Jean Fisher (1942–2016)

Jean Fisher. Photo: James De Quesada.

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

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