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On a Journey Begun Again Many Times

Louise Fishman's work has long mirrored her evolving political and spiritual outlook.


Louise Fishman's abstract paintings conform only to her feelings at the moment of their creation. Some of the paintings are built from muscular blocks of impure colors: teal, brick, flesh. Others are woven with sensuous curves in colors such as pewter and sage. Some are scaled to appear grand, others intimate. A practicing Buddhist, she says that her goal is to be present before the canvas as she brushes on the layers of oil paint. "The paintings are like meditations," she says in her distinct New York City accent.

Fishman, 63, has been called a "third-generation Abstract Expressionist," and her debut Los Angeles exhibition, from Saturday to June 1, is being held at the Manny Silverman Gallery, which shows many of the so-called first- and second-generation Abstract Expressionists. Fishman readily admits her admiration for those groundbreaking artists of the 1950s, especially Franz Kline. A few of the 10 oil paintings in her show reveal the influence of his bold, choppy strokes, while the three paintings on paper are splashed with sprays of black.

Art critic Michael Brenson wrote in a catalog essay for her 1993 retrospective at the Tyler Galleries of Temple University in Elkins Park, Pa., "Fishman's spirituality helps explain why her pictorial searching is so patient and why her paintings, however muscular, are not aggressive. And why her monumentality is intimate."

Fishman came to her current expressive style after years as a pioneer of the Feminist Movement, which rejected the lifestyle as well as the artistic methods of the hard-drinking, macho Ab Ex group. Her creative journey of the past 30 years has been the reconciliation of these two seemingly antithetical movements: Reached at her studio in Manhattan, Fishman recalled that more than once, "I had to start from scratch. I had to undo everything so I could start as a beginner."

As a youngster growing up in Philadelphia, Fishman was consumed with playing basketball, not with emulating her mother and late aunt, both painters. But the issues of Artnews magazine around the house, especially the photographic essays of painters in action, made an impact. Her father, who was an accountant, hoped she would choose a practical career, but instead she fell in love with painting.

This lifelong love affair led Fishman to attend the Philadelphia College of Art and Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before earning bachelor of fine arts and bachelor of science degrees from Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University, in 1963. Two years later, she completed her master of fine arts degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

She was trained in the traditional manner to grind her own pigments to make oil paint and to draw and sculpt from a life model. After moving to New York City in 1965, she abandoned figurative work to make grid paintings influenced by the Minimalist Sol Lewitt. Then, in 1970, her political sensibilities underwent the radical shift that changed her art.

"I had to look at my training and history and finding no women and what does that mean for me and my identity," she recalls briskly. She adds that as a lesbian and woman, she found her outlook and painting were fundamentally transformed as she attended the consciousness-raising sessions of that era. "Politics influenced my decision to stop painting the grids," she says.

"It was probably one of the most exciting periods for me," she adds. "Suddenly, it became clear in the context of consciousness-raising, many of my premises needed to be clarified and undone. The first thing I did was cut up the grid paintings and reassemble them."

Throughout the 1970s, influenced by the work of the late Eva Hesse (the subject of a show now at the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art), Fishman stitched canvases and used liquid latex. She also made paintings with calligraphic gestures that were influenced by the journal writing of other women in her consciousness-raising group. A work of four unstretched panels with a visual narrative and the specifically feminist title "Victory Garden for the Amazon Queen," was chosen for the 1973 Whitney Biennial.

Despite that personal victory, her growing awareness had unleashed a fury at past injustices. "I was in a rage that it had taken me so long to come into my own, that I had to struggle six times as hard as the guys to do what they slid into very easily. That anger was poisoning me so I had to put it someplace." It was manifested as the "Angry Paintings." The first was an abstract self-portrait emblazoned with the words "Angry Louise."

In 1975, Fishman was a visiting artist teaching at the Art Institute in Chicago and because of the small size of her studio, decided to paint ideas on paper for paintings that she would finish when she returned to New York. For a couple of years, she had been working on randomly cut shapes of plywood. But the process of working on rectangles of white paper led her back to a more traditional form of painting in 1978.

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