PRINT Summer 2003


In this occasional series, Artforum looks back on alternative magazines and journals whose importance for contemporary art—whether in introducing a new discourse or galvanizing a scene—is often matched by the brevity of their life span.

IN THE FALL OF 1974, JOSEPH KOSUTH, SARAH Charlesworth, Michael Corris, Preston Heller, Andrew Menard, and Mel Ramsden—all members of the New York wing of the art collective Art & Language (ALNY)—began to meet two or three times a week at The Local, a small basement bar in Greenwich Village operated by Mickey Ruskin (the former owner of Max’s Kansas City), in order to determine the course of a new publication committed to wide-ranging critical debate, called The Fox. “We have in mind a periodical devoted to theoretical and critical concerns in any of the possible contexts of art-related practice (praxis),” the group wrote in a letter to prospective contributors. “[The magazine will] provide a means of undertaking critique of various institutions, conventions, ideologies, or problematic aspects of the workings of specific locales, events, etc., which . . . we feel cannot be adequately examined elsewhere.” They were not alone in their sentiments: Other publications such as Avalanche, Art-Rite, Heresies, and Afterimage were similarly being launched by and for a new generation of artists seeking an independent press to generate discourse about practices neglected by the mainstream media and, more specifically, to develop an alternative agenda with respect to the burgeoning market and museums. But their publication, coming after a period of increasingly strained relations between ALNY and the Art & Language group in the United Kingdom (ALUK), would prove to be one of the most perspicacious new art journals of the decade, and by far the most ferocious. In the words of Kosuth, who had been the American editor of the publication Art-Language and who, with Charlesworth, named, designed, and underwrote The Fox: “I decided we had to break from England. It was just silly for Michael Baldwin and other members of Art & Language [there] to try to control what was happening in New York. There were real questions to be asked, and frankly I wanted a larger social base to ask those questions.” The discord between the New York faction of Art & Language (which was coterminous with the editorial staff of The Fox) and the English group would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the former, but not before a highly acrimonious, public battle in which no one was spared.

The contentious spirit of their critical approach was indicated by the journal’s very title, which Kosuth took from philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s “Hedgehog and the Fox.” In the 1953 essay, Berlin refers to a line from the Greek poet Archilocus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Taken figuratively, Berlin suggests, “The words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences that divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. [Hedgehogs] relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which . . . all that they are and say has significance.” Foxes, on the other hand, pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory—and so The Fox would provide a forum for diverse and even antagonistic voices, positions, and practices.

While the editors wished to develop a heterogeneous group of articulate artists who would collectively explore discursive horizons, they realized from the beginning that conflict and controversy would, paradoxically, be required to create such an assembly. Indeed, from its inception The Fox adopted a polarizing and pugnacious tone. “We old warlords of conceptual art have gotten together,” Kosuth reportedly said when announcing the new journal to a Village Voice reporter in early 1975. The Fox, he declared, would formalize the “schism between theoretical conceptualists and stylists.” In fact, the publication was not very striking visually: It was printed on newspaper of the lowest quality, its covers were grainy cardboard set in Copperplate Gothic and lacked any clear markings to indicate the journal was related to art, and it rarely contained images. But a reproduction toward the final pages in The Fox 1, published in March 1975, provided one of the best expressions of Kosuth’s bold statement. Set at the same diagonal angle as the title swath on the cover, the illustration features a wily fox lying in a meadow while a nearby gaggle of geese chatter away, oblivious to the imminent danger. The metaphor is clear. The clever fox represents the discerning participants of the obloquy-laden journal, launching their assault against the frivolous featherbrains of the art world.

Reading the prickly prose of The Fox today is like riding on the back of a motorcycle whose driver negotiates city traffic full throttle, the publication seemingly ready to spin out at any moment (which, ultimately, was exactly what it did). Indeed, the general theme of Fox 1 seems to be “attack, attack, attack.” (Even the practice of critique comes under a certain kind of attack: “What good is a critique of institutions?” the first editorial asks. “Does this art now stand for the total ossification of any conditions of a feasible non-bureaucratic ideology? Is there a producer/consumer relationship hegemony in art?”) The editors clearly wished to survey the state of art’s social context in a way that was at once historical, political, and epistemological, and the social conditions of the art world, as well as the role of concerned artists within that context, are interrogated in a conglomeration of astute essays, statements, declarations, and language-based artworks. The volume begins with Charlesworth’s programmatic “Declaration of Dependence,” which proposes that the model of art’s influence is centrifugal. In other words, influence “[moves] outward from the individual artist, who expresses himself/herself by way of a discrete work or art product, through a system of institutions responsive to its self-evident merit, which in turn circulate and promote the work accordingly, to the benefit of all those culturally refined and sensitive enough to partake of its virtues.” In turn, she argues, art exists in an integral relationship with a definitive social and economic reality. The sooner that artists acknowledge this dependence, the sooner they will come to realize that they are all part of a larger community “in a position to make critical choices which will affect not only the internal character but also the social dynamic of contemporary and future art activity.”

