Art Market

How Jean Brown Amassed One of the Biggest Collections of Fluxus Art

Karen Chernick
Dec 28, 2020 1:00PM

George Maciunas et al., Flux Year Box 2, 1966. © George Maciunus Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Getty.

Umberto Romano, Portrait of Jean Brown, 1938. Courtesy of the Jean Brown Foundation and Collection of Robert Brown.

George Maciunas wasn’t answering the phone, and Jean Brown desperately wanted to talk. She’d tried calling and writing letters, but the hard-to-pin-down artist just wouldn’t answer. Left with no choice, Brown decided to show up on his doorstep. On one of her occasional visits to New York City during the 1970s she went to 80 Wooster Street, where she found a playful nameplate on the door that read “Dingdong.” She rang the bell. The door opened. She said, “I’m Jean Brown, and I want everything of Fluxus.”

The warehouse on Wooster was home to Fluxhouse Cooperative No. 2, one of a series of abandoned SoHo buildings that Maciunas converted into affordable artist lofts—considered by some to be his most influential Fluxus project. But Brown, a former insurance agent who lived in Massachusetts, couldn’t collect a building, so she settled for more portable acquisitions: fluxkits, a bespoke rubber stamp, and mail art. Her collection of around 6,000 Fluxus artworks began in earnest that day.

“Whether or not [Brown and Maciunas actually met] that way I’m not totally sure, but they did meet and they did really get along,” said Marcia Reed, associate director of the Getty Research Institute and author of Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive (2020). And so began the odd union between a woman now known as the “den mother of Fluxus” and an artist dubbed the “father of SoHo,” who joined forces to convert Brown’s 19th-century Shaker-style home into a clubhouse for the Fluxus family of artists.

Interior of Jean Brown’s Shaker Seed House, Tyringham, Massachusetts, early 1990s, showing Enrico Baj’s painting General Schwarz, 1961; a photograph of George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon; and two menorahs. Courtesy of Marcia Reed, Yoko Ono, and the Jean Brown Foundation.


Brown’s collection became one of the most prominent archives of the renegade movement thanks to her friendship with Maciunas. He was the leading coordinator of Fluxus, a global collective of experimental artists that included Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, George Brecht, Charlotte Moorman, Joseph Beuys, and others.

In a Fluxus manifesto dated 1963, Maciunas wrote that the group planned to “PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art” and instead “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART. Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.” Under Brown’s care, this revolutionary flood splashed down in a quaint wicker- and wood-filled room in the Massachusetts countryside.

Brown was new to Fluxus, but not to collecting. She’d already spent decades collecting art with her husband, Leonard, using income from the insurance company they ran together. Neither had a formal art background; they bought what they liked. And what they liked was Surrealism, Dada, and experimental post-war art, and acquiring works by artists like Philip Guston, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Christo, and Claes Oldenberg.

George Maciunas
Flux Year Box 2, 1966-1968
Track 16 Gallery

“What they collected was always kind of not quite mainstream,” Reed explained. “Jean liked off-kilter and goofy and puns, and some sort of rude things. To challenge authority.” As the artists they liked became more established, the Browns got priced out of works whose value they’d recognized early on. By the late 1960s, they were no longer making big purchases, but kept tabs on New York galleries within a day trip’s driving distance.

Around the same time, the Browns bought something else entirely—an 1845 Shaker house in the Berkshires to use on weekends. After Leonard died in 1970, Jean moved there full time with works from their art collection.

It was as a widow starting fresh in a new home that Brown decided to do something different, on her own. It was then that she got in her car, drove to New York, and looked for Maciunas.

Brown probably met other Fluxus figures first, but she liked to say that her collection began with the movement’s radical ringleader. Her bond with Maciunas helped her acquire some important pieces including Fluxus I (1964), Fluxkit (1965), Flux Year Box 2 (1966), and some smaller Fluxus boxes. Maciunas even made a fluxkit (a small compartmentalized box, like a pillbox) called Your Name Spelled with Objects, for Jeanette Brown (1972), where one E seems to be represented by a doll’s glass eye, another by an eyedropper.

“She just really appreciated the objects, she loved their sensibility. The gagginess, that was the word she used,” recalled Reed, who visited Brown in Massachusetts several times in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “She loved the punning, funny, kind of Spike Jones going toward vaudeville, and things like that.” She liked her monogrammed fluxkit so much that she asked Maciunas to make one for her son Jonathan, an art historian specializing in Spanish art, spelling the name of 17th century painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

After Brown had known Maciunas for a couple of years, she asked him to design an archive room for her growing Fluxus collection in her empty second-floor space. The room would act as storage and also be a place where visitors were welcome to book an appointment and poke around. Maciunas designed built-in cabinets, and together, they shopped for Shaker furniture at antique auctions. A long wooden table in the center of the room held whatever mail art the postman had dropped off last.

Bill Gaglione, Homage to Jean Brown, n.d. Courtesy of the artist.

“Every time we visited her, we found something new in her multitude of drawers and boxes full of unpredicted conceptual curiosities,” recalled Rimma Gerlovina and Valeriy Gerlovin, contemporary artists who visited Brown often and made a film about her with Mark Bloch called Not Jean Brown.

Not all of these curiosities were made to last for future generations of Fluxus fans, though. Fluxkits with items like branches and beans have a limited shelf life.

“She felt like that’s part of the life of the object,” said Reed, who has had to make decisions about how or if to conserve parts of Brown’s collection since it was acquired by the Getty in 1985. Even with temperature control, some objects have become fungal. Others are rotting. Brown did make executive decisions for some rolls of paper secured with rubber bands. “A lot of her works, the smaller ones, came in sandwich bags. You know, the cheap kind?” Reed said. “Her strategy was sandwich bags.”

But Brown’s dedication to works that were so fragile and far-out is part of what makes her collection so special. “It is always the marginal she stresses,” art historian and curator Katherine Kuh wrote of Brown in 1976. Reed added that midrange collectors like Brown played a crucial (and still understudied) role in supporting experimental art forms, safeguarding them so that they could be written into art history.

Mieko Shiomi, Spatial Poem No. 1: Word Event, 1965. Courtesy of the artist.

In fact, the Jean Brown Archive was one of the Getty Research Institute’s foundational collections. When Brown sold her Fluxus trove to the Getty, it was important to her that it remain just as accessible as it was in her archive room. Today, anyone can go call up any object from her collection—LPs, tapes, artist books, etc.

“She was very emphatic that she did not want it to go to a museum,” Reed stresses. “She thought that museums were kind of stilted. She wanted people to be able to have access—to read, to look at it, to make things work in the collections. A museum would never allow that.”

Her sensibility about how to handle Fluxus came partly from knowing Maciunas, who once described Fluxus as embracing “the extraordinary that remains latent in the undisclosed ordinary.” Brown may have been saying more or less the same thing with her favorite catchphrase: “Try life!”

Brown lived in her Shaker house for nearly a decade after transferring her collection to the Getty, and never stopped collecting. She kept adding things to her upstairs cabinet of curiosities until her death in 1994. Brown is now buried in a nearby cemetery under a granite obelisk with a bronze metronome at the tip, a glassy eyeball like the one in her personalized fluxkit hovering at the top of the ticking timepiece—ever off-kilter, and forever looking.

Karen Chernick