Posts Tagged ‘George Maciunas’

George Maciunas: The Father of SoHo

December 31, 2016
George Maciunas (photo:

George Maciunas (photo:

It is worth noting that, in the past six years that I have been writing about the history of SoHo, I have not included a profile of George Maciunas, often called “the father of SoHo.” Perhaps I felt that, not having known him personally when so many others still in SoHo today had, I was not worthy of the task. Perhaps I felt I could not do such a larger than life figure justice.

In this post, I will attempt to outline Macuinas’ contribution to the development of artists SoHo and loft living, with only glancing references to his contribution to the art world, most notably his role in the Fluxus movement of the late-1960s. For more on this I refer you to the many works that cover this subject, including the excellent Illegal Living by Shael Shapiro and Roslyn Bernstein.

Born in Lithuania, George Maciunas’ family emigrated to the US in 1948. He studied art in New York and Pittsburgh. After a short stint working in Germany, Maciunas established the official Fluxus Headquarters at 359 Canal Street.

The Art Story website describes the Fluxus Movement:

Fluxus was a loosely organized group of artists that spanned the globe, but had an especially strong presence in New York City. George Maciunas is historically considered the primary founder and organizer of the movement, who described Fluxus as, “a fusion of Spike Jones, gags, games, Vaudeville, Cage and Duchamp.” Like the Futurists and Dadaists before them, Fluxus artists did not agree with the authority of museums to determine the value of art, nor did they believe that one must be educated to view and understand a piece of art. Fluxus not only wanted art to be available to the masses, they also wanted everyone to produce art all the time. It is often difficult to define Fluxus, as many Fluxus artists claim that the act of defining the movement is, in fact, too limiting and reductive.

Other leading members brought together by this movement included Ay-O, Joseph Beuys, George Brecht, Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, and Wolf Vostell. (source)

A few years after returning to New York, Maciunas would begin to leave his indelible mark on the neighborhood that is now called SoHo, earning him the title “The Father of SoHo.” It was then that he began purchasing loft buildings from closing manufacturing companies to develop as Fluxhouse Cooperatives, buildings with live-work spaces for artists.

A Fluxhouse Contract

Fluxhouse Contract

In his manifesto titled “A Fluxhouse Plan for an Artist Condominium in New York City” he wrote:

While it has been recognized for some time that New York City is one of the leading art centers of the world, with probably the largest artists population, it is considerably less well known that the city suffers from a severe shortage of economical working space for artists. In part this shortage is due to the moderate means of the average professional artists and the artists’ special space requirements….

But the scarcity of economical working space is part of the general problem arising from urban obsolescence and decay. Large areas of the central city, zoned for commercial and light manufacturing use, were constructed some time ago…

And the process of obsolescence and decay here continue without obstruction. Nevertheless there are many buildings in such areas that are architecturally sound and potentially valuable if considered from the point of view of radically altered use.

(excerpt as quoted in Illegal Living)

Fluxhouse II, the first of many Maciunas Coops at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1945 (photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The City Review)

Fluxhouse II, the first of many Maciunas Coops at 80 Wooster Street, ca. 1945 (photo: Office for Metropolitan History via The City Review)

With this manifesto, George Maciunas went on to fulfill its mission, albeit in unusual and unconventional ways, by cooping 16 loft buildings over 10 years. Ignoring New York State real estate laws, Maciunas sold loft units to artists in this M1-5 zoning district that allowed for commercial and manufacturing uses but absolutely no residential use. He also failed to file offering plans before offering the units for sale. This led to inquiries by the State Attorney General’s office. Maciunas then began wearing various disguises and went out only at night. He also had his friends send postcards from around the world to make officials think  he was abroad, and he even installed a guillotine blade on his front door to avoid “unwanted visitors.”

During this period, hundreds of artists contacted Maciunas about purchasing lofts, knowing full well that it was illegal and there was a good chance that the would loose any investment made if caught by city officials. No bank was willing to loan money for the illegal Fluxhouses, so artists used their life savings and borrowed from friends to make the down payment. This is how desperate artists were for live-work spaces. Until then, most artists lived in small apartments and rented a separate studio space, which was very expensive and not sustainable in New York. Maciunas offered an alternate possibility where they would be able to stay in New York AND continue to make art.

SS-RB photo

Shael Shapiro, architect and co-author with his wife, Roz Bernstein, of Illegal Living, talk about buying a loft from George Maciunas and doing construction at 80 Wooster Street.

George Maciunas, a consummate control freak by reputation, managed all of the aspects of the cooping process from finding the buildings, to selling the units, to renovating them. He was not, however, doing this for profit, as he always only broke even or even lost part of his investments in these conversions that he offered at impossibly low prices. Maciunas was able to work on a shoestring by sometimes cutting corners, often hiring artists to do much of the contracting work.