In this regard, the type of work considered by the new journal was much more outward-looking than that affiliated with Art & Language in the United Kingdom. Although artists of ALUK published texts—both in Art-Language and The Fox—peppered with references to ideological disputes in and around the labor movement and the Left in Britain, they were utterly opposed to integrating broader social issues into their self-reflexive art practices. The art world, for ALUK, was posited as an autonomous, necessary evil; the posture of resistance, of maintaining a critical independent practice within the existent realm of art, was central to their strategy. They were not about to make common cause with anybody. By contrast, most of the editors of The Fox, seeking to create public dialogue among various factions of the contemporary art world, were willing to engage activist organizations that had recently arisen in New York, such as the Art Workers Coalition (AWC).

Yet even on this point, the orientation of The Fox, insofar as the journal sought to allow for a plurality of diverse and even antagonistic voices, was inconsistent from the outset. For instance, Ramsden’s trenchant position piece “On Practice” is much more skeptical than the other writings in Fox 1 about the relationship of artistic practice to any sort of political agenda. Essentially a critique of the liberalism-in-wolves’-clothing of the AWC, Ramsden’s razor-sharp analysis argues that the AWC’s refusal to discuss the very concept of “work”—while privileging the “individual” artist—left “the present controlling power roots undisturbed” and drove “an exceptionally effective wedge between ourselves and possible social action.” The art institution’s power lies in its ability to define the work of art as an expression of a private individual acting out of personal feelings, he argues, ending his piece with a call for artists to act on that realization.

The Fox 1 also features Kosuth’s “Artist as Anthropologist,” which argues that the artist’s job is to make culture’s “implicit nature explicit”; fellow founding editor Menard’s “Are You Not Doing What You’re Doing While You’re Doing What You Are,” which sets the tone for the kind of eccentric writing that characterized much of The Fox’s prose; and an assessment of the sorry state of art criticism in “A Forum on Artforum.” But perhaps the most significant article, in terms of The Fox’s trajectory, is a provocative review by Ian Burn of recent books by T.J. Clark and Linda Nochlin. Recognizing that “the rise of modern art coincides with the rise of modern capitalism,” Burn points out that there might be an affinity “between those who are looking at modern art’s beginnings and those of us who are hoping for its end.” Here, then, is a glimpse of another radical difference between ALNY and ALUK. Whereas The Fox called for a paradigm shift away from high-modernist art, the British Art & Language group was (and continues to be) consistent in its disavowal of the notion of postmodernism, seeking instead to maintain a certain residue of modernist resistance (what the group’s members termed “homelessness”). In a sense, modernism served as a single organizing principle for Art & Language’s “hedgehogs,” while the restless and cagey splinter group in New York was wishing it away.

The second volume of The Fox, published in the fall of 1975, was even more contentious than the first and cast a still wider net for contributors. The masthead indicates that the staff had increased considerably; an editorial statement urges that all parties interested in “exposing the domination of the culture/administrative apparatus as well as art which indolently reflects that apparatus” participate in the journal and contribute to the “wider movement of social criticism/transformation.” Posters advertising the issue were slapped up throughout SoHo and Greenwich Village weeks in advance, calling for a “broad social base in positive opposition to the ideological content and social relations reproduced by ‘official culture.’” (Curiously, the poster includes an endorsement by the editors of Artforum urging their audience to read The Fox.) As one might have expected, diatribes against the journal began. One writer for the SoHo Weekly News described Fox 2 in December 1975 as “over 150 pages of printed black verbal vomit introjects that were obviously force-fed, but remain unassimilated or digested by the manic word-worshippers contributing their written participation to the muddled, Marxian ideological intent of the fanatical Fox.”

The issue is principally composed of ornery reviews of books (Sherman Lee’s On Understanding Art Museums, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing), exhibitions (MoMA’s “Modern Masters: From Manet to Matisse,” Ian Wilson’s “Discussion” at John Weber Gallery), and mainstream art criticism (“Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s as-silly-as-you-can-get ‘Brice Marden’s Painting’ ”). The toughest and most insidious contribution to Fox 2 is a scathing essay on the work and writings of Donald Judd by Burn and artist-activist Karl Beveridge. The authors throw down the gauntlet with their first sentence—“Don Judd, is it possible to talk?”—and go on to dismantle the mythology surrounding the day’s prime mover of minimal art, concluding with damning words: “You can’t be subversive to institutions and at the same time presuppose a form of art which reproduces, thus increases, the power of those institutions. If you really want your art to be subversive, it must be a form of art, which doesn’t reproduce the Big Cultural Lie.” Reminiscent of Ramsden’s critique of radical posturing in “On Practice,” Burn and Beveridge’s essay helped sow the seeds of The Fox’s own demise. Judd was outraged by the tone of the article and took Kosuth to task for facilitating its publication—which went a long way toward completing Kosuth’s disaffection with The Fox, which had already been simmering due to his perception that the other editors were conspiring against him. As Kosuth recalls, the review seemed direct but was, in fact, full of wiles: “At a certain point, the other side within The Fox wanted to attack me, but they couldn’t do it directly. So it was exactly like Chinese politics, where to attack Chou En-lai they had to attack Confucius. Since I had made it very clear who I thought my debts in a certain developmental history were to, they . . . attacked Judd to attack me. And Judd, of course, fell for it hook, line, and sinker. He was furious at me. He said, ‘Everybody knows The Fox is your magazine, so if that was in there it had to be your doing.’ He was so bullheaded; he refused to listen.”

