PRINT October 1985


VERNON FISHER IS NO STRANGER to New York, but he has lived and worked in Texas nearly all his life. For an artist aged 42 to work at a level competitive enough to be consistently acknowledged in New York while still continuing to live in Fort Worth, Texas, requires a day-by-day decision. To be taken seriously in New York, let alone in Europe, your work has to be part of the dialogue there, but to make art that too easily slips in contradicts the very reason for staying in individualist Texas. Defying the tendency to mimic New York styles, Fisher has found a way to belong to the dialogue without being enslaved by it.

The pace, style of life, and attitudes here in Texas are so different from what they are in New York; Fisher’s work reflects the schizophrenic dualities of sophistication and hermeticism, of competition and isolation, and of being in and out of step at the same time. My interest in Fisher’s work began when I moved to Texas six years ago; although at that time his narrative paintings were only occasionally being shown outside the state, he was already firmly entrenched as a major figure here, doing well, but not well enough to evade the trap often sprung on regional artists when the critical perspective on their work is dependent on New York, and especially on New York’s romance with their outsider/insider status. Fisher, in fact, fell victim to this syndrome for years; he emerged from national oblivion only when New York critics and curators began to validate his career. (He is still practically unknown in Europe.) Artists here are caught between two equally unproductive biases: on the one hand they may be supported simply because they are Texan, while on the other they may be ignored for just the same reason. Both boosterism and occasional tokenism miss the point of whatever rigor and authenticity is in the work itself.

Having received recognition, Fisher now faces a different challenge: that of not becoming a virtual demigod in a place where he is considered to have “made it?” What is lacking here in Texas (and even Texas is better than most of the rest of the country in this regard) is the productive dialogue that criticism can generate. Negative as well as supportive criticism can give an artist the extra energy that he or she needs. It can prevent the overworking of ideas and provide an atmosphere of risk-taking, even if it’s to defy the critics. Fisher’s best work, not surprisingly has been made when he has been receiving regular feedback. Isolation, contrary to romantic illusion. is generative only up to a point, beyond which it becomes tragic. It’s a question of balance. Fisher’s work, for example, broke out of a dull conceptual phase in the mid ’70s, a period when he seemed to be tailoring his work for New York, into the narrative work of the late ’70s only when he reevaluated his goals after being passed over for a Whitney Biennial. He should not, however, be accused of playing to the critics, particularly as the changes he made at that time, and subsequently, were unexpected, and did not earn him any immediate rewards.

In the past six years the scale, purpose, and energy of Fisher’s work has changed considerably. It has become more complex, in a logical outgrowth of his paintings-with-words which already in 1979 appeared both authentic and memorable. Although some of the images and many of the inscribed stories were folksy in tone, taken as a group these narrative works have always been polished, with a strong conceptual bias. They rest on the tension between multiple, highly individualized components; the interplay between the parts usually comes from subconscious connections, making Fisher, in effect, part surrealist. His overlay of text and image draws on postcollage Cubism and at the same time develops the push-pull theory that was so important to Hans Hofmann. In addition, the collapsing of symbol into subject shows Fisher paying homage to a range of artists from Duchamp to Johns. This background of footnotes to history does not make Fisher simply a student of 20th-century art; like a lawyer carefully building a case, he pursues references for his own ends, using them as a foundation onto which to add quite personal information. It is the mix that makes it art, because the mix points out the relationship between the parts, denying both any flavor of academicism and the suggestion of folk naiveté.

Fisher’s duality of story and image is now established, with the written fiction literally sanded through the pictures so that you have to read or look but can’t do both. The pre-’80s, early narrative work displayed a penchant for straightforward plainness that, like the stories of Frederick Barthelme or Ann Beattie, could capture the common flavor of everyday life, but the clash between the pictorial and the written information often made the work, in its overall effect, appear intellectually aloof from even its own downhome subjects. Today that atmosphere of plainness has been replaced by multimedia, multitextured, multileveled assemblages, including sections painted directly on the wall as well as elements of sculpture, all of which augment the painted picture or oversized photograph that continues to be inscribed, trademark style, with a story.

