John Fitz Gibbon and Art in California

November 30, 2017
Franz Kunst
Triumph of Flora, 1980

This post comes to you from SPEC’s current intern, Brian Adams.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been interning at Special Collections’ Redwood City facility, where the fabulous Manuscript Processing team does their work in regal silence. I’m currently enrolled in Simmons College’s Masters in Library and Information Science graduate program, and for my internship experience I have been processing my very first collection, the papers of art critic/collector/CSU Sacramento professor John Fitz Gibbon.

Along with his wife Jane, John Fitz Gibbon was heavily involved in the Northern Californian art scene from the 1960s until his death in 2009 and was close friends with a number of renowned artists of that period, including Robert Arneson, Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Don Hazlitt, Jim Nutt, Robert Colescott, and Richard Diebenkorn, amongst many others. John hosted an art show on KPFA, wrote reviews, essays, and exhibition catalogs, and corresponded extensively with California artists of the time, many of whom he considered close friends. Over the years, John and Jane amassed a significant private collection of postwar California art, which they housed at their Pilot Hill estate outside of Placerville.

Judy Chicago & John Fitz Gibbon Triumph of Flora 1980

However, the aspect of the collection that I’ve enjoyed the most is the series of myth-inspired choreographed performances and theatrical celebrations that John and Jane hosted at their home throughout the 1970s, simply titled ‘Events’. Each Event featured hundreds of largely nude attendees performing, dancing, speaking, and playing music, and were inspired by ancient myths (some Event titles include “The Ninth Labor of Herakles”, “Orpheus and Eurydice”, and “Circe”) and paintings by Fitz Gibbon’s personal favorites like Nicolas Poussin and Rembrandt. Between 1971 and 1981, the Fitz Gibbons put on twelve such Events, which are lovingly and exhaustively documented in the form of photographs, slides, film, video, and reel-to-reel tape. After John’s writing, the Events documentation makes up the bulk of the collection.

“The idea behind my Events was that 200 or so people could walk thru the picture plane of an Old Master painting and experience what may have gone on when you are compelled to drag & haul a cross up Calvary,” John wrote about his annual happenings. “I thought what I and my dear friends who put themselves on the line for me were doing was definitely Good New Art; and I figured it was the best sort of art criticism.” For Fitz Gibbon to describe large-scale performance art as “the best sort of art criticism” is no irony; rather, it’s because for him, making art and being part of an artistic community wasn’t just the job of an artist, but the job of art critics, academics, and art appreciators as well. “The best, the only way to do art criticism is to MAKE some ART yourself,” John wrote in 2004. And the Events were the ultimate encapsulation of this view of art and art-making: a live reenactment of a painting that was both a work of tributary criticism and a work of art in and of itself. And like everything Fitz Gibbon did, the Events were populated by John’s friends.

John Fitz Gibbon placed friendship at the center of his writing and his valuation of art, generally. Indeed, his lengthy retrospective piece in The Pilot Hill Collection of Contemporary Art opens with the words, “Friends, here’s a collection of friends by friends for friends. According to me, a major content of Art is Friendship.” This enshrinement of friendship and community underlies every part of the Events, which routinely hosted superstars like Judy Chicago and Bruce Nauman, and yet disposed entirely with the formality and sobriety of a gallery opening. Gone is the pretension and the posture; the attendees are literally and figuratively naked, and as the Poussin-inspired title of the “Et in Arcadia Ego” Event indicates, there is a deeply arcadian and pastoral sensibility in place of one of sophistication or pretense, one as much at home at the Woodstock Festival as the contemporary art scene that the Fitz Gibbons circuited.

A perfect example of this blend of classical sensibility, hippie satire, and radical friendship is Fitz Gibbon’s description of his 1976 Event, entitled “Peaceable Kingdom” and based on the eponymous series of paintings produced by the 19th century Quaker painter Edward Hicks. Staged at Folsom Lake, the basic premise is that a woman playing the role of ‘Liberty Belle’ has been captured by Gerald Ford & Richard Nixon and “their retinue of violent beasts”. Soon enough, a group of rescuers arrives

followed by a fife & drum ensemble a mile or so up and into the forest, encountering bands of nude figures the whole way. These citizens with nothing to hide were exhorting the artists to their task with slogans, quotes & soundbites from American history & political life: Remember the Alamo! One Nation Indivisible! One Woman, One Vote! “A chicken in every pot,” a young woman demanded. “Two cars in every garage,” her boyfriend completed. “Free Miss Liberty!” offered one voice, while another called out: “Free Ceramix!”

Naturally, the sequence ends with Liberty Belle freed from her chains by a pair of bolt-cutters, then promptly blessing Nixon and Ford and the beasts with a rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence.

As I’m sure is the case for many processing archivists, I’ve found myself thinking about the collection when I’m not around it; not just the hundreds of photos, slides, prints, letters, essays, notes, and emails that I’ve sifted through, but the spirit of John’s life and writing. I find myself contemplating the place of friendship and community within art, and the way Fitz Gibbon was able to repeatedly host events at his home that brought together a host of his friends into a pursuit that was even-handedly political theatre and a statement of communal appreciation. I wonder how many of us are lucky enough to be able to make our work and our community one and the same, and how many of us are able to leave behind such a visceral set of monuments to those communities and friendships. And I’ve thought extensively how I might bring those elements into my own life someday.

All of this is to say that it’s been a true privilege to intern at the SCUA’s processing facility these past weeks, and my experience processing the John Fitz Gibbon papers has left me with a great deal to contemplate. I feel very lucky to have had the experience of processing such a special collection, and of learning how to do so alongside the very best here at Stanford’s Special Collections and University Archives. I only hope that every collection I process in the future can be as exciting and thought-provoking as the John Fitz Gibbon papers!