Academic journal article The Hudson Review

At the Galleries

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

At the Galleries

Article excerpt

At the Galleries

The past season had the expected share of the group shows that are the summer staple of museums and galleries, but there was also no shortage of provocative alternatives. For admirers of tough, intelligent abstract painting, there was Louise Fishman's retrospective at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, an ambitious selection spanning a half-century of exploration, starting with her earliest years as an activist in the feminist and gay liberation movements. Organized by Helaine Posner, the Neuberger's chief curator, the show, surprisingly, was the first full-scale overview of the seventy-seven-year-old Fishman's distinguished history. Even for those of us who have been paying close attention to her exhibitions for some time, the Neuberger's survey was full of revelations.

"Start in the big room," I was urged by a colleague of Fishman's, herself a first-rate abstract painter. Once at the museum, I understood why. The largest gallery was dedicated to the artist's mature abstractions: uncompromising paintings, most of them large, whose energetic strokes, slashes, and scrubbings, we learned, were informed by Fishman's response to such stimuli as a visit to Auschwitz, the light on the canals of Venice, Venetian old master painting, the work of J. M. W. Turner, and, I suspect, a great many other unnamed triggers. Yet these bold paintings seemed to be as much about Fishman's ability to charge the transfer of paint to a flat surface with intense feeling as about lived experience. Such basic moves as reasserting the vertical and horizontal givens of the canvas or layering expanses of melting strokes became eloquent, as did an inventively orchestrated range of "off' colors: earthy tones, blackbrown-grays, deep oceanic hues, elusive murky pales. In the strongest works, a satisfying harmony of scale, gesture, and subdued color, combined with simmering energy, demonstrated just how expressive an apparendy straightforward iteration of the act of painting could be.

"Start in the big room" was useful advice, in terms of the consistent excellence of the exhibited paintings, but it was fascinating to trace Fishman's somewhat uneven evolution through the show's earlier works. Beginning with her small fabric pieces and gridded pictures from the 1960s, we could follow her investigations over the next decade, as she tested-rather erratically-the resonance of a variety of materials and approaches including geometric mixed-media constructions and severely disciplined "straight" painting. At the same time, she was assembling an arsenal of marks and structures en route to full-bore abstractions. Many works seemed typical of the more ragged aspects of the 1970s, yet they also hinted at the emergence of an individual voice, most clearly in the "Angry Paintings," a series of fierce improvisations on the names of female artists, including Angry Louise. As the most recent works in the "big room" made plain, that ferocity continues to animate Fishman's mature abstractions, tempered, perhaps, by time, to coexist with a highly personal kind of lyricism. Fishman is one of our major painters. I'm grateful to the Neuberger for providing some insight into her history, but seeing the trajectory of her work has only made me more impatient for her next exhibition.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida, "Confronting the Canvas: Women of Abstraction" offered vivid evidence that Fishman's passionate commitment to abstract painting is strong among a new generation of women. Organized by Jaime DeSimone, Jacksonville MOCA's Assistant Curator of Exhibitions, the show included works by Keltie Ferris, Maya Hayuk, Jill Nathanson, Fran O'Neill, Jackie Saccoccio, and Anke Weyer. All now live and work in New York, but Weyer and O'Neill emigrated from Germany and Australia, respectively, and Ferris, Hayuk, and Saccoccio were born and educated elsewhere in the U.S.; Nathanson is a native New Yorker. Given the varied backgrounds of the six women, it's not surprising that their work is notably diverse, but it's also accurate to say that DeSimone's selection emphasized their personal definitions of abstraction, through approaches ranging from crisp geometry to unstable near-pixilations, from robust full-arm swipes to insistent drips to serene pools, and a lot in between-the legacy of Abstract Expressionist emotion admixed with Color Field cool in a variety of completely contemporary terms. …

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