Fully Fathoming Louise Fishman: Two Surveys of Her Work
Louise Fishman: A Retrospective at The Neuberger Museum of Art
April 3 to July 31, 2016
735 Anderson Hill Road (at Brigid Flanagan Drive)
Purchase, NY, 914 251 6100
Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock at the Institute of Contemporary Art
April 29 to August 14, 2016
118 South 36th Street (at Sansom Street)
Philadelphia, 215 898 7108
Entering “Louise Fishman: A Retrospective,” at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, NY, feels like balancing on a raft that is inadequate to cross the ocean it is floating on. The exhibition, organized by chief curator Helaine Posner, comprises more than 50 paintings and drawings created between 1968 and the present, and demonstrates the achievement of an artist whose work has invigorated the language of abstract painting. A concurrent exhibition, “Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, offers an instructive companion to this long-overdue survey. That show, curated by Ingrid Shaffner, explores a selection of small sculptures, leporellos (folded artist’s books), and five large paintings that reveal the breadth and scale of Fishman’s oeuvre.
My respect for Fishman’s work did not come automatically, as I initially perceived a bluntness in the work; it resisted entry. Over time, and with experience in the thicket of artmaking, her paintings have worked me over, and the Neuberger retrospective’s tight selection facilitates this effort. Posner’s mindful arrangement within the museum’s galleries gives Fishman’s work plenty of room to breathe, explicating the artist’s conceptual and spiritual concerns and revealing her creative trajectory. Smaller works on paper, arranged on freestanding walls in the center of the main gallery are less effectively supported. In the cavernous space of this gallery, they may have resonated more powerfully if positioned in tighter clusters. Seen in its entirety, however, the retrospective inspires a sense of awe, and finally, situates Louise Fishman within the tradition of American painting rooted in Abstract Expressionism and furthered through her singular vision and endeavor.
The earliest work in the exhibition, In and Out (1968), contains four wing-like shapes, flatly painted in pinks and black that open in an irregular symmetry from an implied vertical line at the canvas’s center. Graphite lines visible through the white ground reveal subtle adjustments to the hard-edged shapes as color creates a strong spatial pulse. To my eye, the painting speaks to the central core imagery that was being developed by feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, though Fishman attributes it more directly a response to Al Held’s black-and-white abstractions of 1967–69.
During the 1970s, in the crucible of New York’s emerging feminist movement, Fishman became acutely aware of gender discrimination and acknowledged her own isolation as a lesbian. As if to destroy the influence of the male-artist power structure, Fishman cut apart her canvases, reworking them into small sculptures oriented along a grid. Confronting her disdain for traditionally feminine work, she employed stitching, dying, and weaving. Untitled (1971), reminiscent of an abacus, is made of rubber, graphite, string, and staples on tracing paper. Transversed by a twisted thread, the amber hue of the rubber resembles skin knitting itself together or the ruled lines of an illuminated manuscript, influenced by Fishman’s childhood exposure to Hebrew texts. Fishman knew Eva Hesse, but her encounter with the 1971 memorial exhibition of Hesse’s work at the School of Visual Arts was the catalyst for her decision to work with that material.
The Angry Paintings of 1973 came out of Fishman’s deepening self-awareness in the consciousness-raising gatherings she attended. Her pain and rage were unleashed in a series of 30 text-based paintings identifying the artist’s contemporaries and predecessors. Ti-Grace Atkinson and Djuna Barnes were among those whose names were inscribed in bold letters obscured by slashes and drips. While they are the least formally interesting of Fishman’s works to me, these protestations are nevertheless unique documents of the living history of feminism, even today, when women who express anger still risk stigma.
Life has been drained from the tempered grays, ashen blacks, and steel blues of Fishman’s Remembrance and Renewal series. Inspired by a 1988 visit to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Terezín, Fishman made a group of paintings that were given Hebrew titles from Passover. Into her colors, Fishman mixed silt collected from the Pond of Ashes at Auschwitz, creating the granular surface of Haggadah (1988). Dybbuk (1990) comprises a reddish-black grid, like prison bars enclosing a sequence of dimly lit windows — the result of swiping brushstrokes dragged through the oily pigments. In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is the earthbound soul of someone who has died, unable to be released. These elegiac works reflect Fishman’s concern with painting’s capacity to reflect psychological and physical states of imprisonment, just as they became a medium for transforming her grief upon witnessing the Holocaust sites.
Seven monochromatic paintings from the early 1990s represent an exponential leap in subject matter, scale, and surging physical gesture. Iron Sharpens Iron (1993) contains three charcoal-black bands on a white ground that stretch 10 feet up the canvas, then diverge. Fishman’s use of drywall knives and trowels yields a textural vocabulary of scraped and crusted surfaces, absorbing and reflecting light like hammered or rusted metal. The title, from a passage in the Book of Proverbs, means that through interaction and conflict we sharpen one another. Her history as a competitive athlete is also embedded within the aesthetic concerns of this work. Fishman relates her command of the boundaries of the canvas, gestural velocity, and physical confidence to pitching hardball and playing basketball as a teenager.
For There She Was is a magnificent, darkly luminous painting of 1998, whose title is appropriated from the last sentence in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The relationship between two characters who metaphorically merge into one comes to mind, as every color is turning into another. With interlocking passages of blue, gray-violet and black shot through with cadmium red-orange and burnt sienna, Fishman has created a vibrating field that reminds me of a Chinese garden at dusk. A collector of Chinese scholar’s rocks, Fishman also acknowledges that the landscape surrounding her old farmhouse upstate, as well as the practice of Buddhism has given her the ability to better understand her work as an artist.
Using paint’s viscosity as a metaphor for the power of water to buoy, submerge, and destroy, Fishman’s arm makes rapid swipes, cuts, and scrapes throughout her Raft of the Medusa (2011) and The Salty-Wavy Tumult (2012). J.M.W. Turner’s gory whaling pictures, with their allover facture, were not far from the artist’s mind as she smeared and twisted her reds around spumes of white in Margate (2015). Kreisleriana, (2015), divides the canvas into vertical bands of fiery yellows, reds, and blues that suggest the emotional contrasts of Robert Schumann’s work for solo piano. Because music is the most abstract art form, paintings in response to it can often be lame (illustrative) equivalents. That doesn’t happen here.
I see Fishman’s paintings in this domain as a reflection of her deep intellect and nuanced understanding of spatial and rhythmic structure. They are influenced by the focus and attention of a deep listener, but they are independent objects. At the top of her game, Louise Fishman translates aural, physical, and visual experiences into radiant and muscular works of art whose tension is maintained by the grid that anchors her fierce gesture. Her hard-won joie de vivre, born of new travels, immersion in music, and a contented relationship, underscore this substantive, if belated retrospective.