December 1960

The Chambers Street Series

By Shirine Saad

On a snowy December night in 1960, in a bleak Lower West Side loft, a Japanese performer threw dry peas at her audience, whirling her long dark locks in a circular motion to create a rhythmic hum. A group of about twenty-five friends, sitting on makeshift orange crates, watched and sometimes participated to the ritual at the artist’s invitation. Avant-garde composers John Cage, La Monte Young, David Tudor, Henry Flynt, Terry Jennings and Richard Maxfield had all braved the storm to venture to Yoko Ono’s industrial neighborhood of warehouses, sweatshops and fish markets.

“Everybody had advised me not to do this,” Yoko Ono told Robert Palmer in Onobox, 1992. “They said, nobody’s going to go all the way downtown to listen to this, it’s just a total waste. But I had an electricity line run in from the hall, and an old gas stove that had a fan to sort of spread the heat around the room. And I had empty orange crates for chairs. At other times, I would put all the crates together to make a large table, and at night I just collected them and made a bed out of them.” Ono, who ran away from Sarah Lawrence College in 1955 and moved to New York with composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, struggled to put together the 50$ that she paid every month in rent. But the artist, who was active in the avant-garde art and music scenes, saw the studio as an essential creative haven. Her interest for liberating art from its traditional boundaries and seeking inspiration from nature were rooted in John Cage’s collaborations with Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg, who made happenings fashionable in the late fifties.

That night, Henry Flynt recalls, Young and Jennings played their compositions, as well as Coltrane tunes, on their saxophones. In February, another happening took place at the 112 Chambers Street loft. That night Flynt created a musical instrument with a rubber band and a clip, which dancer Simone Forte played like a kazoo. Ono invited the audience to trample on her Painting to be stepped on, which consisted of a canvas laid on the floor, challenging the notion of the sacredness of the framed canvas on the wall. Soon Ono’s loft events became notorious, attracting as many as two hundred artists and their friends. Sculptor Robert Morris, artist and composer George Brecht, poet Jackson Mac Low and pianist David Tudor all presented their conceptual performances there. “This is not entertainment,” stated the program. Rejecting the bourgeois definitions of high art, virtuosity and elitist cultural institutions, the artists of this group let the anarchy and absurdity of everyday life into their work. Inspired by John Cage’s meditative, minimalist creations, by Eastern philosophy and by Marcel Duchamp’s Dada art, they used wit and irony to break down the structures of their art forms and question the autonomy of the artist.

Ono’s Chambers Street Series launched the trend of loft happenings and laid the ground for the loosely defined artistic collective now known as Fluxus. During one of the evenings, George Maciunas, a writer, performance artist and composer, decided to open a mid-town gallery to showcase his friends’ work. His AG gallery, on Madison, was short-lived but housed many groundbreaking events. Maciunas chose the name Fluxus (from the Latin for “flow”) as the title of a series of exhibitions there showcasing the work of Young, Ono, Ben, Nam June Paik and others. In a 1962 manifesto, Maciunas also called the group “Neo-Dada,” claiming that they shared an interest in manifesting time and space as concrete phenomena. In 1963 another manifesto urged the artist to “purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual’, professional and commercialized culture…dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art…promote a revolutionary flood and tide in art, promote living art, anti-art…non art reality to be grasped by all people, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.” In a 1965 manifesto, Maciunas referred to Fluxus as, “the fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp.”

Far from the heroism of Abstract Expressionism and from the cynicism of Pop Art, Fluxus artists were idealists, often making works that cost little to produce and not much more to buy. In a turbulent era where traditional values were being questioned and often destroyed, where the youth was searching for freedom within the system or from the system, where artists like Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni and Joseph Beuys refused the hegemony of the art world and promoted artistic anarchy through their performances, the artists of Fluxus made powerful political and social statements through seemingly innocent works. Most pieces were unsigned and could be reproduced infinitely, questioning the rarity system created by the art world to boost value. Disciplines became fluid, just like at the Cabaret Voltaire in the thirties, as theater, dance, art, music and poetry came together in an exultant and pure creative moment. The audience, no longer limited to a passive role, climbed on the stage, touched the artists and made art, too. At once conceptual and naïve, Zen-like and sarcastic, participatory and individual-driven, American and international, the movement helped liberate the art world from many boundaries and helped establish conceptual art as a major force that led to significant changes in the way art is produced, distributed and perceived and resonates until today.