Louise Fishman, Haggadah, 1988, oil on linen, 37 x 50". From the series “Remembrance and Renewal,” 1988.

The artist Louise Fishman, primarily known for her large-scale abstract paintings, is the subject of two forthcoming exhibitions: “Louise Fishman: A Retrospective,” a fifty-year survey show at the Neuberger Museum of Art at SUNY Purchase, opening on April 3, 2016, and running through July 31, 2016; and “Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock,” an idiosyncratic presentation of her miniature works at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia which opens April 29 and will be on view through August 14, 2016. Here, she talks about her beginnings as an artist and the evolution of her work.

WHILE IN GRADUATE SCHOOL in Champaign-Urbana, I took the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago and saw a hard-edged Al Held painting in a show of Minimalism at the Art Institute of Chicago, which had a big impact on me. The earliest painting in my retrospective at the Neuberger, In and Out, 1968, was influenced by that Al Held work. When I moved to New York after graduate school, I thought I was going to meet the Abstract Expressionists. I found out very quickly that there was no place for me, though; I wasn’t going to be sleeping with Milton Resnick or any of those guys for passion, for love, or to become an artist. My involvement with the women’s movement started out as a strict practice of feminist consciousness-raising, and then I got involved in the lesbian movement, which really changed my life. I blossomed in a way I don’t think I would have without it. I’d watched my mother and my aunt, who is a well-known painter in Philadelphia, be isolated and stepped on. It was hard to imagine a career as a female artist then—but I loved painting.

I am a very formal painter; I have a classic art academy background. On nights off from Tyler School of Art and my shifts as a salesgirl, I went to a community center in Philadelphia called Fleisher Art Memorial. I loved that place, and it was free. I took a class where they had a model pose for three and a half hours and you used water-based clay to render their form, and then you’d tear it down and throw it away. It was OK because it was just about learning. Understanding the clay, the feel, had a lot to do with how I developed as a painter. Color also takes on a materiality that I feel. There are periods when I have taken cold wax and mixed it with paint so that it has a different surface, it is much more physical. The group of paintings I made when I came back from seeing the Auschwitz and Terezín concentration camps in 1988, “Remembrance and Renewal,” used beeswax that had ashes and little pebbles ground in with it. Works from this series are also included in the Neuberger exhibition.

Scale is as important to me as any other material is—the thickness of the stretchers, how far the painting sits from the wall, in addition to color and surface. It is a very interesting thing to go from a little painting to one that involves the whole body. A little painting is your eyes and your nose and a little bit of your hand; a great big horizontal painting involves walking. Once you’re beyond the reach of your hands, it’s less about the body than it is about moving in the studio. I found these tiny canvases in an art supply store in Berlin and thought, Oh my God—this is perfect; what an idea, to use canvases that are this tiny. At the ICA, we will decide how to install those paintings in the moment—the museum is set up for this kind of improvisation. It’s a good fit because my work is so erratic and it’s all rather unique but interconnected—the books, the little paintings, and sculptures. It’s very interesting that I didn’t know that Ti-Grace Atkinson was the first director of the ICA, in 1963, but I knew her from the women’s movement—she was a brilliant feminist theoretician. Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of my show, said that we had to have Angry Ti-Grace, 1973, in it, which is part of my “Angry Women” series of paintings.

In dealing with the Neuberger retrospective and looking back at all my work from different periods, I see now that I was fully formed in each stage. It’s not like I’ve hit the top of my abilities yet either. I’m a little different from some painters, probably, in that my work varies so much. But then, as artists, we’re always becoming.

— As told to Becky Huff Hunter