Earlier this year, I exchanged emails with the abstract painter Andrew Marvick, Professor of Art History at Southern Utah University, on the artwork of John Foxx.
We got talking about Endlessly, and opened up one of the most fascinating and insightful conversations I have ever had on the absorbing subject of John Foxx as a visual artist. It rather became a pretty thorough deconstruction of the record sleeve, which may de-mystify it to some extent. But on the other hand, the essay opens up a million thought experiments and points of entry to a significantly under-appreciated body of work…
I’ve tried to reproduce and order the discussion here.
Marvick’s own paintings explore the effects of age and beauty – an over-riding theme in John Foxx catalogue – and I asked first him how series like A Funny Thing (2011) connected with the songs of those names from John Foxx albums:
There is always at least some sort of visual link between any of my Foxx-entitled paintings and the song or phrase I’ve attached to it. It might be a colour, or an effect of shadow and light; it might equally be a reference to meter or tempo (inasmuch as the principles of design can be seen as corresponding to the principles of musical production); or it might be a quality of composition, or of balance. Occasionally I’ll even make a vague reference to subject matter (the hint of a figure here or an overgrown city there).
A Funny Thing © Andrew Marvick
I am particularly happy when I can revel in a single John Foxx recording and find its imagery, poetry and music joined so marvelously that none seems possible without the others. [This] series of paintings, for example, was undertaken with the express purpose of showing the depth and richness of a single song. Each painting illustrates one of the song’s 18 couplets.
Marvick’s latest series is called The Peripheral Character and forms an integral part of an exhibition recently held in to present a visual expression of the philosophical ideas of identity and absence in modern abstraction:
The notion of the “peripheral character” – a minor figure in a play or a movie – as the subject of a painting was suggested to me by an odd discovery I made about the work of the British artist Dennis Leigh, who has led two separate careers under two separate names. As electronic musician John Foxx, and as a college professor and graphic designer specializing in book-jacket design and short-form art films.
Central to Dennis Leigh’s art in both music and design is the theme of the anonymous figure, of which the digitally altered composition The Quiet Man (below, black and white) is an example.
Marvick and I spoke further on how another ‘anonymous identity’ of Mr Leigh further compounds the conundrum, referencing the series of short films he ‘collected’ in 2006 under the pseudonym of Arnold Weiscz-Bryant. The soundtracks to these Tiny Colour Movies were released as an album. In A Peripheral Character by film scholar Evan Parker, Leigh introduces his audience to an intriguing Hollywood character who has appeared in hundreds of major movies and television series as a background extra, or a passer-by, often wearing a grey suit, yet whose identity is completely unknown to the public.
This characteristic further assimilates Leigh’s own alter-ego as The Quiet Man, whose face has yet to be recognisably identified in any of the short films or stolen photographs in which he has so far appeared:
Leigh has been compiling these clips over the decades, and Marvick suggests – purely for mystery’s sake – that in their careful composition and incidental presentation (and specifically in the Super 8mm compositional film by Evan Parker), he has placed responsibility for another part of his artistic output at still further remove from himself.
I extended this idea by drawing comparisons with another iconic image created by Dennis Leigh for John Foxx in 1980 – the cover of his fourth single Miles Away:
The Quiet Man is hiding in plain sight here. Revisiting an idea he first used in promotional material for the Quiet Men single in 1978. On a superficial level, it even “looks” like an artwork. A picture in a gallery, simply labelled. Present, but absent and his identity remains a mystery.
Key to this is Leigh’s awareness of the effect and significance of what Marvick refers to as ‘furtherance of the self ‘, the removal of the artist from the art by several degrees of subtle separation. This is an idea that manifests extensively in the work of the abstract modernism of the Surrealists. Leigh thus cleverly crosses over into the world of popular music, a medium in which (especially at the time of the 1980s fashionable New Romantic period) it was becoming increasingly popular for musicians to put their own face all over their records, and to become poster icons in teenage bedrooms.
Marvick describes his paintings as non-representational. They have no clear connection with the secret, aloof world inhabited by the Quiet Man / Peripheral Character / Evan Parker / John Foxx / Dennis Leigh. Yet in his current series The Peripheral Character he takes his cue from The Quiet Man composition (above).
You can see the series here
From this starting point, I asked Andrew Marvick to help piece together the philosophy, details and art historical context of my own personal favourite among John Foxx record sleeves – 1983’s Endlessly:
I have been fortunate enough in recent years to have been able to see and actually touch the original collage that was photographed for the front cover image. It’s quite large – 18″ square – and every bit as impressive and fascinating as the pictures I was first enthralled by 30 years ago. The red background is painted board and the other pieces are layered and glued on to that.
Each element contributes something subtle but significant to the whole, and the resulting collage brings together all the elements of John’s musical and artistic output. It is, as Marvick described, a Gesamtkunstwerk – a total or ideal work of art. A work of art that makes use of all or many art forms. The term is also applied to some forms of architecture, film and mass media – making it irrevocably Foxxian when set in the context of his work since Endlessly was conceived.
