Books

Jeaneology of Morals

Terry Fugate-Wilcox, advertisement for “Sculpture, a group exhibition” at the Jean Freeman Gallery, September 6–October 1, 1970. From the Fall 1970 issue of Avalanche.

THE JEAN FREEMAN GALLERY DOES NOT EXIST, BY CHRISTOPHER HOWARD. MIT Press, 2018. 416 pages.  

FOR SEVEN MONTHS IN 1970–71, a young artist named Terry Fugate-Wilcox promulgated the existence of a fake art gallery at a nonexistent address on Fifty-Seventh Street, then the main drag of the New York art world. Fake artists, fake works, a fake director with a Pynchonesque name: You get the gist. He promoted this enterprise, the Jean Freeman Gallery, by purchasing space in a few art magazines for seven ads featuring images of Earthworks-y pastiche; sending out press releases to luminaries such as Lucy R. Lippard and Irving Sandler; arranging mail forwarding to his SoHo loft; and throwing a party at his house for the nonopening of one of his nonartists. Gregory Battcock makes a mischievous cameo in the tale, penning two spoof reviews of Freeman shows for an unaware UK rag and, in his position as special correspondent for Arts Magazine, apparently helping arrange for Fugate-Wilcox to write an essay in the magazine discussing three members of the Freeman stable as if they were real, extant humans.  

The payoff for all this work? Well, the Jean Freeman Gallery sufficiently confused the librarians compiling Art Index, a reference periodical cataloguing the contents of magazines, into registering the gallery’s ads as editorial content in a few cases. Its shows made it into listings in Art in America, Art News, and elsewhere. The first real press seems to have been the story that ended the hoax, published in January 1971 in the New York Times by old Arts section mainstay Grace Glueck. Feast on the prose of the era:  

With-it art worldlings have known for a while that the toughest, hairiest, searchingest outpost of the avant‐garde is the Jean Freeman Gallery at 26 West 57th St., opened last fall. . . .  
The plain truth, however, is that there is no Jean Freeman Gallery. A conceptual work of art itself, it exists only in the media, conversations about it, and the teeming brain of Terry Fugate-Wilcox, a deadpan young artist‐emigre from the sterile reaches of Kalamazoo, Mich. “I’ve been working up to it for the three years I’ve lived in New York,” confessed F-W recently, under relentless grilling from this investigator. “Then last spring I attended a big art blast in a downtown loft, complete with bartenders, a live band, long skirts and limousines waiting in the alley. I knew I had to do it, things had become so ridiculous.”  

A dollop of follow-up coverage ensued, including Fugate-Wilcox’s appearance on the Today Show in 1972 with Brian O’Doherty, who, surprisingly enough, served as an art correspondent for the show at the time.  

Given the subject of The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist, though, I’m not entirely sure I can believe that happened, either. A four-hundred-page tome about a hoax colors your view of things, especially living in a world where we are, to put it lightly, sensitized to the idea of fakery being introduced into the cultural stream. The book’s author, Christopher Howard, sets up the Freeman project by talking about hoaxes in the context of 1960s counterculture, but he quickly swivels to anatomize the details of his subject with an eye to the history of Conceptualism and print media in the 1960s and 1970s. He displays a winning taste for granular information, my favorite example being the type of typewriter and paper stock that Fugate-Wilcox used for his press releases (IBM Selectric, Hiawatha erasable bond). He also provides an ample history of Fugate-Wilcox’s career before and after Freeman, which largely involved works straddling environmental art and Conceptualism in ways that were not dissimilar from the fake works he invented for Freeman, nor much different from those produced by his more famous contemporaries. Maybe Jean Freeman wasn’t the first fictional art gallery, Howard acknowledges, citing predecessors conceived by Ray Johnson and Yoko Ono; maybe it’s not the best piece of Conceptual art to appear in a magazine, comparing it to earlier interventions by Dan Graham, Judy Chicago, and Stephen Kaltenbach. But it’s something, right? Enough to aspire to write Fugate-Wilcox into a certain strain of art history.  

Cover of Christopher Howard's The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist (2018).

