George Brecht

Museum Ludwig

THE MUSEUM LUDWIG in Cologne and the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona recently put their American counterparts to shame by co-organizing the first major exhibition of George Brecht’s work in twenty-eight years (the previous show was also in Europe and, like the current one, was labeled a “heterospective” by the artist). From a purely nationalistic point of view, the lack of even one US venue at first seems rather odd, if not scandalous: After all, even though Brecht has been living in Cologne since 1971, he was born George MacDiarmid eighty years ago in New York, and he counts as one of the last survivors of the elastic Fluxus group, which is currently enjoying a surge of new interest among young artists and scholars. But this institutional inadventurousness is in some ways predicated by the art itself—“border[ing] on the nonexistent,” as Brecht put it—and by the artist’s persistent and self-conscious avoidance of the market game.

Here is a telling anecdote: In 1961, William Seitz included Brecht in the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling exhibition “The Art of Assemblage.” In New York Seitz showed a large piece called Repository, 1961, which the museum purchased at the time (but refused to lend to Cologne, though it seems forever confined to storage), while a similar but smaller work called The Cabinet, 1959, went on tour. In his “Notes on shipping and exhibiting” the latter work, written for Seitz in preparation for the show’s multivenue tour, Brecht explained that he was less interested in the “objectlike part” of the work, “that is, the cabinet and its contents,” than in “what occurs when someone is involved with its objectlike part” (when a “spectator” opens the cabinet and starts “handl[ing] the objects freely”). Standard ’60s fare, one might think—“bridging the gap between art and life,” etc. But the beginning of the following paragraph would likely raise the hair of any curator today just as it must have Seitz’s in his time: “It is within the spirit of the work that (as in life in general) parts may be lost, broken, spilled, stolen, replaced, contributed, soiled, cleaned, constructed, destroyed.” So relax!, Brecht urges his exhibitor (not only Seitz but all potential ones), for the artist “absolve[s] him completely of responsibility for returning the work in its original form.” “When (if) parts disappear,” Brecht advised, “replace these with parts that seem equivalent (able to substitute). If no equivalent parts are available, substitute something else, or nothing at all, if you’d rather.” Whatever you do is fine: “No catastrophes are possible.”

Although the claim that no catastrophes are possible should come as a relief to any curator, the thought may in fact be even more frightening than the fear of catastrophe itself, which, at least, is firmly measured against a perfectly identifiable noncatastrophic state. In a Brecht show, a large proportion of objects—all those produced as “events” according to a “score,” which is usually pinned on a nearby wall—can be transformed at will in the manner described in the “Notes on shipping and exhibiting.” The score for Chair Event of 1962, for example, reads, “on a white chair / a grater / tape measure / alphabet / flag / black / and spectral colors,” and is accompanied in the catalogue by two “realizations,” one from 1972 that is included in the show, the other done earlier and presumably destroyed. One need not be an expert in economics to understand that by treating the components of his artworks as exchangeable goods (as mere commodities, that is), Brecht paradoxically undermines both their market and “cultual” value, which are based on rarity and authenticity.

This sabotaging strategy has a long and fascinating history, the trajectory of which is expertly charted in the exhibition and even more exhaustively so in the formidable catalogue edited by Alfred M. Fischer of the Museum Ludwig, who cocurated the exhibition with Julia Robinson. (Apart from Fischer’s essay, which concentrates on the importance of Zen for Brecht and focuses on his later work, the book contains a long and extraordinarily perceptive text written by Robinson, as well as a detailed chronology, memoirs and salutes by many artists, and an anthology of texts by Brecht himself.) The show begins with two large “chance paintings” of 1957, contemporary with Brecht’s first major text, “Chance-Imagery,” later published as a brochure in 1966. Resembling those tie-dyed T-shirts of hippie days, they are based on the misinterpretation that Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were made by chance and belong to what one might call the “pre-Cagean” infancy of Brecht’s career. This is not to suggest that Brecht was ignoring John Cage’s work in 1957 or, for that matter, Dada and Marcel Duchamp; all of them are discussed at various lengths in “Chance-Imagery.” But it was only after he met Robert Watts and Allan Kaprow that same year, and attended with them Cage’s famous “composition” class at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1958–59, that he embraced—perhaps more fully than any other artist—Cage’s radical conception of art.

