The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist
(MIT Press, 2018)
Between Summer 1970 and Spring 1971, advertisements appeared in Artforum, Art in America, Arts Magazine, ARTnews, and Avalanche touting exhibitions at the Jean Freeman Gallery in New York. These advertisements followed a similar template: a cryptic black-and-white image (a close-up of a craggy sculptural material, a blurry shot of a young woman standing by a knotted tree, an illegible signature) paired with blocky, authoritative text announcing the last names of the artists and the gallery’s address: 26 West 57th Street. But if potential patrons ventured to 26 West 57th Street, the midtown thoroughfare then home to established galleries such as M. Knoedler and Co., the André Emmerich Gallery, Marlborough Gallery, the Pierre Matisse Gallery, Green Gallery, and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, they would find that the numbers skipped from 24 to 28. The Jean Freeman Gallery did not exist, at least not in the conventional sense; instead, it was an extended experimental project by the American artist Terry Fugate-Wilcox.
The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist, a lively and intelligent book by art historian and critic Christopher Howard—whose criticism has appeared in this paper—relays the story of the fictitious gallery and probes the implications of art world put-ons during the era of Conceptualism and Earthworks. At a time when cutting-edge artworks were conveyed to the public through maps, charts, and photographs that aped the deadpan conventions of scientific “evidence,” the original sculpture, artwork, or action was often unseen by viewers. Alternatively, contemporary artwork existed entirely as an idea: words which produced a visual in the mind of the “receiver,” as in the language-based work of Lawrence Weiner. Artwork could be a scrap of paper, an out-of-focus photograph, a typed sentence: anything that communicated information. Conceptual works of poetic trickery were regularly inserted into arts publications with little fanfare, such as Dan Graham’s Homes for America, Robert Morris’s 1971 Artforum essay on non-existent artists, and, in the closest analogue to the Jean Freeman Gallery, Ray Johnson’s advertisements for his show at the fictitious Robins Gallery. As Howard explains, Fugate-Wilcox’s unreal gallery, then, did exist as a piece of Conceptual art: “Via the ads, and to a lesser extent, the press releases and image sheets, Jean Freeman Gallery as an artwork was given to anyone with a magazine subscription […] Fugate-Wilcox successfully produced a work that lived entirely outside sanctioned institutions, as so many artists sought to achieve, and did so with an imaginary gallery.”
Before “founding” the Jean Freeman Gallery, Fugate-Wilcox initially produced metal constructions, before expanding to plastic, air, and recorded sound, resulting in experiential sculptures that drew positive notice from New York dealers like Leo Castelli. In 1968, Fugate-Wilcox and his wife Valerie Monroe Shakespeare moved to New York, where his sensory works were included in Conceptual art shows such as Language IV at the Dwan Gallery. In the 1970s, Fugate-Wilcox began to create works that exhibited the same absurdist commitment that would come to characterize the Jean Freeman Gallery. Under the auspices of his art practice, he wrote a series of formally notarized manifestoes, applied for a passport with a nude photograph (primly cropped at the shoulders) to test the bounds of federal guidelines, created “diffusion” sculptures composed of metals that would supposedly fuse over millennia, and drew up an ambitious proposal for San Andreas Fault Sculpture, a massive concrete block that would track the movement of the fault over time. Howard meticulously tracks the similarities between Fugate-Wilcox’s creations, both realized and unrealized, and better-known works of Minimalism and Land Art produced contemporaneously.
In the Jean Freeman Gallery, Fugate-Wilcox found a container for his ideas across categories, with each fictional artist producing works that reflected a facet of his own production. Better yet, the project in its entirety took the definition of Conceptualism—artworks in which ideas took precedence over physicality—dead seriously, and in doing so, exhibited the same boundary-pushing slyness that distinguished Fugate-Wilcox’s earlier works.
As a result of this conceptual richness, Howard’s book sometimes operates like a giant brainstorm cloud, with the gallery project at the center and hundreds of other related topics and titles branching off in all directions. Among the subjects Howard discusses at length are the differences between the various arts periodicals; the winking advertisement style of the period; the trend of “put-ons” and hoaxes during the late 1960s and early 1970s, both inside and outside the art world; and Fugate-Wilcox’s career before and after New York Times art critic Grace Glueck revealed the gallery as fictional in January 1971. While some avenues of inquiry prove useful to the topic at hand, other digressions end abruptly or lead into list-like accumulations of similar events or artworks; for example, a long discussion of the legal complexities surrounding Fugate-Wilcox’s Weathering Wall Painting (1979 – 1989) is interesting but slows the momentum of the story at hand. However, the most insightful of these digressions shed light on the wider context of the early 1970s, adding texture and a dash of inspired weirdness to the proceedings, as in the opening discussion of the fevered anticipation for the debut 1969 album of the Masked Marauders, a “super-group” allegedly composed of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon. The album proved to be a hoax, but the tale of the glowing publicity it received prior to the revelation of fakery sheds fascinating light on the period’s appetite for trickery and media manipulation.
Was the Jean Freeman Gallery the same kind of trick? Howard ultimately dismisses the idea that Fugate-Wilcox’s goal was to glibly mock the objectlessness of Conceptualism in the stand-out fourth chapter focused on the slippery visual sensibility of the gallery’s advertisements. He argues that the pieces “created by” Freeman Gallery artists were as inventive as “real” pieces by their flesh-and-blood contemporaries. Instead, the project exhibits a charlatan sensibility designed to mock art world denizens eager to appear ever-hip to the next big thing—conceptualism happened to be the perfect type of artwork to “fake,” as it was consistently premised on the intangible and required a degree of openness on the part of the audience. The project also more positively revealed the imaginative pleasures inherent in the strange logic of objectless art. In an era when the boundaries of the “real” are under attack in a far more insidious fashion, The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist recalls a time when hoaxes and stunts were a means to playfully and productively test the bounds of art-world credulousness (through widely read print media, no less) and for an artist to indulge in the full range of his creativity.