With its second volume, the Walker Art Center’s Living Collections Catalogue takes as its point of departure the exhibition Art Expanded, 1958–1978, drawing on the museum’s remarkable holdings of artworks, films, performance relics, and archival ephemera from these two pivotal decades. The essays and archive capsules published here—the result of research and writing by a group of emerging art historians and curators—offer new critical histories for select objects in the Walker’s collection as well as key commissions. While some authors give us deeper understanding through their focus on iconic works long familiar to Walker audiences, others uncover overlooked ephemera, mine the archive, and interpret recently acquired or newly conserved pieces. Reflecting a range of art-historical and critical approaches, together these texts speak to the enduring fascination this period holds for scholars of contemporary art and culture. They also affirm that through the focused study of individual objects, we may come to know better the historical dynamics—whether they be social, political, aesthetic, economic, or biographical—that occasioned their making.
Unlike most exhibitions that center on the artistic innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, Art Expanded, 1958–1978 foregrounds the work and activities of Fluxus, a neo-avant-garde collective that emerged in the early 1960s primarily in Europe and the United States, with a network of affiliated artists around the globe. With a name derived by George Maciunas from the Latin verb fluere (“to flow”), the group—George Brecht, Alison Knowles, Benjamin Patterson, Robert Watts, Nam June Paik, Ben Vautier, and many others—signaled a decisive move away from received notions of artistic authorship and aesthetic autonomy. Galvanized by the teachings of John Cage at the New School for Social Research in New York (1957–1959) and his use of chance operations and indeterminacy, this new generation gravitated toward a score-based practice of street actions, intermedia events, and proto-conceptual instructions. Their work signaled a new sense of mobility and critique within art; no longer tied to the physical spaces of the institutionalized art world—the studio, the gallery, and the museum—Fluxus destabilized art’s economic system and its critical faculties with ludic activities rooted in participation, collaboration, and dematerialization.
In 1989, the Walker acquired a trove of some 400 Fluxus-related objects, relics, posters, photographs, and printed materials, many of which were originally assembled by the Bay Area–based writer Jeff Berner whose association with Fluxus extends back to the 1960s. Supplemented by various other acquisitions and holdings, such as a sizeable group of Fluxfilms in the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection as well as its Alfred and Marie Greisinger Collection of Joseph Beuys multiples, this core group of works represents an early and significant institutional commitment to Fluxus. To showcase the collection in 1993, the Walker mounted a touring exhibition, In the Spirit of Fluxus, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss, which was the first major museum survey dedicated to the collective. As with the earlier show, the 2014 exhibition Art Expanded, 1958–1978 also occasioned live events and performances, reflecting an ongoing curatorial urgency around Fluxus: when possible, the work must be performed. Most recently, in 2014, Alison Knowles conducted a residency at the Walker for which she enacted for an outdoor audience of 275 her Proposition No. 2 (1962), otherwise known as “Make a Salad,” and also led a more intimate workshop on the performance of two other scores at impromptu locations in downtown Minneapolis. Soon after, with the help of the Walker’s Teen Arts Council, Benjamin Patterson realized a performance of his 1962 score Pond, which through the unpredictable movements of wind-up toy frogs across an artist-conceived playing field elicits a surprising vocal performance for eight participants.
