New York

Robert Filliou, Man Carrying His Own Sun on a String, 1973, cardboard box, black-and-white photograph, pastel, 17 5/8 x 25 x 2 3/8".

Robert Filliou, Man Carrying His Own Sun on a String, 1973, cardboard box, black-and-white photograph, pastel, 17 5/8 x 25 x 2 3/8".

Robert Filliou

Robert Filliou, Man Carrying His Own Sun on a String, 1973, cardboard box, black-and-white photograph, pastel, 17 5/8 x 25 x 2 3/8".

A notable Fluxus figure, the polymath Robert Filliou died in 1987; this presentation, Filliou’s first overview in New York in more than a decade, is culled from his estate. My soft spot for Fluxus admitted, I nevertheless propose that much of his work fails to stir at this late date. Take, as but a single example, Man Carrying His Own Sun on a String, 1973. On the interior lid of a shallow, corrugated cardboard box—a preferred format of the artist—the artist’s arrestingly homely bespectacled face peers out from a photograph; on the box’s bottom, which here is positioned to the left of the lid, he has drawn a childlike pastel of the titular scene. Such coy infantilism seems a considerable devolution from the cloaked social comment once implicit to Fluxus work of barely a decade before.

Of course, to speak of Fluxus is to recall an international cluster of individuals—Artistes Sans Frontières, as it were—whose highly disparate intentions intersected in a mission to extinguish art’s sacred aura. Put off by the pretensions of high art and marked by dadaist inclinations, Fluxus aspired to works so humbly embodied, or so sophomorically droll, as to test and, in that sense, expand the very boundaries of what could even pass for art at all.

Granting such aspirations, Fluxus, as conceived and baptized by George Maciunas in his Fluxus Manifesto of 1963, was expanded through its global affiliations, pro tem agreements with the Affichistes, New Realists, neo-Dadaists, Zero Group, and the École de Nice crowd, among still others. Certain occasional participants, already recognized as big guns from the outset—Joseph Beuys, say, or Yves Klein—now loom even larger, especially when compared to Fluxus’s more Ionescan, Theatre of the Ridiculous writer-artists: Filliou or Ben Vautier, for example. One is, in such instances, reluctant to admit the gravity deemed necessary to a conclusive body of work though, to be fair, it was gravity itself that Fluxus most resisted from the outset.

Thus figures such as Robert Filliou now appear lighter than they did when their art was bolstered by the background of a perceived enemy—particularly the United States, which had been “criminalized” for its role during the Vietnam misadventure and for its moral complicity in the imperialism then speciously attributed to the success of American painting. Such attitudes conferred upon Fluxus manifestations—even the more amusing ones, such as Charlotte Moorman playing her cello in her Nam June Paik television brassiere, or the Fluxus broadsides, dancelike directives, and joke-shop gewgaws—a pertinence, both slapstick and grim.

Among the larger works included in the present show is a suite of three photographs, made with Scott Hyde, each depicting an open left hand—Filliou’s own, and those of his friends Bob Watts and Marisol. Inescapably, these images evoke the richly associative handprints found in prehistoric cave paintings at Pech-Merle or Chauvet in France, a reference that seems iconographic overkill. The timelessness of cave painting has been more credibly reenacted elsewhere, in Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A, 1948, say, in which handprints mark the upper edge. (Though Filliou’s death in a monastery in Les Eyzies, a town near Lascaux, does lend these photos a premonitory air.)

Prehistoric association may lend meaning to the broken brick and twine seen as a caveman’s electrical box found in Western Mandala, 1989, but one among several broken-brick works. The piece is cartoonish and brash. Thus, in such readings, Robert Filliou is cast as Fred Flintstone at Home Depot. Maybe so, maybe so.

Robert Pincus-Witten