Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 11, 2021
Natilee Harren Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 304 pp.; 12 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780226354927)

“We had thought, too, about the tireless activity of the Fluxus group—but how could we have shown an infinite overproduction without instantly betraying and limiting it?” Such is Yve-Alain Bois’s explanation for excluding Fluxus from Formless, the exhibition and “user’s guide” he coorganized and cowrote with Rosalind E. Krauss (Zone Books, 1997, 24). Taking inspiration from Georges Bataille’s short, evocative dictionary entry on l’informe in the Surrealist journal Documents, the duo set out to “redeal modernism’s cards” (Bois and Krauss, 21). L’informe, they explained, denoted a leveling operation that could corrupt Clement Greenberg’s formalism without succumbing to postmodernism’s anything-goes laxity. Yet even in this campaign of cultural liquidation, Fluxus, an anti-art movement specializing in deliberately insignificant gestures, cheap commercial goods, and occasional scatological outbursts, had no place. This “group” remained too unruly, too indistinct, and—if the uncharacteristic lack of insight in Bois’s brief aside is any indicator—too little understood.

Up through the 1990s, scholarship of Fluxus remained mostly the province of performance studies and musicology (see, for example, the contributions by Kristine Stiles and Douglas Kahn to the exhibition catalog for In the Spirit of Fluxus, organized by the Walker Art Center in 1993). In art historical texts, Fluxus was frequently invoked alongside Pop, Minimalism, and other canonical movements of the 1960s but seldom discussed with any specificity. One finds mentions of Fluxus “chairman” George Maciunas in various articles by Benjamin Buchloh, usually in reference to a single letter from 1964 that cites Soviet productivism as a significant influence—a good starting point for proving that Fluxus was more substantial than the Dada tribute band it is sometimes caricatured to be, but on its own hardly enough to parse how Maciunas’s views meshed with those of artists as diverse as Alison Knowles, Nam June Paik, Benjamin Patterson, and George Brecht. It was not until the turn of the twenty-first century that art historians such as Liz Kotz, Julia Robinson, Hannah Higgins, Judith Rodenbeck, and Branden Joseph paid closer attention to Fluxus and the wider reception of John Cage to which it belongs. The reasons for this slow uptake are precisely why Fluxus might have warranted further consideration in Bois and Krauss’s user’s guide: its scores, multiples, publications, and concerts variously flummox and deflate the conventions of “fine art.”

For example, the acquisition of the enormous Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) should have inaugurated the assimilation of a once-radical movement into the holdings of corporate modernism. Instead, the collection has repeatedly confronted the museum’s staff with dilemmas and irritants. The complex authorial arrangements that subtend nearly any given Fluxus work bedevil attribution, and the movement’s material production confounds not only the medium-specific designations of MoMA’s curatorial departments but also the fundamental distinction between oeuvre and archive. How does one categorize a cardboard box stuffed with yellowed postcards, faded mimeographs, cracked plastic containers, or desiccated rubber toys? Writing of her experience cataloging the Silverman Collection in 2010, performance scholar Gillian Young recalls unpacking several bottles filled with urine. In short, it takes a considerable amount of roll-up-your-sleeves archival sifting and theoretical cogitating to even begin to make a case for Fluxus’s legibility, let alone its relevance. Art movements trafficking in human waste meet more resistance than even the most derivative of painting or sculpture.

In Fluxus Forms: Scores, Multiples, and the Eternal Network, Natilee Harren takes up these tasks by constructing an alternative formalism. Like Formless, the book reshuffles the deck, supplanting Greenberg’s fixation on material supports with a focus on structural operations. Harren’s methods depart significantly from those of Kotz and Robinson, who both privileged the linguistic dimension of Fluxus scores to position them as precedents to the written statements of Conceptual art, an approach that Kotz described as “reading Brecht through [Lawrence] Weiner” (“Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event’ Score,” October 95 [Winter 2001]: 88). In contrast to this retroactive framing, Harren establishes Fluxus’s legibility by tracing its roots back to the “New York school” music of Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff. The book’s lengthy, important first chapter draws extensively from musicology to unpack the profound implications of graphic composition. By breaking with the linear progression of traditional staff notation, graphic scores articulated a set of possibilities rather than a predetermined sequence. The innovation of Fluxus artists like Brecht, Dick Higgins, and Jackson Mac Low—all of whom attended the experimental composition course that Cage taught at the New School in the late 1950s—was to apply the New York school’s techniques to a fuller range of audiovisual material. The underlying logic of any given Fluxus score, Harren contends, is that of the diagram. Whether written, drawn, printed, or typed, it suggests a configuration of sounds, objects, actions, and individuals that, with each iteration, can be reinvented while nevertheless remaining tethered to the composer’s original notation.

