opened here from Germany, mounted “What’s the Time?”—an exhibition of multiples and original work by 17 American and European Fluxus artists—as “a preview of the coming season.” Fluxus is a moniker advanced by George Maciunas in 1962 from the Latin root of fluid and flux. The movement’s activities here and abroad were intended to be transient, and the artists who participated in them during the ’60s are today quite resistant to those who would corral and context them. Sixty years after, Dada has succeeded in evading historians determined to chronicle and interpret that movement, and Fluxus will doubtless prove a similar bummer. A friend of mine said, “Fluxus is the most successful fucked up art movement,” since it denied itself a critical base as it emerged. Right.

But here goes. Joseph Beuys’ Eurasia (1966), like Robert Rauschenberg’s stuffed goat, Monogram (1959), was imported from Europe for exhibition here. Eurasia is made up of elements Beuys used in a performance—a marked chalk board, a stuffed hare with long sticks tied onto its legs, and more. It looks didactic, but it’s also clearly absurd. If pigs had wings, and hares had longer legs . . .

It’s hard to call Beuys on style—Fluxus, Pop assemblage, Process, and documentary modes all figure in his work. His box-format multiples (not shown here) are uncanny mutations of a form, ventured by André Brèton’s poetic objects of the ’30s, which crystallized in the work of Joseph Cornell. The form of Cornell’s classic wooden box pieces were fine by George Brecht, however. In the boxes he has made during the ’70s, Brecht opts for a simpler and punchier content—I mean fewer things—than he used in The Book of the Tumbler On Fire, Chapter VII (1965), and other works of the mid ’60s. Brecht has veered away from nostalgic curiosity shop clutter, and now his object groups are indicating. In Zeige oben die gleichen Dinge (Show the Same Things Above) of 1970, for example, Brecht pairs a children’s “find the objects” game page with a bundle of colored wire and bits of wire below. It’s learning; about rooms and electric circuitry. Untitled (1974), a box containing a flock of cigarette papers on pins, a dried mushroom, and a molded cookie in the shape of an old man or dwarf, also reveals Brecht’s move toward a more concise vocabulary of objects, and a correspondingly more limited range of associations—marijuana and Schwarzwald fairy stories. Still, Brecht’s morphology—a nice wooden box with glass over it—remains unchanged. A new book, but the same cover.

In Rocks, Bones, a Year and a Day (1974), Geoffrey Hendricks laid three cheap cardboard boxes on the floor. The first contains a big white stone, the second a sheep’s skull, and the third a piece of spine and some ribs. Hendricks tacked a kind of poem on the wall for each box, explaining how, while rambling in the country, he chanced upon this rock which reminded him of a skull. Only later did he find the skull, which he guessed must be the one he’d imagined, and then he found the spine.

A Chair with Roots, Legs, Words, Back, Hair and Teeth (1973) comes complete with instructions how to use it. It’s a full bore hoodooistic expression of Hendricks’ fascination with woodlands magic; well crafted and all, but ugh, another chair piece. Rock, in contrast, is no shaman’s tool—it doesn’t draw conclusions. The objects are presented in tacky boxes, creched in newspaper and rags, like a child’s museum. Sure, Rock is formless and funky, but it raises those peculiar questions about the artist’s inquiry.

Ray Johnson’s performance, billed as a meeting of the Asparagus Club (successor to his Buddha University), put me off from the start. Johnson and a rotating group of his friends (including two journalists who should have known better) greeted audience members as they arrived, offering a microphone hooked to a tape recorder to all who wished to go on record as present at the clubhouse.

Johnson spoke slowly and deliberately, frequently passing the microphone to another to complete his sentence. It was a poor version of a favorite parlor game among Surrealist literati, Exquisite Corpse, and a model of cheesy self-exposure. Political writer Hunter Thompson maintains that Richard Nixon made far more tapes than we shall ever hear, and his fantasy of our former president “walking . . . across the White House lawn at night, oblivious to everything in front or on either side of him except that little black and silver tape recorder that he is holding up to his lips, talking softly and constantly to ‘history’” indicates the degree to which this now most public audial exercise has gripped our imagination.

It’s the idea that a highly receptive audience will allow an artist to project him/herself into history (which, like art, is a progressive body of knowledge) on his/her terms without, in fact, putting out. I see it as an authoritarian impulse during a time when action—be it political or cultural—is overrecorded and underexamined. Johnson, to be sure, is no fascist. His saving grace is his wit, and an implicit self-mockery, which his announcement reveals. It pictures four of the horned faces familiar from Johnson’s correspondence art, each exclaiming “Oh dat consept art.” Johnson is a master satirist (as his collages in the René Block group show prove), and it is rather fractious of me to read him in terms of a voguish style which, in fact, his early work anticipated—but I sure was bored.

Alan Moore