Jean Fisher. Photo: James De Quesada. www.jeanfisher.com/. www.jamesdequesada.com/.


WRITERS OFTEN SAY THEY WRITE TO FORGET, and as I sat down to write this tribute to my beloved friend Jean Fisher, a conversation that we had about Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published The Book Of Disquiet came back to me. We were at a dinner in Lisbon with the quixotic art gallerist Luís Serpa, mercilessly teasing him as he tried to get us to agree that without an ending, all narratives are essentially the same, as they come to the same end: to death, to nothing. Pessoa’s book, which solidified his reputation as Portugal’s greatest writer, is a series of fragments, not a book at all, really, but more a collection of notes that he left unfinished, intending to develop them further, a book that he worked on in fits and starts for twenty-five years, until his death in 1935.

Jean and I reminded Luís that this is the ending that all writers, all artists are looking for—life in death. And that this, sadly, is something none of us can ever know—the narratives that continue after. But, of course, there are many possible narrative threads to piece together as stories, left unfinished in a life.

Pessoa wrote these fragments as a series of notes so as not to forget. The book was brought to life through several careful reconstructions of Pessoa’s fragments, often by his translators, as they already had absorbed his thought processes and had a deep understanding of his work. Doesn’t every writer want to produce in a reader the ability to write as though this reader is you, writing? To cause writing in such a way that another writer hears your voice so distinctly that they can write as though they are you, so that when you read your words as written by this other author, you are fooled, their words come together as your voice, and not theirs? I was reminded of Pessoa, as it is in this book of disquietude that he discusses the process of writing as a way to give form to the activity of forgetting what one knows.

My memories of Jean are phantasms, each one leading to the next. Of time spent in London in the late 1970s, when she was transitioning from being an artist to the writer we know. Of conversations in New York City over the decade she lived here, on philosophy at the margins, agency, feminisms, artists and their practices, films, theories, modernisms and Marxisms, and “post-” everything; all continuously refigured through her developing interest in non-Western cultures and her passionate advocacy, beginning in the late ’70s, for the interrogation of postcolonial studies, not as a Western imposition but as a radical rewriting of the specific cultural histories of modernism. In the UK, it began with Black Audio Film Collective and Jean’s interest in the work of the cultural historian Stuart Hall, and extended to Afro-Cuban artists with her 1985 exhibition in New York, as well as to several shows on Native American issues, sometimes co-curated with Jimmie Durham. Simultaneously, she was extending her inquiry to Irish/Anglo histories in the work of James Coleman and Willie Doherty. All while producing essays on many artists: Susan Hiller, Jack Goldstein, Steve McQueen, Lawrence Weiner, and me, to mention but a very few. Gradually, as an editor at Third Text, her project extended to encompass a nexus of artists throughout the Americas, the Afro-Cuban-Caribbean diaspora, and the Middle East.

It was probably in the early ’80s, living in New York, that she recognized that so-called globalization could effectively engender art’s ability to function as a possible proto-form of agency across cultures, as her critique of the 1989 exhibition “Magiciens de la terre” in Artforum attests. In 2013, in a coda to that essay, she wrote, “We have also seen re-emerging, notably in ‘peripheral’ geographies, artists developing alternative practices, networks, collectives and audiences that—at least in part—reject the market and its canonical terms of inclusion, and largely in disgust at neoliberal globalization, which reduces all cultural expression to the commodity form.” Strong words, yes.

What set her writing apart was her understanding of poststructuralist and contemporary theory, alongside her development of the trickster figure as an actionable trope both historically and across cultures, providing the methodological tools to analyze each artist’s work. She introduced social-science methodologies into contemporary art; her procedure reflects a research-based approach to the question of what art can do, which is, as she wrote, “to keep alive the will to imagine [and] to invent new ethical landscapes, new narratives and new agents of social change; it is utopian without promising Utopia.”

