Originally published in Getty magazine
As a break from time in their studios, mid-20th-century artists like Jean-Claude and Christo, Claes Oldenburg, and Marcel Duchamp sometimes journeyed to western Massachusetts.
There they’d visit the artist-friendly Berkshires region, with its performing arts centers at Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow. Nearby they’d enjoy the warm and appreciative atmosphere of visits with Leonard and Jean Brown.
Leonard Brown ran an insurance company by day, but the Browns’ true passion was art collecting. With a personalized approach that favored works they truly loved rather than works they viewed as investments, the Browns amassed a remarkable collection of Dada and surrealist illustrated books, prints, and photographs before Leonard’s passing in 1970.
But Jean’s collecting days were far from over. During the next decade, she focused her attention on Fluxus art—an under-the-radar movement that emphasized humor, works you can touch and interact with, and the rejection of elitism. Fluxus works embraced the social and political critiques of earlier avant-garde artists and questioned the authority of the contemporary art world. She became affectionately known as the “den mother of Fluxus” as she transformed her home into a bona fide archive and library of not only Fluxus art, but also of catalogues, books, posters, and handwritten notes from Fluxus artists.
The Getty Research Institute (GRI) acquired the Jean Brown Archive in 1985 as one of its foundational collections. “At first the GRI was not collecting art from the 20th century,” says Marcia Reed, associate director and chief curator at the GRI. “But then we realized that if we were going to be an important art library with special collections of original sources, we needed to collect art from this century.” The archive includes the Browns’ Dada, surrealist, and Fluxus collections. For 35 years it has been available to students, scholars, artists, and other museums for study, used in publications, and loaned for exhibitions. But the collection has never been on view to Getty visitors.
That will change this September. Fluxus Means Change: Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive will put objects from well-known members of the Fluxus movement, as well as key works from the Browns’ Dada and surrealist collections, on display for visitors to examine, ponder, and perhaps walk away from with Jean’s motto, “Try life,” dominating their thoughts.
Collect What You Love
The Browns began collecting art in the 1950s, their Springfield, Massachusetts, home filling up first with works by contemporary abstract expressionist artists and later, Dada and surrealist works. They were interested in more than just paintings; they also kept postcards, flyers, letters, and catalogues that documented their favorite artists. (They always referred to their collection as an “archive,” signaling its inclusion of original sources and possibilities for research.) Neither was formally educated in the arts—Jean briefly took classes in librarianship at Columbia University and worked for a time at the department-store library of the Albert Steiger Company, while Leonard graduated from Brown University in 1930 before entering the insurance business. But they kept up remarkably well with trends in the art world, in part by traveling to New York City museums, bookstores, galleries, and art shows where they often purchased works directly. The couple also maintained relationships with dealers who nudged them towards artists whose careers were on the upswing.
Above all, the Browns collected art that spoke to them—works that made them laugh, moved them, and piqued their interest—whether or not a work was considered a “good investment.” They gravitated toward art that pushed boundaries; art that communicated social commentary and protest; and art inspired by everyday life. Dada and surrealism, two artistic movements that reacted to post–World-War-I-and-II society and culture with themes of chaos, absurdity, and a rejection of rationality and capitalism, aligned with their artistic tastes perfectly.
The couple also preferred to acquire works from artists with whom they had personal connections. And they frequently invited these artists to their home. After her husband’s death, Jean wanted to create a catalogue of their Dada and surrealist collection in homage to Leonard, and had a flash of inspiration: why not ask Dada artist Marcel Duchamp himself to do the cover design? She wrote to him and he wrote back, asking to meet “tomorrow.” Jean complied, and from then on he became a friend and occasional guest at the Brown home.
“Many of the works in the archive include comments and personal dedications from the artists to the Browns,” says Reed. “I think the artists appreciated the Browns’ interest, and felt it was truly sincere.”
Change Means Fluxus
When Leonard died in 1970, Jean saw collecting as a way to fill the void, and moved to the house she and Leonard had purchased a few years earlier. Built in 1845 by members of the Shaker religious group, the austere, wood-sided, four-bedroom home was located in the Berkshires, about 45 miles northwest of Springfield. It was originally used for storing seeds, and probably once housed the printing press the Shakers used to print their seed envelopes. She also decided to focus on collecting Fluxus art.
