Louise Fishman at Cheim & Read
March 26 – May 2, 2009
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 242 7727
At 70, Louise Fishman continues to gather strength as a painter fueled by headlong passion and sheer nerve. Of the generation that includes Mary Heilman, Bill Jensen and Brice Marden Fishman has not been as widely celebrated as these abstract peers; perhaps it is this slight underdog position that spurs her on.
In earlier decades, she investigated her identity as a painter in a number of formal, political, personal and historical-cultural directions. A work by her from around 1971, a fairly small, two-part gray canvas, chalk and rope construction—as chic as a pair of clutch purses—was one of the highlights of the 2007 exhibition “High Times/Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-1975” and revealed Fishman as a stylist, concerned already at that early date with method over message. Still, how to introduce particular subject matter into painting was her nominal concern into the 1990’s.
In her “Angry” series of paintings on paper, for example, from around 1973, which literally named names that she blamed for her frustrations as an artist, the text portions of the works were surrounded by a stitching-and-patterning-cum-lyrical-abstraction painted border; the color is all muted blues, reds, greens and grays. There was a degree of taste along with discontent in works that aided her in politicizing her consciousness as a feminist lesbian.
Following this series she returned to using conventional stretched canvas supports and among works of various sizes up to about 2 x 2 feet, she produced a series of small, thickly applied oil-paint-on-canvas works from around 1980 with a palette-knifed spiral motif. Made at The MacDowell Colony, a palpable light of the forest shone within them. Fishman has always been intent on making scale changes, and the power of these diminutive works — some were only around 6 x 8 inches — led to her ability to maintain an intricately articulated surface, as the paintings grew larger.
Then in 1988, after a trip to Auschwitz and other former concentration camps in Poland with a holocaust survivor couple Fishman executed an extensive series of works—darkly foggy, muffled crucibles—conceived as remembrances that embraced her Jewish inheritance. Fishman mixed in the paint with a small amount of soil from sites she had visited. Fishman had been asking very specific things of her chosen medium: how does one make it relevant to oneself and one’s history? How does one possess it? How do you filter your experiences through it?
It would seem that, for these past twenty years and with these questions answered, Fishman was relieved of any qualms about throwing herself wholeheartedly into gestural expressionism. This most recent exhibition is as much in conversation with other painters of this idiom, past and present, as it is with her own emotional response to her medium. Two contemporary painters in particular came to mind at various moments, former and current gallery mates Dona Nelson, who generally makes larger paintings than Fishman, and Bill Jensen, who makes smaller ones.
There are number of works in acrylic in this show, a first for Fishman in many years. Arctic Sea (2007,) with its blobby skeins of foreground blacks, is reminiscent of Nelson’s pours. The blacks float before a shimmering illusionistic field largely made up of yellow and gray shiny chisel-like swipes that seem to hollow out an interior space. These had to be rendered with a brush, which is one of the main drawbacks of acrylic for this artist, as she can’t chip off chunks of dried oil paint, one of her signature moves. In a painting such as Cooked and Burnt (2007) small divots created with some small pick-like blade seem to return air to dried humus of built up emerald green pigment. Near it, a fragment of a painted cross, done in runny, wet light blue imposes itself over rust-colored underpainting. There is paint applied with a dry brush toward the middle section and cross wipes from a large trowel that spill from the lower left.
One of the more interesting developments is that Fishman’s paint has become denser and slower. Some of the fast liquidity of American abstract-expressionism is here but no more so than, say, School of London painting, evidenced by the fecal, dagger-like shapes in the large slashing dynamo, Embrace the Tiger (2009) and the tachisme of Nicolas De Stael in the impastoed patches in the diminutive, still-life-like Bottom (2009.)
In Telling (2007,) Fishman produces her version of what has become a Bill Jensen staple, the gestural monochrome. She increases the scale, and creates a dark indigo simulacrum of a freshly patted-down grave. After burying the surface in an endless network of fully loaded brushstrokes, it appears that fishman’s touch became lighter and lighter, so that an invisible scrim seems to bind together its seeping, runny facture.
Fugitive (2008,) my personal favorite in the show, is a very composed picture but seems as improvisational as the rest. It has an Ecole de Paris air of late Fautrier in its black ground and brown, white and grey marks, flirting with trompe l’oeil in the use of a serrated edge similar to Braque’s favorite wood graining tool, disrupting the foreground marks. Like all the works here, it didn’t seem to start within proscribed limits but ended there and reminds us that the primary content of serious painting is not performance but evidence of the means at arriving at an encompassing and complete statement.