The centrepiece of the image (a page torn from an exhibition catalogue) is a portrait of the angel from Leonardo da Vinci’s later version of The Virgin Of The Rocks, painted in oil for a San Francescan oratory and completed in 1508, which is now exhibited in the National Gallery in London. Leonardo painted an earlier version in 1486, which now hangs in the Louvre, but it is thought this did not meet with his client’s expectations and the artist himself was not entirely satisfied with the ambiguous results of the composition.
What better image then for Foxx to use for his own re-working of a song that he originally released as a single 12 months earlier and has previously described as rushed and not entirely what he had in mind?
To make this point – admittedly to only a handful of the most keen-sighted observers – Foxx re-uses another piece of sleeve-art for 1983’s Endlessly. He previously used the angel portrait from Leonardo’s earlier painting on the cover of Slow Motion, released with Ultravox in 1978.
I found this intriguing, and contacted another academic, Dr Michael Whitworth in Oxford, when he published a book with the Slow Motion image on its front cover. What was the fascination? How, and why was the image relevant?
At some point in reworking my thesis into a book, Einstein’s Wake, I imagined the sleeve of ‘Slow Motion’ as the ideal image. A crucial argument both in thesis and book concerns the finite velocity of light, and the way it becomes an image for the belatedness of knowledge in modernity. Many expositors adopted Camille Flammarion’s ideal that, seen from a distant point in space, the Battle of Waterloo appeared to be happening in the present moment. The way the image of the woman’s face is spread across space speaks to that idea. The sequences of numbers in the margins also intrigued me, and touched on the idea that our knowledge is relative to our frame of reference; I particularly liked the way that the sequence at the left has a gap in it, as if the frame isn’t quite as reliable as it should be. I was contracted to publish with Oxford University Press, and at that date its jackets were typographically conservative (Roman fonts) and tended to include a small framed image centrally in the page; I liked the way that ‘Slow Motion’ would fit that tradition but also break it; modernist fracturing of a settled tradition.
You can read more about Michael Whitworth’s book Einsteins Wake here
This all suggests that by 1983, John Foxx was perhaps musically where he felt he was going in 1978, having undergone a transformative process with two albums in the intervening five years, each with its own defining aesthetic. He is starting afresh, an established popular musician now, with a budget and the freedom to indulge in his love of art history. And Renaissance art in particular – a period that very few musicians have used to any significant degree.
Andrew Marvick identifies another Renaissance element of the collage and puts this into an historical context, further illustrating Foxx themes of hidden identities:
The drapery study which appears in Endlessly’s back-cover collage is not simply an example of ‘endless’ folds. Like the amgel’s portrait is it “elusively allusive”, as it is very similar to an oil study here that has often been attributed to Leonardo but has more in common, as it happens, with the robes of the Virgin in Michelangelo’s early Pietà.
There are easy comparisons to be made with Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which is perhaps the first example of a direct appropriation with “annotations” added by the later artist; and with some of the more rectilinear “Merz” collages of Kurt Schwitters, which he began during the period of his close involvement with the dada movement in the later 1910s – which serves as an example of the use of unlikely bits of photographic imagery as components of a larger composition.
Schwitters (1930): Mann Soll Nicht Asen mit Phrasen (“One should not eat with phrases”)
Note the CMYK colour bars at the left side of this particular reproduction (not part of Schwitters’ original work) which John Foxx has also deliberately included as picture elements in his own work over the years. That too is referential, at least to the sort of deliberate, celebratory exploitation of the mechanical printing process which became the foundation of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Ben Day” pointillist ‘dot-based’ style during the 1960s.
The placement of the artist at several removes from a clear identity is – as presented above – central to Foxx’s own career-long artistic themes, but just as importantly through the collage technique itself, which places Foxx within the context of early 20th-century modernist collage art, as well as the dawn of what we now call conceptual art.
These connections naturally link Foxx back to Picasso and Braque c1912, simply because collage is a relatively new art form, the first serious exploration of which by any professional artist were the two inventors of cubism.
Marvick suggests there are additional, more recent connections to be suggested, too:
The “woman on a stairway” rebus that Foxx seems to be making in the image seems to me to reference Vladimir Tatlin’s famous 1919 model for the “Monument to the Third International,” as much because of the formal connection it has with Foxx’s spiral staircases as because of its iconic status in the history of radical Russian modernist formalism – here’s Schwitters’ own designed page from an issue of a dada periodical which includes an illustration of the Monument:
The reason Russian constructivism (and through it, both Dutch de Stijl and Dada layout design) become relevant to this analysis is because Foxx elsewhere has repeatedly “quoted” Vladimir Tatlin’s associate El Lissitsky in other pieces of work.
Here, for example, is a “Proun” collage by El Lissitzky from 1925.
Notice the diagrammatic red and blue lines, which Foxx re-uses in his Slow Motion collage (above):
Marvick’s reference to Tatlin and the Russian constructivists in this context led me to re-visit a very early piece from John Foxx archive, this advert for the first tour and all the responses to the track I WANT TO BE A MACHINE in which he is quite clearly referencing to photomontage work of Raoul Hausman.
In particular, Tatlin At Home, made in 1920:
Further investigation of each element in the Endlessly collage revealed countless moreallusions, references and appropriations.
