Tony Feher, 2011. Photo: Ellen Labenski.


WHEREVER HE WENT, Tony Feher transformed space, not only through his work but also through his presence; nothing ever felt or looked the same once he had his way with it. He was compelled to leave gifts, whether he was invited as an artist to create or show work in a museum setting or simply as a friend to spend time at someone’s home. He couldn’t help seeing and seizing opportunities to make his mark and leave it up to his host, institutional or private, to decide whether to keep these small treasures once he or the show moved on.

We conceived of our work together as the planning of a midcareer survey, too early in his lifetime to register as a retrospective, which was still a thing of the future. A future that we talked about a lot, mostly over great food and wine because Tony detested nothing more than a mediocre meal. During our travels, we spent hours seeking out the right restaurant for our physical and intellectual nourishment, celebrating accordingly when the quest was successful and complaining endlessly if it failed. (Sorry, Akron, it was a struggle.)

The last time I saw Tony in New York, we met at Wallsé for dinner, the first to arrive and the last to leave, carrying our conversation onto the sidewalk after shutting down the restaurant until we nearly froze to death and decided that it would be wise to go home. I wish we had continued no matter how cold or late. The feeling of loss is so acute that I often prefer to shove it aside. But here is what happens if I don’t: I find myself speaking to others about his insatiable lust for life and love; his breadth of knowledge on seemingly any subject matter; his talent for conversation with people from all walks of life, which made him so beloved by so many; his filthy, blush-inducing sense of humor confusingly countered by his impeccable Southern manners; his generosity of spirit (often disappointed); and, of course, his ability to find beauty and meaning where others saw none or found little.

Tony Feher, It Seemed a Beaujpgul Day, 2002, plastic bottles with plastic caps, water, food dye, wire, rope, dimensions variable.


No stranger to illness, Tony took his cancer diagnosis in stride and found love and support in his expansive circle of chosen family and friends, who were there for him every step of the way. His departure, while predicted for the near future, was nonetheless premature, cutting short the time he was promised. For those who cared for Tony, his absence leaves a gaping hole. But, of course, he knew this feeling only too well, having dealt with the death of friends and peers for so many decades. Loss has been a central subject of his work since the late 1980s, and as I am trying to come to terms with his, it is his work that offers the greatest solace. Laced with hope and optimism, it is a paean to survival and a glorious and hopeful place to anchor feelings of grief.

During the years we toured the country, Tony would disappear for periods of time to take power naps during installation. Museum staffers, including myself, kept stumbling on him in a state of slumber underneath desks or stairs, in corners of staff lounges and conference rooms, or tucked away in closets and storage spaces, wondering when (if) he would awaken but in the meantime going to great lengths to protect his sleep.

That uncanny feeling when you look at someone sleeping and wonder whether she or he will wake up again, that brief moment where the fear of it not happening grips you and you are suddenly confronted with the possibility of the person’s loss—we all have experienced those moments. Usually, they occur in the privacy of our homes, but Tony made these moments public. Their memory has been etched on my brain, and ever since learning about his death, I have had visions of him reemerging with a bellowing laugh from some unexpected place of temporary rest, as he did so many times before. I know he won’t, but it’s an image worth holding onto.

Claudia Schmuckli is the curator in charge of contemporary art and programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and former director and chief curator of Blaffer Art Museum, where she organized the exhibition “Tony Feher,” a twenty-year survey of the artist’s work. It was presented at the Des Moines Art Center, May 11–September 2, 2012; the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, October 13, 2012–March 31, 2013; the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, May 24–September 16, 2013; and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, October 6, 2013–February 14, 2014.

Tony Feher, 2010. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.


