Louise Fishman by Archie Rand

BOMB 77 Fall 2001
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In the late ’80s and early ’90s Louise Fishman began to deliver works whose icons were both hewed from paint and saturated by the very light from which they spoke. Abstract Expressionism wafted unfashionably from these compelling but oddly mute paintings. Effectively camouflaged, she has since trucked in a run of works that are deceptively uningratiating. They are, in fact, astonishingly generous and remarkably complex paintings.

I have long been intrigued by Louise Fishman’s work. I am a fan. Although slightly out of synch, she is clearly an Abstract Expressionist. And unless one is a stickler for time lines, we may as well put her in the last open slot of the first generation of Ab Ex, along with that handful who were subsequently, although sequentially, held aloft by Pollock’s breath. My reasoning works this way: Sebastiano del Piombo is a contemporary of Michelangelo, but he is clearly a follower of the master. Sarto and Pontormo appear later, but, through a display of love rather than just respect, are more Michelangelo’s children than imitators. I would similarly posit that her singular accomplishment links Fishman to the Abstract Expressionist family by blood rather than marriage.

The work of Franz Kline is one of Louise Fishman’s obvious antecedents. Kline’s favored display location is on or above the horizon. His moment addresses a community who gravely observes a consensus on the story line. In Louise Fishman’s paintings there is no acknowledged creed. However, there is a chance to hang around a little, and maybe take a cramped seat. Considering her difficult terrains, this unexpected attitude, appearing as it does in macho dress, will, for starters, throw off a percentage of the audience.

Both Kline and de Kooning drew their paintings; that is, their paintings are completed by a graphic (compositional) resolution. Fishman paints her paintings, which links her more closely to Pollock and Guston. Pollock and Guston (and sometimes Newman) produced paintings in which the discussion with paint as a transformative substance—a manna that tastes of all tastes, depending on whim and context—occurred. Only they produced an evidence that the viewer receives as a variable totality. Still and Rothko, although “painterly,” present landscapes whose unenterable stance is predicated before the process begins, exiling both the painter and the viewer from the possibility of exchange—we are left with only awe.

Picasso directed us not to “seek” but to “find.” Of the Ab Ex painters, only Pollock and Guston heeded him. Their processes finalized their fatigue by declaring a narrative discovery rather than by calling an aesthetic validator from the bench. They knew that you always find something in the last place you look.

Fishman’s work resides halfway between the Kline/de Kooning and the Pollock/Guston camps. And no one has ever painted from this position so successfully. We get image and signature but without the insistence that we dedicate our allegiance. It’s as if Mary Heilmann’s ironic and comic abstraction had suddenly become animated by Frederick Church’s manic articulation. Fishman, with scraps of postwar vocabulary, constructs a paradoxically vital void. Amazingly, places apparently life sustaining are made of the same materials as their more barren brethren. The very facts of her paintings, their diaspora colors, seem allegories of post-Holocaust survival. Stones, rivers, branches, piers, gases, monuments, vines, wind, heat, walls, runic dancers, collapsing lattices, webs—all signs of habitation—exist. Oxygen exists. We’re not sure if we’re looking at devastation or reconstruction. Her color is unexpectedly exact. The hues look European, but the situation feels American. Each painting attempts to portray some place in particular. Fishman, like a transient mollusk, a hermit crab, sets up real houses in the abandoned shells of others … she makes them home.

I am put into metaphysical paintings as stark as John Sloan’s interiorities, as dark as Bram van Velde’s valleys, as bleakly dry as Frederic Remington’s expanses or as light-clotted as Bonnard’s ether-choked rooms. A pungent air fills the lungs, yet its perfume, not quite familiar, is not unpleasant. Fishman’s space reminds me of Braque’s. A mystic, dense, yet lit Rembrandtian space. Her picture matrix seems to extend peripherally. We are surrounded, looking through and toward a midpoint. We are in these paintings. I am allowed to enter up until physically forbidden by a tangible, invisible wall. I come into contact with actual players and can go no further. Planted in the picture, I am caught. If these are not the most appealing places, I try to appreciate that if I’m not getting what I want, I’m getting what I need. I am persuaded to extend my acceptance to all of these landscapes as being potentially liveable. Soon I become grateful for my relief from flight. They are not familiar, but they are places into which I can meld. They are Jewish spaces.