In the back-cover assemblage there’s a very clear Magritte reference in the use of a cut-out half-circle of blue sky and cloud connected by wire to another bit of cloud lower down. Magritte’s Infinite Recognition (1963) is a particularly suitable example of the source image of placid, banal clouds in a blue sky, so closely connected with Magritte. This one also presaging Foxx’s use of small, illusionistic figures sharing unlikely flat spaces with abstract compositional elements.
These occur throughout Foxx’s ‘collage period’ on record covers up to those released in 1985 from In Mysterious Ways
The carefully cut-out illusionistic imagery of single human figures within the otherwise abstract, flat space of the collage has other precedents besides Magritte’s.
Abstracted figures appear in a similarly enigmatic, diagram-like context in Marcel Duchamp’s collage-on-glass, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923), as well as in several Joseph Cornell assemblages. Foxx refers to Cornell in his conversation with Iain Sinclair – and in The Wire Top-10 annotations he also refers to Edward Hopper, the American painter whose hushed, alienated representations of anonymous urban figures are almost a pre-figuration of The Quiet Man
And instantly we are connecting with artists whose works have inspired and otherwise appeared in later works by John Foxx. In 2011, he released an collaborative album of treated piano pieces with Harold Budd and Ruben Garcia entitled Nighthawks (the title of another Edward Hopper painting). The cover of this further alludes to the anonymous urban figure of the Quiet Man in one of John Foxx own photographs, itself an interpretation of Hopper’s 1942 original:
Many contemporary collage artists – among them the American Jonathan Talbot have also referenced the diagrammatic “motion line” that stems from Duchamp’s 1912 cubist painting Nude Descending a Staircase .
Here’s Orrery Patrin by Talbot:
and Foxx’s use of thread or wire in the back-cover collage recalls not only Lissitzky’s real or simulated use of string, wire or sticks but also connects with László Moholy-Nagy’s constructions of the 1920s.
Like this 1923 collage, made with sticks:
This latter piece is especially of interest because it again enables us to draw in other examples of similar from John Foxx own portfolio. Notice how it informs both sides of the sleeve produced for Dancing Like A Gun in 1981:
Using his own intuitive understanding of both art history and John Foxx Quiet Man imagery, the specific elements of this were re-visited recently by Jonathan Barnbrook for the cover of the Burning Car album:
These threads, tangents and connections are vital elements in understanding John Foxx significance as a modernist, abstract artist – but they can distract us from here into other essays and narrow alleyways of fascinating research.
I’d like to conclude with two other intricacies of the Endlessly collage that Andrew Marvick and I discussed in particular detail, which concluded our analysis of the front cover – the disfigured identity card and the ‘ghostly girl’ assemblage:
These references to early 20th-century constructivism and to early-stage Surrealism (arguably its opposite, in some ways) are by way of linking Foxx’s personal themes (failure to communicate, to make direct connections between people; and the broad but more evanescent theme [or image] of the extremely modern city dissolving into an abandoned ruin over time) to those art movements’ own modes of visual expression — each in its way was a route of escape from the mundane and familiar into the unknown/unknowable.
The Carte d’identite is of course not just any card. Foxx has specifically chosen to include the one used by the philosopher-economist Albert Hirschman (under an alias), who actually helped to get André Breton and other members of the Surrealist/Dada bunch out of Europe before the start of WWII…
The scratched-out face of Foxx’s mysterious figure fits exactly into the cloak-and-dagger symbolism of anonymity and placelessness that permeates Foxx’s own work.
I suggested to Marvick that the image of the little girl is one I have seen before in John Foxx work, but even now I cannot place it. Neither of us was able to pin down exactly what it means, or the source, but Andrew came up with two very interesting associations.
The first is the iconic painting The Piano Lesson by Henri Matisse from 1916
The second is the famous “live photograph” scene from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (released, interestingly enough, in between the two versions of Endlessy) in which the investigator Deckard inspects a few enigmatic Hopper-like photographs in search of identity.
In writing this piece up based on notes from my conversations with Andrew Marvick (and Michael Whitworth), I became very aware that it wanders all over the place and identifies various tangents that can be more or less explored at a later date. It has proved a very difficult article to conclude, mainly because the subject matter is truly Infinite In All Directions and offers an endlessly fascinating source of artistic and inspiration.
I would love to see other academics study John Foxx in some depth, write about his work and thus help with the greater understanding and significance it deserves.
For now, I will leave the last few words to Andrew Marvick, whose time, knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject are an absolute joy to share. I am deeply grateful for his generosity in sharing his time and insight with me, and allowing me to publish our conversations here.
I hope this introduction demonstrates the richness of Foxx’s visual art – and that it’s enough of a defense of Foxx’s appropriation techniques as any skeptic might demand.
From this link-to-link comparison you can quickly see how deep and rich is Foxx’s referentiality. It’s not at all an exaggeration, in my view, to say that there are few, if any artists in the history of popular music whose acuity and erudition (let alone intellectual sophistication and expressive mastery) in the visual arts are as undeniably manifest as John Foxx.