Louise Fishman (1939–2021)
July 27th, 2021
Louise Fishman, whose process-based large-scale abstractions draw on queer, feminist, and Jewish cultures, died early July 26 at the age of eighty-two. The news was confirmed by New York gallery Karma, which represents the artist. Often working with a grid motif, Fishman melded gestural abstraction with geometric minimalism to create densely layered and textured paintings that appear as if they had been built or woven. From the massive, energetic oil-on-canvas works for which she became known in the 1970s and ’80s, to the small-scale watercolors of recent years, her entire body of work radiates emotional intensity.
Born in Philadelphia in 1939, Fishman began her artistic career in her hometown, studying at the Philadelphia College of Art and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the late 1950s before obtaining her BFA and BS from the Tyler School of Art, while working night shifts as a salesgirl. In 1965, she received her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; she later credited her move from Philadelphia and attendant discovery of the feminist and lesbian movements as shaping the path her life and career would take. “I’d watched my mother and my aunt, who is a well-known painter in Philadelphia, be isolated and stepped on,” she told Artforum’s Becky Huff Hunter in 2016. “It was hard to imagine a career as a female artist then—but I loved painting.”
Shortly after graduating from the University of Illinois, Fishman moved to New York, hoping to enter the world of hard-edge Abstract Expressionism, by which she was hugely influenced, but found the male-dominated scene unwelcoming. During the late 1960s, as she became more active in the feminist movement, Fishman temporarily pushed painting aside in favor of textile works, which were more in line with those of her feminist peers, but continued to stick to her favorite form, creating sewn or stapled latticework assemblages of fabric or rubber that recalled at once the wobbly grids of Mary Heilmann and the dangling appendages of Eva Hesse.
Fisher made a powerful return to painting in the early 1970s with the “Angry Women” paintings of 1973, in which she paired the names of fellow female artists (and herself) with the word “angry.” She continued to make wall-bound works incorporating scraps of wood and cardboard throughout the decade before focusing in earnest on oil-on-canvas gestural abstraction, which was at the time wildly out of vogue. Working with knives, trowels, and scrapers, she began creating thickly impastoed and scumbled works whose surfaces called out to be touched. She would work in this vein over the next decade. A 1988 trip to Eastern Europe with a friend who was a Holocaust survivor caused Fishman to reexamine her Jewish identity, long a lodestar in her painting, and had a profound impact on her work beyond this point. Having brought back ashes from Auschwitz, Fishman mixed the cremains with beeswax for her late-1980s series “Remembrance and Renewal,” which honored those who died while illuminating the various rituals associated with Jewish springtime holidays.
Following a fire in her upstate New York studio that destroyed most of her work, Fishman spent time in New Mexico with the painter Agnes Martin and returned to the grid, though in an altered form, one in which each stroke might appear, as Nancy Princenthal suggested in Art in America, as a “shaft of light.” The late 1990s saw her incorporate Chinese characters into her works, and the breakup of a long-term romantic relationship at the beginning of the new millennium forced fiercer, twisted forms. Fishman’s work of the past two decades, with its explosive scrapes and smears, is considered by many to be her best. Writing in the Brooklyn Railon a show of Fishman’s work at Karma late last year, titled “Ballin’ the Jack,” Ksenia Soboleva referred back to Fishman’s fiery early years, noting, “While there is no text in the new pieces on view, I feel that angry Louise is still there, lurking underneath the surface. Watch out, boys: Louise Fishman, going full speed ahead.”