She was fearless as an interlocutor, bringing to an artist’s work an approach honed through careful observation, and with the rare ability among art writers (her preferred term) to viscerally engage with work in such a way as to make it her own, just as she was making it anew with the artist in the process of writing about it. From this vantage point, she explored all the senses of the work, and thoroughly examined her responses, thereby opening it up to new forms of world-making, which she invited you to share. All of this attests to her incredible generosity: intellectually and personally, as she would work on her essays for a long time, only releasing them when she was satisfied that she had successfully engaged your work.

Even though she was ill over these last months, she was hard at work on her book about the trickster, in many ways the culmination of what is one of her most enduring projects and perhaps the stratagem with which she is most associated. This book, like Pessoa’s book at his death, remains unfinished. It is my fervent hope that this new book, her last book, will not be forgotten but will find its way to posthumous publication. I hope among the many writers, artists, and students who benefited from her remarkable openheartedness, an interlocutor will come forward who can bring this book to completion. It is what she would do for us—and what she did do for us, in and through her writing.

Judith Barry is an artist and writer based in New York.

You can access Jean Fisher’s writing at jeanfisher.com.

For additional Jean Fisher Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.

Jean Fisher. Photo: James De Quesada. www.jeanfisher.com/. www.jamesdequesada.com/.


I WAS PRIVILEGED TO WORK WITH JEAN FISHER at the Royal College of Art in London while I was head of the department: curating contemporary art. Jean had been teaching art and globalization since the mid 1990s, and I was able to make this a cornerstone of my take on curatorial education. She was an unwavering supporter of our short-lived but extremely successful positive action program, Inspire, which provided scholarships to curators from minority backgrounds. She had no truck with fellow traveling academics who refused to speak truth to power in our struggles within the institution—her excoriating emails were legendary. Her teaching was engaged, scholarly, and passionate. She inspired generations of students (at the RCA, these included Jesse McKee, Núria Querol, and Omar Kholeif, among many others) to continue her interrogations of oppression and inequality through their curatorial practices.

Jean’s early training in biology had made her aware of the ecological destructiveness of both colonialism and capitalism. For her, 1492 was the nakba, the founding disaster of modernity, the effects of which she continued to explore in her various curatorial projects and essays. Through her early collaboration with Jimmie Durham in New York in the ’80s, she had become attuned to the work of First Nations artists whose art refracted the destructive forces released on indigenous communities by colonialism, slavery, and genocide. She argued that the same processes that Columbus unleashed on the Americas and the wider world are still in process in the attempts to subjugate the Palestinian people today. Jean was a natural partner for a series of conversations in 2010 at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, exploring the continuing repression of the work of indigenous artists and curators. In seeking to reconcile the very different political legacies of colonial treaties with First Nations people in Canada and the United States, her diplomatic skills were keenly felt.

The quality of Jean’s writing and thinking was exemplary. Perhaps her most enduring contribution is not her essays on individual artists (such as Edgar Heap of Birds, James Coleman, or Steve McQueen), important as those are, but her insistence on combining engaged political analysis with respect for the autonomy of the work of art, its mode of engaging the individual “spectator participant.” For Jean, art and politics were inextricably linked. In her own words: “The aesthetic sense of the work draws the viewer into an engagement with its contents, which open up a perspective to the ‘ethico-political.’”

Those of us who were privileged to know and work with Jean have many regrets. We were often unable to pry her away from her commitments to write “yet another” catalogue introduction. She treated writing requests from artists to whom she was committed as a form of “social command,” which she accepted selflessly. Always apologetically about to return to her “real work,” she downplayed the originality of this form of engaged writing.

As we worked together, we discovered shared histories: an earlier training in biological and ecological science, a love of the marine environments of Suffolk, where we planned a reunion with like-minded colleagues, which, sadly, could not be realized. While we never got to fully explore the potential of Félix Guattari’s notion of the three ecologies, her work, more than that of any other contemporary practitioner, perhaps, demonstrates the interconnection of the ecologies of the personal, subjective, and affective realms with those of the political and social, as well as that of the so-called natural world. As Jean reminds us, the work of the artists she championed can enable us to reflect on our own position within the complex processes of contemporary capitalism and neocolonialism, restoring some element of agency and reparation. We will miss her voice—she was one of the most original and urgent writers on contemporary art—but her influence will, hopefully, continue to grow as her work is more widely appreciated, particularly through her recently established website.