Among his contemporaries in focus today, Fisher’s work may receive comparison with that of David Salle, in particular, because Salle also overlays and outlines cultural and personal images on adjoining panels (though only rarely does he incorporate words). Despite superficial similarities, however, the differences between the two are critical, the most obvious of them being the role of language, both pictorial and written. Where Salle employs the patently challenging or shocking with his use of the pornographic, Fisher maintains a level of chastity; this distinction of seductions betrays more than just variance in style or taste. Salle tempts the fates with the strongest statement he can make, unleashing his passion by graffitizing it, canceling out ordered Renaissance perspective with a multitude of charges from all directions. Fisher, on the other hand, breaks the rules through a flat, bittersweet idealism and his theme of incomplete communication. The charge in Fisher’s work comes from the complex sentiments his nostalgic images trigger—a memory of dreamy landscape, a Saturday-afternoon matinee movie, a car crash in a black-and-white cops ’n’ robbers show, the night sky. Salle is the 20th-century analyst, wreaking havoc on our preconceived moral and tactile senses; Fisher takes moral values for granted, but nevertheless acts as another kind of analyst, ungluing our memories through his tangle with sentiment, perception, and recall. The psychology of Fisher’s message, in fact, may have more in common with Eric Fischl’s tapping of adolescence, and its loaded sexual dynamic, than it does with Salle, despite Fischl’s obviously more traditional style.

By nature Fisher’s work is didactic: everything means something, even the little quasi-abstract marks or small sculptural elements. When you look at one of his landscape paintings you may end up thinking not only about the place painted in the picture, but also about the events and experiences that may have occurred there. The landscapes are stages while the media images are catalysts for nostalgia. Fisher’s paintings are essentially “narrative collages.”1 His compositions rely as much on literary theory as they do on post-Modern formal concerns. At their best his stories are vivid descriptions which operate as additional pictorial information by allowing the viewer/reader to picture an image in the mind. Fisher may have more in common with contemporary writers like Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and William Burroughs than with his “art” counterparts like Salle or Robert Longo. Even when he undertakes a media blitz that is formally not all that different from the work of other post-Modernist painters, he never seeks to neutralize his images; instead, he combines disparate sources that collectively enhance the meaning of each of the parts.

Because Fisher works in a double medium, his art has to be successful both on visual and literary grounds. While J would not argue that it is always as interesting in its role as picture as it is in its role as conceptual statement, I would say that in the many instances where a piece does succeed both visually and in concept the resulting coherence does not depend on the piece being formally cohesive. Fisher puts aside the well-formed simple statement, favoring instead, like many contemporary fiction-writers and picture-makers, the use of multiple incidents. 84 Sparrows, for example, a three-part work from 1979, combines invented, photographed, and borrowed images with references to the Bible, to a camping trip,and to Ernie Bushmiller’s irreverent comic strip Nancy. The work also includes a long written text, inscribed entirely on a central panel divided into three descriptive passages: reading from top to bottom, the first and second, describing two different scenes, are written in the first person, while the third uses the third person to describe the actions of a child, actions that may or may not be thought of as occurring simultaneously with those of the first two paragraphs.

The structure of the piece is well defined. The first written passage describes watching drops of blood falling from the author’s cut arm, a multiple allusion to the color red that immediately transforms the impact of the numerous cutouts of red sparrows installed as the leftmost—the first—section of the composition. Furthermore, the sparrows carry their own message; they refer to a text in the New Testament, Luke 12:7, which quotes Jesus as saying, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.” To consciously underline this allusion, Fisher visibly numbers each sparrow The content of the biblical text places a value judgment on parts of the picture, which Fisher asserts was not a conscious act; it is, however, pan of the subconscious information that he acknowledges he lets into each work. It also refers back to that first written paragraph, making the specks of blood conjure up the picture of Jesus’ wounds.

The second passage of Fisher’s text describes lying beside a camper and looking at the sky, a vision precisely paralleling the graphite drawing, an exact copy of a photograph, that underlies or is physically perforated by the text on this central panel. And the third passage describes the disillusion of a child at the end of a ride on a merry-go-round, a touch of sentiment.that parallels the surprise on the face of the familiar cartoon figure Nancy, who, in the third, rightmost panel, is shown watching a flying brick splash into her Aunt Fritzi’s fudge batter.

Many more multiple relations inform the picture. The written text, for example, proposes three forms of amazement—at the sight of blood, at nature, and at the end of a fairground ride. Similarly, 84 Sparrows contains three radically different kinds of images, each of which might engender different kinds of amazement. The birds represent the process of invention; cut from a painted canvas so that their brushed-on color operates independently of their structure, then placed randomly on the wall, they seem to flutter through the air with amazing grace. The graphite drawing that forms the central panel illustrates the art of reproduction in a drawing so successful in its trompe l’oeil effects that it looks remarkably like the photograph from which it was copied. The drawing itself shows a sublime view of the sky which takes over the physical sense of the author of the second passage of text: “ . . . I can see the dark sky, almost indigo, and white drifting clouds like cotton. They are suspended in the sky: it is everything else that is moving. I shut my eyes. Beneath me I think I can feel the turning of the Earth” Finally, the third panel triggers a different kind of astonishment: a nostalgic reference to a comic strip relates to those awful moments when as children we innocently threw something only to see it miss its target but get to Mom.

