Robin Page: Pioneering British Fluxus artist and art-world rebel

Page found it hard to settle and survive, and most of his creative life was spent in a state of penury worthy of La Bohème

Maximum Rock’n’Roll was kick-started in October 1962, when the young Robin Page took his cherished guitar and threw it off the stage of the ICA in London before brutally kicking it along the Mall, down steps and pavements, until it was nothing but a bunch of twisted shards and strings. That this became an official work of art when the remaining fragments were shown at the ICA, making the nihilistic glee the greater. Entitled simply Guitar Piece this work is now celebrated as a monument both to performance art and rock lore, its reverberations, its wah-wah echo, heard across the whole field of pop culture. Page’s piece is credited as the direct inspiration for the scene in Antonioni’s Blow Up, where a band trash their instruments, as well as Pete Townsend’s trademark guitar abuse and even the guitar theatrics of Hendrix.

Thus in the dictionary of rock-guitar legend there are only two Pages, Robin and Jimmy. Rock depends on gesture, visual pose as much as music and Page’s deliberate destruction of his own instrument—a cathartic expression of love and hate towards this symbol of his passion for music—struck a chord whose angry resonance still lingers. The art-historical arc of this action might start with Picasso’s fragmented Cubist guitars and pass through Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire, while pre-dating the Destruction in Art Symposium of 1966, and such punk acts as Bruce McLean’s Nice Style “pose band”. Page played music all his life, starring as a teenager in a band in Canada, busking as he travelled the world, but that was only one expression of his highly, compulsively creative existence.

Always avant-garde Page was born in London in 1932. His father took the family to the US where he got a job

as a cartoonist at Disney’s Hollywood studios. Page later credited the Mickey Mouse Artists’ Manual as his first introduction to Abstraction: “Remember… his ears are always shown in profile.” The family later moved to Canada, where Page became something of a celebrity at Vancouver School of Art, not only for punching his professor (“He was King Shit of Turd Island”), but for his clipped-beard swagger as an early Beatnik hipster. Later Page was the first to realise that this boho look had become a uniform and it would be more shocking to dress as a conservative businessman, in suit and tie, a style adopted long before Gilbert & George. Page began as an abstract painter while supporting himself as a cartoonist like his father. Young Page hitchhiked across Canada and the US, but eventually pitched up in Paris where he hoped to work with his heroes, the artists Yaacov Agam and Victor Vasarely.

He achieved a degree of success as a Hard-edge painter, exhibiting in avant-garde shows such as the West Coast Hard-edge in Seattle in 1954, but his real flair for high jinx and theatrics led him to the nascent Fluxus movement. In Paris, Page lived a genuine hand-to-mouth existence, busking with Peter Golding (the inventor of “designer” jeans) and dossing in a windowless closet at the notorious Beat Hotel. Associating himself with artists such as Robert Filliou, Dieter Roth and Dorothy Iannone, it was natural that when Page moved to London in 1962 he was asked to participate in the Festival of Misfits, a joint show, organised by Daniel Spoerri, at the ICA and Gallery One. One of Page’s other celebrated “happenings” was realised during his London years: a large-scale chalk image of Joseph Beuys, complete with begging bowl, drawn on the pavement outside the National Gallery—for which he earned some alms from tourists. Other memorable performances included a table-top recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, with toy soldiers and a running commentary from

contemporary accounts, and a mock interview with a dying Vietnam GI, who could only drool and bleed to camera.

A critical misfit Despite appointments to numerous art school posts (Leeds College of Art, the Academies of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, Cologne, Berlin, Munich and Nova Scotia, among others), Page found it hard to settle and survive, and most of his creative life was spent in a state of penury worthy of La Bohème. Page had a peripatetic existence and a marginal one, despite his ever-supportive girlfriends and wives, including the photographer Raissa Smilis and Carol Hodgkins, not to mention his daughter Rachel (with Smilis) who survives him. And despite his participation in such prestigious shows as Documenta 5 in 1972, he seemed always to be filled with a powerful feeling of frustration with the art world. After all, Page was a man of many talents—a cartoonist, a musician, a highly talented figurative painter, a Hard-edge abstractionist, a key Fluxus performer—but he never seemed to win full recognition.

Much of this sense of amused grievance fuelled his last great creation when in 1987, after a visitation from the spirit of Bluebeard, he dyed his trademark beard bright azure and then began in 1990 to create the Bluebeard AMuseum painting series. How fitting it is then that, to mark his death, aged 82, on 12 May, his family should have initiated the First Global Blue Beard Event with everyone encouraged to sport his or her own big blue beard, real or artificial, under the Pagean slogan, “Be silly and most of all have fun!”

• Robin Page, artist, born 2 November 1932; died 12 May 2015