LOUISE FISHMAN: FOOTWORK IN FRONT OF THE CANVAS
a micro-interview with Elaine Sexton
ELAINE SEXTON: Given the energy and intensity of the way paint lives in your work, it makes a kind of sense that you had a passion for playing basketball that precedes your choosing to become a painter. Do you think an early and ongoing athleticism in some way informs what you have called “geometry and gesture” in your work?
LOUISE FISHMAN: There is no question that having been an athlete affords me the ability to keep working at the age of eight decades. And the rectangle has been with me since almost infancy! Truth is, even as a kid before entering school, I played street games with neighborhood kids in Philadelphia, games heavily associated with the rectangle: bottle tops, step-ball and pitching hardball on a boys team, and then four years of varsity basketball in high school. I was short though could jump higher than my taller teammates. It was my desire to keep playing basketball after high school, but there were no options for a girl back in the 1950s to pursue serious sports.
Through the games and sports activity I learned so much about my body in relation to the rectangle, indeed I honed my energy and respect for it. The energy within and at the edges has always been paramount in my work. Parallel understanding of where my foot was in relation to the edges of the court is equal to where my body, arm, hand, tools (brush and mason/carpenter tools) are in relation to the canvas/rectangle. My body in the rectangle is what my painting is all about!
When I first entered art school (1956, Philadelphia College of Art—then called Philadelphia Museum School of Art) and throughout my art education, which took a few detours as I continually left after one year or so, I had several incredible teachers. Two stand out as having guided me in fundamental and expansive ways: Karl Sherman and Dr. Herman Gundersheimer.
Through his class on Color and Design Theory, Sherman inculcated me with ideas probably formulated and expanded at the Bauhaus: a formal examination of the rectangle, its energy, edges, points of focus and power; all aspects of color: value, hue, light, intensity – all with the help of Joseph Albers and Johannes Itten color theory – and of course studying Albers’ paintings. The following year I continued my studies at Stella Elkins Tyler School of Fine Arts, an academy in the true sense of the word. There, Dr. Herman Gundersheimer taught an intensive art history course, which started in prehistory and eventually moved up through 19th century art. He introduced me to the historic development of space, time and narrative from early Dutch and Flemish painting to French and Italian art, the first attempts at still life and landscape. These studies, paired with courses that introduced me to non-western art, particularly African and Asian art, are all foundational to my studio practice. I now realize how lucky I was growing up in Philadelphia which boasts a myriad of incredible museums that I regularly visited, with my sketchbook in hand; the Barnes Foundation, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Rodin Museum, the Philadelphia Museum with the Johnson Collection of renaissance to mannerism work. The highlights for me were the Rogier van der Weyden crucifixion with its powerful flat red cloths and extraordinary expressionism. And of course, the Arensberg Collection replete with Mondrian, Duchamp, Matisse, Soutine, Cezanne and Rouault. All of these works entered into my mark making and continued dance of the sacred and profane.
My early understanding of the rectangle has continued to guide my footwork in front of the canvas/wall, my arm and hand and the extension of the brush, knives and trowels to the canvas. I used to only work on sizes that related to the full reach of my arms, but I later began working on much larger canvasses, larger than my reach and as small as the size of my palm; a kind of constant exploration of scale and its relation to my body.
I tend to work on canvases flat on the wall, but have also worked on low, flat tables, and on a large electronic easel – all in the service of extending the poetry of artmaking.
All this may give one the sense that painting for me is just a physical act. It’s NOT. It is aligned with spiritual content, art historic content and relevance to my identity as a Jew, as a woman, as a lesbian, as a lover of music, poetry, and nature in all her frailty. My experience in the studio is that the older I get the freer I feel, and the freer I feel the more these two teachers’ lessons flow in my veins.
© Copyright 2019 Louise Fishman
Louise Fishman lives and works in New York City. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, The Chicago Institute of Art, Chicago, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, and the Jewish Museum, New York, among others. In 2016 the Neuberger Museum of Art organized the artist’s first retrospective, curated by Helaine Posner. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA, held a concurrent exhibition of her small-scale work, “Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock,” curated by Ingrid Schaffner. A monograph, Louise Fishman, was published by Delmonico Books/Prestel for the exhibitions. Her recent solo exhibits include Cheim & Read Gallery, NY (2017), the Weatherspoon Art Museum l, Greensboro NC (2017), Louise Fishman – Venice Watercolours 2011–2013, Frameless Gallery/Gallery Nosco, London (2014), John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL (2009) the Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH (2007). Paintings and work on paper from the 1970s will be featured in the Spotlight section of Frieze, NY 2019 presented by Frameless Gallery/Ciprian D. Ilie.