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.
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.
ContributorSharon L. Butler
Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.