The problem with this angle, though, is that it skirts the juicy parts of the story, the hoaxy parts. Yes, it’s not a novel; it’s art history. But the inattention isn’t merely the choice of one equally good approach versus another. For a hoax is a social act, the meaning of which cannot be assessed without considering considering the social field into which it is entered. It is an essential facet of the Jean Freeman Gallery as an artwork that it was conceived as a critique. Fugate-Wilcox said so explicitly in the piece that unmasked him. “It exposes the political structure of the gallery world,” he told the New York Times. “You can’t help but get a good look inside yourself when you realize you’ve gone along with it.”  

Remarkably, when interviewed by Art News in 1990 about the Freeman Gallery, the artist repeated his original statement almost verbatim: “Things had become so ridiculous,” Fugate-Wilcox said, “that I knew I had to do something to expose the political structure of the art scene.” This is a frustratingly vague statement; Pierre Bourdieu, Fugate-Wilcox is not. What was so ridiculous that he spent, following Howard’s math, the rough equivalent of $75,000 in today’s dollars to satirize it? What did he mean by “politics,” and why did it impress itself on him so deeply that he parroted his complaint about it nineteen years later?  

There is something uncomfortably trollish in Fugate-Wilcox’s explanations of his project and squeamish about Howard’s lack of curiosity about it. When it comes to an art career, or any other, “politics” becomes an explanation for why one is less successful than one would like. The meritocracy we believe exists in America—now there’s a hoax for you—is being thwarted by favors for cronies and pets, elites manipulating the system. If this resonance seems a stretch, it is hard to banish it at this particular moment. The two seemingly unrelated meanings of the word politics, the micro/social and the macro/societal, collide when considering that the pale riders of our current apocalypse were loosed by the pasty edgelords of 4chan. The Jean Freeman Gallery was a Conceptual artwork, but it was also a lashing-out, issuing from its creator’s belief that he needed to make people look inside themselves, to teach people a lesson.

Howard touches on all this but is far too polite. He does try to grapple with the question in the book’s conclusion, but the best he can do is that the artist “overestimated the importance of fooling an audience.” I get it: You’re working with a living artist; you’re trying to be nice. Howard wades into the book’s main flaw in his introduction. After describing the Freeman Gallery as a subversion and parody of the art world, he writes, “Despite this remarkable achievement, Fugate-Wilcox was marginalized by the . . . established mainstream art crowd.” Despite? How about because of? With almost no eyewitness accounts aside from Fugate-Wilcox’s own (a limitation the author explicitly acknowledges), we have no one way of knowing what the people he was mocking thought of him or the Jean Freeman Gallery, or if they thought of him at all. Was there no one to get on the record to say, “Oh yeah, Terry was all right,” or “Ick, that guy?” I know that type of reportage isn’t easy, particularly of a moment now almost fifty years in the past, but Howard could have at least asked the artist to amplify his statements about the intentions behind the Jean Freeman Gallery and gauge his impressions of its reception. Despite amply noted contact with the artist, however, he never does. From a certain perspective, I concede that it seems not so important. At the same time, I’d like to have known if his view of the art world ever changed, or his feelings toward the project evolved.  

In the first chapter of the book, Howard cites a “classic study” of a key cultural motif of the 1960s, the put-on: Bob Dylan fucking with reporters is the iconic example. The put-on is a “hostile means of expression,” the study’s author wrote, and a “destructive device born out of desperation.” Desperation seems like a feeling one well might have as a young artist moving to New York from Kalamazoo, Michigan, knowing no one and finding it hard to fit in. You might try an outlandish, passive-aggressive stunt to attract some attention, like fooling the “ridiculous,” “political” people who seem not to want to let you into their club by giving you shows and all the rest, even though you make work that’s on its face totally contemporary and relevant and not any worse than a lot of people who seem to be garnering success. You could easily find yourself branded as, well, a crank. A trollish Instagram account or Twitter feed might do the same today (though mocking the “politically correct” is a little different than making fun of Land art). Fugate-Wilcox’s friend Willoughby Sharp made an amazing magazine, so I could never understand why he had faded into oblivion in his later years. Then I met him, and he seemed like a crank too.  

This, to me, is a devastating thing to consider that in the end made The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist a harrowing and depressing read; its only lesson, really, is to bear failure gracefully. I try myself every day.

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