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May 18, 2009

A few words on a review and some questions

A post of a review from The Brooklyn Rail.

Louise Fishman

Sharon L. Butler

Cheim & Read March 26 – May 2, 2009

In stark counterpoint to the New Museum’s wryly titled Younger Than Jesus show featuring artists under 33 years old, Cheim & Read is exhibiting the Abstract Expressionist paintings of seventy-year-old Louise Fishman, an artist who has been dedicated exclusively to painting for over fifty years. Critics usually address the materiality, the densely layered paint, and the overall toughness of her canvases, noting how Fishman’s non-mimetic imagery emerges through the physical act of painting. Her tenacious approach to art practice (paint, scrape down, paint, scrape down, paint…) is certainly labor-intensive in an old-fashioned way that evokes admiration for her determined endeavor. She has ignored aesthetic wanderlust, postmodern doubt, and post-postmodern theory in favor of a singularly rigorous studio practice. Unlike the work of many younger artists, Fishman’s paintings don’t hinge on clever ideas or strategic theoretical constructs. Rather, she finds meaning in the physical process of making the art itself—a disposition that lends itself to exhaustive depth rather than expansive breadth.

Louise Fishman “All Night and All Day” (2009). Oil on canvas, 66 × 57 inches. Courtesy of Cheim & Read.

The Fishman exhibition comprises three big rooms full of large-scale paintings. They feature dark, clotty passages of dull, textured paint pulled across the expanses, some with a final topcoat of twisty, truncated strokes combed and swept across the pocky surfaces. In Fishman’s work, Gerhard Richter’s 1980s squeegeed abstractions meet Willem de Kooning’s 1950s action paintings. Fishman’s show at Cheim & Read three years ago also featured broad horizontal and vertical brush strokes, but they were more clearly aligned with a loose, grid-like structure; the colors were lighter and less abrasive. In the new work, the lattice-like openings of the notional grid seem to have been filled in like potholes on a badly worn, weather-beaten highway. The contrast is obvious and jarring. The denser, more caustic, and ostensibly unlikable nature of her new paintings suggests that Fishman, like most sentient beings, may have developed a darker view of the world over the past few years.

Yet it is only the emotional and vaguely political aspects of her work that have varied appreciably over the course of a career. Except for a brief exploration of different approaches in the 60s and early 70s, when Fishman and her feminist cohort brazenly undertook to define a new grammar of feminine artistic expression, she has mined the same Abstract Expressionist vein for upwards of forty years. Fishman’s narrow-gauged though prodigious output demonstrates that she, like many other artists of her generation (Brice Marden, Robert Mangold, Bill Jensen, Pat Steir, Robert Ryman), is uninterested in extravagant experimentation with concept, approach, or materiality. Indeed, when Fishman started painting, lifelong concentration on a single medium and prolificacy were hallmarks of the great artist. Her commitment to, and mastery of, one medium is still undeniably admirable, her replete exploration of technique fascinating in its resolute intensity.

Nevertheless, Fishman’s paintings are out of sync with current discourse. Gallery-goers and museum visitors are accustomed to seeing a variety of objects rather than so many similar canvases—unless the artist is making, say, a cynical statement about repetition, like Josh Smith’s recent show at Luhring Augustine. Instead, audiences are more familiar with and engaged by multi-tasking artists who move fluidly between media, and for whom “pluralistic” describes not just contemporary art discourse but also their own individual practices. Such aesthetic preferences seem not so much normatively better or worse than those of Fishman’s generation, but simply the inevitable product of a changed world. Now, as information of all kinds has rapidly proliferated, artists employ a wider range of media to quickly process practically unlimited aesthetic and conceptual triggers. Inexorably, then, the circumstances of post-modern life have driven the contemporary artist to a decentralized practice that surveys rather than dissects or plumbs. That reality makes Louise Fishman’s art more diffident and less accessible. At the same time, her work harks wistfully and faithfully back to a time when a painter’s canvas could embody her world.

About the Author

Sharon L. Butler is a painter and associate professor of Visual Arts at Eastern Connecticut State University. She maintains an art blog, Two Coats of Paint, at www.twocoatsofpaint.com.

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I liked this review of Fishman’s work at first reading, and with subsequent re-readings, but because I’m a little ADD, I had to go back and mine it for the backhanded compliments. The reason, is that I mine a similar vein in my work. The second reading was like picking ripe fruit off a tree.

The review seems to have some contradictions and if I break it down to one sentence, it posits Fishman's work as not being relevant to today’s discourse primarily because she has remained steadfast in her convictions as a painter and an ab-ex one at that...

"Rather, she finds meaning in the physical process of making the art itself—a disposition that lends itself to exhaustive depth rather than expansive breadth.

"...Her replete exploration of technique fascinating in its resolute intensity."
"Yet it is only the emotional and vaguely political aspects of her work that have varied appreciably over the course of a career."
"The denser, more caustic, and ostensibly unlikable nature of her new paintings suggests that Fishman, like most sentient beings, may have developed a darker view of the world over the past few years."

Finding meaning in the making is not necessarily a vertical practice, and surveys are not necessarily expansive. Practically everything stated supports a conceptual and engaging painting practice, maybe not one that is ‘extravagant,' but nonetheless, conceptual. And maybe that’s the problem, it seems like another stab at raising the “painting is dead” argument. The review is interesting as a compare and contrast to the Jesus show, but I'm not getting how this makes Fishman's work inaccessible, diffident and out of sync with current discourse.

Link to the NYT review of Younger than Jesus.

Questions:
-What defines a conceptual practice?
-What does it mean to be accessible?
-How do you define current discourse without being exclusive?
-What do you think the status of painting is today?

2 comments :

CAP said...

I posted the below comments on Steve Larose's blog, but they fit here just as well -

I disagree with Sharon’s analysis of dedication to painting being old school or hat. Versatility has been around as long as diversity. Artists have painted, printed and sculpted, in Michelangelo’s case, planned buildings (I struggle to find a verb for architecture). Da Vinci designed costumes and stage sets for street pageants. Versatility is not the difference between Fishman and a younger generation, or too.

Fishman’s vocabulary for painterly abstraction is no longer shared because ‘paint’ is no longer tethered to her preferred means of application. Drawing is no longer geared to a strict set of fundamental forms. The line between ‘abstraction’ and ‘figuration’ all but dissolves in much work since at least the 80s (see esp Polke, Kippenberger, Oehlen - notice they’re all Germans?).

Anyway, Butler’s right about the nostalgic vibe, but if she looked a little harder she’d find conservative, doctrinaire and academic buzzing in there as well.

Because she all but admits to this complacency, with the line that Fishman and similar are ’ uninterested in extravagant experimentation with concept, approach, or materiality’. Yet surely this is precisely what art is predicated on? Artists would never have embarked upon abstraction if they were not curious about basic questions of concept, approach and materiality, and would not have experimented extravagantly if they thought traditional parameters were adequate.

Nor do I find anything’ brazenly feminist’ about Fishman’s gestures and color sense. What does a feminist brushstroke look like, again? What colors are women or feminists allowed?

If there’s another agenda to Butler’s remarks it’s to reinforcing her own practice.

M.A.H. said...

Thanks for your response CAP. I plan on investigating this discussion further myself.