Like all Fisher’s work until recently, 84 Sparrows relies on a sequential reading of both text and images. Although the order in which the viewer sees, reads, and understands the portions of the piece is probably not strictly left to right and top to bottom a full reading must involve a roving eye—the fact that from 1975 until 1983 Fisher almost always used diptych or triptych construction suggests that he visualized the parts like a text, allowing always for important interrelationships between them while maintaining the integrity of each. The order was like the natural progression of written words, which cannot, by their very nature, occur simultaneously. While Fisher has maintained his complex interplay of words and images, his recent work increasingly overlaps and superimposes texts and images onto images so that they consolidate a maximum of information into a single panel, further complicating the time sequence and meaning of the work. This process has not always been successful, and has left some of his recent work appearing unresolved.

Fisher explores two obvious kinds of dichotomy: in addition to its consistent division between written and pictorial content, his work divides itself between pastoral and apocalyptic imagery. In much of the past two years’ work he has for the most part followed the more aggressive track, and his explosive images are the ones that most often appear cluttered. Still, the ironic distance maintained by the literary quality of even this work gives these pieces a self-conscious quality that prevents them from becoming neo-expressionist. Fisher’s pastoral pictures more often achieve the cohesive calm that best accommodates his fragments of metaphors. One such recent work, Park in Coyoacán, 1985, is a pastoral painting that succeeds with the new, compressed format even while it appears deceptively simplified. For the first time since 84 Sparrows, birds reappear; Fisher has made a new but similar set and inserted them with tabs, paper-doll fashion, in the surface of his painting of a park, lush with palm trees and shrubbery, in a Mexican town. The photographic nature of the image is established not only by the monochrome quality of the work—it is painted with shades of blue green, in a translation from a black and white photo-graph—but also by the presence of Fisher’s photographerlike shadow at the lower edge of the picture. Three additional tactics interrupt the reveries provoked by the landscape. First, among and around the birds and across the surface of the picture Fisher has painted schematically drawn geometric forms, including a cube, a pyramid, and a diamond. Resembling an elementary diagram of how to draw in perspective, and in true Modernist fashion, these forms emphasize the flatness of the picture plane. Second, a brushy blue background seeps through the painting of the landscape, reasserting the fact that the picture is a painting and affirming the monochrome landscape as just a field of color. And third, a characteristic text punctures the surface of the picture, although here its presence is limited to the lower portion of the canvas.

This time the story is short, and it is written as if it were an excerpt from a much longer narrative. Its simple description of the end of a love affair operates like a cross-reference to other periods of Fisher’s work, as the birds also do, even as it describes a conversation that could, in this context, appear to have been overheard in the setting of the park. Each portion of the work, therefore, begins to assume equal weight; the shortened narrative does not overwhelm the images, and the superimposed pictures can be read simultaneously as a single image. Figuratively, the birds shift in and out of the landscape, at once in it and on top of it; they also shift in and out of the geometric forms, so that the shapes become cages. As before, every part of the image bears on the meaning of the other parts, but the simultaneity that Fisher has achieved by weaving images and text into a single format both clarifies and simplifies the perception of the work as a totality

Fisher’s strongest work shows him directly involved with the land and the life of the Southwest. I remember a conversation I had with Fisher not long ago; we’d drifted to talking about the Big Bend National Park in west Texas, a vast barren land that he visits almost annually As he talked, his voice changed markedly, losing its edited, intellectual quality The pure emotion I heard as he described a sunset also exists in the work, but in the context of other, contrasting images. fisher’s deeply personal love for the land combined with his decision to lead an urban life produces a conflict that makes his tie to Texas strong and is also at the heart of his art.

With his recent work Fisher layers even his Modernist biases into fully realized post-Modernist pictures. He acts as an abstract painter, organizing patterns of color and form across a monochromatic field. He also operates as an allegorical painter, choosing symbolic pictures that carry meaning beyond their surface content. And he works as a kind of conceptual novelist, bringing together references to the Bible and to his own writing, and images informed by his own previous paintings, travels, or vast collection of found images.

Susan Freudenheim writes about art and lives in Fort Worth, Texas.



1. I am borrowing a term from Annie Dillard, who describes this literary phenomenon in Living by Fiction, New York: Harper & Row, 1982, pp. 21–22.