MY FIRST COLLABORATION WITH TONY FEHER took place in the summer of 1995, in a group exhibition titled “Thresholds/Limiares” at Fundação de Serralves in Porto, Portugal. The curatorial premise was for each artist—including Tony, Lewis deSoto, R. M. Fischer, Kristin Oppenheim, Paul Ramirez-Jonas, Diana Thater, Meyer Vaisman, and Millie Wilson—to present two works: one within the stately family house and the other in the surrounding gardens. When Tony explained to me that everything he needed for his indoor work would be in his checked luggage, that his total materials and production budget on-site would be approximately a hundred dollars, and that he didn’t need any assistance on either one, I wondered—not for the last time—if maybe I hadn’t fully grasped what his work was about.

Besides his clothes, all Tony brought with him to Portugal were a few coin rolls and a half dozen carefully wrapped empty glass jars and bottles that were the models, he explained, for the size and texture of the examples he would be looking for in Porto. Even before the official start of the two-week installation, he’d begun industriously spiriting away empty bottles from the roast-chicken joints we’d frequent at lunchtime, and pocketing every spare coin he could get his hands on. (I turned my smaller-value escudos over to him on a regular basis.) Within a week, his serpentine arrangements of bottles and coins—similar to what I’d already seen of his work—began to take shape on the Casa Serralves’s downstairs floor, and I was partly reassured. Then one Saturday, he led me to a tiny general store downtown, to show off a nondescript display of plastic buckets in pink, cobalt, and orange that he steadfastly proclaimed was “the greatest thing I’ve ever seen” (a phrase I would hear repeated on future occasions). He’d had his eye on the long rose arbor that lined one side of the gardens, and within a few hours of our errand, the core of Journeys End Just Begun – Porto was in place: two dozen buckets, spaced widely apart, each suspended a few inches off the ground by an identical length of rope, catching the summer breeze in gently sashaying currents. The precise verticality of the ropes as they mirrored the arbor’s pillars and shadows, and the discordant play of color between the buckets and the surrounding flowers, was astonishing to me, not least of all because of the breathtaking modesty of his means and the realization that he really hadn’t done much, and yet everything had changed.

Tony and I would go on to collaborate on several exhibitions, traveling to Beijing, Istanbul, and Mexico City together, and we soon became close personal friends, sharing the seasonal rent over several consecutive summers for a small house, dubbed “Night Lily,” in Cherry Grove on Fire Island, New York, where he would amuse himself for days on end puttering in the garden, digging in wet sand, or exploring the adjacent woods. Some evenings we talked at marathon length, and I began to appreciate how the refined taste he inherited from his grandmother and his extended period of ACT UP activism were equally present in his decision to abandon painting altogether and turn the city into his own private Pearl Paint. He combed the streets for scraps of material culture to be dragged back to his apartment or studio and wait their turn until he’d found a use for them. Along with rejecting traditional materials, Tony kept the techniques of sculpture at arm’s length. Everything had to be stacked on top of, put into, laid alongside, or tied to something else, but it could never be nailed, fused, soldered, glued, welded, or even taped. If the full integrity of each ingredient within his pieces was not maintained in the works’ final state, then the search would simply have to continue until something else fit something else.

Tony Feher, untitled, c. 1991–92, glass bottles with metal lids, found objects, 6 x 10 x 21".


One thing I recall vividly from those long, leisurely summers was Tony, regardless of his apparent activity, as he endlessly measured and tested all the spaces and materials in his surroundings for possible incorporation into a future artwork. Many artists do this, of course, but because his artistic identity was so aligned with the rejection of art conventions in favor of the found, discarded, and recycled, it seemed that for Tony there was never a time when he wasn’t playing and working simultaneously. As a result, my attention would keep returning to the boundaries between a work by Tony Feher and something that isn’t art at all or could be easily misperceived. When the house in Cherry Grove finally needed to be sold by its owners and our insiders’ rental arrangement came to an end, a circular blue-tape piece Tony had spent days arranging in the front window three summers prior became a selling point for the realtor, who had become a fan of Tony’s work in the meantime and assured the new owners that the blue tape would increase in value much faster than the house itself.

