Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2017
Arnold Dreyblatt and Angela Lammert, eds. Terry Fox: Elemental Gestures Exh. cat. Dortmund: Verlag Kettler, 2015. 312 pp.; 90 color ills.; 240 b/w ills. Cloth € 39.00 (9783862065158)
Exhibition schedule: Akademie der Künste, Berlin, November 11, 2015–January 1, 2016; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Mons, Belgium, March 11–June 12, 2016; Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal, Germany, September 11–February 2, 2016; Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Switzerland, March 3–June 2017
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In their introduction to the exhibition catalogue Terry Fox: Elemental Gestures, editors Arnold Dreyblatt and Angela Lammert remark on the artist’s current position on the edge of art history. A vital force in the often overlooked San Francisco art scene of the late 1960s and 1970s, Terry Fox (1943–2008) appears to have found greater appreciation outside of the United States, particularly within mainland Europe. (It is perhaps telling that a retrospective of this scale was first mounted in Berlin, and that the Seattle-born artist is described here as “American-European”—presumably in recognition of the considerable time he spent living and working in Europe.) Although Fox was relatively unknown to a broader public, Dreyblatt and Lammert assert his status as “an artist’s artist” (5), noting the high regard with which he is held by numerous peers, as well those with a special interest in Californian art production. The catalogue’s intent, therefore, was not only to intertwine the various strands of the artist’s practice—from his poetic yet often politically charged performances to his innovations in sound and language art—but also to bring Fox in from the margins, rightfully highlighting his pioneering artistic contribution.

Mirroring the exhibition’s layout, Elemental Gestures is divided into four “thinking spaces,” each reflecting a key aspect of Fox’s oeuvre. The first relates to his use of the body as a primary artistic material—or, in Fox’s own words, as an “element in its own right rather than as an initiator of some act” (72). As outlined by Nikola Doll, Fox’s 1970s performances were characterized by an intense focus on the body’s relation to objects and space. In an attempt to distinguish his performative practice, Fox frequently referred to these works as “situations.” As Doll explains, Fox’s use of this term emphasized his approach of creating specific spatial and temporal conditions under which objects were acted upon, as well as stressed his open relationship with his audience. In this respect, one can locate his work within a strain of conceptualism specific to the San Francisco Bay Area. Indeed, in one of the catalogue’s opening essays, Constance Lewallen provides a vital, contextualizing account of the artist, underscoring his links to both San Francisco’s Conceptual art scene, initially orbiting around fellow artist Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, and his strong European influences. (Lewallen in fact chiefly credits Fox for bringing this European influence to the Bay Area, thus asserting his significant impact on the region’s distinctive conceptual style.) For Marioni in particular, Conceptual art concerned a redefinition of sculpture which moved away from static object production toward an emphasis on the sculptural process via “idea-orientated actions.” While Fox shared Marioni’s objectives to an extent, as Doll’s essay skillfully highlights, his fascination with physical materiality set him apart from the majority of his conceptual peers. The artist did not privilege action over object, nor concept over material, but instead, Doll argues, his performative works consisted of “the reciprocal conditions of physical constitution, time and space” (120).

While Doll makes the argument that one could experience Fox’s situations both at the precise point of action and in form of its residual traces (i.e., the materials left behind or the altered energy of the space—as in Levitation (1970), in which all that visibly remained post-performance was the imprint of the artist’s body in a square mound of earth), she also goes on to highlight the importance of their ephemeral nature. In spite of Fox’s interest in documentation, the artist saw the temporariness of his situations as one of their defining features. The curatorial challenge this posed for the organizers of Elemental Gestures is addressed in the catalogue’s introduction. The loss of a live work’s original immediacy is a familiar obstacle when dealing with historic performance art. However, the extensive reproduction of photographic material collected within the catalogue’s pages does much to overcome this issue. In the section entitled “Materials/Elements,” Fox’s interest in materiality and basic physical processes becomes particularly apparent. The close-cropped images of Yield (1973), for example, hone in on curved lines of flour as well as the artist’s saliva that shaped them. As Lammert comments, these photographs offer a level of intimacy beyond that available to the contemporaneous audience. During Yield’s three-day duration at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, visitors were permitted to watch Fox’s interactions with flour, water, and a series of simple objects via a window at the front of two rooms. Only the photographer, Fox’s twin brother Larry, was allowed to enter the specially constructed space.

