May 19 – July 15, 2011
by Pac Pobric
The major failure of Fluxus was its uncritical embrace of Dada. The latter was itself a failure by its own standards. It neither killed off art nor, to say the same thing differently, did it reconcile it with life. The pictorial avant-garde of Mondrian and Rodchenko was also unsuccessful in this regard. Still, some failures are more productive than others. The Fluxus interest in Dada was not itself problematic, but it never took Dada seriously enough. Put otherwise, it never worked through Dada’s own lack of success. But Fluxus still produced some important work, almost despite itself. Robert Filliou’s art, recently on view at Peter Freeman, Inc. ostensibly tends towards this category but with greater interest.
The grand project of liberating life through art was based on Fluxus’s mistaken sense of the possibilities of art. Only radical politics can solve the problems of life. But Filliou’s work does solve some puzzles of art, or at least proposes some interesting questions to the legacy of Duchamp. The poetic or playful aspect of his work is particularly successful, which alone is admirable. Most ‘poetic’ or ‘playful’ art lacks rigor. Filliou manages to keep all three. In each work, the levity is surprisingly sustainable and never comes off as cloying or cute. It serves a greater function than simply calling attention to itself.
Western Mandala (1980) is made of five bricks, some colored twine, applied pastel and painted wood. It sits mostly on the floor but a section of it hangs on the wall. As anything that hangs on the wall must, it calls painting into question. Yet it is not a picture. Nor, like Duchamp’s assisted readymades, is it sculpture. Many artists since Duchamp have attempted to work outside of medium specificity. Most of that work has been a failure. Filliou’s is a notable exception. It should be taken seriously as such. The physical playfulness of Western Mandala—the materials of which make it up and the way it is presented, which is not willing to concede entirely to the wall nor to the ‘real space’ of sculpture—is the major asset of its rigor, which takes seriously—critically—the work of Duchamp.
Marins et capitaines du temps jadis (1980) is successful for much the same reason. The twine square, which surrounds it, attempts to impose a pictorial order. Yet its failure as a picture curiously means its success as an art object. This is the best of what Duchamp made possible. Those interested in what Fluxus did at its strongest would be advised to take Robert Filliou seriously, even if his politics were seemingly bound up with the other failures of the 1960s and the New Left.