“By the way, what’s Fluxus?”: Jon Hendricks on the Formation of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection

Since around 1977 when Gilbert and Lila Silverman began to develop their Fluxus Collection, Jon Hendricks has played a central role in fostering the formation of that renowned collection that bears their names. An artist and the erstwhile co-owner of the bookshop where the Silvermans made many of their first Fluxus acquisitions, Hendricks became the curator of the couple’s Fluxus holdings in 1981 and served in that capacity until 2008, when the collection came to The Museum of Modern Art. During those 27 years, Hendricks organized a host of major Fluxus exhibitions and produced pioneering scholarly publications on the Fluxus movement. In 2008, Hendricks was named MoMA’s Consulting Curator for The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection. MoMA staff members involved with the Fluxus Collection have conducted a series of interviews with Hendricks over the past few years in which he discussed his life in art—from his formative experiences in Europe to his catalytic roles in the Judson Gallery and the Guerrilla Art Action Group in New York, and up to the present through his many adventures as keeper of the Silvermans’ Fluxus Collection. The text that follows draws upon the recorded interviews by Julia Pelta Feldman, David Platzker, and Jennie Waldow, and has been edited and annotated by Kim Conaty, in consultation with Hendricks.

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Jon Hendricks, Gilbert Silverman, and Lila Silverman amidst the Fluxus Collection in Detroit. Photo by Brad Iverson. As reproduced in Jon Hendricks, ed., What’s Fluxus? What’s Not! Why? (Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil; Detroit: The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Foundation, 2002)

Hendricks began his career as an artist. In the late 1950s and early ‘60s he spent time in Paris and traveled elsewhere in Europe. During this period Hendricks had his first encounters with the emerging Fluxus movement and some of its leading figures, although the significance of these events didn’t register with him fully until several years later.

In 1959 I went to Paris and enrolled in Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17 [a renowned print shop established by Hayter in 1927]. I worked with Bill [Hayter] on and off for about three years. I wasn’t interested in printmaking in general—I love making plates, but, to this day, I have a disinterest in technological things and in multiplicity of that sort. Being at Atelier 17 was more about being with people who were very serious about making art. It was a place where artists from all over the world came, from Japan, from Germany. Hans Haacke came while on a fellowship to Paris. Leon Golub came by, so I got to know him and Nancy Spero. And I got to travel. I had wanted to go to Spain after reading books about the Spanish Civil War, and I had the great opportunity in Mallorca to visit Joan Miró, first at his home and then in his studio, and later to hang out with real live artists and writers in Ibiza, which was very exciting to me.

When I was not in Europe, I spent time in Vermont at my family’s house. Bob [Robert] Watts often passed through the area—I think he had some friends there—and he would stop by. I first became really aware of Fluxus through him. My brother [Geoff Hendricks] introduced us. He was teaching at Douglass College, which is part of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Douglass was an extraordinary place. Roy Lichtenstein was also a teacher there, along with Bob Watts and others. The students included Lucas Samaras, Jackie Ferrara, and many others. George Brecht was a friend of Bob’s and often spent time around New Brunswick; George Segal was too. And don’t forget Allan Kaprow had taught there for a long time. It was a pretty hot place.

At one point, I got a Fluxus newspaper—this was probably ’64, ’65—and it had all of these incredible things listed. Things you could buy for five dollars. I was very impressed with that newspaper.

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Fluxus cc fiVe ThReE, Fluxus newspaper no. 4, June 1964. Designed and produced by George Maciunas. Published by Fluxus, [New York]. Double-sided offset lithograph, sheet (folded): 22 15/16 x 18 1/8″ (58.2 x 46 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

I also remember going down to an event on Lispenard Street. I don’t know whose loft it was, maybe Lette Eisenhower’s, but you walked up these stairs to the top floor and there was this incredible sound. They were performing La Monte Young’s 2 Sounds [1960], where you sustain two notes, and you could hear it throughout the whole event. That was pretty exciting. I don’t know that it was the first Happening that I’d seen, but it was one of the first. So, I guess I did go to some events related to Fluxus, but I missed the big ones, like the 1962 concert in Paris, when I was living there, or the 1964–65 concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall [New York].

Hendricks returned to the U.S. in 1964 and the next year began working at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. His many responsibilities there eventually included running the Judson Gallery, located in the church’s basement. The gallery had been an important exhibition space from 1959 to 1962, with artists such as Jim Dine, Allan Kaprow, and Claes Oldenburg showing work there. Then it went dormant until Hendricks reopened it in 1966.

When I came back to the U.S. in 1964, the war in Vietnam was getting worse, and I was drafted. As a Quaker, I applied for conscientious-objector status, which was granted in 1964 or ‘65. With this status, I needed to find civilian employment, and I was very fortunate to get a job at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City. It was an incredible moment in postmodern dance, and Judson was really the center. Yvonne Rainer and others were performing; it was so exciting to come to a place like that.

