Fluxus at the GRI

Robert Watts, Favorite Baseball Team, about 1968-1980

"Everything changes but the avant-garde," said Paul Valéry. Fluxus was part of the Boomer generation's avant-garde, yet it seems ever-contemporary: a global, ephemeral, righteous, twee—and resolutely anti-market—art of paradox. 

In 1985 the Getty Research Institute acquired Jean Brown's Fluxus archive of about 6000 objects. Prior to that, the GRI's collections skewed towards older European rare books and documents, more-or-less congruent to the outlines of the Getty Museum's holdings. The Brown collection pulled the GRI into the 20th century and added art to archive. Fluxus is open-mike conceptualism, where the goal is be cosmic and funny with stuff from the 99 cents store. The Brown trove preserves many of the signature pieces of the Fluxus movement, but they defy conventional museum displays and values. Fluxus objects are typically small, unprecious, ready-made multiples with a twist of dad(a) humor.

Brown's collection has been a staple of GRI exhibitions and loans ever since, but never so much in one place as in the institute's first post-lockdown show, "Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown's Avant-Garde."

Jean was a librarian, and husband Leonard was an insurance agent. Priced out of an initial foray into collecting Abstract Expressionism, they turned their attention to documents of Dada and Surrealism; and then to the emerging Fluxus movement. After Leonard's 1971 death, Jean expanded into Fluxus-adjacent descriptors such as mail art, performance art, and concrete poetry.
George Maciunas, Your Name Spelled with Objects, for Jeanette Brown, 1972. © 2021 Estate of George Maciunas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two prongs of the Brown archive are Marcel Duchamp, the long-lived Dadaist turned Fluxus role model, and George Maciunas, who coined the word "Fluxus" and served as an artist, social director, and gate-keeper. Jean Brown knew both and corresponded extensively. Today the best-known Fluxus artists are those who edged into somewhat more market-validated modes: John Cage, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Joseph Beuys. All are represented here, as are boho-superstars who never got rich from their art: George Brecht, Ay-O, Charlotte Moorman, and Robert Watts.

George Maciunas, U.S.A. Surpasses All the Genocide Records, about 1966

As art history's class clown, Fluxus is not normally parsed in social justice terms. But Maciunas made a political point about as well as it can be made, c. 1966.

Brown lived in a Massachusetts Shaker house once used for printing seed envelopes. The Brown collection has itself been the seed of a much larger Fluxus holding at the Getty. Since 1985 the GRI has acquired the personal archives of Fluxus artists and fellow travelers Simone Forti, Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Ranier, David Tudor, Robert Watts, and Emmett Williams.

Larry Miller and George Maciunas, Very Slow Fan; Robert Watts, Flux Light Kit; George Maciunas, Light Bulbs