In his important study of the role of play in culture, Homo Ludens (1944), Johan Huizinga wrote that ‘The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation’. Happily, the same can be said of this astonishing exhibition of George Brecht’s work, which engages the audience in a series of unexpected encounters. The first major exhibition of the artist’s work for 27 years gathers together an unprecedented collection of his seminal 1960s and ’70s ‘event objects’, boxed arrangements and numerous other works with previously unseen correspondence and personal photographs. However the exhibition, curated by Alfred M. Fischer and Julia Robinson, was not described as a retrospective, with the attendant closure of meanings that that term implies. Instead it was termed a ‘heterospective’, which revealed both how innovative Brecht’s practice was and how fresh and inspiring it remains today.
Among the first works encountered were two ‘tie-dyed’ ‘Chance Paintings’
from 1957, which Brecht created using bed sheets, ink and marbles – these provided just one example of the artist anticipating the aesthetic of a later generation. Although Brecht’s name is inextricably linked with the Fluxus movement, his research into chance events predated the first Fluxus concerts by several years. Similarly, the dry wit of his word paintings and event objects can be viewed as harbingers of the performative Conceptualism of John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman. The overwhelming impression, conveyed by most of the 288 works in the exhibition, was of Brecht’s commitment to generating an art-like consciousness of real-life situations both within himself and in his audience. This sensibility can be perceived in his works using the colours of the spectrum – such as Table (1962), in which a graduated rainbow band has been applied to the point where a white table-leg meets the floor. These colours lead the eye towards the point at which the object separates from the surrounding area, inviting viewers to ‘consider changing their mind’. One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition was High Chair (1962–3) – a green and white wooden high chair with two small harlequin-checked flags painted on the back of the seat. Placed on the seat are a ball of dark brown wool and a tele-scope – both objects that seem emblematic of the process of perceptual unravelling and re-focusing that occurs while viewing this exhibition.
Brecht preferred to describe his event objects as ‘arrangements’ rather than assemblages, as it implies something both temporal and spacial. This can be observed in Chair with Fur Rug (1966), which consists of a wooden chair painted bluish grey sitting on a brown sheepskin rug, a cream-coloured leather baseball resting among its woolly curls. This piece is neither pictorial nor representational; instead it works by heightening the viewer’s awareness of the here and now. Unlike Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, Brecht’s event objects invite use, as anecdotal evidence confirms. In the past gallery visitors deposited hats and coats on his Clothes Tree (1962–3) or relaxed in his chairs. The age and fragility of certain works now prohibit viewers from touching them – but that does not mean that the urge to do so has disappeared.
Brecht’s work combine both rational and intuitive ways of seeing. They amplify Huizinga’s observation that ‘in the making of speech and language the spirit is constantly “sparking” between matter and mind’. Brecht invites the viewer to engage with the ‘sparking’ Huizinga describes, and notice our own minds thinking. His punning ‘action paintings’ are a case in point. Starting/Stopping (1966) is a white canvas with the word ‘starting’ picked out in relief letters at the top and ‘stopping’ at the bottom. Similarly, Sign of the Times (1973) humorously draws attention to linguistic paradox. This piece is composed of white plastic letters spelling out the legend ‘sign of the times’ on a black felt board, like the re-usable signs used in conference suites. In this work information has been replaced by playful connotation – the ‘times’ are happening somewhere else.
Brecht was influenced by Tristan Tzara’s dictum that life is far more interesting than art. Proof of this belief, if any were needed, is arrayed in vitrines displaying his prolific personal correspondence. Perhaps the most important effect of his work is the way it sends the viewer out of the museum and into a world recast in a new light.