1960s Fluxus Artist Nye Ffarrabas Celebrated at Brattleboro’s C.X. Silver Gallery | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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1960s Fluxus Artist Nye Ffarrabas Celebrated at Brattleboro’s C.X. Silver Gallery

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Published June 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Nye Ffarrabas with "Dinner Service" - DONA ANN MCADAMS
  • Dona Ann Mcadams
  • Nye Ffarrabas with "Dinner Service"

She went to happenings with Allan Kaprow and on mushroom treks with John Cage. She was in a Yoko Ono film, performed in avant-garde festivals and dined with Marcel Duchamp. Nye Ffarrabas, aka Bici (Forbes) Hendricks, was a central figure in the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s. She and others created intermedia events that pushed the boundaries of prevailing norms in painting, sculpture, poetry, music and theater. They erased distinctions between art and life as they celebrated daily activities. Their radical aesthetics influenced subsequent postmodern performance and visual art.

Ffarrabas' works are in museum collections around the country, including at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. But several factors conspired to blur art history, leaving far too few who remember Ffarrabas' legacy. After divorcing her husband, Geoff Hendricks, she left New York, had multiple careers while still making art and changed her name.

In 1982, she moved permanently to Brattleboro, where she has created art and worked as a psychotherapist ever since. There, at C.X. Silver Gallery, her legacy is known and celebrated. In 2014, the gallery hosted "Nye Ffarrabas: A Walk on the Inside," a 50-year retrospective. Many of Ffarrabas' works are still on exhibit at the gallery, which serves as the repository of her archives.

This fall, C.X. Silver Gallery will publish The Friday Book of White Noise (1964-1969), Ffarrabas' early journals of ideas and concepts that often led to art pieces and performances. The book was "originally a shared effort between her and her former husband," gallery co-owner Adam Silver said, but "she took ownership of it over time and is annotating it for publication."

In March, over lunch in the gallery with Silver and photographer Dona Ann McAdams, Ffarrabas talked about her life as an artist. Then she took the group on a tour of her works.

Bici Forbes (aka Nye Ffarrabas) balancing an egg (1967) - PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER MOORE ©NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY
  • Photograph by Peter Moore ©Northwestern University
  • Bici Forbes (aka Nye Ffarrabas) balancing an egg (1967)

Ffarrabas' early pieces were revelatory, particularly her "Egg/Time Event" sculpture — a simple, everyday object reconfigured. A real egg is encased and hidden in an irregularly shaped plaster block with rubber-stamped red text: "February 22 [19]66" and "DO NOT OPEN FOR 100 YEARS."

McAdams was wowed by "Dinner Service" (1966), a table setting for four with hubcaps as plates and pliers, hammers and screwdrivers as silverware. "The most amazing thing was when she sat down at her table installation," McAdams enthused, "and she did an impromptu performance with the hubcaps. Fluxus is always a part of it."

Ffarrabas spoke about the art zeitgeist of the '60s. Growing up in the Boston area, she first met Hendricks while attending Vermont's Putney School. (Her name at the time was Bici Forbes.) He invited her to attend "A Spring Happening," a performance art event organized by Allan Kaprow in 1961. She was enchanted: "walking around, the sound of bacon frying, someone singing in the shower," she said. It was unlike anything she had ever experienced. From there, she "kind of oozed into Fluxus and loved it."

She joined Hendricks in Manhattan. They married in 1961 and had two children, Tyche and Bracken. The couple participated in events together, but Ffarrabas, known then as Bici Hendricks, continued creating her own work. It was a fertile time for them both as they became stars in the burgeoning Fluxus movement.

"I work with what I find around me, either objects or words, and I go from there," Ffarrabas said of her artistic practice.

Her husband's brother Jon Hendricks was an artist and curator. At dinner one evening, he looked through her notebooks. "I started showing him a few things I was fiddling with," Ffarrabas said. He invited her to put on a solo show at New York's Judson Gallery.

"Egg/Time Event" by Nye Ffarrabas - COURTESY OF NYE FFARRABAS AND C.X. SILVER GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Nye Ffarrabas And C.X. Silver Gallery
  • "Egg/Time Event" by Nye Ffarrabas

Village Voice reviewer John Perreault didn't quite know what to make of that 1966 Judson exhibition, titled "Word Work." It was composed of "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," Perreault wrote. "All of these hijinks are delightful, even the slide projectors of poems or instructions, and some of it is definitely art."

Judson continued to exhibit Ffarrabas' work. She recounted how her 1969 Fluxus piece "Terminal Reading" came about. "I had wanted to write a novel, and I was writing this stuff and it was bad. So I thought, I'll burn it."

She set up four music stands with a 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 read," she said. "Somebody else might come in on top, and soon it sounded like the beginning of a fugue. After each page was read, the pages had to be crumpled and thrown in the fire until there were no pages left."

A common practice in this period was mail art — artists sending small-scale works through the postal service to friends. Ffarrabas founded Black Thumb Press, "a pipe dream that did a little more than dream," she recalled. She and her husband created words and/or pictures to mail to others, along with other artists, including Robert Watts and Ono. One of Ffarrabas' cards was a conceptual invitation that read, "Imagine that today's newspaper is a book of mythology."

