The 1970s was a period of experimentation for Quebecois artist Françoise Sullivan (b.1923), as for many artists of her generation. One of the preoccupations they shared was an interest in the commodification of art and what they considered to be its senseless accumulation in institutions. As Sullivan explained in 1973, “I have in my heart a great love for art, but I am uncomfortable when I say that word. The artist devotes his life to doing a job that is becoming impossible. Our world is saturated with art objects. What should he do then?” It seemed that the art world was falling apart.
Sullivan defined conceptual art as a “mental approach on the part of the artist.” For her, “the means and materials by which [artists] concretize this approach [are] of secondary importance. This attitude gives priority to attitude over achievement.” This experimental approach gave her the latitude to freely explore photography, photomontage, writing, and performance art. At Galerie III in Montreal in 1973 she showed personal mementoes and notebooks from a recent trip to Italy, as well as her bodily fluids, in an exhibition simply titled Françoise Sullivan.
Some of Sullivan’s best-known works from the period are performances. They belong to what Allan Kaprow (1927–2006), a pioneer in establishing the concepts of performance art, had described in the early 1960s as Happenings. These were art events that did not fit in the established traditions of visual arts, theatre, or dance but nevertheless allowed artists to experiment with body motion, sounds, the environment, and written and spoken texts while interacting with other performers or the public. Sullivan’s first performances consisted of loosely scripted walks that were documented photographically. In 1970 she walked from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal to the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. As she strolled she took pictures of what she saw. In 1973 she had herself photographed as she explored an industrial park populated with oil refineries in Montreal’s east end. In 1976 she created a guided walk for the public through Montreal’s cultural past, involving exhibition cases and panels she had placed on the sidewalks. And in 1979 she produced Choreography for Five Dancers and Five Automobiles, a piece to be walked and danced, during which five performers and five automobiles intermingled in Old Montreal.
In other instances, she explored repetition, and the construction and deconstruction of open and closed spaces. Around 1971, inspired by a dream of being shut out of her own home, Sullivan began to photograph doors and windows in condemned buildings. While in Italy and Greece, she created photomontages of suburban houses and phone booths filled with large stones. During a trip to Ireland, Sullivan embarked on a series of intensely physical performances in which she painstakingly moved stones of different sizes to block and unblock doors and windows (Blocked and Unblocked Window [Fenêtre bloquée et débloquée], 1978). This was a reference to a social history in Ireland, when British lords applied a housing tax on a home’s number of apertures and the Irish resisted by blocking their windows and doors.
In 1979, in a Happening titled Accumulation that took place at the Ferrare museum in Italy, she cleared a doorway by removing the stones that blocked it, arranging them into a large circle in an open space. Meanwhile, inside the museum, a young woman was dancing Daedalus (Dédale), Sullivan’s choreography from 1948. She also made works that integrated the ruins of Delphi, Greece, using them as a material more than as a backdrop: for example, in Shadow (Ombre), 1979, she had herself photographed by David Moore (b.1943) as she walked through them, creating shadows with her body on the wide expanses of stones.
The same ideas recur in many of these works in a variety of mediums. Sullivan highlights the poetry of everyday life, blurring the lines between art, life, and dream, exploring contemporary ways to understand archetypes and myth. The medium becomes secondary; for Sullivan “[w]hat really counted was the idea.”
This Essay is excerpted from Françoise Sullivan: Life & Work by Annie Gérin.