However playful they seem, these performances carry with them the radical spirit of the time in which they were conceived and speak directly to the blurring of art and life that is so often invoked in historical reflections on Fluxus. Some fifty years later, though, it has become increasingly difficult to relay the urgency of the Fluxus project and its undisciplined ethos. (This is an especially vexing problem for exhibition curators who must present event scores behind glass and Fluxkits under vitrines.) One of my goals with Art Expanded, 1958–1978, and this resulting volume, was to recuperate certain terms, art-historical relationships, and archival content that have recently lapsed into misuse or disregard. For example, in 1966, Dick Higgins coined the critical term “intermedia” to describe the radical between-ness that seemed to characterize the best work of his day from Fluxus and beyond. An artist such as Cage, for instance, could work productively at the intermedium of philosophy and music, or Yvonne Rainer between choreographed dance and everyday movement. Yet as art historian Natilee Harren notes in her essay published here, today this 1960s neologism “connotes a cultural environment in which artistic mediums and forms have become … either monstrously or joyously hybrid, uncategorizable, and overtly, complexly, perhaps even overly technological.” Through her compelling affirmation of Higgins’s term at a transition between modernism and postmodernism, Harren points to a “subterranean debt” that contemporary artists owe their Fluxus forebearers: “To imagine one medium as translatable into the language of another imagines a medium as a set of operations unattached to any particular set of materials, a notion that could only be arrived at via a notation-based practice like Fluxus.”1
Indeed, the question of historical legacy weighs heavily on Art Expanded, 1958–1978, which importantly finds its programmatic context in a contemporary art center. The exhibition begins with an anteroom of key documents that reflect artists’ own revisionist historiographical thinking at the time, among them Higgins’s essay “Intermedia” published by his own Something Else Press (1966), Joseph Beuys’s Paß für Eintritt in die Zukunft (Pass for Entry into the Future) (1974), and three diagrams by Maciunas. The latter—Fluxus (Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-Garde) (1966); Expanded Arts Diagram (1966); and Diagram of Historical Development of Fluxus and Other 4 Dimentional, Aural, Optic, Olfactory, Epithelial and Tactile Art Forms (circa 1973)—each an instance of Maciunas’s methodical mapping of the history of Fluxus, consist of labyrinthine historical flowcharts that substitute a timeline’s conventional horizontal axis with a splintered and networked vertical arrangement of names, artworks, performances, concepts, and places. Art-historical phenomena that have since been carved up and organized by historians according to movement, discipline, and social clique all commingle here with Maciunas’s idiosyncratic graphic vigor. These documents visualize a decisive rupture in the art-historical record and usher in a new way of understanding one’s work in relation to that of others and in the context of history. In a horizontal timeline, adjacency is articulated as before or after and art history marches forward as one innovation after another, whereas in Maciunas’s vertical “planometrical” model, simultaneity and dispersion take precedence. In keeping with this diagrammatic impulse, the exhibition itself assumes the shape of a disjointed flowchart, offering up a sequence of expanding intermediums that works from the Walker’s collections have come to occupy.
Such fluidity across and between media not only signals an erosion of disciplinary boundaries in art of the period but also reflects the artist’s evolving role in a changing world—a central concern of the exhibition and this volume. Early on, Allan Kaprow was a keen observer in this respect. He concludes his 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” with an insightful prediction about the ensuing decade:
Young artists of today need no longer say, “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer.” They are simply “artists.” All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well. People will be delighted or horrified, critics will be confused or amused, but these, I am certain, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.2
No longer beholden to such rigid vocational labels, artists of the period upended questions of medium specificity, asking more of art in general than painting or sculpture narrowly defined. Art’s rapidly evolving status as object, information, commodity, environment, and experience superseded the narrowly formalist and medium-specific predilections of earlier generations. Thus, what Kaprow identified in Pollock’s work in 1958—an “art that tends to lose itself out of bounds, tends to fill our world with itself”3—would come to define virtually all advanced art of the next 20 years.
Art Expanded, 1958–1978 speaks to the overlapping concerns of Higgins, Maciunas, and Kaprow through its thematic, nonchronological organization. Taking a cue from George Brecht’s 1962 event score Five Places, which invites participants to place five cards, each with the word “EXHIBIT” printed on it, in five different locations, the exhibition narrates five themes across contiguous gallery spaces of the Walker’s 1971 Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed building. Some 360 individual works of art, ranging from room-based installations to Fluxus event scores, are used to surface broad intersecting ideas germane to art of the period: 1) the eventlike nature of art objects occasioned by the emergence of score-based practice; 2) the influx of music and movement in visual art, which stirred new ideas for instrumentation and notation; 3) artists’ fascination with recording technologies that offered aesthetic potential in the forms of playback, feedback, signal distortion, and programmed display of light and motion; 4) the preponderance of information in emergent conceptual and structural forms of art-making and aesthetic inquiry; and 5) the shifting horizon of expectations around the viewer’s own activity as both spectator and participant. As a loose enactment of Five Places, which was originally anthologized in the seminal 1964 artists’ book Fluxus 1, the exhibition also considers the reverberations of Fluxus across the Walker’s collection and its impact on the various aesthetic practices that share its chronology—from Happenings, early video art, and conceptualism to anti-art, Minimalism, kineticism, and experimental music.
