August 31, 2021

Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive

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Amy Hood
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Getty Communications

How One Couple’s Collecting Strategies Bridged Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, and Beyond

Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive

is on view at the Getty Center from September 14, 2021–January 2, 2022

George Maciunas (American, b. Lithuania, 1931–1978) Your Name Spelled with Objects, for Jeanette Brown, 1972 Plastic box containing objects. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (890164) © 2021 Estate of George Maciunas / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


LOS ANGELES - Lifelong collectors Jean (1911–1994) and Leonard Brown (1909–1970) were inspired by their friendships with artists to build their art collection. After her husband’s death in 1970, Jean Brown continued to develop the collection and to install it at her home, the Shaker Seed House, in the Berkshire Mountains, Massachusettes. There she built an extensive collection of art, together with a library and archive that document some of the most important art and artists of the mid-20th century.

Two years after the Getty Research Institute (GRI) was established in 1983, the Jean Brown Archive was the first acquisition of contemporary art, as well as a foundational collection of Dada and Surrealism at the GRI. On view at the Getty Research Institute at the Getty Center from September 14, 2021–January 2, 2022, Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive focuses on Jean Brown’s vision as a collector – connecting Dada and Surrealist art to Fluxus works, artists’ books, and mail art. The exhibition features some of the most notable artists of the mid-to-late 20th century, including Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, George Maciunas, Benjamin Patterson, and Yoko Ono.

“The Jean Brown Archive on Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus is widely recognized by curators and scholars but until now it has not been prominently exhibited or published,” said Mary E. Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute. “In her time, Brown was innovative for collecting the Dada and Surrealist precursors and for making connections with Fluxus and related contemporary art and archives. This exhibition and catalog explore those links and present an overview of the Browns’ original collections, as well as the archive’s major significance among the GRI’s research collections.”

From the 1950s through the early 1980s, there were remarkable changes in the ways art was created and collected. The Browns were initially drawn to Abstract Expressionism, particularly collage and assemblage, but very quickly they were priced out of the burgeoning art market. Changing their focus to Dada and Surrealism, in the 1960s the Browns acquired European and American avant-garde illustrated books and prints that expressed political engagement and contemporary social commentary. 

Many artists enjoyed visiting the couple, most notably the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Once a widow in 1970, Jean Brown continued to follow her penchant for making direct connections with artists and began to collect Fluxus works and create an archive, extending her interests to artists’ archives, small-press publications, mail art, concrete poetry, and artists’ books. Guided initially by Fluxus leader George Maciunas (1931-1978), her tastes were eclectic and became increasingly international, as she corresponded directly with hundreds of artists and established a strong virtual network.

Featuring more than 150 objects, Fluxus Means Change presents an overview of the original collections, revealing the Browns’ intuitive and open-minded approach to collecting that emphasized works on paper which embodied alternative media and Do-It-Yourself practices, social and political commentary, and humor. The Browns’ relationships with artists are documented by art and books dedicated to them, many of which are featured in the exhibition. Jean Brown wrote hundreds, if not thousands, of letters to artists who sent her work and came to visit and socialized. Although the Browns could seem to collect randomly, their collection had a rationale which this exhibition illustrates by comparisons and juxtapositions.

“From the outset, the Browns saw connections among artists and their works. They always strived to know artists and writers in order to understand their works. For their Abstract Expressionist, Dada, and Surrealist artworks, they went to galleries and enjoyed being part of the art world,” said Marcia Reed, senior curator at the Getty Research Institute. “Artists loved Jean Bown’s generous appreciation and expressed their enthusiasm. They sent her more work; they came to visit and socialized, and her home became an important art historical connecting point."

With special focus on Brown’s favorite artists, Duchamp and Maciunas, both of whom she saw as guideposts to her collecting, the exhibition illustrates Brown’s visionary collecting strategies and the relationships which she recognized among the works, with parallels from the avant-garde to the postwar era. Printed matter, multiples, and ephemera were also an important part of the collection. These created a network along the continuum of the Browns’ collecting, extending in the 70s and 80s to Jean’s eclectic and wide-ranging interests in mail art, Lettrism, small presses, and artists’ books.

The exhibition also explores the significance of Jean Brown’s Shaker Seed House as a contemporary art space in Tyringham, Massachusetts, a tiny village in the Berkshires, along the Appalachian Trail. (The house was said to be where an earlier Shaker community printed their seed envelopes.) Appointed with vintage Shaker furniture and new Shaker-style cabinetry and workspaces designed Maciunas, the house became a place where artists and others could appreciate artworks firsthand, enhanced by access to documents about them, as well as make new work.

The exhibition is accompanied by the book Fluxus Means Change produced by Getty Publications and written and edited by Marcia Reed.




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