Jean Brown’s Avant-Garde Archive

Left: George Brecht, Deck (1966), plastic box with offset label, containing deck of offset playing cards, 7.4 x 9.4 x 2.2 cm. Published by Fluxus, New York. Right: Brecht’s letter to George Maciunas. Jean Brown papers, Getty Research Institute, 890164. ©2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Germany.

A remarkably prescient collection of documents on 20th-century art, the Jean Brown archive was the first major acquisition by the Getty Research Institute to include avant-garde movements and postwar artistic practices. When the GRI was established in 1983, there was almost no collection to speak of except a small curatorial library from the Getty Museum. The Jean Brown archive, acquired in 1985, became the foundation for the GRI’s modern and contemporary collections.

The archive comprises a network of linked, overlapping collections: Dada and Surrealist books, objects and works on paper; a notable Fluxus collection; artists’ archives; lettrist works; mail art; more than 4,000 artists’ books, and a library of catalogues and monographs. As an art librarian and rare book curator at the GRI in the late 1980s and 1990s, I was intrigued by the unusual nature and the diversity of work that Brown had collected. I visited her several times in this period to introduce myself and discuss the history of the collection. I also wanted to see her 19th-century Shaker house in Tyringham, Massachusetts, that had been its former context.

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