Tony and I were to have worked together one more time on a site-specific installation, for “Impermanence,” the Thirteenth Bienal de Cuenca, Ecuador, but he passed away while still making preparatory studies for his installation at the future Museo de la Ciudad (we’ll show finished works instead). Thinking about it now, my curatorial theme seems like a reflection on the slow but undeniable evolution that his work has imposed on my idea of what constitutes art, and the role of the curator in shaping and refining that understanding for everyone involved. Tony’s fleeting, situational, and sometimes abject art might or might not portend a future of increasingly personalized approaches to art, but it does continue to expand the boundaries of what one curator believes constitutes meaningful art, and why.

Dan Cameron is a curator based in New York.

The Thirteenth Bienal de Cuenca, Ecuador, opens November 25 and runs through February 5, 2017.

Two memorial shows for Tony Feher open today: “Map For A Journey Not Yet Taken,” at Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco, through December 16; and “It Didn’t Turn Out the Way I Expected” at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, through December 23.


“AND ONE LAST THING: AVOID ASSHOLES,” Jaime Davidovich deadpanned, in a final piece of advice to my art students when, in the summer of 2015, we met him in his Bronx Museum retrospective, “Adventures of the Avant-Garde.” Coming from this singular Argentinean artist, who moved to New York in 1963 and participated in post-Minimalist and video-art experiments before becoming one of the pioneers of public-access cable in the late 1970s, this was no empty provocation or joke. It is a challenge to summarize the many twists and turns of Jaime’s career, but he was, above all, a profoundly ethical artist, across whose works and platforms one can glimpse an as-yet-unrealized more human art world.

Jaime and I first met five years ago, when we found ourselves on the same 1960s/1970s panel for the Brooklyn Museum exhibition “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art.” In a sign of his typical humility, although he was not even included in the show, he still agreed to participate in the programming and represent his era. I curated his first exhibition in Chicago in January 2015, and this past year we completed a series of conversations that will be published in 2017 by the Cisneros Foundation with the help of the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art, both of whom were generous with their support and effort to make sure the text was completed, and read by him, before he passed away.

Jaime and I met and talked many times, almost always about his work. Toward the end, I had the feeling that these conversations served as a respite from his failing health. This was how I got to know him; he was the sort of artist whose self was utterly tied up in what he made and the networks, both human and nonhuman, that it generated. His adhesive-tape installations and early videos scanned the surfaces of various sites: his studio, the old Whitney Museum of American Art stairwell, downtown “alternative spaces,” a suburban street in Cleveland, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates in Queens, the SoHo neighborhood around his apartment at 154 Wooster Street. This neglected impulse in his work between the late ’60s and his television work represents—to me—an active curiosity about every inch of the world around him. Once he turned to television, as he told me many times, the goal was to take art out of the museum and literally deliver it into viewers’ living rooms. At the time, this curiosity was married to a deliciously dry sense of humor that could distract from the fact that his camera was still roving, still observing the details of his milieu—now that of the roving reporter, his alter ego Dr. Videovich. The segment The Best Artist, 1982, is a great example of this subtlety, one made for television. On the one hand, any viewer can appreciate the hilarity of Davidovich’s deadpan interview of René Moncada, a Colombian street artist, who earnestly explains why he painted a street mural reading “I Am the Best Artist.” Yet even amidst this absurdity, the SoHo environment is still being captured: public art, passersby, street noise—and the segment is quietly echoing the quite similar braggadocio of Alberto Greco, an Argentinean artist and friend of Davidovich who died in 1965. Accessible television layered with lessons from lost art histories; these were the possibilities Jaime wanted to use television for. To listen to him recite, in monotone, “Art mall, art mall, art mall . . . ” while wandering around a Los Angeles shopping center in The Gap, 1982–83, is to at once laugh with the everyday and to identify it as a potential site of transformation—at that time, who knew what was possible with public-access cable? I remember him encouraging me to install clips from his television show in a kitschy, comfortable living-room style environment in the gallery, to create the impression that one was watching at home. In the end, we went with wooden benches painted yellow to echo a reinstalled work, Yellow Wall, 1970, included in the show, but that possibility of a different installation stayed in my mind, as if haunting the existing version.