I had many different responsibilities at Judson: I worked in the office doing mailings, in the theater, taking tickets at the front door, but also making sets and being house manager. For a period, I ran the student house, which became a residence for artists. After a year or so, the church let me reopen the Judson Gallery. We did a lot of shows there, including an installation environment of Yoko Ono’s and a series called Manipulations that went on for three or four weeks. Each artist had one day and could do anything within the space—the theme was oriented around destruction. I was very interested in installations and environments, which I thought hadn’t been explored enough. Then my own personal work moved more directly and closely into political art activities, and I welcomed many politically oriented artists, like Carolee Schneemann, who did a great installation performance [Ordeals, 1967], Kate Millet, Ralph Ortiz, and many others.

In my mind, Fluxus was already sort of historical by that time. It had already happened. But there were some artists I knew, like Kate Millet, that I didn’t know were sort of “Fluxus artists.” It’s curious what you know and what you don’t know.

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Kate Millet’s contribution for Fluxus Etc. Published on the occasion of the exhibition Fluxus Etc. at the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1981

After Judson, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a degree, and I didn’t have training. But, having worked so closely with artists over the years, I became very involved in political art activities, initially as part of the Art Workers’ Coalition. Then Jean Toche and I formed a separate group called the Guerrilla Art Action Group, or GAAG, in 1969. Our idea was to bring an awareness of the horrendous things that our government was doing to the Vietnamese people and also, in general, to support free speech and human rights. We wanted to approach problems in a more direct way than just picketing—which we had all already done plenty of—so we did a series of actions, some of which, of course, took place right here at MoMA. After that, we moved away—I think at least I did—from the art activity and were more involved in organizing for human rights causes and things of that sort, but I also needed to make a living to support my family.

In 1976, Hendricks and Barbara Moore opened Backworks, a bookstore specializing in postwar and contemporary artists’ books as well as ephemera and editions, including Fluxus works. The small shop started out in the Hendricks’s home on Greenwich Street in Tribeca, before moving to its own quarters a few blocks north, at Greenwich and Spring Streets.

I had known Barbara for some time, since Judson, or even earlier—maybe through Dick Higgins? The world was much smaller then. Barbara’s husband, Peter Moore, was an important photographer and had shot many fantastic photographs of performance works, including Fluxus events. We modeled Backworks in a way on Ex Libris, the great bookstore founded by Arthur and Elaine Lustig Cohen [in 1972, in their Upper East Side townhouse]. Arthur was a publisher, writer, and scholar, and he loved experimental art of the twentieth century like Dada and Bauhaus, especially its documents and ephemera. He wasn’t really interested in later materials from the ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s, and this is what we thought Backworks could cover—artists’ books, records, and ephemera from Happenings and Fluxus and all that. We started with books and ephemera—materials that were marginal in a way but also essential to understanding the artistic activity.

Arthur was extremely generous and shared his mailing list with us; he also introduced us to collectors he knew that were interested in more contemporary things. And we, of course, contacted George Maciunas, whom Barbara had known for many years, and I had known of a bit through my brother and also through Kate Millet. We’d done a show of hers at Judson, and I would go over to her place on the Bowery and remember her speaking with this Lithuanian guy who wanted to manufacture her furniture—that was George. George was very happy to have an outlet at Backworks to sell Fluxus works. He even designed our stationery.

I was very interested in groups—in what happens with artists work within a group or when you have a group artwork. Looking back on Dada, Futurism, Constructivism, and all those movements of the early twentieth century, I felt there were great possibilities for the ‘60s. I was not so interested in the individual star system. Ernst Benkert of the Anonima Group [an artists’ group founded in 1960] was very important to me in my thinking in this regard. We discussed the radicality of groups in the early twentieth century and also the Situationists and others. I was always interested in a different kind of art, so my work with Fluxus was a natural fit.

It was through a chance encounter that Gilbert Silverman, the Detroit businessman, philanthropist, and art collector, first came to Backworks and met Hendricks.

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Geoffrey Hendricks. Sky Paper Bag. 1976. Painted paper bag, 11 x 8 11/16 x 1 9/16″ (28 x 22 x 4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

The year was 1977, probably late fall. My brother was in Europe, and his boyfriend, Brian Buczak, was selling some of Geoff’s blue-painted paper bags with sky on them [Sky Paper Bags, 1976], out on the street on the corner of West Broadway and Spring Street in front of René Block’s gallery. Gil [Silverman] went to SoHo frequently during that time; he’d see the galleries, enjoy a bowl of soup at Food, the restaurant that Gordon Matta-Clark had opened earlier, and he would certainly have gone to René Block’s gallery. As Gil was walking down the street, he saw the paper bags and said “Oh, those must be Geoff Hendricks’s,” and Brian said, “How do you know that?” Geoff wasn’t that famous then, and what are the chances that a stranger walking down the street would know him? Gil said “I have two of his paintings.” So they started talking. It turned out that Gil and Brian were both from Detroit, and Brian knew of Gil’s support for many local artists there. Gil bought the whole group of paper bags, which I think were $10 or $25 apiece. Brian said, “Well, you know, we have a friend, a Fluxus artist who is very sick with cancer, and we’ve formed a medical fund. If people give an amount of money, say $1,000, they will get $1,000 worth of Fluxus works.” This was George Maciunas, of course. Gil liked the idea of supporting an artist who was ill and also getting artwork in return. So he agreed to participate, but asked, “By the way, what’s Fluxus?” Brian said, “You should talk to my friend’s brother, Jon, who has a shop and can tell you about it.”

