PRINT March 2017


Jean Fisher

Jean Fisher, Wrexham, UK, 1967. Photo: Tony Fisher.

JEAN FISHER had a knack for getting under the skin of art. Describing herself as “an artist who practices writing on contemporary art,” she was drawn to work that sparked momentary crises of recognition—and that, in turn, opened up new sources of ethical and political agency. The glitches that can arise when communication breaks down, the opacities and blind spots in our experiences of cultural difference, were particularly generative for the artistic strategies illuminated in her writing and teaching.

With a background in the life sciences, and having earned a degree in fine art from Newcastle University in 1977, Fisher had an incredibly broad knowledge base. But the catalyst for her unique critical voice was her years in New York in the 1980s. Contributing features to Artforum while teaching art at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, in a department run by Luis Camnitzer, Fisher was also a groundbreaking curator. She organized two exhibitions with Jimmie Durham in 1986 and 1987 that shattered the ethnographic model that had previously framed American Indian art, positioning the work of artists such as Edgar Heap of Birds in game-changing dissent from modernist monoculturalism.

At a time when globalization was being ushered into art via exhibitions that held on to the retrograde binary of the “tribal” versus the “modern,” Fisher was ahead of the curve, articulating alternatives to shopworn categories and new multicultural platitudes alike. Aware that the colonial was not actually“post” from an indigenous perspective, she cast doubts on the celebration of mere hybridity-lite in her 1994 Global Visions anthology. And as assistant editor, then editor, of the journal Third Text from 1989 to 1999, Fisher helped establish an entirely new field of scholarly inquiry, with quiet rigor and careful judgment. She inflected the concept of syncretism, for example, to show that cross-cultural assemblages come together under colonial conditions of conflict, even as they break apart when the overall ecology of power and resistance undergoes historical change. Fisher prioritized such shifting relations and positions in the field of cultural production, and so she was wary of identity-driven arguments, which tend to rely on notions of representation that assume a stable and unchanging subject, and thus often can’t see that art joins forces with political resistance precisely when its strategies “enable the viewing subject to let go of its policing ego and open freely onto what is beyond it—to experience otherness,” as she put it in a 2002 text for Documenta 11. Her research, too, opened onto free-ranging paths among seemingly disparate realms. As Fisher investigated the transcultural figure of the trickster found across American Indian and African diaspora cultures, with detours through the Duchampian avant-garde, her inquisitiveness led her to medieval troubadours, whose migrations translated Arabic poetry into premodern European vernaculars.

Fisher’s monographic texts, many of which were collected in a 2003 anthology, encompassed artists as diverse as James Coleman, Susan Hiller, Emily Jacir, and Adrian Piper; writing on their work, she was less concerned with fixing their place in art history than with delving into the counter knowledge that art can impart when it scrambles our senses. Such principled eclecticism embodied a sensibility that was genuinely cosmopolitan from below, grounded in close attention to form and perception. Relishing the material specificities of individual artworks, Fisher always contextualized the aesthetic autonomy that gives art a life of its own by drawing connections across philosophy, literature, and culture, thus anchoring art’s irruptive potential in struggles for social justice.

Fisher’s modesty belied her enormous impact on the artists who studied with her—at Goldsmiths College, Middlesex University, the Jan van Eyck Academie, and the Royal College of Art—just as the advice that curators of international biennials and other exhibitions sought from her was highly influential. Her warmth and wry humor, through which her passionate commitment touched everyone around her, will be deeply missed, and the singular legacy of her writing grows more relevant—and urgent—in the face of today’s worldwide uncertainties.

Kobena Mercer is a professor in the departments of the history of art and African American studies at Yale University.

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