Combining Cage’s musical model (and its notion of time as perennially full) and Duchamp’s concept of the readymade, Brecht invented “the event.” At first (in Cage’s class), his pieces were akin to Kaprow’s Happenings: They were performed by classmates following a rather complex score charting a series of actions distributed in time through a series of chance operations. But Brecht soon grew dissatisfied with the theatrical (performance) aspect of his work. (Cage’s criticism was particularly important at this point. Having participated in the performance of one of these early pieces, he quipped, “I never felt so controlled before,” a reservation he also held about Kaprow’s Happenings.) Brecht’s conception of the “event” was borne out of an epiphany: “In the Spring of 1960 . . . waiting for my wife to come from the house, standing behind my English Ford station wagon, the motor running and the left-turn signal blinking, it occurred to me that a truly ‘event’ piece could be drawn from the situation.” Three months later, he completed Motor Vehicle Sundown (Event), 1960, the first piece explicitly bearing this trademark designation. Yet as Robinson states in the catalogue, this inaugural “event” (performed last September during the opening festivities of the Cologne show), in fact marks the end of a chapter as much as a beginning: A visual and aural symphony-cum-ballet performed with a vast number of vehicles whose drivers have each been given twenty-two instruction cards to be shuffled before being performed, it is still eminently Cagean.

Indeed, it was only while reading Robert Lebel’s 1959 monograph on Duchamp and pondering the consequences of the readymade that Brecht truly understood what he was searching for: Just as the readymade is an object lifted from its mere commodity status by being transported into an art context, the “event” would be an act—often a simple one performed daily, such as turning on and off a switch—on which he would cast his spotlight in order to force us to pay attention to it, in order, as the Russian formalists would have said, to “make it strange” and “de-automatize our perception.”

By 1961, the scores had become paramount for Brecht. He would print them out on tiny cards sent to friends, and many of them were later gathered in a box called Water Yam, 1963, edited by Fluxus guru George Maciunas. The most famous example is Drip Music (Drip Event): “A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel. / Second version: Dripping.” It was performed by Brecht and others in many Fluxus festivals during the ’60s and ’70s but could also be performed in the privacy of one’s home. In short, although many of Brecht’s scores could be realized in a theatrical setting, such as the score of Solo for Violin Viola Cello or Contrabass, 1962, which contains only the word “polishing,” they did not have to be. And over the years they became increasingly simple and thus opened up to many different “interpretations” in the musical sense of the word. In an interview with the art critic Irmeline Lebeer, for example, Brecht approves equally all her suggestions for the realization of the score of Piano Piece, 1962, which contains the single word “center”: pushing the piano to the center of the room; striking a key in the middle of the keyboard; dropping something on the strings in the middle; etc. As Brecht said several times, “Individual works have no definite forms.” In fact, it did not fundamentally matter if a score was executed, or if, when executed, it would be perceived as such by anyone other than its performer(s). Only the idea counted. Brecht’s sketchbooks of the early ’60s, seven of which are now published in facsimile, are replete with “unrealized” scores, as well as drawings for “unrealized” objects. But the word “unrealized” is inadequate: Choosing not to perform a score is still to perform it, albeit negatively.

This is a recipe for an infinitely expandable universe, and Brecht fully understood the danger of this boundlessness when he reflected on Duchamp’s conception of the readymade and the ambiguous role intention and choice play in it. If everything is equally important, wouldn’t this also mean that everything is equally unimportant? And if so, wouldn’t zooming in on a particular “unimportant” event in one’s life reintroduce precisely the hierarchy Brecht was attempting to abolish? All of Brecht’s work revolves around this dilemma, which he posited as both central and insuperable, more acutely than any of his peers. What he did not consider—and here he remained within the Cagean universe—is the unabashed idealism of his position. From his early lament about the inadequacy of language as a conveyor of meaning to his dream of an “unmediated perception,” from his insistence on the “now” to his adoption of the flow of natural processes as a model, Brecht developed what could be called a form of ascetic (though humorous) mysticism (and this includes his seclusion and near-total silence over the past two decades). This is a maximalist position that is necessarily marginal, and that draws its force from this marginality. Its force, but also its weakness, which is to court invisibility (and thus a concomitant lack of recognition). Two Exercises, a brilliant score of 1961, epitomizes this paradox:

Consider an object. Call what is not the object “other.”
EXERCISE: Add to the object, from the ‘other,’ another object, to form a new object and a new “other.” Repeat until there is no more “other.”
EXERCISE: Take a part from the object and add it to the ‘other,’ to form a new object and a new “other.” Repeat until there is no more object.

Brecht’s oeuvre—the objects such as the ones gathered in the show, but also all his scores—is a collection of haiku. He understood the necessity of providing a single “poetic” frame for his entire production, which he began conceiving as a virtual “book” in 1964. Called The Book of the Tumbler on Fire, it has definite chapters (such and such series of events, such and such exhibition, such and such anthology of scores) and even footnotes (all “Chair events”). He understood, in short, that in order to have some effect, his work had to accept some bounds, however loose they might be—that control, this plague he had vowed to expunge from all art practices, had to be reinserted somehow. Even disguised as a “heterospective,” the current exhibition fulfills all the institutional functions of a retrospective: This is the price one has to pay to be seen.

A contributing editor of Artforum, Yve-Alain Bois is professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey.

“George Brecht Events: A Heterospective” travels to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), July 12–Sept. 24.