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Cover of Hanns Sohm and Harald Szeemann, Happening & Fluxus (Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1970)

Brian brought Gil over to the house, and we talked for several hours—literally maybe three hours—about Fluxus. He bought one book, Hanns Sohm and Harald Szeemann’s Happening & Fluxus, the little black book. So that’s how we met Gil, and that’s how Gil and Lila’s collection started. Just to complete the story, Gil did give $1,000 to the medical fund, and this helped George get medical attention he needed and also allowed him to continue making Fluxus editions. Gil never met George, although George certainly knew about the gift and was very pleased about it.

At that time, Barbara and I became very involved with helping George and finding people to buy Fluxus works. I even went up to New Marlborough [Massachusetts] with Joe Jones and sometimes others, where George had his farm, and helped him put together some of the Fluxus works. Well, George wouldn’t let us make the things exactly, but we would help him get the materials or lay them out. He was pretty fussy about putting the editions together himself. This all reminds me: each person who gave money was supposed to get a name box [a small artwork assembled by Maciunas that plays on the letters of the subject’s name], but I don’t know if there’s a Silverman name box? That’s something we should look into.

So, when Gil was in New York, he would come to Backworks and buy works, mostly inexpensive things. He liked the objects, the multiples, the games. His first purchase, by the way, was Ben Vautier’s God Box [Fluxbox Containing God, 1966]. He loved Ben’s idea that “if god is everywhere, then he is also inside this box.”

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Ben Vautier. Fluxbox Containing God. c. 1966. Designed and assembled by George Maciunas (American, born Lithuania. 1931–1978). Published by Fluxus, [New York]. Plastic box with offset label sealed with glue, overall (closed): 3 15/16 x 4 11/16 x 13/16″ (10 x 11.9 x 2.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Gil was interested in how things tick—he was curious about everything. He had traveled to Japan for the World’s Fair [1970], and that’s where he first saw works by Hi-Red Center, Ay-0, and also my brother Geoff. Gil and Lila bought works by Ay-O and Geoff in Japan before they ever met Geoff or me, or even knew about this thing called “Fluxus.” They had also bought Ben Vautier’s work in France. For Gil, art wasn’t about being a precious thing but rather capturing creativity—the messier, the better! He liked the idea that art could be an idea, and he pursued that.

Gil also liked provocative things. He and Lila have one of Manzoni’s “shit cans” [Merde d’artiste, 1961] in the entrance to their home in suburban Detroit. If someone came into the house and said “eesh!” he would know not to go into it further. But if they said, “Wow, a Manzoni shit can!” then he might show them other things. Gil would buy challenging pieces. We had done a show at Backworks of Henry Flynt’s work, his early Conceptual work, and Gil came and bought the whole show. He understood that the group of works formed a unit, and he was right. We were grateful to keep it all intact, and now it’s here at The Museum of Modern Art.

Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Henry Flynt. Optical Audiorecorder. 1961–65. Five plates, notes, and research material, dimensions vary. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

During the time that Gil and Lila were beginning to form their collection of Fluxus, they had an important conversation following a lecture in Detroit. Since I’ve known them, the Silvermans have always been active in the Detroit Institute of Arts: Gil on the board and Lila as president of the Friends of Modern Art, among other things. The critic and art historian Robert Pincus-Witten had been invited to give a lecture for the Friends [in March 1978], and after the talk—maybe Pincus-Witten mentioned Fluxus or something?—Gil went up to him and asked, “What about this Fluxus? Is this something?” And Pincus-Witten said, “Yes, it is important.” This encouraged Gil; he had a feeling about it. Gil likes to say that if he were wealthy, he would collect Dada, but it was too late. Yet he could understand Fluxus through Dada. He could put together a substantial collection of smaller things, and he saw Fluxus fitting into the ‘60s in an important way.

When Gil and Lila said that they wanted to start a real collection of Fluxus, I sort of laughed, because I thought, well, you already have Hanns Sohm and Jean Brown, who have both amassed great collections of Fluxus, and there’s just not that much of it around. We had the shop; we knew there wasn’t much available. But once we started digging . . . .

Around that time, Gil asked me to curate an exhibition based on the material he had collected, primarily from our shop but also from other places. My work towards this show ultimately created a conflict of interest between the shop and other customers, so Barbara and I ended our partnership, and I started working for the Silvermans. That was 1981.

The Silvermans’ Fluxus Collection continued to grow in the following years, with Hendricks as its curator. It also gained recognition very quickly through a series of exhibitions and publications. The first was Fluxus Etc., at the Cranbrook Art Museum in 1981.

The Silvermans were very active supporters of Cranbrook, and the director, Roy Slade, had invited them to show their collection there. Fluxus would be just one part; the Silvermans collected much more than that. They have great works by Hans Haacke, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and others. They also have a brilliant collection of “instruction drawings”—Gil used this term. For him, these capture the first emergence of the artist’s idea, and, in many cases, they constitute the work itself. Instruction drawings were distinct from drawings or working drawings and really came out of Gil’s understanding of Sol LeWitt’s work as well as his training as an engineer.