Ono's 1967 six-minute film "No. 4" included Ffarrabas in its montage of buttocks of famous artists. As colleagues, she and Ono would visit playgrounds with their children. "We were mothers in the park at times, and we were just friends talking about our work," Ffarrabas recalled. "We were doing similar stuff. We would talk about art and money and this and that."

Ffarrabas participated in Charlotte Moorman's Annual Avant Garde Festivals from 1966 to 1978. For these outdoor extravaganzas, she crafted two large calligraphic banners for a parade, offered people Reiki on a park bench and performed "Universal Laundry" (1966), in which she washed clean diapers in a pond in New York's Central Park and hung up four or five to dry. One was dyed light blue and painted with the United Nations insignia.

"Universal Laundry" - COURTESY OF NYE FFARRABAS AND C.X. SILVER GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Nye Ffarrabas And C.X. Silver Gallery
  • "Universal Laundry"

Unfortunately, Ffarrabas' husband received more notice within the art world than she did. At the Happening & Fluxus festival in Cologne, Germany, in 1970, "He had his cubicle, and I had my cubicle," she recalled. "People would come up to me and say, 'Oh, wasn't it nice that you could come, too.' And I would say, 'That's mine!'" as she pointed at her art.

In 1971, her husband asked what they should do for their 10th anniversary. "'Let's get a divorce, a Flux Divorce,'" she recalled saying, "and we were off and running." Friends Ono, John Lennon, Kate Millett and other art world luminaries attended the party at the couple's brownstone. Cultural critic Jill Johnston played the piano and wrote about it later in her weekly column in the Village Voice.

The couple's daughter, Tyche, spoke about the divorce celebration for the 2018 New York Times obituary of her father:

It was a public art ritual they created to symbolize an end of 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 kitchen. They 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 children moved to a sixth-floor loft in the nascent SoHo arts district in lower Manhattan. But "I didn't have any marketable skills, and the kids were going crosstown to school," she said. "It was complicated, so we moved to Cambridge, [Mass.], to live with one of my sisters."

Life changes ensued: "There I wasn't trying to put myself forward as an artist; 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!"

Ffarrabas had attended the Putney School as a teen and loved that part of Vermont. Her ex-husband's family, whom she also loved, lived in Putney. (His father, Walter Hendricks, founded Marlboro College.) She didn't want to be "in their backyard," so in 1982 she moved to Brattleboro.

There, she continued writing poetry, creating calligraphic drawings and found-object sculptures, and repurposing wooden chairs with agitprop messaging. She worked for Child Protective Services in the Vermont Department for Children and Families, and she volunteered in AIDS hospice work.

In 1993, she changed her name to Nye Ffarrabas. "I wanted to be me," she recalled. "I spent the first 60 years with somebody else's idea of me, and the next 60 is mine." Through genealogy research, she had discovered that Ffarrabas was a variant of Forbes and that Nye was a wonderfully complementary Welsh first name.

C.X. Silver wasn't the first Vermont gallery to take notice of her art. Windham Art Gallery in Windham and the Michael S. Currier Center at the Putney School exhibited a group of her repurposed political chairs in 2008 and 2010, respectively. She called them "an abbreviated history of our country, told in rocking chairs."

In 2011, Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art presented "Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life," an exhibit of works organized into 14 themes. The press release described one of Ffarrabas' pieces, grouped under the "Happiness?" theme, this way:

Stress Formula proposes that we need more jokes than drugs. A vitamin bottle whose label is inscribed with the suggested dosage, "Take one capsule every four hours, for laughs," Stress Formula contains clear capsules with little rolled pieces of paper, presumably printed with humorous messages. Fluxus artists seem to agree that happiness is something we make for ourselves, not the result of something that happens to us.

Dartmouth's Fluxus exhibition caught the attention of Cai Xi Silver and her husband, Adam. Cai Xi contacted Ffarrabas for a paper she was writing on Fluxus for the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A few years later, C.X. Silver Gallery mounted Ffarrabas' 50-year retrospective. Its catalog is replete with essays, anecdotes and exaltations. In it, Ffarrabas' first curator, Jon Hendricks, reminds readers that "careers have been made on the backs of her pioneering artwork." A 1968 quote from the artist herself particularly resonates: "Art has no obligation to be pretty. It does have an obligation to be relevant in its time."

In 2019, Ffarrabas completed a Möbius strip installation of text on paper for the gallery, and her writing is featured in the Brattleboro Words Trail. She made her most recent piece, "When All the Water Is Gone" (2022), a calligraphy and oxtail bone installation, in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

On June 21, Ffarrabas turns 90. She is "in the midst of several new Fluxus projects," she said, including working with the gallery on The Friday Book of White Noise.

When asked whether she had any advice for her 20-year-old self, without hesitating she smiled and said, "Forget the 1950s."

C.X. Silver Gallery, 814 Western Ave., Brattleboro, 257-7898, ext. 1. cxsilvergallery.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Postmodern Pioneer"