Still from Jaime Davidovich's The Live! Show, 1979–1984.


Two less discussed episodes in Jaime’s career emblematize, for me, who he was as an artist, and how this role naturally extended to pedagogy and politics. Between 1960 and 1962, before leaving Argentina for the United States, Jaime worked as an educator in Bahía Blanca, then a provincial town. He was twenty-four, an age at which most artists might think only of promoting their own careers and gaining exposure, and yet it was at this precise juncture that he accepted a position designed by the developmentalist regime of Arturo Frondizi to introduce advanced art to students living outside of Buenos Aires. Jaime did not see Bahía Blanca as a cultural backwater unworthy of cosmopolitan exchange. His view of art’s audiences and their potential was democratic and optimistic—and it certainly remained so throughout the rest of his career. For him, television’s promise similarly lay in the medium’s capacity for interconnection—to educate, to reach people, and to bring them together around a shared, autopoietic platform. In 1984, in the final year of his run on Manhattan Cable Television, Jaime ceded his regular slot for The Live! Show to programming for Artists Call, a component of a much larger, countrywide collaborative protest against US intervention in Central America. Not one to bang viewers over the head with a message, Jaime stayed behind the camera as producer, letting others (Traci Sampson, Lucy R. Lippard, Leon Golub, and Doug Ashford) speak about this urgent issue. In one of our final conversations, which took place during the primaries, he diagnosed the Trump phenomenon with his signature pith: “These other candidates are boxers; they play by the rules. Trump is wrestling—he just hits you over the head with a chair!” I like to think that if Jaime had lived to see our present moment of crisis, he would have known what to do: Start with a simple drawing, maybe, as he did of Reagan in 1984. Live on TV, an audience watching, this was Jaime’s political commitment: understated, collaborative, a break from our regularly scheduled programming.

Daniel Quiles is an art historian and critic based in Chicago.

John Vaccaro in 2007. Photo: John Sarsgard.


FOR THOSE UNFORTUNATE ONES, like me, who never had a chance to experience the Theatre of the Ridiculous in its heyday from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s in New York City, it is difficult to know fully how crucial director John Vaccaro was to that movement’s unconventional, disorienting, and defiant queer vision. The two other key figures of the Ridiculous—Charles Ludlam and Ronald Tavel—were both playwrights and essayists who reflected on their work and on the broader implications of this radical theater. Their writings provide fantastic evidence of both their wacky and inventive stage plays and their occasionally divergent views on what makes their theater ridiculous. Vaccaro, on the other hand, gave relatively few interviews during his lifetime, suffered from respiratory problems for decades that hindered public appearances, and was apparently less concerned than his former collaborators with consolidating his reputation as a leader of one of the most innovative movements in postwar North American theater. In the absence of extensive accounts of his own perspectives and sufficient visual documentation of the productions, we are forced to rely on the words of others to get some sense of how Vaccaro’s stagings lent the Ridiculous structure, charged it with dangerous energy, and stylized its provocations.

Vaccaro arrived in Manhattan from Ohio at the end of 1961 and quickly fell into the orbit of Jack Smith. As he later told playwright Kenneth Bernard, Smith was possibly the most important influence in his life, with “[t]his whole Maria Montez Arabian Nights thing… that drew us together.” Vaccaro performed as the White Bat in Smith’s grandiose film Normal Love (1963–65) and embodied The Lobster in the artist’s live performance Rehearsal for the Destruction of Atlantis, 1965, presented as part of Jonas Mekas’s seminal New Cinema Festival at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. At the festival, Vaccaro also offered his own performance, Rites of the Nadir, described by Mekas as an “exercise in Artaud theater.” Vaccaro acted in other plays as well, appearing in works by LeRoi Jones and Frank O’Hara put on by the New York Poets Theatre (later the American Theatre for Poets). If Vaccaro learned from Smith the dramatic power and visual arrest of drag performance, he likely developed his directorial flair and freewheeling approach to the written word through his experiences of James Waring and Alan Marlowe’s productions for the Poets Theatre.