For the Cranbrook show, Roy’s idea was that the different parts of the Silvermans’ collection would take up the T-shape of the museum: the major works—their George Segal sculpture of Allan Kaprow, for example—would be in the center, their instruction drawings in the left-hand part of the T, and then Fluxus in the right-hand part.

Well, the Silvermans and Roy had no problem organizing the paintings, sculptures, and instruction drawings, but they weren’t so certain what to do with the Fluxus works. They invited me out to Detroit to help, and that must have been my first trip out. We designed modular display cases, and Gil’s master carpenter, George Tater, built these beautiful wooden tables and glass cases that we still use today. But the space looked enormous, and I thought, “Oh my god, what am I going to do?”

I don’t believe in hierarchy, and Fluxus didn’t either, so I decided we should show everything. We had twenty or so display cases and we put it all in—just everything. This was also when we starting the first numbering system for the collection, which became the “Silverman Numbers” that we used in the publication for the show. Gil loves those numbers. He said it was like the numbering system for postage stamp collectors used in the Scott catalogues. It quickly went from one, two, to three hundred, four hundred, five hundred. It was so jammed in the gallery you could hardly walk through the room.

Part of the idea with doing the show was to make a publication. I was always very impressed by George Wittenborn’s Documents of Modern Art series, which included material not available elsewhere as well as original writings by the artists. I think it’s very important to have the artist’s voice heard, not just critical voices. Based on that, we started Fluxus Etc. with George’s [Maciunas’s] texts [such as the Fluxus Manifesto, 1963], and then Gil had the idea of asking all of the artists whose works were in the collection to write a history of Fluxus in ten words or less—he didn’t like long things. Gil thought of it as a commission, so he wrote $100 checks to each artist and sent them along with his letter asking for their contribution. Some are literally ten words [e.g., Mieko Shiomi’s “How to view and feel the world with innovated perception”], but most are not. Tomas Schmit’s was, I think, two pages, and La Monte Young’s was really a work, a set of pages printed on translucent paper, which is, by the way, only in the first edition.

George Maciunas. Fluxus Manifesto. 1963. Offset lithograph, 8 1/4 x 5 13/16″ (20.9 x 14.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
Gilbert Silverman’s letter to artists requesting contributions for Fluxus Etc.
Mieko Shiomi’s contribution for Fluxus Etc.

I also thought it was important to reproduce all the Fluxus newspapers along with some other publications, so that—with a loop—you can actually read all of the text. We succeeded. Although the binding on the book was crummy, the printing was good! Actually, the book designer, Katherine McCoy, won an award for the design.

Then I thought, well, while we’re at it, it would be nice to have a chronology of Fluxus performance. The book was already getting pretty big, and Gil saw that we were already going way over what we had planned. He asked me, “Is this important?” And when I said, “Yes, this material doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Gil, after some discussion, said, “Let’s do it.” That’s how Gil was. He put his support into it. He believed that doing a book was the highest accomplishment and that it should be something you’re proud of and has real meaning. And that book was really important. I still use it all the time. I’m sure there are errors, but it’s a really useful tool.

The organization of Fluxus Etc. was one of the first steps towards Hendricks’s compilation of the Fluxus Codex (1988), a massive, 616-page reference volume that began as a series of lists of artworks, file cards, and notes sheets compiled by Hendricks and grew into a major project with a small team of researchers working to answer some basic questions about Fluxus. The lists made in preparation for the Codex also served as a guide for building the collection. The Codex was, according to Hendricks, “the beginning of our attempts to identify what a Fluxus work was.”

There’s a temptation when you’re collecting to say, “Oh, wow, this Viennese Actionist stuff is really interesting!” or, “How about John Cage, or Ongaku Group?” Gil felt that one could become so easily sidetracked. One thing that he was good at and I was not was focusing. Gil would always say “Focus, focus!” There were limited resources, limited facilities, and if you opened up the collection too much, the main objectives would become totally diffused. Gil and I both agreed that George Maciunas was the central figure in Fluxus, and that was where the collecting focused—works that were either produced by Maciunas or that were somehow distributed through Fluxus by Maciunas.

When Gil was beginning to form his collection, he had asked, “Well, how many Fluxus works are there?” Ah, the fatal question! And I really didn’t know. Maybe 100, 200? I basically doubled what I knew existed. This question led to making two lists, or really one list with a line dividing it: you’d have works in the collection above the line and works that I knew (or thought) existed below the line—those were the works we would try to find. Like, for Milan Knížák, you might have Flux Snakes but not Flux White Meditation. If we could find the Flux White Meditation, we’d buy it. And we just kept adding to the list.

