Though it happens less often in these highly professionalized times, if you go see art regularly, you might have had the experience of showing up at an address supposedly belonging to a new gallery and being unable to find it. That’s happened to me more than once, usually because I showed up on the wrong day or because the proprietor had stepped out. Maybe the buzzer was broken. Eventually, it works out.
Except when it doesn’t. Not a single person who went hunting for the Jean Freeman Gallery at 26 West 57th Street in Manhattan during the 1970–71 season ever found it. That’s because—as the gallery stated in its final press release—“26 West 57th St. does not exist.” Also, in the literal sense, the gallery did not exist either, even though it placed ads for seven shows in the leading art magazines of the time (including ARTnews). The Freeman Gallery was, in fact, the work of a promising young artist named Terry Fugate-Wilcox, who had arrived in New York about two years earlier from Kalamazoo, Michigan, with his wife and sometime collaborator, Valerie Fugate-Wilcox.
As Christopher Howard recounts in the crisply written and vigorously researched new book The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist (MIT Press, 396 pp.), Terry Fugate-Wilcox fabricated not only the Jean Freeman enterprise but all the artists it showed as well. There was the one-namer Idra, who, as a press release stated, “has concentrated on work that deals strongly with the community spirit of the human domain as well as of the animal domain.” (This involved, among other things, collaborating with reindeer and dolphins.) And there was Justine Dane, who used St. Elmo’s fire to make the hooves and horns of cattle “glow with the pale green light of electricity.” Dane also stuck “long metallic devices” in the ground to attract lightning, according to an article by a writer named Duncan Mitchell (actually Fugate-Wilcox). Her one-person show at Freeman was celebrated with a blowout party in a SoHo loft. “Arriving guests would ask where she was,” Valerie Fugate-Wilcox said in a 1971 New York Times article that unmasked the fictional enterprise, “and I’d point vaguely into the distance.”
The Fugate-Wilcoxes were meticulous, even somehow managing to get the U.S. Postal Service to honor a mail-forwarding request that resulted in letters addressed to 26 West 57th Street being passed along to their downtown abode. Press releases were mailed to prominent publications and critics so that the Freeman Gallery would appear in listings, and the wily art critic Gregory Battcock reviewed its shows for a London magazine.
It all makes for a rollicking story, though maybe not enough to sustain a full book—so Howard uses the Freeman Gallery as a means for cruising its hurly-burly cultural moment, when the lines between truth and fiction as well as advertising and journalism were proving to be quite porous. The rock critic Greil Marcus was duping some by fabricating a super group called the Masked Marauders, made up of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and others; the artist Ray Johnson and others were advertising shows at a non-existent Robin gallery as a kind of in-joke among friends. There was also the case of the nonexistent artist named Vern Blosum, whose work was acquired from the esteemed dealer Leo Castelli by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The difference between art and documentation was also turning out to be a slippery business. Artists ventured beyond cities, made remote or ephemeral pieces, and returned to their galleries with photos of what they’d done. Howard quotes Mel Bochner talking about how hard it was to get dealers to do studio visits at the time, as they only wanted to look at slides. “If slides were all anyone wanted to see, and if they were already a form of reproduction,” Bochner says, “was there any need to make actual works?”
Along with being a detailed autopsy of a well-executed hoax, The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist is also a rich study of the heady contemporary art scene circa 1970, with a refreshing emphasis on too-often-sidelined aspects that were absurd, comical, and nonsensical—Robert Smithson urinating in the shape of a constellation, say, or Ed Ruscha running an Artforum ad just before he got married that showed him in bed with two women accompanied by the text “ED RUSCHA SAYS GOODBYE TO COLLEGE JOYS.”
Fugate-Wilcox, for his part, was making groovy musical instruments, experimenting with sculptures featuring air jets, networking, and, post-Freeman Gallery, developing plans for a grand Land Art piece that he seems to have begun conceiving as a project for one of his fictional artists. “His goal,” Howard writes of that earthwork, “was to cover an area of the San Andreas Fault in California with a massive rectangular concrete block: 232 feet long, 188 feet wide, and 20 feet high, weighing over 20 tons, and spread over an acre.” As the land slowly shifted, it would all break apart.
The narrative of the book follows Fugate-Wilcox, who is 73 today and lives in upstate New York, through much of the next decade of his practice, and he comes across as a lovable eccentric, albeit at times a vexing and quixotic one as well. He and Valerie did things like spend a $2,000 NEA grant on vacations in France and the British Virgin Islands and attempt to divorce as a kind of protest against the state—that didn’t come off, but Valerie reverted to using her maiden name, Shakespeare. (She died in 2011.) Discussing his San Andreas Fault proposal, Fugate-Wilcox once said, “If you don’t count the Pyramids as sculpture, I guess it will be the biggest sculpture ever made.” (On that point, Howard interjects “not quite” before chronicling larger works by Michael Heizer, James Turrell, and others.)
Though his Land Art work never came to fruition, a few of Fugate-Wilcox’s public pieces did, like 3000 A.D. Diffusion Piece (1972), a tower of aluminum and magnesium slabs that the artist calculated will fuse together some 980 years from now, thanks to a process called substitutional diffusion. That work is still standing in Upper Manhattan, in a plaza that looks toward the George Washington Bridge. Most of his other major outdoor works have been removed or destroyed, and, in the early 1980s, he stopped working with galleries to sell work directly out of his studio instead. He is far from a household name today.
Why did Fugate-Wilcox create the Jean Freeman Gallery? “Things had become so ridiculous that I knew I had to do something to expose the political structure of the art scene,” he told ARTnews in 1990, in an interview cited in the book. The project was a kind of satire, he claimed, a commentary about the fickle nature of the art game. Howard doesn’t buy it. “This contention is feeble,” the author writes, noting that Fugate-Wilcox’s efforts are too thoughtful to be intended as pure parody. Plus, he suggests, the purported satirist was making art not so different from that of the artists that he invented.
Another explanation is that Fugate-Wilcox was simply tapping into the zeitgeist, blending fact and fiction and making conceptual art for the printed page, like contemporaries such as Dan Graham and Adrian Piper. Indeed, one subtext of Howard’s book is how artistic ideas float in the air at certain times and are snatched by various figures nearly simultaneously. (The author notes that the lightning project by the fictional Justine Dane arose around the time of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, which opened in 1977 after years of prior work that the artist has dated back to 1969.)
As with any great artwork, the motivations that led to the opening of the Freeman were many—and, in their entirety, unknowable. It was part publicity stunt, part critique, and part sincere artwork—an ingenious product of its time. But there may be a personal, vulnerable side of the project too. Speaking with Howard last year, Fugate-Wilcox said that, when he arrived in New York from Michigan in the late 1960s, “I had no core group at at all, ever. I was always an outsider.” What artist hasn’t felt that way at some point? What person hasn’t? For about half a year, between 1970 and 1971, Fugate-Wilcox came up with a solution: he created his own group.
The final advertisements for the Jean Freeman Gallery appeared in March 1971, after the Times had revealed the story behind it in that 1971 article, which had the headline “The Non-Gallery of No Art.” The ads were nearly blank, with only the gallery’s name, address, and phone number—accompanied by one other element: Terry Fugate-Wilcox’s scrawled signature.
Update, 7:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misstated the creator of the Masked Marauders. They were invented by Greil Marcus. The post has been corrected.