Essays

Missing Jane Farver

Jane captured mid-laugh at Eung Ho Park’s wedding
Jane Farver captured mid-laugh at Eung Ho Park’s wedding (photo courtesy Eung Ho Park)

BOSTON — The news of Jane Farver’s death on April 29 came as a complete shock. After retiring in 2011 from her position as director of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, she barely seemed to pause, jumping right into a series of independent projects, intermixed with teaching and travel as well. She was in Venice when she died, but her plan was to keep on going from there, to Singapore and Cambodia.

Jane Farver with Reiko Tomii in London, 2000 (photo by Jeff Rothstein) (click to enlarge)
Jane Farver with Reiko Tomii in London, 2000 (photo by Jeff Rothstein) (click to enlarge)

There has been an immediate outpouring from friends and colleagues (often overlapping categories in her book). Over and over they recount a calm forcefulness. For artist Luis Camnitzer she was “a paradigm of integrity and selflessness, giving proof that being an anti-diva is the best way to touch the world in the most meaningful and lasting way.” Her “delicate, non-intrusive touch” stood out to art historian Judith Rodenbeck, even as she could also be “singularly feisty.” In addition to Jane’s considerable importance as a mentor, Guggenheim Public Programs Director Christina Yang recalls her willingness to split her curatorial fees with artists she was exhibiting or pay interns out of her own pocket. “She did lots of things for artists and for our field,” says MoMA curator Laura Hoptman, “but quietly, with a great dignity and — rare for this contemporary art world of ours — sweetness.” Bronx Museum Director Holly Block has announced plans to dedicate the upcoming year of the museum’s emerging artists program to Jane in honor of her leadership. “She will always be remembered for her relentless support for inclusion” is Frist Center Director Susan Edwards’s summation of her passionate approach to work and life.

Jane Farver serving as a witness to Matsuzawa Yutaka’s performance of "Vanishing of Humankind" at 'Global Conceptualism' in 1999
Jane Farver serving as a witness to Matsuzawa Yutaka’s performance of “Vanishing of Humankind” at ‘Global Conceptualism’ in 1999 (photos by Jeff Rothstein) (click to enlarge)

A lot of the people saying these wonderful things knew Jane far longer than I did. I actually hadn’t met her yet when I made my way to the Queens Museum in 1999 to see the landmark Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s–1980s exhibition, which curator Ingrid Schaffner has characterized as “a milestone and a manual for our times.” But I certainly appreciated the subversive insight with which the exhibition, co-curated by Jane, complicated the theory and politics of a narrative previously centered on North America and Europe through its demonstration of multiple, interconnected, but also context-specific artistic strategies. Luckily we were introduced soon after she took the position at MIT that same year, and I have been honored to count her as a friend since.

Jane with Fred Wilson and John Moore at a Cuchifritos opening for Michael Pribich (photo by Esperanza Cortés) (click to enlarge)
Jane with Fred Wilson and John Moore at a Cuchifritos opening for Michael Pribich (photo by Esperanza Cortés) (click to enlarge)

If Jane were here with me now, she would be quick to clarify the record by emphasizing that Global Conceptualism was a collaborative effort. It’s not that she was self-deprecating; rather, her tremendous intelligence and ability were combined with an ever-present generosity. Among her lasting contributions will be the many important exhibitions that she curated or otherwise helped bring to fruition, including the presentation of Fred Wilson’s work at the 2003 Venice Biennale, her artistic direction of the 2011 Incheon Women Artists’ Biennale, her contributions to the Joan Jonas catalogue for the current Venice Biennale, and the many amazing shows I had a chance to see during her tenure at the List Center. The less visible yet equally significant part of Jane’s legacy is how she left everyone around her stronger as a consequence of her unflagging offers of support, encouragement, and insight.

Jane’s professional life began in the 1970s at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she worked as a photograph librarian — and where she also met her husband, the painter John L. Moore. But it was in her second major job, as the director of Spaces in Cleveland, where she really inaugurated the lifelong commitment to promoting artistic experimentation at the core of her subsequent positions, including assistant director of the Alternative Museum in New York, followed by directorships at the Tomoko Liguori Gallery, Lehman College of Art Gallery, Queens Museum of Art, and finally the List Center.

In recent years, meeting up with Jane was often a highlight of my visits to New York (at least when I was lucky enough to be in town and she wasn’t off in another part of the world). Going to galleries with her, and frequently John as well, I would be struck by how much careful looking gave context to her observations, even as she wore that experience lightly. Plus there was the evident pleasure that she took from work that she found truly worthwhile: when she and John and I wound up in Stan Douglas’s Luanda-Kinshasa, it took the gallery staff flicking on the lights at closing time to bring the experience to an end.

Photograph by Nene Humphrey of Jane with Nene’s cat
Photograph by Nene Humphrey of Jane with Nene’s cat

Other things that somehow seem relevant: Jane’s lilting laughter, and the misfit cats that she and John wound up adopting. It was amazing how often people stopped to say hi when we were walking around, and how genuinely happy they always were to see her. It is difficult for me even to guess at the number of individuals out there whose lives she touched, but I do know that there are a great many people in different parts of the world who are now missing Jane in a very profound way.

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