Present, Tense, Sculpture: Recent Work of Richard Fishman

by Kenneth Baker, Arts Magazine, June 1982

The meaning of much modern sculpture depends upon our forming analogies between visual perspectives on an object and philosophical views of experience. Philosophically provocative sculpture usually makes us feel keenly that it has added something to the world, not just another enumerable item, but something that must be taken into account when we ponder the scope of our experience. Richard Fishman’s recent work is sculpture of this order.

After some years of producing decorous, carefully composed sculptures in copper and steel, Fishman has now turned to making hideous objects. The new works are large, imposing structures made by fleshing out roughly gridded steel armatures with gypsum cement. Lately, the artist has taken to coating the surfaces of his constructions with tar, giving them an uninviting look of perpetual stickiness. Jeckyl (1981) is a little more figuratively suggestive than most of Fishman’s work, but it is typical in many other respects. The bottom portion of the piece is a kind of loaf shape which looks trussed because its armature shows through pretty clearly. At one end, this shape rises abruptly and tapers, trunk-like, to a height of 10½ feet. From a distance, the work’s form suggests a crude animal figure, something like a stuffed giraffe. Move closer, however, and the material qualities of the object banish its representational aspect, so that you understand the effort to “recognize” a subject in the work as a desire to tame its grotesqueness. Up close, you can see and touch (and must some- times avoid) the steel spines that jut intermittently from the sculpture’s armature. These spines serve the practical purpose of permitting the work to be moved and turned on its side with- out damage to its surface, but they also add considerably to the aggressive physical impression the piece makes. They suggest an awful stubble of hair one moment, and sticks mired in the ob- ject’s gummy surface the next. The aspects of Jeckyl may shift as you move around it-it may look coated or charred, abstract or descriptive – but from no point of view does it look anything but grotesque. In that respect, it is typical of Fishman’s recent sculptures. Their shapes are ungainly, their surface qualities distasteful, and their scale is large enough to make these qualities felt clear across a room.

I had to look at his work many times before I understood that Fishman is making hideous objects because he is interested in beauty. To understand this point it is necessary to think of “beauty” as a mode of experience rather than as a special quality of things or phenomena. Suppose we define beauty as pleasure in something’s being as it is. On this view, beauty will be an implicit issue for sculpture as long as it continues to be the art most directly concerned with what things are. What was once seen as the aesthetic liability of sculpture-the obviousness of its being a thing among things-has become its philosophical advantage. The waning of framing devices traditional to sculpture has put it in a position to raise questions about the relations among things of all kinds and about our part in making those relations what they are. The blatantly unsavory aspects of Fishman’s work are a means of intensifying the ontological reverberations contemporary sculpture is able to set up.

Fishman’s earlier work seemed to take it for granted that beauty is an attribute that can be given to something fabricated by following the lead of one’s own taste. Put together enough pleasing elements in the right way and a pleasing unity will result. Apparently, he has since rethought the function of the art object as an historical reality, for he is no longer providing the easy gratifications that can be contrived under the pretext of making art. While his previous work could blend easily into any number of domestic or institutional settings, the current work immediately raises the questions of what it is and what should be done with it, where it could possibly belong. Though in some of his new pieces Fishman lets the armature extend beyond the plaster body of the work, and even visibly elevate it, in no case does the sculpture affect our sense of the space around it, as some of Anthony Caro’s does. The tar-coated plaster can take on a graphic quality, thanks to the low relief of its surface and the contrast of black and white. (Fishman exploits the ability of this contrast to suggest drawing in some wall pieces that at first resemble shaped canvases, but turn out to be much more problematic.) But the sculptures affect no aesthetic withdrawal from what we feel to be real space. On the contrary, they seem aggressively thrust into the space of the world because of their determinate lack of seductive and illusionistic qualities. Fishman apparently wants them to be seen and considered in the context of our material life as a whole, not just in the context of works of art. We call this kind of work “art” because it fits no other category, not because it flatters our taste.

I think Fishman has stripped his work of aesthetic blandishments because of his interest in beauty. The grotesqueness of his current work can certainly be understood as a renunciation of his earlier works’ aesthetics, but there is more to it than that. The new sculptures look sensitively, almost calculatedly grotesque, as if the artist were still considering every profile and surface with the utmost care, but with an eye to avoiding all graces. For this reason, the work’s rawness reads as a rejection of aesthetic harmony as the aim and mode of being proper to sculpture.

Every work of art that achieves aesthetic graces tacitly requires that we forget the ugliness of the contemporary world. A ****foreign view of the physical and social landscape of monopoly capitalism (not to mention that of state socialism), the effort to make beautiful minutiae called artworks looks pitiable and escapist. Despite its blend of glibness with Expressionist style, much of the new figurative art of the last decade is really a revival of pictorial space and of narrative as distractions from consciousness of present historical reality. Though such work does not necessarily attempt to beautify anything, it fulfills the function of the beautiful commodity by providing distraction, diverting attention from the intensifying merger of rigidity and chaos that everyday life has become.