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Milan Knížák. Flux Snakes. Designed and assembled by George Maciunas (American, born Lithuania. 1931–1978). Published by Fluxus, [New York]. Plastic box with offset label, containing dry pasta, overall (closed): 5 1/2 x 7 1/16 x 3/8″ (13.9 x 18 x 1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
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Milan Knížák. Flux White Meditation. Designed and assembled by George Maciunas (American, born Lithuania. 1931–1978). Published by Fluxus, [New York]. Plastic box with offset label, containing white powder, overall (closed): 4 11/16 x 3 15/16 x 3/8″ (11.9 x 10 x 1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Of course, in Fluxus, there are often many variations of the same work. While some works were meant to be mass-produced, Maciunas really made them by hand, and sometimes he would get bored or just decide to try different variations. So, even though you have three different Flux Snakes, there could be a fourth.

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Milan Knížák. Flux Snakes. 1969. Designed and assembled by George Maciunas (American, born Lithuania. 1931–1978). Published by Fluxus, [New York]. Plastic box with offset label, containing dry pasta, overall (closed): 5 3/8 x 7 1/16 x 7/16″ (13.7 x 18 x 1.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

We wanted to form a collection of a movement, not of individual artists. It wasn’t about whether we liked a piece or not. The criteria were: “Is this Fluxus? Did it have a bearing on Fluxus? Is it significant to an understanding of the movement?” And we wanted the collection to be complete and to show that there might be many different examples of one idea. So we collected these variations and also tried to collect as much other material around the objects as possible, especially material generated within the movement or around the movement. This meant that, in addition to the Fluxus editions or publications, we would collect correspondence of George Maciunas, photographs of performance, sound recordings, scores, newspaper clippings, descriptions, anything that we could find that would fill out the picture to kind of triangulate the movement, to see it more fully.

Gil’s original questions about Fluxus and our ideas about how to structure the collection led in a very direct way to the Fluxus Codex. The Codex was a ten-year project, and many worked on it: Fatima Bercht, Nancy Bialic, Melanie Hedlund, Cindy and Eva Lee, Alice Weiner, and Trevor Winkfield. Sara Seagull and Peter Downsbrough were involved in the design and layout. Margaret Kaplan and Sam Antupit at Abrams supported the project from early on, even when it took much longer than expected. The book won the George Wittenborn Award. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was about that.

Of course, exceptions were made to the rule of collecting works only if they fit within the strict Fluxus focus.

There are a few works in the collection by artists associated with Fluxus but that are not Fluxus works exactly, and we got them either because Gil liked them or I would persuade him that they somehow had a connection. Gil had always liked Ben Vautier’s work, so we got a lot of that, including the prototypes or idea pieces that eventually became Fluxus works. Ben was very generous in letting us buy those works. A few Robert Filliou works also snuck into the collection, probably because of their connection with Maciunas. His Telepathic Music [no. 5, c. 1975], for example, consists of music stands with the little blue cards and the playing cards; those cards had been typed up by Maciunas, so that’s the connection there.

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Robert Filliou. Telepathic Music No. 5. c. 1975. Thirteen music stands with playing cards and laminated offset cards, dimensions vary upon installation. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

I’m very fond of the work of Addi [Arthur] Koepcke, and Gil let me buy some Koepcke works from the time that Addi was most involved with Fluxus (’62, ’63), but there was one great work I wanted—a three-dimensional collage with this bicycle wheel. It was fabulous, but Gil felt it was too disconnected from Fluxus. So, sometimes he would say no, but other times he might go along with me.

In some cases Gil and Lila bought things with only a loose connection to Fluxus for other parts of their collection. For instance, they like the work of Yoko Ono very much and ended up buying her instructions for paintings that had been shown at the Sogetsu Art Center. You couldn’t really say that these were Fluxus works, but they certainly involved important concepts in the development of Fluxus.

Once in a while we felt it was important to buy material that had influenced Maciunas and Fluxus, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise [1935–41] or issues of [Aleksandr] Rodchenko and [Vladimir] Mayakovsky’s Novyi LEF [Zhurnal levogo fronta iskusstv (New LEF: Journal of the Left Front of the Arts, 1927–28)], which Maciunas cited as a kind of paradigm of Fluxus. There was also the Dada Première Visite broadside [1921] and one of [Piero] Manzoni’s Cartes d’ authenticité [Certificates of Authenticity]. But we only acquired work like this in rare instances and instead spent much more effort in building the library, where we could include books that were historically relevant to Fluxus.

The Silvermans had a broad outlook and collected widely. They supported artists from the Detroit area and from further afield when traveling in other parts of the U.S., Europe, Asia, and South America. For their Fluxus collection, they sought out artists in Eastern Europe, which was, at the time, still rather difficult to visit as a tourist.

Gil loved the work of Milan Knížák, and there is a lot of work of his in the collection directly related to Fluxus, but there’s also a lot about the Aktual Group [formed by Knížák in Prague in 1963] and some of Knížák’s independent projects from the 1960s through the ‘80s. I’d actually known Knížák since the late 1960s, when he stayed at my brother and his wife’s [Bici Forbes] home during his trip to New York. Gil was genuinely interested in the work, and he and Lila even traveled to Prague in the early 1980s and bought works through rather difficult circumstances.