Mark Nash is a curator and writer based in London. His exhibition “Things Fall Apart” is currently on view at the Galeria Avenida da Índia, Lisbon, and travels to Open Society Archives, Budapest, in April.

For additional Jean Fisher Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.


I REMEMBER GOING AROUND to my dear mentor Jean Fisher’s house on an average bleary London night to get my education. This wasn’t the education of textbooks or customary art history but a journey into the late 1980s and early ’90s in Britain, where many a queer writer and artist had spent time sitting in the very same seat as me. Hamad Butt and Stuart Morgan were but two examples whom Fisher cited as close. After Butt died from AIDS-related causes, she fought tooth and nail, lobbying the art world to get his archive and artworks into the Tate’s collection.

Now that tragic time has come, and Jean is gone. I sit here with a heavy heart, wondering who will fight for her legacy. Certainly, there has been an outpouring from people on social media, especially Facebook, talking about how dearly and fondly they held her, but we know that these moments pass all too quickly, as more of our idols die and as we fall into a state of perpetual dissolution, our everyday world consumed by Brexit and Trump politics.

Legacy, for a writer on art, is something that is often formed through very specific modes of affiliation and citation. Jean, however, spent most of her life working as an adjunct professor at universities across the US and the UK, and it wasn’t until later in life that she gained a permanent position at Middlesex University and a visiting professorship at the Royal College of Art in London. Her writings, because she did not subscribe to the logic of academia—or rather, cared more about erring on the side of the artist—were not in standard, peer-reviewed journals, but in every kind of publication that you could imagine: pamphlets, artists’ books, monographs, exhibition catalogues, edited collections, and in Third Text, where she was an editor for over a decade.

Throughout her life, Jean collected material. She would dig, as Michel Serres would say, and find, and dig and gather; much of it remains unseen or difficult to access. In the final year of her life, Jean created a website to bring back the work that was out of print or produced in esoteric publications. Jean had spent the past twenty years writing about the figure of the trickster in far-flung places; she would speak to me of the subversive potential of such a symbol, of how such a character, as personified in the likes of Jimmie Durham, might lead to a mode of inquiry that could yield true social and political insight and perhaps even change. In her final days, she collected many of these writings into a book-length monograph, as yet unpublished. We must, of course, collectively strive to bring this writing to life through print.

Her research on this topic led her to a variety of places, real and imagined. Jean always spoke of the potential of imagination to conquer the physical realm of reality. She would refer to Jorge Luis Borges and Richard Kearney and the tension of being able to imagine free from the tainted ills of corrupting media bias. However, she was never a pessimist; she loved the rise of the internet and was an enthusiastic emailer, even when she had suffered a hand injury. She loved the instantaneous nature of this communication, the ability to rally and gather online when physical health would prevent one from being able to take to the streets.

I’ve written elsewhere of Jean’s style of radical will and her commitment to human rights. This persistence may well have come from her background. She was no ordinary art historian (in fact, she loathed to be called one!). She held a BSc in zoology and a PhD in medical research, which she attained while also studying for a BA in fine art. One can draw a correlation between Jean’s education and her study into the anthropophagic nature of the violent history of colonialism. She spent most of her life looking at artists whose works dealt with the caging, shackling, and chaining of the colonized voice, which she often fought to unlock through her writings. I told Jean once that her background in zoology gave her a unique lens onto art; she responded that I was a classic bullshitter of the highest order, the kind, she said, who would make it in this harsh world.

I laugh now, but through tears. These are not hopeless tears, of course, but fighting ones. Jean was modest, far too modest. I discussed this with our mutual friend Judith Barry constantly. Jean never laid claim to anything. She never laid claim to being the first to write about artists (though she often was) or of being the one to dig the deepest. She never claimed to change the way that we imagine art writing. (She would say people like Adrian Stokes did that.) Nor would she readily admit that she changed the discourse on art and postcolonial theory.

