THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

Louise Fishman: A Restless Spirit

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments

She has been a feminist and lesbian activist for years. For the past 3 decades she immersed herself in abstract expressionism where few women have been accepted into the circle of men and most were not recognized until their death.

Born in Philadelphia, Pa. in 1939, Louise Fishman lives and works in New York.  She grew up with the dream of playing basketball.                    

Since the mid-60’s, Louise Fishman has been on a personal exploration that allies the themes of feminism, Judaism and queerness.  

In 1980, she was one of the 10 invited artists whose work was exhibited in the main event of the Great American Lesbian Art Show.

From a series of intimate, somber untitled works in the early 70’s, she dyed canvas in the kitchen sink, cut it into small squares and reassembled the grid by sewing it back together again with thread.  

Approaching painting as a kind of quilt-making, she gendered her materials, politicizing the given or ‘neutral’ of painting.

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In her ‘Angry Series’ from 1973, Fishman scrawled the names of her female friends, lovers and heroes across each painting, breaking another modernist taboo treating text as image.

Although Fishman had come out in the late 50’s, it wasn’t until the early 70’s that she found her community in a group of lesbian writers and academics.  Envious of their journalistic skills, she used the idea of writing to generate a new body of work in which she integrated calligraphic mark-making into the painting process asserting feminist outrage.

Growing up around two professionally active women artists during the 1940’s and 50’s had a powerful impact on Louise Fishman.  Her mother Gertrude Fisher-Fishman and her aunt Razel Kapustin (1908-1968) were painters. 

‘My aunt Razel had a very eccentric life.  She loved Siamese cats, Persian rugs, she played folk music and her walls were rich colors.  She didn’t have children. My mother had a lot of art books and she belonged to MoMA.  I really didn’t think about my life much except I was interested in playing basketball and baseball on the boys’ teams.   I wasn’t planning on studying art.  I ended up in art school because in 1956, I met this cool guy at the beach who was wearing Bermuda shorts, desert boots and was carrying a big leather satchel.  He asked me if he could sit down and we could talk. He was an art student at the Museum School.  I asked him if the girls wore satchels and boots like that there.  He said yeah and I asked him how I could get in.  I went home, made a portfolio, didn’t tell my parents.  The dean invited me into his office.  He said, let’s look at your work, dear.  Oh!  You are talented. Great!  You’re in!   It wouldn’t happen like that today.  I went shopping right away and got myself a satchel and my desert boots.’

Letter to my Mother about Painting

Letter to my Mother about Painting

In 2013, ‘Generations’ featured works by Louise Fishman, her mother Gertrude and her aunt Razel at the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia.  Fishman had proposed the show after realizing that her mother’s artistic reputation was in danger of suffering the same forgotten fate as her aunt’s. Razel Kapustin was at one time a vital member of the Philadelphia art world, lecturing on modernism, teaching classes and inspiring interest in Mexican modern art.

Fishman noted how customary the odors of her mother’s paints and turpentine were in her home life growing up and even though she longed to be a basketball player, she eventually realized that she had no choice in her decision to become an artist.

‘It was in my blood, my genes.  I read my mother’s art magazines and newspapers in the bathroom and learned about Abstract Expressionism that way.  I discovered Joni Mitchell and this confirmed that you could be both a woman and a painter.’

Her mother Gertrude Fisher-Fishman is now in her late 90’s and only stopped painting a few years ago.   

Ristretto, 2013 Photograph by Brian Buckley

Ristretto, 2013
Photograph by Brian Buckley

Fishman’s paintings are characterized by layers of thick and thin paint, rough brushwork and scraping-techniques that gesture back to the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist movement.  However, her overall compositions suggest woven patterns recalling traditionally feminine crafts.

Assunta, 2012 Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Assunta, 2012
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

In June, 2014, Louise Fishman married Ingrid Nyeboe.

Ms, Nyeboe is a graphic designer in New York and also manages the archives of Jill Johnson, a writer and critic, to whom she married in Denmark in 1993, again in Connecticut in 2009, and by whom she was widowed in 2010.

In a recent interview, Fishman was asked if she likes being called a feminist artist.

‘No. People often call me a feminist artist or the gay artist or the Jewish artist or some other thing.  I’m enmeshed in a tradition of painting that goes back to god knows where.  I don’t ignore the fact that I’m a woman, one can’t forget that.  

Examining our history and moving forward, just making the best paintings I can make, that’s what I do.  That and being in love.’