There’s a great story, in fact, about how some of the Fluxfilms were brought out of Prague. When they were in correspondence [in the mid-1960s], Maciunas had sent Milan a complete Fluxfilm Anthology, consisting of three 16-mm films—perhaps the first set he ever put together. Gil and Lila were of course very interested in having these in the collection. Milan sold the films to them with the understanding that we would make a copy for him, so that the films could come into the collection but he would still have a copy. Well, customs in both countries could be pretty complicated at that time. Gil and Lila had packed the film canisters in their luggage, and when they were leaving Prague, the customs authorities started going through their bags. They found some glass crystal that Gil and Lila had bought—Czechoslovakia is known for its fine crystal— and the inspectors got so interested in getting a duty for that, that they didn’t find the three films, which could easily have been seized.

I then went to Prague in 1983 and met with Milan and his wife, Maria, to talk about Fluxus-related material that he had and also about his activities in Prague. That’s when we bought the large concrete book [Book Document, 1962–80]. He also showed me three films that he had made, which we later bought through Art Zentrum, and I purchased as much documentation about his and Aktual Group’s activities as I could. I asked that he look for more, and that’s when he prepared for us the amazingly thorough Performance Files.

We tried to make further connections with many artists in Eastern Europe. We had some contacts through Knížák and also Jonas Mekas, who, like Maciunas, was Lithuanian. Through her Spatial Poems, [Japanese artist] Mieko Shiomi had been in contact with many artists from the region, such as Gabor Attalai, Jaroslaw Kozlowski, and others. And, of course, [Czech artist] Jirí Kolár’s Poem R was part of the Flux Shop.

Other artists were listed as part of Maciunas’s planned “Eastern European Year Box”—“M. Joudina,” “Zofia Lissa,” “J. Patkowski”—and it was really at Gil’s instigation that we tried to contact these people whose names Maciunas had recorded. We eventually corresponded with Vytautas Landsbergis, and when he visited New York, we had a gathering of as many Fluxus artists as we could contact, including Mekas, Almus Salcius, perhaps Adolfas Mekas, and of course Nijole Valeitis, Maciunas’s sister. Soon afterward we started seeing Landsbergis’s picture on the front page of The New York Times; our friend the Fluxus artist had suddenly become the leader of the revolution for independence in Lithuania. In fact, his movement was called Sąjūdis, which can translate to mean “Fluxus.” Nam June Paik liked to say that Landsbergis and Fluxus brought down the Soviet Union.

A little later, Kestutis Kuizinas came to New York. He was about twenty-three years old and had been named the director of the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius. He wanted to plan a Fluxus show for his museum, which he eventually did at that same time that René Block’s enormous Fluxus in Deutschland took place there [1995]. A year or two later, the Silvermans donated Fluxus works to form a permanent collection of Fluxus in Vilnius, known as the George Maciunas Fluxus Cabinet. Landsbergis attended the opening together with the Silvermans and Nijole Valeitis.

What we never had a chance to do was trace down a number of activities that happened in Eastern Europe, as Petra Stegmann did later for her excellent exhibition and publication Fluxus East, broadening an understanding of Fluxus.

Hendricks described the collecting strategies used in building the collection as follows.

Sneak up behind them, grab ‘em, throw ‘em in a bag, beat ‘em on the head! Collecting strategies? It was not quite like that. But we did have an advantage over some other collections because we could buy things. Hanns Sohm, for instance, built most of his collection either by trades or through gifts. And at the time [mostly the 1960s and ‘70s], he could do that; nobody else was collecting so he had an advantage. He would say, “May I have this?” and they would say, “Oh, of course, we’re glad that somebody wants it.” But we could say, “Could we buy this?” This was one effective way we could seek out and fill in gaps. There were always areas that we wanted to strengthen, and we set out to find every object. Obviously that wasn’t totally possible because some were unique, but we got pretty much everything—some just by luck and some by design.

I was particularly interested in photographic documentation of performance because there are very few ways that you can capture performance: it’s ephemeral—it’s there and it’s gone, but a photograph is one way.

2616 2008 cccr
Nam June Paik. One for Violin, performed during Neo-Dada in der Musik, Kammerspiele, Düsseldorf, June 16, 1962. 1962. Gelatin silver print, 5 1/2 x 8 7/8″ (14 x 22.5 cm). Photographed by George Maciunas (American, born Lithuania. 1931–1978). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008
2642 2008 cccr
Benjamin Patterson (American, born 1934). Variations for Double-Bass, performed during Kleinen Sommerfest/Après John Cage, Galerie Parnass, Wuppertal, June 9, 1962. 1962. Gelatin silver print, 13 x 9″ (33 x 22.8 cm). Photographer unknown. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Another way is through sound recordings. There are very few sound recordings of Fluxus concerts—very, very few. We have recordings from a couple evenings of the Wiesbaden festival in 1962, and we have one of the Amsterdam concerts from the same year, something from Copenhagen, something from Paris. I’m sure there are others out there, but they’re rare. And there are practically no films of Fluxus performance, just a few.