Fluxus was founded in the 1960s by George Maciunas, its core mission to value the process of creating above the finished product. Everyday objects could become pieces of art. For Fluxus artists, it was important to create opportunities for life and daily experience to influence your work. You might create a “Fluxkit,” for instance—assemble a specific assortment of objects in a box, then send it, sell it (rarely), or give it away, letting the recipient’s interaction with the objects become the next stage in the work’s life. Humor also frequently featured in Fluxus art.
A lifelong lover of books, Jean also leaned even deeper into collecting letters, exhibition notices, and mail art by Fluxus artists. Mail art consisted of collages, sketches, copy art, or prints that were mailed to mail-art cohorts, turning the recipient’s mailbox into a gallery of sorts. “I think Jean had a wonderful, open-minded idea about what art could be or how it could be performed,” says Reed. “Her catchphrase ‘Try life!’—originally a quote from Fluxus artist Klaus Groh—was really about how experience is what matters in art.”
Jean’s engagement with the Fluxus world was ignited through her friendship with Maciunas, which started when she wrote him multiple letters, asking to meet and discuss Fluxus. When he didn’t respond, she marched down to his studio in New York City and saw a nameplate on the door reading, “Dingdong.” She pressed the doorbell, and when Maciunas answered, she said, “I’m Jean Brown, and I want everything of Fluxus.”
Until Maciunas’s death in 1978, the two collaborated to expand Jean’s archive and to design the Archive Room on the second floor of the house, which stored and displayed the archive in rows of cabinets and drawers and on the walls and ceiling—a “wonderful, magic cabinet of curiosities,” Reed recalls. “Her letters to him are very funny, because she’s organized. She says, ‘Here’s the list, here’s what I want to pay. You still haven’t come to visit me. There’s the bus schedule. You can do this.’ There was a mother-son relationship, but in a very kind and respectful way.” Jean Brown’s archive is the only vintage collection of Fluxus assembled and collected in collaboration with Maciunas.
From the Berkshires to Brentwood
As Jean grew older and caring for the archive became challenging, her two sons (one an art historian, the other an art gallerist) sought a buyer for the collection. The GRI, whose leadership was impressed with the collection’s Dada and surrealist works, fit the bill.
When the collection arrived at the GRI, Reed was among the first to start unpacking the boxes. She remembers being “bowled over” by what she discovered, even though at that time, artist books, mail art, and other works on paper were not as appreciated as they are today. Other GRI staff didn’t quite know what to make of this eclectic collection either, Reed reports. “Realizing we had to make sense of this collection for the GRI in terms of future collection development, I thought the best thing to do would be to visit Jean Brown.”
Reed made several visits to the Shaker seed house to talk with Jean and hear colorful stories of her engagement with the alternative art world. (Learn more about Reed’s visits with Jean at her Shaker seed house.) Reed soon learned that Jean wanted the archive to live on; that scholars and others should have access to it. “When I went to talk to Jean, it felt like kismet because she said, ‘I never wanted my collection to go to a museum, where they would just put it away. What I really enjoy is having people come look at it, work from it, and make new work,’” says Reed. “I think it’s so visionary that she understood the desire to touch things and have a personal encounter with them.”
For the next 30 years, Reed returned often to the archive, researching its featured artists and how their works fit into the larger themes of the collection. In choosing which works to feature in Fluxus Means Change, Reed focused on some of Jean’s favorite artists, objects that would be difficult to truly appreciate when viewed within the confines of the Special Collections Reading Room, and works that are lively and attention-getting, or perhaps have a compelling story behind them. Reed realized that Jean had considerable amounts of art work by women and BIPOC artists, and the exhibition displays a diverse range of these artists.
Just as the Browns allowed their own artistic proclivities to guide their collecting, Reed hopes the exhibition inspires visitors to identify which works of art they feel a personal connection to, and why. “When I do tours I’ll be asking, ‘What’s your favorite thing? What object speaks to you?’ So I hope visitors find different connections based on their experience of art and think about how this kind of art is different from, say, the paintings gallery at the museum,” says Reed. “I hope people take away the idea that everybody collects, and you should collect what you’re drawn to.”
As for what Jean, who died in 1994, might think of the exhibition? “She would love it, although the collection is presented in a very different installation than at the Shaker seed house,” says Reed. “But Jean liked change. She liked to change directions herself.”