Similarly, the texts gathered in this volume of the Living Collections Catalogue map the central concerns of the show, in some instances addressing Fluxus and in others moving far beyond. The shifting status of the art object across the period is of primary concern to many of the authors. Art historians Nicole L. Woods and Midori Yamamura (forthcoming) expound on key paintings in the Walker’s collection by Niki de Saint Phalle and Yoko Ono, respectively, exploring the effects of action- and idea-based interventions into an expiring medium. Likewise, Joseph Beuys expert Maja Wismer positions the artist’s iconic Schlitten (Sled) (1969) as a crucial instance of multiplied art’s increasing dispersion of sculpture over the period and Beuys’s own command of distributed forms. While old mediums were being updated, new ones were emerging, evidenced here by Walker fellow Liz Glass’s archive capsule dedicated to Mushroom, a 1962 Happening by Kaprow commissioned for the Lehmann Mushroom Caves in St. Paul. Recently unearthed photographic documentation, supplemented by correspondence, scores, cue sheets, and news clippings, offers an in-depth look into Kaprow’s creative process at a formative moment in his career.
Advancing the theme of performance and moving further afield from traditional media, two essays consider artist-conceived objects made for use during live performance. Glass positions musician and filmmaker Tony Conrad’s electric instrument Long String Drone (1971) in the history of minimal music and across disciplines, while Abigail Sebaly, the Walker’s former Cunningham Research Fellow, zeros in on one particularly potent performance relic—a rope belt created by Robert Rauschenberg for Merce Cunningham’s 1961 dance Aeon—connecting it to the artist’s influential Combine practice. The protean nature of the art object is perhaps best captured by art historian Tina Rivers Ryan’s contribution, an archive capsule devoted to the Walker’s 1967 exhibition of light and kinetic art titled Light/Motion/Space, which presents materials from the Walker Archives alongside new documentation of recently conserved sculptures, many of which have not been exhibited for nearly 50 years.
The remaining contributions signal nascent forms of postmodernism that emerged out of the expanded arts milieu of the 1960s and 1970s. In his forthcoming essay on Mario Merz’s Igloo (1971), Matt Jolly explicates the political vicissitudes of the Arte Povera artist’s porous, hemispherical structure that hovers somewhere between sculpture and habitable architecture within the white cube, pointing toward more strident forms of institutional critique following the social upheaval of the late 1960s. Not unlike Merz, Lynda Benglis’s feminist-inflected sculptural informalism antagonized the space of its presentation, as in her 1971 site-specific Walker commission titled Adhesive Products. In an archive capsule dedicated to the artist’s process, we see newly unearthed photographs and film footage that picture this singular artist at the beginning of her influential career. Questions of identity and the role of the artist are further developed by the Walker’s Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap in her essay on the underground filmmaker Jack Smith’s feature Normal Love (1963–1965). In this film, which Smith regularly reedited—often during live performances—Leaver-Yap identifies generative instabilities of the image, of persona, and of the cinematic apparatus itself. Finally, art historian Mike Maizels uses Barry Le Va’s Room 2, a secret and temporary 1969 installation mounted at the Walker immediately preceding the destruction of the museum’s 1927 building, as a point of departure to consider competing information ideologies of the known and the unknowable.
As an addendum to the exhibition and a stand-alone collection of new art-historical research, this volume of essays and archival materials speaks to the continued fascination these pivotal decades hold for a new generation of scholars and curators. And while the expanse of the Walker’s deep holdings from the period cannot be addressed fully here, the authors do much to expand our understanding of a transformational phase in the history of art that we often take for granted, adding nuance and complexity with their primary research.