Fishman’s new work is an effort to invoke a sense of beauty that does not imply willful blindness to the ugliness of the times and the facts behind it. This is the explanation for its grotesque character: we cannot take pleasure in things being as they are unless we dull our consciousness of the context of our own experience. Under present historical circumstances, indulgence in decorative beauty is a drug experience. (Decades ago, Duchamp observed that art is an addictive drug; events have since proved the truth of his remark.) But Fishman is not willing to see the concept of beauty degraded so easily. Like all good sculpture, his recent work is concerned with defining certain points of view. Primarily, his sculpture now attempts to define the vantage point from which the experience of beauty-of pleasure in things being as they are- becomes an honest possibility.

Even a casual look at Fishman’s sculpture suggests that he no longer believes that beauty can truthfully be contrived or enjoyed directly. A closer study of the work leads you to the idea that beauty must be approached dialectically. The viewpoint from which beauty appears as a truthful possibility is a metaphysical one: that is part of what is implied by Fishman’s elimination .of all ingratiating views from his sculpture. This formal tactic IS a way of getting us to stop thinking literally about “views,” so that our attention will turn to our ability to shift perspective inwardly.

Now, the contemplative standpoint from which it is possible to take pleasure in things being as they are is often denigrated as “mystical,” though the ability to take up this point of view is a practical one, a matter of personal equanimity. The historical awareness of present reality is a state of shock from which the experience I have defined as beauty is a lapse, but not a lapse into illusion. Events have brought us to a point where the course of history literally threatens the being of the earth, or of earthly life as we know it. The possibility of everything we see and we ourselves being instantly blasted into non-existence has been amply demonstrated by the world’s ruling nations: the threat is no longer eschatological but immediate and fundamental to our consciousness of life. There is only one way we personally can redeem this state of affairs. That is to use our awareness of possibly imminent annihilation to enhance our attention to the being of everything we perceive to exist. To do this is not necessarily to see the world as an aesthetic unity, but it is to have something like the experience I have defined as “beauty,” a satisfaction with things being as they are. The shift of viewpoint I have been describing implies a shift in emphasis in this definition as well. Satisfaction in something’s being as it is at first seems to imply attention to the details of the thing’s appearance or structure, while the sense of “beauty” I am associating with Fishman’s art implies attention to the fact of a thing’s existence in contrast to the felt possibility of its non-existence. This shift of emphasis is implied in the assertive physical presence of Fishman’s sculpture: the work makes us acutely aware of facing something that has been brought into being. The deprivation of ingratiating qualities leaves us free to focus on the object’s existence as a bald fact.

The claim I am making on behalf of Fishman’s recent art is not that it initiates us into the metaphysical and historical viewpoint I have described, but that it orients us to this viewpoint. The energy to take up this perspective has to come from the work’s spectators. The distinction of Fishman’s work is in its address to the triviality of most aesthetic discriminations and to the difficulty of taking art seriously in the face of our current historical situation. The virtue of this work is its usefulness to anyone who tries to think about the place of art in the contemporary world, and about the motives for producing and looking at it. The few pieces Fishman has done that hang on the wall also deserve comment. They bring the activities of drawing and looking at drawing into alignment with the most important tendency in current painting: the reconstruction of the physical ground of a picture. Artists as diverse as Ralph Humphrey, Norman Toynton, and Dorothea Rockburne have for some time been questioning the received convention of the stretched canvas as a basis for painting, asserting in various ways that the working surface must be as obviously constructed as every other aspect of a picture. Their ways of remaking the working surface register a skepticism towards the historical grounds for making paintings, or art objects, generally. Fishman’s wall pieces are also patently constructed surfaces, layers of plaster applied to slightly irregular flat steel grids. To these surfaces, he applies tar in such a way that the whole object can be seen as a flattened figure and so that its surface relief also shows as a welter of graphic detail, like something we might expect to see in a more abstract passage of William Wiley’s work. The gridded surface of these objects recalls crudely the conventions of perspective space, and the protrusion of rods from the armatures makes the works look like fragments broken from a larger whole. The drawing in these works seems always to, be seen either from too close or from too far away to be intelligible, depending on which level of detail we attend to. It is that interaction between the sculptural presence of the object and the visual presence of its markings that makes the wall pieces intriguing. On the one hand, their place seems clearly defined by their suspension on the wall, yet the drawing in them seems to imply a viewing position that cannot be found in real space.

I have not discussed Fishman’s work in terms of modern art history because I foresee that people will use its reminiscence of Surrealist ambitions as a way to evade thinking about it. The timeliness of this sculpture is obviously not that of fashion, but fashion’s dominance of the art world should suggest to us that the issue of new art’s timeliness deserves more serious critical attention than it has been getting. Fashion is one among many hypnotic forces now affecting our social life. Though aesthetics may degenerate into a mere play of fashions, the best contemporary art continues to offer itself as a device by which we can learn to de-hypnotize ourselves and each other if we will only choose to try.


(Present, Tense, Sculpture: Recent Work of Richard Fishman by Kenneth Baker, Arts Magazine, June 1982, pp. 122-124)