Maciunas and Hutching wedding where the bride and groom both wore wedding gowns (Photo : Babette Mangolt)

The Maciunas and Hutching wedding, where the bride and groom both wore wedding gowns (Photo : Babette Mangolt)

In one 1975 instance, where he supposedly shortchanged an electrician for subpar work,  Maciunas was severely beaten and barely escaped with his life. After this, the already sickly Maciunas’ health declined. In 1976, Maciunas left New York to begin creating a Fluxus art center in New Marlborough , MA. In 1978, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in July of that year, shortly after marrying Billie Hutching in a Fluxus wedding in New York City. The wedding, as described in the book Illegal Living, was “the Fluxus event of the era.”

There was a Flux feast of erotic foods, including a penis-shaped pate brought by sculptor Louise Bourgeoise. For the ceremony, Maciunas and Hutching both wore bridal gowns, while their bridesmaids Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller wore dressed in drag and their best man, Allison Knowles, wore tails.

 More details John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas' USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!, c.1970 (photo: Wikipedia)

John Lennon and Yoko Ono standing in front of Maciunas’ USA Surpasses all the Genocide Records!, c.1970 (photo: Wikipedia)

George Maciunas is remembered by SoHo pioneers and aficionados of the Fluxus movement, but unknown to many in the general public, even to resdidents who currently live in SoHo lofts. He is worth remembering, however, not only for the loft coops he created that set the trend of adaptive reuse of buildings worldwide, but also for his idealism, his can-do attitude, and his democratic ideals, qualities that embody the SoHo spirit of the early days. Maciunas lived a multi-faceted and complicated life. Artists SoHo was only one of his many creations of this oft unsung hero, but perhaps the one that will be his most enduring.

Warhol and Maciunas, a film by Jonas Mekas includes footage of Maciunas’ 1971 Dumpling Dinner at 80 Wooster Street and shots of Fluxus happenings on street level.

A Tree Grows in SoHo

April 6, 2013

IMG_3385This past week, we had the trees in the back yard of our building taken down.  They were sick and old and we intervened too late to save them.  They had become a serious liability, growing higher than our four story building, their soaring limbs just waiting to be blown away in the next big storm.  A neighbor reflects on our loss:

I know she had to come down but I was crazy about that tree. Ghetto palms in general and “ours” in particular. Such a wondrous species. I remember examining the roots when I was little and being amazed to discover that it was growing out of about an inch of silt on top of concrete. And over four decades grew to be four stories tall! Beautiful, where and how they take root.

It was thus an eerie surprise when Roz Bernstein, co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo and resident of Wooster Street, sent me the following guest post about the beloved trees on Wooster Street being taken down.

SoHo’s Purloined Trees Are Gone

By Roslyn Bernstein
The facade of 80 Wooster Street before the tree was removed

The facade of 80 Wooster Street before the tree was removed

Recently, the New York City Department of Parks sent six men and three trucks with two chain saws to cut down George Maciunas’s trees. The noise was deafening as one of the men, in a cherry picker, wielded his saw while the other below was piling the fallen limbs.

The founder of the Fluxus Art movement, the founding father of SoHo, and the man whose office was in the basement of 80 Wooster Street, Maciunas would never have let it happen. Not if he were alive!

Liberated some 45 years ago, when Maciunas uprooted two trees from a parking lot near Canal Street, they were planted in front of 80 Wooster to conceal the ingenious electrical work done by Maciunas’s workers to provide free electric service to Jonas Mekas’s ground-floor, avant-garde theater, the New York Film-makers’Cinematheque.

According to a tale told by Mekas, the morning after the trees were planted, two female police officers came to Mekas and told him to remove the purloined trees. Mekas woke Maciunas who was still asleep in his basement space only to be told that Mekas should tell the officers that, if they wanted to, they could remove the trees themselves. Armed with his Bolex movie camera, Mekas conveyed the message. After a moment or two the officers left, never to return. (more…)

FYI: Re-Flux

July 10, 2012

Wooster Enterprises
with works by Jaime Davidovich, Judith Henry, and George Maciunas

July 12, 2012 – August 18, 2012
opening reception: Thursday, July 12, 6 – 8 PM
205 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011

Warhol’s aesthetic was to take things from pop culture and put them in a high culture context, to take the Brillo box and put it in Leo Castelli Gallery. We were doing just the opposite. We were taking ideas from high art and putting it in Macy’s.

— Jaime Davidovich

Churner and Churner presents the first exhibition of the complete works of Wooster Enterprises (1976-1978), the Fluxus-affiliated stationery design studio founded in Soho by artists Jaime Davidovich and Judith Henry. Using their own original designs and additional prototypes by George Maciunas, Davidovich and Henry sold small objets d’art—greeting cards, writing pads, confetti, and other paper goods—wholesale to Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and to novelty shops from Toronto to Tulsa. Wooster Enterprises was both a conceptual art project and a real corporation, and remains an overlooked antecedent to the MoMA Design Store, Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki, and other art/design hybrid ventures. (more…)

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