The tensions that led to the first publication of The Fox in March 1975 had quickly become reflexive: By the second edition of the short-lived journal (it would last a mere three issues), the editors were all at dagger’s edge. Many involved with The Fox, such as founding editors Corris, Menard, and Heller, were calling for artists’ active participation in politics, so that Kosuth and Charlesworth were seen as a fifth column, concerned primarily with promoting a highly self-interested artistic practice. In Fox 2, Charlesworth’s defensive “Memo for the Fox” responds to accusations by some of her (unnamed) colleagues that her work looked like “radical chic via Bloomingdales,” indicating an increasing animosity among members of the Fox editorial board. In direct opposition to the push for political activism and praxis, Charlesworth argues that “we ‘haven’t all just turned into Marxists,’” reminding readers that “The Fox was not conceived of as a weapon to ‘fight Capitalism.’” Rather, she says, the journal arose from her “struggle” with “stagnant” art culture and from Kosuth’s need to “rethink his relationship with the world.” She concludes with precisely the type of liberal tone that Ramsden criticized in “On Practice”: “The Fox is not a tool for ‘revolution’ apart from ourselves.”

Fox 3, published in May 1976, is centered on a number of essays and position papers examining this strained relationship between artistic and activist practices. By this time, the editors were in dialogue with a large number of artists and critics—including Hans Haacke, Lucy Lippard, Miriam Schapiro, and a collective of African-American art activists called the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition—who formed the nucleus of a loose alliance, Artists Meeting for Cultural Change (AMCC), that was created in reaction to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition commemorating the Bicentennial. The AMCC had already organized leafleting and picketing against the “socially reactionary” Whitney Museum and its “Three Centuries of American Art,” soon becoming a lightning rod for people involved in left-wing cultural politics. The group’s first official communiqué was published in Fox 3:

This show isn’t simply another example of bureaucratic mediocrity, as it is entirely culled from the private collection of John D. Rockefeller III and includes no Black artists and only one woman artist. Try and imagine Rockefeller and his staff of experts quaintly constructing a history of American art from the complacent viewpoint of the power elite. What this show is not is three centuries of American art; it is, however, a blatant example of a large cultural institution writing the history of American art as though the last decade of cultural and social reassessment had never taken place.

Thus the AMCC sought to contest practices that were previously taken for granted in the art world—an agenda that made the group attractive to most of those affiliated with The Fox.

Internal tensions and rifts among members of the editorial board reached fever pitch in early 1976. As Corris recalls, “Since his association with Art & Language in the late 1960s, Kosuth’s ‘independent’ practice had been a contentious issue for many members of the group. But it was probably Kosuth’s alleged opportunism with respect to The Fox that provided the straw that broke the camel’s back. The number of people involved in ALNY/The Fox had ballooned into double digits, and the potential danger of this sort of ‘sectarianism’ to the cohesion of the group was exacerbated.” With this in mind, the other members of ALNY/The Fox drafted three resolutions in March 1976 that forced the issue of collaboration—declarations shrewdly conceived to drive Kosuth and Charlesworth out of the group—and effectively inaugurated what was called (Provisional) Art & Language. The other affiliates of ALNY/The Fox were well aware that Kosuth and Charlesworth, with relatively successful independent careers, were not about to fold their artistic practice into that of a collective.

Details of this last conflict with Kosuth and Charlesworth are recounted in Peter Benchley’s “Lumpen Headache” in Fox 3. His article reproduces edited transcripts of three “struggle sessions” within the editorial board, which he characterizes as “dizzying and relentless psycho-drama.” Benchley also reflects on the differences in the projects going on within subgroups in (Provisional) Art & Language—disparate factions whose antagonisms would finally lead to the collapse of the entire group, as debate continued about whether to advocate artistic involvement with politics. In September 1976, after publishing a tract directed at the AMCC that called for the increasing politicization of artists, Corris, Menard, Heller, and Jill Breakstone were categorically told by Ramsden, with the sanction of ALUK, that they were not to use the Art & Language name again. (As Ramsden recently recalled about The Fox’s final dismantling, those still left standing after the purges “were encouraged by Art & Language in the UK not to leave this monster behind us.”) Kosuth and Charlesworth had already been similarly “excommunicated” the preceding March. Ramsden himself soon departed for Middleton Chaney in the south of England, where Michael Baldwin and others affiliated with ALUK had their studio. In October 1976, the English group published an issue of Art-Language that was also identified as Fox 4. This maneuver dramatically asserted Art & Language’s provenance of The Fox, and thereby their right to terminate the journal.

The slippery fox had thus metamorphosed into an Ouroboros. Just over a year after its initial publication, the journal collapsed, but not before it had prepared the ground for the chase of entirely new game, which the emergence of postmodernism in the coming years would abundantly provide.

Alexander Alberro is associate professor of art history at the University of Florida, Gainesville.