Lammert’s contribution to Elemental Gestures explores Fox’s use of video and photography as components of his practice. Drawing on Willoughby Sharp’s 1968 observation that Fox’s Amsterdam photographs (featuring found street debris) function as “surrogate sculpture,” she describes the artist’s visual records of his live work as “the sculptural notation of the ephemeral” (57). Larry Fox’s photographs of Yield, she remarks, isolate individual parts of the artist’s body, rather than capturing it in its entirety. His images thus emphasize the physical gestures that gave the work its shape. Lammert highlights the likeness of Yield’s photographic notation to that of Fox’s earlier performance Hefe (1971). Taken by Ute Klophaus, these photographs capture Fox’s manipulation of flour, water and yeast—materials the artist repeatedly favored. Fox’s hands dominate a number of Klophaus’s images. The materials themselves, however, provide the sole focus of others, with close-ups of the worked mixture filling the photographic surface. Titled after the German word for the leavening agent yeast, the photographs of this work again affirm the artist’s fascination with materiality and physical phenomena. This is a concern Fox would further develop in Children’s Tapes (1974). The artist is almost invisible in this video work, with attention instead directed toward a series of simple, elemental processes. Lammert rejects the term “documentation” in relation to Fox’s practice, arguing that recordings of his performances are best viewed as “elements in a sculptural and process-oriented method” (57). This is an understanding that she expands to include Fox’s preparatory plans and sketches, many of which are featured in the catalogue, with a number of them published here for the first time. His notes for Children’s Tapes in particular, Lammert suggests, reveal the delicate balance Fox strove to maintain between meticulous control and in-the-moment authenticity.

Beyond this exploration of the artist’s preoccupation with the demonstration of phenomena is an examination of his attraction to codes and signs. For Dreyblatt, Fox’s entire oeuvre “speaks to us in hermetic and often coded dialogue” (19). However, from the 1980s onward codes would feature explicitly in Fox’s objects and drawings. For example, in Hobo Signs (1985) he appropriated cryptic marks used by the urban homeless as a means of communication. In her account of Fox’s text-based works, Beate Eickhoff argues that the artist was unconcerned with the concrete meaning of such languages, as the act of deciphering was of greater importance. For Eickhoff, this was a process Fox often deliberately complicated, thus turning reading into a form of physical participation. This is potentially best illustrated by Bloodline (1995), an installation that used seven thousand letter cards assembled in a continuous block. To make sense of the text, viewers had to interpret each letter in relation to those surrounding it, tracing out the space of the room while doing so. This notion of mapping is considered in a subsequent section, with particular attention paid to a recurring motif, the labyrinth. In his own words, Fox found a metaphor for his physical being in the labyrinth’s concentric circles, which he felt reflected his own lifelong cycles of health and sickness (he suffered from Hodgkin’s disease). Fox used the layout of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, with its eleven rings and thirty-four turns, as the basis for one of his sound works, The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Different Cats (1973). Fox’s complex notation of this piece can be found in the concluding “thinking space,” which is devoted to Fox’s use of sound as a form of sculpture.

As emphasized by David A. Ross in his essay, “Terry Fox—Not a Video Artist,” and indeed throughout the catalogue, Fox’s work is difficult to pin down. Despite his association with conceptual performance, video art, sound art, and even, as Ross has previously suggested, a form of “American Arte Provera” (David A. Ross, “Introduction,” in Terry Fox, Articulations, Labyrinth, Text Works, Philadelphia: Goldie Paley Gallery, 1992, 5). Fox’s practice ultimately resists categorization. Elemental Gestures usefully explores the many layers of Fox’s work by carefully interweaving his various thematic concerns. The inclusion of archival articles and interviews offers additional insight into Fox’s ideas and working method, as do his notes, letters, and sketches. A handwritten description of Turgescent Sex (1971), for example, lists “despair” alongside its physical components: a blindfold, rope, and fish. Intended as a metaphorical attempt to extricate himself from unwilling complicity in the Vietnam War, this performance involved the tying and untying of a series of knots. Elemental Gestures closes with the testimonies of a number of Fox’s peers, reaffirming his status as an artist’s artist, while also positioning him as an important voice of his generation. As his estate continues their project of digitizing Fox’s archives, one hopes this deserved recognition will continue to flourish.

Katherine Doniak
PhD candidate, Department of History of Art, University of Nottingham

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.