New York

“Fluxus Closing In”

Salvatore Ala Gallery

Ben Vautier once wrote that “Fluxus is a pain in art’s ass,” and though, indeed, it once was, this show did little to perpetuate this reputation. Although comprehensive—the exhibition included over 200 works dating from the late ’50s to the present—it lacked the wonderful irreverence, immediacy, and edgy incorrigibility that originally characterized Fluxus. Unlike gallery-oriented happenings, which depended on a spatial sensibility, Fluxus seems to have embodied a musically oriented temporal sensibility as well, which fueled the element of chance in the work, and ultimately affected the choice of sites. Many of the original Fluxus artists, such as Dick Higgins and George Brecht, studied with John Cage at the New School, and some of Brecht’s earliest work took the form of verbal scores that offered a choice of responses. Consider his Word Event, 1961, or Three Telephone Events, 1961, in which three related actions are typed on small cards: “When the telephone rings, it is allowed to continue ringing, until it stops.” “When the telephone rings, the receiver is lifted, then replaced.” “When the telephone rings, it is answered.” Here is a “visual art” in which the object isn’t primary, an art that is partially conceived in terms of time. Daniel Spoerri’s “snare paintings” are more experiential in their evocation of an activity than they are representational, and Yoko Ono’s Painting to Hammer a Nail, 1961, suggests an event or action and again takes on the quality of a score.

There was also a political aspect to much of the Fluxus activities—a nonhierarchical, antielitist idea of “intermedia”—that made the conventional object and the art market seem obsolete. It was the left-leaning politics of many Fluxus artists that made the “movement” much more popular in Europe than in America, and that may have ultimately divided the Fluxus artists—some members were more extreme in their political beliefs than others.

Though the opportunity to see this superb work is more than welcome, this exhibition is inevitably somewhat problematic, given that the gallery context feels antithetical to what are frequently taken as the initial political, philosophical, and artistic tenets of Fluxus. Where once virtually anyone could buy Fluxus work as it had yet to completely enter the gallery/collector system, it has now been co-opted by the very market it once playfully subverted. Fluxus is currently “hot”; it was featured at this year’s Venice Biennale, and Fluxus exhibitions are cropping up everywhere. If the work feels nostalgic because it hints at a spirit that is long gone, there is certainly an admirable art-historical quality to this show. Perhaps my purist attitude is ultimately as confining as it is dated, for Fluxus still seems to succeed in posing some difficult questions; at least the work continues to inspire debate.

Brecht’s advice in “Something About Fluxus,” May 1964, may still be the best point of departure: “Whether you think that concert halls, theaters, and art galleries are the natural places to present music, performances, and objects, or find these places mummifying, preferring streets, homes, and railway stations, or do not find it useful to distinguish between these two aspects of the world theater, there is someone associated with Fluxus who agrees with you. Artists, anti-artists, non-artists, anartists , the politically committed and the apolitical, poets of non-poetry, non-dancers dancing, doers, undoers, and non-doers, Fluxus encompasses opposites. Consider opposing it, supporting it, ignoring it, changing your mind.”

Melissa Harris