Harren further grounds Fluxus in its historical antecedents by detailing its debts to Abstract Expressionism. Here is where the affinity between Fluxus Forms and Formless is most pronounced. In much the same way that Krauss and Bois presented works by Andy Warhol and Robert Morris as willfully debased interpretations of Jackson Pollock’s all-over canvases, Harren shows how Brecht and Maciunas took Pollock’s celebrated drip technique as inspiration for experiments in depersonalized concretism. A trained chemist, Brecht soaked folded canvases in pigment in order to generate abstractions devoid of expressive content. In 1961 Maciunas executed a series of “hydrokinetic-osmotic paintings” by pouring India ink onto moistened pieces of rice paper and paperboard. Harren argues that these works cleave to a logic of “immanent formalism,” wherein form emerges from the interplay between predetermined method and material properties (the porosity of fabric, the viscosity of paint, etc.). Both Brecht and Maciunas subsequently abandoned painting, but these early forays bolster Harren’s contention that Fluxus scores cannot be reduced to linguistic propositions.

With apologies to Greenberg and Gotthold Lessing, I am tempted to call Harren’s underlying thesis “Towards an Even Newer Laocoon.” While Western aesthetic theory since the eighteenth century has been predicated on an insuperable division between the temporal and plastic arts, Fluxus Forms suggests the possibility of placing the two in productive tension. Diagrammatic formalism demonstrates how a set of materials (broadly defined) might be manipulated, rearranged, or exchanged over the course of an extended duration or through successive realizations. Even while privileging process over product, the artwork “in flux” retains a discernible form. “No chaos, damn it!” Pollock once famously exclaimed. Harren says much the same. Having established this premise in the book’s first two chapters, Harren devotes the following three to elaborating on it through monographic studies of Brecht, Maciunas, and the French artist Robert Filliou. In each case, the scale of Fluxus’s diagrams progressively expands. Brecht’s scores recast the readymade as a “notational object” suspended between an abstract proposition and its numerous possible concrete realizations. The Fluxboxes assembled by Maciunas prompt interactions between corporeal subjects and commodified objects, or instantiate the overlap of authorial positions among Fluxus’s own membership. Finally, in Filliou’s practice of incessant sociability, the diagram extends outward into the “Eternal Network,” an endless concatenation of gestures and associations held together by affinity and friendship.

Fluxus Forms thus considerably enhances Fluxus’s legibility. But what of Fluxus’s relevance? In a concluding coda, Harren makes her case for the movement’s enduring influence while also preemptively fending off a possible misinterpretation of her argument that would conflate Fluxus’s diagrammatic relations with social media’s digital connectivity. In opposition to scholars such as Craig Saper and Owen Smith who have hailed Fluxus as an anticipation of internet art, Harren insists that Fluxus’s publications and performances refuse the mediation of pixelated screens. No matter their scale, Brecht’s scores, Maciunas’s multiples, and even Filliou’s network always remain anchored in tangible objects and direct contact. As examples of Fluxus’s diagrammatic formalism persisting in contemporary art, Harren points to the scripted encounters of the militantly immaterial Tino Sehgal and the playful crowd-sourcing of the peripatetic David Horvitz, whose piece Artist’s Breakfast, commissioned by MoMA’s Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP) initiative in 2013, updated the format of the “spatial poems” that Fluxus artist Mieko Shiomi orchestrated from Japan in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Surprisingly, Harren never mentions Shiomi’s spatial poems, despite their self-evident relevance to her argument. Consisting of scores that Shiomi would distribute to an international roster of recipients and cartographic multiples she would devise to document the ensuing responses, the spatial poems would seem to be diagrammatic formalism’s globe-encompassing apogee. Their absence from Fluxus Forms speaks to the book’s blind spots, or, to rephrase, the avenues of inquiry it leaves open. Harren’s decision to single out three Euro-American (more-or-less straight, more-or-less able-bodied) males not only downplays Fluxus’s diversity; it also perpetuates the myth that formalism only truly applies to the work of “universal” male subjects whose whiteness repels the impurities of difference. Yet, for all its failings, formalism has facilitated powerful analyses of both individual artworks and the arcs of history they inflect. (Consider all the scholars who have disagreed with Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” while nevertheless leaning on its framework to formulate their own definition of postmodernism.) Fluxus Forms has reshuffled the deck. With a few additional cards, it might even change the game.

Colby Chamberlain
Lecturer, Department of Art and Archaeology, Columbia University