WEST BRATTLEBORO—In November 1966, the new manager of Judson Gallery at the Judson Church in Greenwich Village came to dinner at the home of Bici and Geoff Hendricks.
Jon Hendricks, a conscientious objector, and brother of Geoff Hendricks, was revitalizing what had been an important laboratory for avant-garde art in New York a few years earlier. Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and others had cut their creative teeth there, then moved on to uptown galleries.
The “second wave” at Judson was about to break over the beachhead of a money-driven, inbred art world.
Over the course of dinner, conversation turned to journals Bici Forbes Hendricks had been keeping for years in which she jotted art ideas as well as poetry amid her responsibilities as a busy wife and new mother.
Jon Hendricks dug what he saw and invited her to show at Judson. And the rest, as it is said, is history.
And that history, from the perspective of the established art world, flew largely beneath the radar. Not so in the more adventuresome art circles, principally the downtown scene. The works, or “events” as they came to be called, were conceptual art or performance art and became part of a movement called Fluxus — meaning “flow” (but also meaning fecal matter in some languages, a typical undercutting of high-brow notions that the group loved).
The ringleader and mastermind of Fluxus was George Maciunas, whose primary philosophy, if such it could be called, was that art is not a commodity.
Maciunas was an “idea” person, though he seems to have had a very practical side as well: He spearheaded the artist-loft movement in SoHo, bringing together artists to buy spaces and teaching them how to run their own electrical wiring and the like, which otherwise few could afford.
For the remainder of this story I shall refer to Bici Forbes Hendricks by her adoptive name, Nye Ffarrabas, changed after she moved to Brattleboro in 1992, having years earlier left art-making — temporarily, as it turns out — and was rebuilding a new life on many levels.
“Ffarrabas,” she discovered, is a Welsh variant of the Scotch “Forbes.” And Nye just sounded good, she says. Besides, the artist recounts, the name is remembered as belonging to a farmer who’d stood up to the British during the Revolutionary War.
As young mother with another on the way, Nye had her first show, pulling together “jottings” from her notebooks and creating pieces from them. This is her description, from the show’s wonderful catalog:
“I had three weeks to prepare. … I had a pretty good case of panic.The panic passed and I settled down to work. Since I am a poet, and the pieces had their genesis in words on a page, we called the show ‘Word Work.’”
Fortunately, some of the conceptual pieces that went into that show are here at the 50-Year Retrospective. They capture so well a time when what an artist wanted to do could be subtle, sweet, and simple — and iconoclastic — without needing to be a “grand idea” or “the next big thing.”
A few of the pieces, or as they came to be called in the movement, “events,” are “Word Work,” a box of electrically lit, poetic phrases shown via a mechanism known as a “crawl” (co-opted from banks and storefronts); “Language Boxes” containing double-faced word cards; and “Defrost the American Flag,” which features an American flag encased in slowly melting ice.
The “events” say what they want to say, with élan, and we move on. Fluxus.
Athough Ffarrabas clearly loves working with the “stuff” of everyday life, not for a moment does she believe in the object, seeing it as an opportunity to wake up: to wake us up. Speaking of Zen as a strong influence, things are unfettered from their usual context. Bones extracted during the making of oxtail soup make up a “family” of figures in several groupings; hubcaps become dinner plates.
Besides a call to personal freedom, there was a strong disenchantment with conventional politics and religion. The Vietnam War was raging, and civil rights battles were being waged.
From an email sent by the artist: “Another aspect of Fluxus works is the pervasive irreverence and absolute refusal to observe the niceties of middle-class values, of religious piety, or knee-jerk patriotism, and of “pretty” (and undisturbing) art.”
She continues: “But, at the same time, everything is in some way sacred. Or special. Or weird. Or precious. And almost anything can be seen in another light. This makes life interesting and suggests new names, faces, and use for old thingamabobs.”
The thingamabobs in “Nye Ffarrabas: A Walk on the Inside” will delight and perhaps, occasionally, appall: a little like going into a carnival funhouse.
“I have many times gotten into trouble for something I didn’t do,” says Ffarrabas, while describing a performance piece in which she washes baby diapers in a basin and hangs them on a line to dry. One is dyed blue and painted with the emblem of the United Nations. Called “Universal Laundry,” the piece was performed in Central Park.
Although the diapers were clean from the start, several people complained to the police that the performer was throwing dirty wash water into the Central Park pond.
Speaking of the piece as it is installed at the gallery, Ffarrabas points up the problem with art that is 50 years old: “I have to explain this to people. They don’t know those are cloth diapers hanging; they’ve never seen one.”
Another of the more controversial pieces, even today I would guess, is a neon sign titled “Neo/N” (here transformed into a digital projection thanks to Adam Silver’s technical skill), that blinks back and forth between “Uber alleS” from “Deutschlandlied,” the German national anthem, suggesting with the emphasized initial “U” and final “S” that, Ffarrabas explains, “We’re the bad guys now.”
The chair series is a much more recent example of work that also makes a strong political statement. All 10 chairs in the series were shown at the Windham Art Gallery in 2008. At CX Silver Gallery, owing to space constraints, there are three. But what a wonderful three.
“Artful Dodging” cites the 2000 presidential election debacle, hanging chads and all; “We The People” comments on the loss of our constitutional rights, with pages from the Constitution to be found in the bottom of a toilet bowl (albeit an antique one in which a ceramic bowl sits within a wooden box); and “Mirror, Mirror,” an “homage” to our detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, invites us to view our reflection surrounded by barbed wire.
What could be seen as a bluntness in some of the artist’s more political pieces is softened, without its message being lost, by her genius for play and invention.
Another case in point (and again reminding us what an impact the Vietnam War had on everyone’s psyche), is “RX-Stress Formula – News In Capsule Form.” Each gel cap in a plastic bottle contains rolled-up newspaper fragments.
A dining table is set with Ford hubcaps, with wrenches, lug nuts, and screwdrivers for flatware. Coke bottles (the petite, old-fashioned glass type, which Ffarrabas was thrilled to find at the T-Bird in Hinsdale, N.H.) stand in for wine glasses.
Ffarrabas says the piece comments on the corporatization of America. It struck me as well as a comment on the supremacy of male values in our culture. We never even got into the whole feminist angle, Nye being one of the few women artists to be part of Fluxus. Alas, that will have to be another article, another time.
A big part of the fun of this show is the “aha” moment –– it may be immediate or take a second or two, or involve reading the explanatory notes hung next to the pieces. In any event one is more than compensated for the effort.
The show is a breath of fresh air. We have come to take ourselves too seriously I think. And, as was the case in the 1960s, there is way too much money floating out in the art world, and the stakes are too high. Play is not, and maybe never has been, encouraged. Which is what makes this show not only fun but radical.
“A Walk on the Inside” reminds us that art making and art consumption can be an adventure, shaking us out of our complacent worldview. With a light spirit and an urgency, Ffarrabas seduces us into opening our hearts and our minds.