Visual Arts Feature: Fluxus Artist Nye Ffarrabas Turns 91 — Celebrating “The Friday Book of White Noise”
By John R. Killacky
Nye Ffarrabas and others in Fluxus created intermedia events that pushed the boundaries of prevailing norms in painting, sculpture, poetry, music, architecture, and theater.
Nye Ffarrabas (formerly Bici Forbes and Bici Hendricks), one of the central figures in the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s, lives quietly in Brattleboro, Vermont. To commemorate her 91st birthday, C.X. Silver Gallery is publishing The Friday Book of White Noise, an annotated gathering from her notebooks of drawings, poems, essays, event scores, exhibition concepts, and quotidian life entries that illuminate the inspiration behind her extraordinary praxis.
She and others in Fluxus created intermedia events that pushed the boundaries of prevailing norms in painting, sculpture, poetry, music, architecture, and theater — erasing distinctions between art and life with an eye on reimagining our perception of daily activities. Their radical aesthetics influenced subsequent postmodern performance and visual art.
Ffarrabas’s work in particular made considerable impact. There have been international exhibitions of her poems, performance scores, political sculptures, found objects, mail art postcards, and word boxes. Her pieces are in museum collections around the country, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
I met the artist at the C.X. Silver Gallery in Brattleboro where several of her works are on permanent display. The gallery also serves as the repository of her archives. Touring the exhibition, Ffarrabas told me, “I work with what I find around me, either objects or words, and I go from there. Art has no obligation to be pretty. It does have an obligation to be relevant in its time.”
Her early pieces were revelatory. A simple, everyday object — a whole egg — is encased in a plaster cube bearing the red rubber-stamped text “EGG/TIME EVENT ONE HEN EGG DO NOT OPEN FOR 100 YEARS” and dated “Mar 21 1966.” Just as compelling was her Dinner Service (1966), a table setting for four with hubcaps as plates, and pliers, hammers, and screwdrivers as silverware.
At that time, she also founded the Black Thumb Press, “a pipe dream that did a bit more than dream,” she recalled. She and her husband Geoff Hendricks and artist friends put words and illustrations on cards — labeling it “mail art.” One of Ffarrabas’s cards was a conceptual invitation that read, “Imagine that today’s newspaper is a book of mythology.”
Yoko Ono’s 1967 six-minute film No. 4 included Ffarrabas in its montage of the buttocks of fellow female artists. At one screening, a man sitting behind her exclaimed “Jesus Christ!” when she was on screen, but “I never knew if he approved or disapproved,” she jovially reminisced.
As colleagues and friends, Ffarrabas and Ono visited city playgrounds with their preschool daughters. She said that “we were mothers in the park, friends who admired each other’s work. We exchanged ideas about art, and bitched about our husbands, the necessity of making money in ways that contradicted our lives as artists, and just talked about our lives, in general. We were thinking along similar lines in many, many ways.”
Her first solo show, 1966’s Word Work, was at New York’s Judson Gallery. Here is how Village Voice reviewer John Perreault described it: “flags, messages, wall poems, signs, changing displays, meditations, irreverent icons, emblems, eggs, tea parties, field trips and giveaways all by Bici Hendricks who presides pleasantly over this intermedia mélange of tricks, jokes, art, and party favors. All of these hijinks are delightful, even the slide projectors of poems or instructions, and some of it is definitely art.”
Judson continued to welcome her work. She was an active participant in its Destruction in Art Symposium (1966). The artist recounted how her infamous 1969 Fluxpiece, Terminal Reading, came about: “I had wanted to write a novel, and it was awful. So, I thought, ‘I’ll burn it!’” After some deliberation, as an event in its own right, she set up four music stands, like a string quartet with four readers, and a lighted hibachi in the middle. Each stand held a black folder containing a quarter of what she had written. “The idea was to start reading, and then somebody else would start,” she said. “They would just come in on top of one another, and soon it sounded like the beginning of a fugue. Readers would also snatch pages from other readers and reread passages they liked. After each page was read, it was crumpled and consigned to the flames. None left, the reading was over.”
Ffarrabas participated in several of cellist Charlotte Moorman’s Avant Garde Festivals. For these outdoor extravaganzas, she crafted two large calligraphic banners for a parade and performed Universal Laundry (1966), in which she washed clean diapers in a pond in New York’s Central Park and hung them to dry on a clothesline. One was dyed light blue and painted with the United Nations insignia. Universal Laundry signified the ubiquity of such maternal chores, she told me. In a 1978 festival held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she offered psychic readings in a tent.
Moorman is fondly remembered: “She was a good cellist, and an amazing entrepreneur. She would send valentines on lace paper doilies, and they would say ‘I love you.’ It was so very nice, unlike some others being so hard edged.”
In 1971, her husband asked what they should do for their 10th anniversary. “Let’s get a divorce,” she answered jokingly. ‘A FLUX Divorce!’ they both exclaimed at once, “and we were off and running,” she laughed. Kate Millet, Ono and John Lennon, neighbor Louise Bourgeois, and other art world friends came to the party at the couple’s brownstone. Cultural critic Jill Johnston improvised on the piano and wrote about the event later in her weekly column in the Village Voice.
The couple’s daughter, Tyche, recalled this occasion in the 2018 New York Times obituary of her father: “It was a public ritual they created to symbolize an end to their marriage as it had been and the beginning of a new chapter that would include a non-monogamous, open relationship that made space for same-sex partners. They strung barbed wire through the front door and up the stairs, and sawed their bed in half. They donned a pair of overcoats sewed together back to back; then the women pulled my mother and the men pulled my father until the coats tore asunder.”
After the divorce, Ffarrabas dropped her married surname, Hendricks, and continued creating under her given name, Bici Forbes. She and her two children moved to a sixth-floor loft in the nascent SoHo arts district in lower Manhattan. “I didn’t have any marketable skills, and the kids were going crosstown to school,” she said. “It was complicated, so we moved back home to Cambridge, MA to live with one of my sisters.” Life changes ensued: “I wasn’t trying to put myself forward as an artist [in Cambridge]; they weren’t ready for this stuff.” She went back to school to become a psychotherapist and practiced for a few years, “but it was hard being near my family. I’d been in New York too long for a conservative Boston family to understand.”
In 1982, she moved permanently to Brattleboro, where she continued her creative endeavors while working for a time as a psychotherapist. In 1993, she changed her name to Nye Ffarrabas. “I wanted to just be me,” she recalled. “I spent the first 60 years of my life with other people’s ideas of who I was — the next 60 is all mine!”
In 2011, Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art presented Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life, a show that included Ffarrabas’s piece Stress Formula — a “prescription” bottle inscribed with suggested dosage “One capsule every four hours for laughs.” The artist tells me what is inside the container: “Stress Formula proposes that humorously ironic newspaper slip-ups can be the stuff of good medicine too. The bottle contains clear capsules with little rolled pieces of paper printed with nonsensical newspaper goofs inside.”
Her work in the Dartmouth exhibition caught the attention of Brattleboro’s Cai Xi and Adam Silver. In 2014, their C.X. Silver Gallery hosted Nye Ffarrabas: A Walk on the Inside, her 50-year retrospective exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue. In it, her first curator, Jon Hendricks, reminded readers that “careers have been made on the back of her pioneering artwork.”
John R. Killacky is the author of because art: commentary, critique, and conversation (Onion River Press). This article was revised and expanded from a piece that originally appeared in Seven Days.