Throughout his directing career—which includes the early works with Tavel and Ludlam from 1965–67; eight of Bernard’s productions from 1968–1984; and assorted pieces by Jackie Curtis, Rosalyn Drexler, Tom Eyen, William Hoffman, and Tom Murrin from the early-’70s to the late-’80s—Vaccaro developed a reputation for brief, compact plays that provided a base for a frenzy of visuals, music, and moments of improvisation. He was known to aggressively provoke his performers, pushing them to the edge of their physical, mental, and vocal limits to solicit raw, wounded performances of great intensity. In his 1968 production of Bernard’s The Moke-Eater, Vaccaro “had his actors screaming from the word go.” In the end, Stefan Brecht notes in his indispensible Queer Theatre (1978), “the audience looked bewildered, disgusted, in fact sort of genuinely frightened.” As Vaccaro himself claimed, “In order to be cruel to the audience, you have to be cruel to yourself.” And indeed Vaccaro performed alongside the actors in a number of his early efforts with the Play-House of the Ridiculous, all the better to fuel and direct their energy.

His productions took on American pop culture, parodied gender norms and sexual mores, and tended to subordinate the individual to an alternately horrifying, hilarious, and perverse social world. “The height of drama was always man versus himself. […] I was more interested in the world versus itself. I didn’t give a shit about man.” One unexpected way in which Vaccaro sidestepped “man” was through his highly influential use of glitter makeup. His performers’ faces were typically white paste masks with select colored areas and plentiful amounts of glitter surrounding the heavily outlined lips and eyes. Spectacular and glamorous, tacky and artificial, Vaccaro’s makeup served, at least in Brecht’s poetic assessment, as “a suspension of the faces as in memories of the defunct.” No longer functioning to humanize the performers, these glittery faces were simply another way for Vaccaro to confront his audience with the seductive yet haunting tackiness of their own world. “Glitter was the gaudiness of America… and it was pretty. […] I used it because it was shoving America back into the American faces.”

Humiliating his actors and terrorizing the audience, Vaccaro’s practices might seem another universe from contemporary triggered-happy, safe-space-seeking North American theatergoers. “Your group was totally open to anybody everybody,” Bernard told Vaccaro in 1997. “I mean there couldn’t be a more democratic, all-accepting group of people. It didn’t matter what your sexual, racial, ethnic identity was. You brutalized them all.” Being bombarded with disturbing glamour, juvenile humor, ingenious ridicule, and unspeakable perversion might just be the wakeup call we need today. About Vaccaro’s 1973 production of Bernard’s The Magic Show of Dr. Ma-gico, the Village Voice’s Michael Smith wrote: “It’s like a slap in the face from a beauty.”

Marc Siegel teaches film studies at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main in Germany.

Max Ritvo. Photo: Ashley Woo.


MAX,

We die. You did, who seemed to have believed this fact. That we are of the nature of dying means that what happened to you in August in Los Angeles is that you went ahead of us. If too far ahead.

I froze on a Brooklyn sidewalk the moment I realized I would no longer be chanting your name as I had for months with everyone in our temple: “Max Ritvo . . . Monastic Senjin . . . May they heal all their ills.”

Did you hear, before you died, that Senjin’s last words were “I’m ready”? I have wondered if you were ready, who wrote:

When my heart stops, it will be the end of certain things,
but not the end of things itself.

Sure, my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too.
In the end, I love chairs, and I love dogs,
and I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs
and if I am ever a thought of my widow
I’ll love being that.

To me (a stranger), of course, this is what you are now: the poem. In it, you have rewritten a line I love, by Robert Duncan, into a full first person: “The source of the song will die away.” In the heart of your writing there is a revision of the tense of thought as well, the “continual-thought-of-dying” (Ingeborg Bachmann). The first words of yours I read were about your future death in retrospect:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.