I quickly realized that the scores were like conceptual artworks, and they’re the essence of the piece. You could read it, you could perform it, and having the score would give you insight into a whole aspect of Fluxus. For the collection, we’d try to get the original score, either something the artist wrote out, or some form of it that was written out, and also any variations of that, developments, revisions, or printed versions.

I always wanted to make a companion book to the Fluxus Codex that would focus on Fluxus performance and use the same kind of structure. So, you’d have a page or two on [Nam June Paik’s] One for Violin, for instance, and it would have photographs, scores, descriptions of concerts from publications or newspapers, and so on. You’d be able to see that if you are thinking about One for Violin, you’d have the score and ten different performances of it, interpreted in different ways, and the public’s reaction to it, how it was discussed by Paik and Maciunas, and more. And an interesting thing about One for Violin, actually, is that there is no score. It was a score by word of mouth, if you will. Maciunas described it in a letter once, I think to La Monte Young, but that might be the closest thing. So it’s these sorts of questions that we asked—how you can track down and capture these histories of performance.

The participatory aspects of Fluxus—including the importance of publishing and distributing materials—were also significant to the collection.

At one moment, we began to see traces of the Flux Shop [also known as the European Mail-Order Warehouse/Flux Shop, based in Amsterdam] emerging in strange ways, and we thought it would be great to piece it back together. After trying to track down Willem de Ridder [who coordinated Flux Shop in Amsterdam] for some time, Hanns Sohm very kindly gave me some contact information for him. I went to Amsterdam, but he wouldn’t see me. Finally after several attempts we met in the Hilton Hotel bar, and I described what we were trying to do. First he said he didn’t have anything, but as we continued talking, he mentioned that maybe he did have a few things, even though he wasn’t interested in selling them.

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Willem de Ridder. European Mail-Order Warehouse/Fluxshop inventory with Dorothea Meijer, seated, in the home of the artist, Amsterdam. 1964–65. Gelatin silver print, 9 7/16 x 6 1/4″ (23.9 x 15.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

We knew this photograph of the European Mail-Order Warehouse/Flux Shop, and I said, “What if we bought what you have and try to put back together.” I avoided the word “reconstruct” and just described the whole thing as a semblance of the Flux Shop, not individual pieces, but something kept altogether. He liked that idea and agreed to sell us what there was, more or less. So I bought seven metal suitcases, loaded everything up, and carried it back on the airplane.

It turned out that Dorothea Meijer, his friend who had worked closely with him on the Flux Shop and on other projects, had a lot of material, too. That took another year or so of meeting with her and describing our intentions. With Willem’s encouragement, she agreed to sell us her material too, which pretty much formed the Flux Shop in the collection. We did need to replace a few works that had been sold, such as a Flux Kit and a few other things. A replica of the shop’s sign was made by the Gerlovins, Rimma and Valeriy; they also did the photo blow-up/cut-out of Dorothea that we use in presentations of the Flux Shop today. Willem also provided a new version of his P.K. Shirt. And I cheated by buying a new Mason Pearson hairbrush that appears in the original photograph but had later been lost. One wonderful thing about the Silvermans was that they weren’t afraid of large or awkward or ugly or uncomfortable works.

2980 2008 1 75 cccr
Various artists. European Mail-Order Warehouse/Fluxshop. 1984 construction after 1964–65 photograph. Painted wood and acrylic structure containing Fluxus editions and related materials, overall: 84 x 73 1/4 x 79 3/4″ (213.4 x 186.1 x 202.6 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008

Along with that material, we’re also very fortunate to have a lot of the correspondence that Willem had done, along with Dorothea, with people all over the world as part of the Flux Shop. And this was always the aim of the collection: to give the work substance, to give it depth.

A very important portion of the collection came from the estate of George Maciunas, which was ultimately divided through an agreement between the Silvermans and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. The Silvermans wanted to fill out certain parts of their collection, and Stuttgart, which had purchased the Archiv Sohm in 1981 (Hanns Sohm’s personal archive of intermedia art since 1945), hoped to strengthen its Fluxus holdings. The process of dividing the estate was based on the particular strengths and interests of each collection and the understanding that the two collections would continue to collaborate and share resources as needed.

After George’s death in 1978, there was a lot of material that remained in his estate. His heirs were his wife, Billie Hutchings Maciunas, his sister, Nijole Valeitis, and his mother Leokadija Maciunas. George had been living up on his farm in Massachusetts, where he’d wanted to make a community—a Fluxus community—selling shares to different artists and making it an educational and performance center. George was a wonderful dreamer. After he died, the pipes froze and everything else. It was very, very hard. Eventually things calmed down, and the estate began to take inventory. But it was quite complicated.

There were basically two institutions that were interested—the Silverman collection and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Maybe there were other bidders, but I’m not aware. Gil and I obviously had a number of discussions about it, and we looked through the inventory and decided there was a great deal of important material.

Gil likes to say that it was a kind of competition—collectors can be a little competitive—and at that point we were ahead of the collection in Stuttgart. But if they got the Maciunas Estate, then they would be ahead. So, when the Silvermans were in Europe, they went to Markgröningen, where Hanns Sohm lived, and spent some time with him.

