Henry Flynt, Stroke Numeral, 1987, gold and acrylic on aluminum, metal frame, 19 x 41 1/2".

Henry Flynt, Stroke Numeral, 1987, gold and acrylic on aluminum, metal frame, 19 x 41 1/2".

Henry Flynt

Henry Flynt, Stroke Numeral, 1987, gold and acrylic on aluminum, metal frame, 19 x 41 1/2".

The Kunstverein in Düsseldorf pulled off a coup with “Henry Flynt: Activities 1959–,” the “first institutional solo show” of the seventy-two-year-old artist, traveling from the kunstverein to ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe (March 2–May 19). Flynt, who coined the term concept art in 1961, is one of the “best-kept secrets of contemporary art history,” as Kunstverein Düsseldorf director Hans-Jürgen Hafner rightly says. Philosopher, mathematician, scientist, musician, and artist, Flynt has pursued “activities” that were underpinned by more than just a discipline-bridging approach. His early works between 1959 and 1962 were also decisively characterized by an “anti-artistic” impulse. NO MORE ART, DEMOLISH SERIOUS CULTURE, and DOWN WITH ART can be read on placards hanging to either side of the artist during his lecture “From Culture to Veramusement” on February 28, 1963, in Walter De Maria’s studio. These panels had previously served him as a form of portable protest for demonstrations with Tony Conrad and Jack Smith at the temples of High Culture in New York; the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Enlarged as wallpaper in the kunstverein’s entry hall, this photographically documented moment in Flynt’s career was placed at the retrospective’s very beginning, playing up its key significance. Historically framed by documents and publications dating from the 1960s onward, Flynt’s action does, in fact, mark a caesura, since after this 1963 lecture, he renounced artistic production in the strictest sense—at least until 1987, when he devoted himself to reviving his idea of concept art. As the show centers on Flynt’s “artistic” work (rather than his other activities), his quarter-century-long renunciation of art defines the show’s structure. This focus makes sense conceptually but nonetheless results in a certain “cleaning up” of his decidedly transdisciplinary modus operandi.

The first room presented documents, reconstructions, and a handful of original works from his early years—including a number of drawings (such as an Ugly Drawing, 1959); the plans for an “optical audioplayer,” 1961–62, to translate optical signals into sound; and the concept art piece TESEQS, 1961. Reconstructed for the show, TESEQS is a freely hanging framed sheet of paper, at the center of which a rectangle has been cut out that Flynt describes as a “gestalt” in his accompanying text; it frames a view and thus implies a reflection on seeing in a “continuum of ‘nows.’”

Collected works made since 1987 were found in the larger exhibition space, including Flynt’s critical response to Conceptual art, Challenge to Conceptual Artists—Seven Plaques, 1992, as well as paintings in acrylic or oil from the late 1980s and early ’90s, including the Aleatoric Painting No. 2, 1993, which applies John Cage’s principles of chance to painting, and Duochord at a Perfect Fifth, 2012, with its clear reference to Flynt’s activities as a musician. As Flynt relates in a video on the kunstverein’s website, his main concern starting in the late ’80s was the redemption of his notion of concept art, which he repeatedly differentiated from Conceptual art: His 1961 text about concept art, reprinted many times, defines the term as “an art of which the material is concepts, as the material of e.g. music is sound. Since concepts are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.” For Flynt, language is one medium among others for the production of “logically impossible spaces” that bring together otherwise mutually exclusive logical systems.

The great achievement of this show was that, for the first time, a view of the complex cosmos of Flynt’s thought was framed. And yet one was left somewhat dissatisfied afterward, wishing for even more contextualization and cross-references to Flynt’s other activities—beyond the publications that are on display in the vitrines but cannot be properly read. But perhaps this gap will be filled by the exhibition catalogue, which is to be published later this spring.

Astrid Wege

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.