What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
pocket.

and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon

This vertigo I feel at the sense you were, when writing, “dead already, in an immemorial past” (Maurice Blanchot) comes from the movement of your impossible traversal of past by future perfect. It serves the same purpose that Jacques Derrida attributed to our tendency to speak, as I am here, to the dead as if directly: “to traverse speech at the very point when words fail us.”

To practice, in language, the dead’s relation to time: an injunction to try to live here where, as you say, “we’re always so close to living.”

Abraham Adams is an artist based in New England.

Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work Again, 2011. At Ludwig Museum, Budapest, 2011. Photo: Boris Cvjetanovic.


“La Pologne, la Pologne. Isn’t it terribly cold there?”

“Pas du tout,” I answer icily

THIS IS THE DEDICATION Mladen Stilinović wrote me in his artist’s book Energetic Action, comprising newspaper cutouts of political meetings in former Yugoslavia, reprinted on the occasion of his 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The quote is by Polish poetess Wisława Szymborska: two lines of mordant irony and deceptive simplicity.

Stilinović loved poetry. He loved Polish poetry especially. He wrote his own poems, though he rarely published them. He also loved colloquial language: “One must put an end to it. (Whateva’). Let me be,” went a line from one of his early collage works. He loved to imitate political slogans in his titles: Attack on my Art is an Attack on Socialism and Progress. He took down authorities and playfully occupied the space: Work is a disease – Karl Marx.

It’s very difficult to write about Stilinović and not slip into his style of short, trenchant phrases. How astute and humorous they are, how efficient in keeping us vigilant. “Language is pain. Language is possessed by ideology,” he said. The text of another work: An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.

Since the beginning of his career began in 1970s Zagreb, he never stopped questioning conventions—whether in collage or photography or film. His notorious artist books began as an open edition: As soon as he would give one away, he would produce another.

There is no art without laziness, Stilinović claimed, teasing both socialist and capitalist obsessions with work and money. He was always opposing social norms, both in the East and in the West, examining his own human and artistic status while remaining obstinate toward any authority. He was proud to be an autodidact. Stilinović’s works are mainly simple in their execution—handwriting on cardboard, paper, plates, cakes—meticulously engaged with poverty, death, money, economy, and pain. Money is the only language everybody understands.

Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Doesn’t Speak English is Not an Artist, 1992, acrylic on artificial silk, 54 3/4 x 38 3/5".


He loved potatoes, a simple ingredient. “There are two kinds of art: potato art and cake art,” he told curator Dan Byers and me during a conversation at e-flux during his New York exhibition there two years ago. “New York is full of cake art.” When the lecture adjourned, slices of cake had been carefully placed on the stairway of the gallery.

I have no time is another of his artist books, filled with repetitions of the titular statement. It sounds like a mantra for our age, but Stilinović found it an outrageous and dangerous mode. Stilinović and the art historian Branka Stipancić, his partner in life and art, were always generous with their time. In their apartment on Ljudevit Posavski Street in Zagreb, where Stilinović used to organize his exhibitions, they would meet with artists, curators, students, friends, visitors—these rituals were particularly important for young local artists and curators. We learned so much from them. We laughed, we discussed, we listened, we asked many questions, we wanted to know more about the past, we shared, we worked together, we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Stilinović was taciturn—sometimes or even mainly—with a canny smile under his mustache, a distinctive sense of humor, a strong charisma and warm humanity.

Szymborska’s poem is called “Vocabulary.” Stilinović left the title out, though I am sure he considered it a good one. He also omitted the poem’s central verses. They resume so well the complex and multilayered relation to language, East-West, power and politics. I hardly think this was an accident, or that he simply had no time: Stilinović was a master of voids, of mordant irony, and deceptive simplicity.

“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked, and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.

“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame.”

That’s what I mean to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.

“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”

“Pas du tout,” I answer icily.

Ana Janevski is associate curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.