After many hours of conversation, Gil made a proposal. He said, “You know, we both want this collection, and we can keep bidding it up, but in the end it’s just going to hurt us both. Since we’re both trying to do basically the same thing—to preserve the idea of Fluxus and the material of Fluxus—why don’t we buy it together and share it?” Sohm liked that idea, so a plan was worked out to jointly offer the estate a substantial amount of money, and, most importantly, we and Stuttgart agreed to agree. Without that, the idea of sharing would have been meaningless.

When the offer was accepted by the estate, all of the material was brought down to my studio, at my house on Greenwich Street, and Hanns Sohm and Thomas Kellein [then curator at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart] came over from Europe. We started going through it together and discussing the interests of each collection.

Hanns and Thomas were eager to get the correspondence from artists to Maciunas, because they already had strong holdings in correspondence between Fluxus artists. They also wanted to have some more substantial objects, partly because of gaps in their holdings and partly, I guess, because that would be easier to show to their board. So they got George Brecht’s For Any Direction [c. 1960], a Joe Jones birdcage, an early Ay-O painting [The Red Landscape, 1959], a Flux Kit—they needed an early Flux Kit—and things like that. If you put them all in a room, it looks like quite a lot.

Gil was always very interested in process—how you get from here to there—so he was interested in Maciunas’s notes, mechanicals used to prepare works, and the source material. He felt that these were extremely valuable for the collection, and I did too. We also got some of the “makings”—materials related to projects that Maciunas was working on but had abandoned or discarded. In addition, the Silvermans had a strong interest in the real estate papers and materials related to the Flux House Cooperatives. We didn’t have anything like this in the collection at that point, so this was very interesting to us. And I was very interested in photographs and the negatives for performance, so we were able to get a lot of that.

In some cases, when material was interesting to both collections, we tried to share in various ways. Sohm got the sound tapes, for instance, and later gave us copies of some of them that I thought contained material that was crucial to our holdings. In fact, it turned out it wasn’t so important; Maciunas had mislabeled the boxes. George also had a lot of microfilms. At a certain point, he had this brilliant idea to reduce size—he was a very efficient guy—so he photographed all this stuff and threw away the originals. Several of these microfilm rolls went to Stuttgart, and they very kindly gave us inventories of those materials, such as the scores and other things that I thought would be important for the Silverman’s collection. Another group of material that I always wished we had gotten was a group of 3 x 5 cards with George’s notes about Fluxus, and we did receive copies of all of these.

So that’s how we divided the material up, and it worked out very well. We strengthened what we had, and they strengthened what they had. And we continued to cooperate in areas that we could.

In 1988, Hendricks organized an exhibition of Fluxus material from the Silverman Collection at MoMA, in the Museum Library.

Fluxus moma catalogue
Cover of Clive Phillpot and Jon Hendricks, Fluxus: Selections from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Collection (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988)

Clive Philpott [then Head of MoMA’s Library] invited me to do a Fluxus show at the Library. It was great because we kind of infiltrated the Museum. First of all, it was a free show because it took place in the Library. Nobody knew it, but you didn’t have to pay to get into the Museum in order to get into the Library. Clive managed to get a lot of the different departments at MoMA together: the Film department did a screening of Fluxus films in the collection (including Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film [1965], the Education department got involved, and the Publications department allowed us to publish a little catalogue, with some previously unpublished materials. Yoko Ono designed the front cover, Milan Knížák designed the back cover, and Ben Vautier did an intervention on every page. That was very fun. It was also done at a time when departments were maybe more rigid about what is shown where, so Clive may have gotten a little flack for crossing departmental lines.

Twenty years later, in 2008, MoMA acquired the Fluxus Collection.

A lot of consideration was given by the Silvermans and me as to where the collection should ultimately go, ideally a public institution that could care for it so that people in the future could understand Fluxus. It was clear very early on that the collection should be kept intact, not broken up in any way. The Silvermans never considered the idea of opening their own Fluxus museum or anything like that. They have a good relationship with the Israel Museum and had entertained the idea of perhaps putting it there because it could be seen in context with the great Dada and Surrealism collection that Arturo Schwartz had donated. So a small group of works was given to the Israel Museum and another to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, but the main, primary collection was intentionally kept intact. Ultimately the Silvermans felt that The Museum of Modern Art was the best able to maintain and house the collection, and it would have the most exposure here. We knew that the collection required a lot of resources: it needed conservation, archiving, storage, and expertise, and MoMA has the ability to give it that.

Hendricks has been openly critical of MoMA over the years, most notably in his political art activities with GAAG in the 1960s and ‘70s. He was asked to share his views on the Museum today.

I think that the Museum still has problems, but I think they’re willing to consider some of the problems, think about those issues. There are renewed efforts to be less rigid curatorially in exhibitions, bringing together materials from multiple departments and also the Library and Archives. There are also great efforts to be more inclusive of women, artists of color, and different nationalities; you can see this effort for change in exhibitions, education and other programming, and in the C-MAP groups. These shifts are all necessary, otherwise the whole thing atrophies and becomes something of a wonderful but dead old institution that a few people wander around in. I don’t know where it’s all going, but I know that it’s not standing still.

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