But the reality is that she did. She chose a clan and she stuck by them: Durham, Steve McQueen, James Coleman, Jack Goldstein, Willie Doherty, Emily Jacir, Tania Bruguera, Hamad Butt, Susan Hiller, Minerva Cuevas, the Black Audio Film Collective, Gabriel Orozco, to name but a few that come to mind. She wrote about many of these artists persistently, championed their work from when they were students to art-world stars, and never wavered in her support. She wrote like no other, merging poetry, political philosophy, and close textual analysis with a lyrical grace and, at times, whimsy, that would make any writer, in any forum, envious of her craftsmanship. She oversaw numerous volumes as an editor as well as a writer on postcolonial discourse and its progression from the ’70s into the ’80s and ’90s, and into the birth of the new internationalism, a tendency that she foresaw.

I am personally indebted to Jean. She wrote more reference letters than anyone has ever authored for me. Not because I wanted to tire her but because she knew me best. She took me under her wing. These were tumultuous times, but she gave me words and courage. We read the Arab poets and writers together, Adonis and Mourid Barghouti being two examples. We talked about generations who had suffered and died, and we talked about queerness as a concept, a concept bound up with dissidence. She always told me not to be afraid: “Omar, your queerness is a liberation into a community.” I simply needed to embrace it.

Over the years, I often reproduced and published Jean’s writings and invited her to speak. When asked for her biography, she would always produce the same single line: Jean Fisher is a writer on contemporary art and post-coloniality, based in London. But Jean Fisher was so much more. I will never forget her, and neither should we. We should open our hearts and minds to her legacy and ensure that it is preserved for another generation. Let us begin to fund projects in her honor, let us endow scholarships and lectures, let us preserve her archive, let us memorialize one of the great figures of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art history.

Omar Kholeif is a writer and the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

For additional Jean Fisher Passages, see the forthcoming March issue of Artforum.

Peter Blundell Jones, 2009. Photo: Peter Lathey.


PETER BLUNDELL JONES WAS A RARITY: an architectural historian who could read technical drawings. This ability wasn’t simply a hangover from his professional training at the Architectural Association in London in the late 1960s, but an important aspect of the kind of historian he was. Peter believed in history as a means to enlighten the present moment. He believed that the study of the past could provide a wide-angle view critical for understanding the fluctuating but enduring responsibilities of architecture, to ultimately make it better. Early in his career he brought to the attention of English-speaking audiences the work of German architects outside the established twentieth-century canon—most notably Hans Scharoun and Hugo Häring—because he found in their anxious modernism a more meaningful engagement with the persistent dilemmas of our time.

The value of architecture remained rooted in a social context for Peter, who had little time for the self-indulgences of taste and genius. He used to say that the main role of history in architectural education, and in the lifelong education of architects, was to get them away from the personal and the subjective, from the uncritical “I like,” and to lead them to the serious business of relevance. The spectacular products of corporate architecture and the obscure constructs of disembodied theory would provoke Peter’s ire in equal measure. For him, architecture was first and foremost a physical reality to be experienced with the whole body moving through it, rather than something to simply look at or think about. As his influential books on modern architecture show, it is through such engagement with the actual and the specific—building, place, detail—that the depths of architecture’s social and cultural purpose can be accessed. And just as he always organized his own historical studies around the in-depth analysis of specific case studies, he urged architecture students writing their dissertations to stay focused and resist the urge to produce what he called a “discourse of everything,” as the grand ideas that youth laudably seeks to convey turn to nonsense outside the specificity of situations.

Between social anthropology and tectonics, idea and building, language and drawing, through countless collaborations in print and in person, from the Architectural Review to the Royal Institute of British Architects, and throughout his long teaching career in Cambridge, London, and Sheffield, Peter’s project had an impeccably humanist pedigree. Architecture and Ritual (2016), the last book he was to publish, is focused, in his own words, on “how architecture affects people’s lives”—but this could have been a caption for his entire oeuvre. The bravery—some might say foolhardiness—of seeking ritual in the architecture of modernity, discussed side by side with traditional non-Western examples, is characteristic of a mind that refused to be pigeonholed, persisting with the quest of architecture’s relevance for humanity at its broadest, while remaining grounded in the concreteness of reality.

