Krannert Art Museum mourns the passing of Louise Fishman, an artist whose unwavering commitments to both abstraction and feminism will continue to thrive through her work. Fishman was a process-driven painter whose canvases often matched the reach of her arms, showing evidence of scrapers, trowels, and other materials that she applied to add texture or transfer wet paint away from the surface. Fishman’s devotion to such physical ways of working and her many references to literature, music, and queer life were inseparable from her efforts to transcend society’s restrictions on her various identities: Jewish, lesbian, feminist. Her work and life provide a model for an affirming practice and for making kinship among those one loves.
Following her undergraduate training at the Tyler School of Art in her birth city of Philadelphia, Fishman in her words, “headed west” to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she earned an MFA in painting and printmaking in 1965. The School of Art + Design honored Fishman with a distinguished alumni award in 2019. Her return to campus included a memorable lecture, MFA studio visits, and a reunion with Blonde Ambition (1995), a stellar canvas KAM acquired early that year.
Fishman’s painterly obsessions were highly varied and deeply passionate. She was equally interested in such objects as Duccio’s twelfth-century Maestà, Paul Cézanne’s bathers, scholars’ rocks from China, the expressiveness of paintings by Franz Kline or Chaim Soutine, and Titian’s works she visited during frequent sojourns in Venice with her wife Ingrid Nyeboe. Her attachments also included the artists Agnes Martin and Eva Hesse, whom Fishman knew and memorialized in a small drawing in the Jewish Museum’s collection. In her 1977 essay “How I Do It: Cautionary Advice from a Lesbian Painter,” in the journal Heresies, Fishman wrote about influence:
Try not to cut whole bodies of work out of your vision unless you’ve looked at them and studied them thoroughly: don’t stop looking at El Greco because he’s not Jewish, or Chardin because he’s not an abstract painter or Matisse because he’s not a lesbian. By all means look at Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keefe and Eva Hesse. But don’t forget Cézanne, Manet and Giotto. If good painting is what you want to do, then good painting is what you must look at. Take what you want and leave the dreck.
KAM will open a career-spanning exhibition of Fishman’s works on paper on August 26, 2021, one month from the date of her death. A Question of Emphasis: Louise Fishman Drawing has become an unexpected memorial to the artist and to the histories and communities she embraced in her work. The exhibition’s catalogue includes full color reproductions, fold-outs of Fishman’s leporello (accordion-bound) books, and essays by myself, artists and scholars Jill H. Casid and Catherine Lord, and a conversation between Fishman and artist Ulrike Müller.
Author: Amy L. Powell, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art (August 2021)