One Year under the Mast: Alexander Alberro on the Fox

Article excerpt

IN THE FALL OF 1974, JOSEPH KOSUTH, SARAH Charlesworth, Michael Corns, Preston Heller, Andrew Menard, and Mel Ramsden--all members of the New York wing of the art collective Art & Language (ALNY)--began to meet two or three times a week at The Local, a small basement bar in Greenwich Village operated by Mickey Ruskin (the former owner of Max's Kansas City), in order to determine the course of a new publication committed to wide-ranging critical debate, called The Fox. "We have in mind a periodical devoted to theoretical and critical concerns in any of the possible contexts of art-related practice (praxis)," the group wrote in a letter to prospective contributors. "[The magazine will] provide a means of undertaking critique of various institutions, conventions, ideologies, or problematic aspects of the workings of specific locales, events, etc., which ... we feel cannot be adequately examined elsewhere." They were not alone in their sentiments: Other publications such as Avalanche, Art-Rite, Heresies, and Afte rimage were similarly being launched by and for a new generation of artists seeking an independent press to generate discourse about practices neglected by the mainstream media and, more specifically, to develop an alternative agenda with respect to the burgeoning market and museums. But their publication, coming after a period of increasingly strained relations between ALNY and the Art & Language group in the United Kingdom (ALUK), would prove to be one of the most perspicacious new art journals of the decade, and by far the most ferocious. In the words of Kosuth, who had been the American editor of the publication Art-Language and who, with Charlesworth, named, designed, and underwrote The Fox: "I decided we had to break from England. Jr was just silly for Michael Baldwin and other members of Art & Language [there] to try to control what was happening in New York. There were real questions to be asked, and frankly I wanted a larger social base to ask those questions." The discord between the New York factio n of Art & Language (which was coterminous with the editorial staff of The Fox) and the English group would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the former, but not before a highly acrimonious, public battle in which no one was spared.

The contentious spirit of their critical approach was indicated by the journal's very title, which Kosuth took from philosopher Isaiah Berlin's "Hedgehog and the Fox." In the 1953 essay, Berlin refers to a line from the Greek poet Archilocus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Taken figuratively, Berlin suggests, "The words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences that divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. [Hedgehogs] relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which...all that they are and say has significance." Foxes, on the other hand, pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory--and so The Fox would provide a forum for diverse and even antagonistic voices, positions, and practices.

While the editors wished to develop a heterogeneous group of articulate artists who would collectively explore discursive horizons, they realized from the beginning that conflict and controversy would, paradoxically, be required to create such an assembly. Indeed, from its inception The Fox adopted a polarizing and pugnacious tone. "We old warlords of conceptual art have gotten together," Kosuth reportedly said when announcing the new journal to a Village Voice reporter in early 1975. The Fox, he declared, would formalize the "schism between theoretical conceptualists and stylists." In fact, the publication was not very striking visually: It was printed on newspaper of the lowest quality, its covers were grainy cardboard set in Copperplate Gothic and lacked any clear markings to indicate the journal was related to art, and it rarely contained images. …