In Fishman’s ecosystems things get along. Some voices are, for the moment, louder than others, but there is an egalitarian subjugation to the will of the very air in the paintings. In her paintings, as in Kline’s and Rembrandt’s, the air is everything … the air is God. Each character maintains an identifiable position, is appointed and remains attentive and alert, at its given spot, waiting to be called upon to announce its presence to the viewer. Because of this, the paintings afford the rare opportunity to indulge in shifting focus. It’s an intelligence that Picasso admired in Delacroix, and Fishman is one of the few painters still capable of summoning it. In necessarily unremarkable fields, brushed shapes assert themselves as actors with speaking parts. As their soliloquy expires our interest diminishes and they recede, freeing us to wander and investigate the remaining objects that are juggled on or under the surface. A segment of real time is activated in our viewing; Fishman shyly invites us to reassemble fresh linearities out of each collection of service-ready components and assures us that a capricious but unique chronology will be created, depending on what feature our gaze selects as home base. In some paintings the protagonist emerges intact, although still marinated in atmosphere, and in others the palpable humidity mires the players under its fog. But what seems a glaze is all carried up to the front. Without fanfare, Fishman guarantees that her paintings are always news.

Most in contrast to the Kline/de Kooning school is that Fishman’s paintings are repelled by the notion that they should practice fealty to Western structures or display a rote facility. Despite the stylistic soup from which Fishman has culled her offering, she accepts her baton from no previous runner. Like Pollock she is vulgar, or at least blatant, and like Guston she is clumsy. Like them, her language exists not as the story but as the narrator of the story. These tales are spun by a visual intellect. Her style becomes rightfully hers. Each painting resides within the most immediate avenue of navigation. The scope of her repertoire is gigantic, and to pluck the appropriate entry point she uses the most surefire but daring method of selection: affection.

Philip Roth praised his father’s generation of immigrant assimilationists for their courage in deciding what must be left behind and what could be held dear. The parade of Fishman’s paintings appears to me to be similarly Jewish in that no formula holds them to their nonetheless determined truth. The same characters may perform a flexible double duty in relentless overtime. They can become submerged, informing the greater fabric, or bristle and wedge themselves free, struggling up to the surface where they bobble in their own gasping awareness. These paintings are not fluid. Everybody is stuck in a viscosity that allows enough movement to writhe or even flex, but not enough to spring. There is a midrash that states that the plague of darkness lasted six days. For the first three you could not see your hand, and during the last three days the darkness was so thick it pinned people to the floor, crushed them under a gelatinous night. Fishman’s drenching, heartbreaking light is that substantive, and it is very slow; in these paintings, time is slow. It can repeat cyclically. William Carlos Williams wrote that repressive governments destroy the free time during which individuals can meditate. These paintings release a solemn, respectful nod to freedom. The slowness in Fishman’s work is a most unexpected call to maintain introspection and self-scrutiny. The pictures offer themselves richly and charitably. They appear, without self-aggrandizement and with a measured grace.

The Abstract Expressionists were fond of the “arena”—you put it down, have aesthetic arguments with yourself, and then—angered, disgusted, confused or triumphant—scrape it and reapply. The paint is malleable and open to abuse, orders, cajoling, and seduction. The hand and the arm dart and stroke and feign parrying. When the smoke clears, the residue, enhanced by and worthy of its veteran’s scars emerges and is recognized as deserving of admiration: a tired boy’s game, long dismissed. Who would have expected to find Louise Fishman, as hidden as Babel among the Cossacks, practicing subversion in the enemy camp? For all of the indications of physical energy expended, Fishman’s paintings offer no association with struggle or conflict.

That quick intelligence, the Ab Ex trademark, Fishman has discarded in favor of wisdom. Discursive agility has been shelved to accommodate prayer. Although it takes some time—and one has to be willing to provide that time—there is the inevitable realization that, when standing next to this wisdom, mere intelligence looks wretched, giving only limited, topical returns.

These paintings have concluded that naturally, all is risk, and that it will be weathered, and that the artist and the viewer both begin there. These paintings have concluded that foreknowledge of confrontation is simply the studio’s admission ticket. These paintings do not court the faux-naive ruse that the test of painting is fending off a sneak attack or fighting off a jabberwocky. The glory of sacrifice—now puerile and wasteful—is not beckoned onto the stage.

For Louise Fishman the claim of having served dutifully is not a sufficient insignia for the courage that Abstract Expressionism originally demanded from its thin platoon. But to arrive at even a temporarily unthreatening continuance—which intones survival—at an albeit uncomfortable stasis—is a daily conquest. Honorable, surprisingly modern and free of delusion … what largesse has been sent. And what a gracious lesson has been learned. Louise Fishman’s empirical manner masks the most unwilling of religious voices. In its experience, strength and humility that voice speaks of something as dicey, and as knowing, as thankfulness.

—Archie Rand

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Originally published in

BOMB 77, Fall 2001

Featuring interviews with James Casebere, Raimund Abraham, Julia Wolfe, Mary Robinson, Barry Hannah, Jonathan Franzen, and Barbet Schroeder. 

Read the issue
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