50 Years in the Field: Jo Farb Hernández and Singular Spaces II

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Jo Farb Hernández took on the enormous task of stepping into the role of SPACES Director following the death of Founder Seymour Rosen in 2006. She oversaw moving the Archives from Los Angeles to Aptos, California, organizing the vast array of materials and making them accessible to the public. After more than a decade at the helm, her final project before her retirement in 2019 was transitioning SPACES to the care of the Kohler Foundation in Kohler, Wisconsin, where it remains a preservation project today. We recently caught up with Jo to see what she's been up to since then, including the recent release of the second volume of Singular Spaces, her extensive documentation of art environments in Spain.  


Jo Farb Hernández at the Vicente Moreno site in Andalucía, 2019. Photo: Thomas K. Seligman

You’ve had so many changes in the past few years. Can you share what you’ve been up to?

I retired from my fulltime jobs directing SPACES and running the gallery/teaching at San José State University at roughly the same time: summer 2019 (I am now Director Emerita and Professor Emerita, respectively). But while those changes gave me more freedom on a day-to-day basis, they didn’t necessarily decrease my work load, as I then doubled down on the second phase of my massive Spanish art environment project. I had never really had the luxury of an extended period of dedicating myself fulltime to a research/writing project, and retiring from these organizations enabled me to “finish” the project years before I might have been able to otherwise. (I put “finish” in quotes because even as I was correcting final galleys for the book, I was learning about still more environments around Spain that I somehow had missed in my 23 years of investigations around the country!) 


In your research for your newly released book Singular Spaces II, did you come across any unexpected or surprising stories? Can you share one that left a lasting impression?

One of the great joys of working in this genre is meeting the artists and learning about how their life experiences have fueled the passion to create and construct such monumental spaces. And because each site is unique, each narrative about the creator’s inspiration and intention is also unique, and each tugs at my heart in different ways. That being said, I was particularly drawn to some of the female builders, who were so constricted in their creative efforts by social, cultural, or family obligations, yet who persevered to create remarkable artwork that can stand with the best of this genre on a worldwide basis.


María Rodríguez Rodríguez's site in Andalucía. Photo: Jo Farb Hernández, 2016

Manuel Lorenzo Tarela, Galicia. Photo: Jo Farb Hernández, 2019

How does SS II build upon or diverge from the themes and examples presented in the first volume? Are there new trends or developments that you've observed in the realm of art environments in Spain (and/or elsewhere)?

Having passed my fiftieth year studying art environments, my understanding of the genre is both reinforced and expanded by each new site I study: while I see familiar materials and techniques, for example, the parameters of who might be motivated to create such monumental sites, and why, seem increasingly permeable. And because I believe there is no one single reason an artist might be included within this genre, likewise there is no single reason one might be excluded: we humans are so diverse that qualifying/disqualifying factors can never be specifically defined in the abstract. 

As an expert in the field, what do you hope readers will take away from SS II? Are there broader implications or lessons from these artists that you think will resonate with a wider audience or have an impact beyond the art world?

Leaving ourselves open to creativity, however it may manifest, and learning to assess what we see through consideration not only of a range of academic disciplines, but of the personal interactions we have with the artists and their works, is a much more realistic way to truly understand art of any kind. Yet this is a strategy that is rarely employed, given the necessity of investing so much time in the subject. Nevertheless, I believe that art environments may be enjoyed on the same two levels that one may use when approaching art of any kind: on a gut level – do I like or appreciate what I see and how it was made? – as well as/or on a more informed level, which is leveraged by the kind of profound research that I have engaged in. Both are legitimate, and both bring joy. It is also worth emphasizing, as I wrote in the introduction, “This field is diverse and complex, and arriving at a comprehensive understanding and appreciation requires reflection, over time, from multiple perspectives, in the same way that the sites themselves do. And as this scholarly approach parallels the multidimensional process of physical engagement with the environments, it can fundamentally change the ways we view and interpret all kinds of artworks and how we acknowledge and value the myriad of (sometimes conflicting) impulses behind each creative act.”


Manuel Ollés Andreu's site in Catalunya. Photo: Jo Farb Hernández, 2023


You’ve completed the enormous task of documenting a huge number of art environments in Spain. What’s next for you? (After taking a well-deserved break!) 

Actually, I didn’t really end up taking a break! Heartbreakingly, my husband Sam suddenly passed away while I was in the process of correcting galleys for Singular Spaces II, and while of course I have been semi-overwhelmed with the paperwork and legal issues occasioned by his death, I found that I needed to have another consuming project in order to steer my mind away from my grief. Consequently, as a result of Nick Casey’s amazing New York Times article that ran on my work last June, I was invited by TRA Publishing, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to write a book on architecturally-based art environments in the U.S. So, despite my assurances that I was done with major projects for a while, I have agreed to do so, and will be collaborating with Fred Scruton, photographer extraordinaire, to document a range of exteriors and interiors across the country. And although it won’t be as encyclopedic as my books on Spanish art environments, it will be a pleasant change not to have to do all the heavy lifting by myself. I am very much looking forward to revisiting sites I haven’t seen for decades as well as engaging with others for the very first time. 


Armando Baigorri Laguardia, Navarra. Photo: Jo Farb Hernández, 2021


Top image: Antonio Padrón Barrera's site in the Canary Islands. Photo: Jo Farb Hernández, 2018

This interview with Jo Farb Hernández was conducted by Annalise Flynn via email February 2024.

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