Scharoun, a seminal influence on Peter, built his Philharmonie and Staatsbibliothek at a time and place of fractious divisions and illiberalism—’60s West Berlin, abutting the Wall, as part of an ill-conceived Kulturforum that the West Germans planned to show their eastern neighbors how much more civilized—and affluent—the western side was. Yet Scharoun managed to produce buildings of great optimism, eschewing monumentality and creating wonderfully inclusive, exuberant spaces, celebrating community through the sharing of art and knowledge. It is a great loss for the architectural community that Peter is no longer with us to give his legendary Scharoun lecture, and to inspire with his conviction and generosity. But his work lives on, suddenly more relevant than ever, to remind us just how important such deeply humanist architecture is in these strangely regressive days.

Alexandra Stara is associate professor and reader in the history and theory of architecture at Kingston University, London.

Peter Blundell Jones, 2014. Photo: Jan Woudstra.


PETER BLUNDELL JONES was an important architectural historian who died from cancer at the age of sixty-seven following a short illness. PBJ—as he was fondly known—is widely recognized for bringing an alternative history of twentieth-century architecture to public attention. The standard histories of modern architecture shuffle the same pack of cards—Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, et. al.—in various orders according to stylistic and formal preferences. PBJ’s version of architectural history does not concentrate on form or style, but investigates the social purpose of architecture. The stable of architects with whom he is associated—Hans Scharoun, Peter Hübner, Hugo Häring, Giancarlo de Carlo, Lucien Kroll, David Lea, the Graz School, Gunnar Asplund—all root their practice in a deep understanding of its social and physical context.

PBJ would be much more interested in a building’s threshold than in the overall form of the building; the former represents a human encounter, while the latter can be abstracted from human experience. His focus on understanding the human experience of architecture meant he would only write about buildings that he had visited and generally would only use his own photographs in his publications and lectures, knowing that in normal architectural photography the life of the building is severely edited.

PBJ’s output was prodigious. Apart from monographs and book chapters, he was also a regular contributor to the Architectural Review and other journals. His writing was crystal clear, and so was his eye. He was educated as a designer at the Architectural Association in the 1970s, and remained a designer, most notably in the beautiful conversion of an old mill into his home in the Peak District. This meant that his historical analyses were always framed through the lens of a designer.

He was brilliant in front of a plan of a building, explaining exactly how bare lines constructed a density of social relations. PBJ presented these explanations most influentially in his teaching, first at Cambridge University, then at South Bank University, and finally from 1994 at the University of Sheffield. Although I was nominally his boss at Sheffield, such relationships did not really fit with Peter, a displacement of power that I have learned much from. He was a natural collaborator: with his colleagues, with his students, and with other academics. This was thanks to his insatiable curiosity, in my book a marker of any great intellectual. Academic life for him was not a matter of hoarding knowledge and claiming authority; it was about the sharing of ideas with the widest possible constituency. It was natural therefore that he should collaborate beyond architecture, because his understanding of the subject always placed it in a wider intellectual and social context.

His loss is profoundly felt at Sheffield and beyond, but it is not simply a commonplace to say that his legacy will live on: through the thousands of students whom he taught, and through his writings. We are lucky that he completed before he died what may turn out be his most influential book. Architecture and Ritual (2016) is in many ways a summation of his life’s work, interpreting as it does “how the rituals of life—from the grand to the mundane and everyday—are framed and defined in space by the buildings which we inhabit.” In the current era of an increasing capitulation of architecture to neoliberal forces, PBJ’s insistence on the ethical imperative of architecture—where ethics are understood in Emmanuel Levinas’s terms as one’s responsibility for the other—becomes ever more important.

Jeremy Till is head of Central Saint Martins and pro vice chancellor for research at the University of the Arts London.