New York

Louise Fishman, Blonde Ambition, 1995, oil on linen, 90 x 65".

Louise Fishman, Blonde Ambition, 1995, oil on linen, 90 x 65".

Louise Fishman

Louise Fishman, Blonde Ambition, 1995, oil on linen, 90 x 65".

The 1973 work that greeted visitors to Tilton Gallery’s miniretrospective of Louise Fishman’s paintings declares its maker as someone with an ax to grind: The phrase ANGRY LOUISE is scrawled graffiti style across the surface, framed by athletic strokes of crimson and teal and the words SERIOUS and RAGE. Then part of a New York–based feminist consciousness-raising collective, she was lamenting the critical and institutional sidelining of women artists; other works in the same 1973 series honor Jenny Snider (Angry Jenny) and Yvonne Rainer (Angry Yvonne). Fishman felt the blackballing acutely, working as she did within the masculinist idiom of Abstract Expressionism, whose second wave was under way by the time she started art school. Late to a fair to which she would not have been invited anyway, she has persevered—to striking consequence—with nervy, muscular gestural abstraction for the past five decades.

Next was a set of rough geometric configurations in thick oil on Masonite discs, some with embedded razor blades that prefigured the furious mark-making ahead. Painting is a crucible for Fishman: Her canvases track, in a somber palette spanning gray scale to muddy earth tones, the fervor that accompanied their formation. She has conjured impasto thickets and scored slashes from brush ends, combs, squeegees, and serrated trowels, and here, in works such as Cradle, 1981, Green Wood, 1994, and Proud Heart, 2004, wielded an oyster knife. (The artist’s pictorial preoccupations are multiform but enduring; still, the presentation would have profited from a more even dispersal—half the forty-four selections dated from the 1970s.) The massive, showstopping Blonde Ambition, 1995, is Franz Kline in negative and in slo-mo. A scaffold of caked white calligraphy against an obsidian ground, it effects a hard-won abeyance of line and plane (and, significantly, an attendant pathos), feeling at once exuberant and labored. Elsewhere in the show, this conflicted dynamic opened onto other antagonisms endemic to AbEx: intuitive spontaneity versus composition (see the tussle between drip and symmetry in Longhand, 2007), for example, or the grid as self-referential versus the grid as a portal to those regions beyond that it was meant to annul (the inky rectilinear armature of Valles Marineris, 1992, simultaneously forswears illusionist space and creates windowlike apertures). Fishman’s response to her forebears is so thoroughgoing that several objects show her reckoning with modes that were themselves rejoinders to Pollock et al.—Minimalism, in Untitled, ca. 1965; geometric abstraction, in Untitled, 1967; process in two stitched grids, Untitled, 1971, and Untitled, 1972.

So far, so formalist. Where Fishman breaks faith with most of her predecessors, and their critics, is over the issue of content, asserting the mediation of those matters that were often repressed, encoded, or sublimated at midcentury—gender and sexual politics, religion, literature, nature, even metaphor as such. In some cases the ties are explicit, as in Jewish Star Painting, 1973–74, a small tondo that features her name beneath the Star of David, or summoned through material: Memorial Book, 1988, part of a series undertaken after a visit to Auschwitz, mixes silt from the site with oil. Usually, though, the connections are made only via title—a nod to Elizabeth Bishop in The Art of Losing, 2003, or, in Stand of Beech, 1987, a botanical analogue. But in acknowledging the impulse to wrest meaning from abstraction, Fishman underscores the tenacity of this desire, urgent when she began working and only slightly less vital for having been recouped by others as pat motif today. (Her encumbered, pastose marks thematize this very sedimentation.)

The exhibition at Cheim & Read of eleven abstractions made in the past three years offered the chance to consider a single body of Fishman’s production in depth and was a welcome complement to the diffuse survey at Tilton. Executed after a residency in Venice, the works extend the mainstays of her practice (brash squeegeed brushwork, incised lines, and cross-hatching) in newly buoyant hues of cerulean, emerald, and blush pink, and, in paintings such as Crossing the Rubicon, 2012, and Assunta, 2012, passages of white and bare support that aerate these choked compositions. Serenissima, 2012, is a traffic jam of wet-on-wet vectors that loosen the grid from its axes and assert nothing so much as raw, frontal physicality. This new work is Fishman’s most AbEx-y yet, and, paradoxically, most her own, revealing her protracted engagement with long-gone masters to have been less an anxiety-of-influence dialogue than a means of liberation.

Lisa Turvey