The Garden of its Experience: New Sculpture by Richard Fishman

by Addison Parks, Arts Magazine, Summer 1987, pp.732-736

In Richard Fishman we have a consummate artist. What is central in his work is central in each of us. In his sculpture there is the very physical record, yet in his drawings we are equipped with the actual maps with which he charted the course of his experience, and finally, ours. Richard Fishman finds himself, as an artist, and a person, between two forces colliding head on. One is the power to make things happen, and the other is the power to let things happen. As simple as those two sound, they are at the center of every moment in the life of every human being, and therefore every artist. The artist is, after all, someone who has made a record of where life has been. This doesn’t make the artist special, but instead ensures the artist’s work a place in our lives, fulfilling an essential role: recognition.

If this collision is so common to our everyday experience, then why discuss it in terms of art, or Richard Fishman? Because this is precisely why Mr. Fishman represents the consummate artist. In his work we have witnessed the struggle for balance and proportion between the power to change and the power to accept change, a struggle with the promise of peace or frustration. From the beginning this has been at the heart of Fishman’s work, and he has placed it out there for all of us to see. Nothing is omitted, we get the whole picture – all the pleasure, and all the pain. Clearly this is the sculptor’s plight. Even the most intimate work is still so exposed, in the round, so public. The sculptor’s expression is so revealing, and more than anyone Richard Fishman has accepted that challenge and put himself out there. Few sculptors since Rodin have exposed so much emotion, so much pleasure and pain in their work. To shape the world like a piece of clay or to pass gratefully through the garden of its experience: while the balance of these two is what makes Fishman’s work what it is now – that combination of discovery, play, making, and celebrating – his earlier work is characterized more by the desire to shape and control his medium in order to achieve lasting outward results. Although his female nudes demonstrated a total celebration of the form, Fishman subordinated the medium to the dictates of his design, unlike Rodin, who was more inclined to show how the medium acted when it was worked and not polished. In this early work the polish was in fact an act of appreciation for both the form, and the material – an appreciation which is very much a part of Fishman’s history as a person and an artist.

In the mid-seventies an abrupt change in attitude redirected the course of Richard Fishman’s work. It was this idea of allowing things to happen in a big way. The same idea had changed painting dramatically some six decades earlier, and was called working “automatically.” Sculpture, however, remained much less affected by this impact on the arts because of restrictions imposed on it by the materials. Accidents are just not as likely to occur as a natural outgrowth of a medium that has historically required a great deal of force to work. Because of this, sculpture in general was unwilling to give up its hard-earned reputation as the domain of the “tough.” The forefront of sculpture today continues to be dominated by the shapers and changers, those who believe that the only real sculpture is that which requires enormous force to control the equally enormous resistance of the material. Johns and Rauschenburg promised only a brief period of relief from this overbearing tradition of formalism. Today sculptors like Richard Fishman cannot receive their due recognition because they have strayed from that tradition. Even a powerful movement like the Italian Arte Povera in the Seventies went virtually unnoticed by the art world establishment. The exceptions prove to be women like Pfaff and Butterfield who bring enormous energy and emotion to bear. Oddly enough it was with metal that Fishman launched his renaissance over a decade ago. The big difference was, he let it be and behave like metal! In fact, it was the way in which metal responded to change that made the sculpture what it was. Bending, corroding, creasing – Fishman used what happened to thin sheets of copper supported by rods as an arena to work out metaphors for what happens in nature, and nature and accident were directly incorporated into the process.<Link 1>

It was only a few years ago, however, that Fishman raised his work to its present level. These drawings <Link 2> represent that leap. They are the product of a seamless union between his own creative urges and his bounding awe for the way things are. The result is completely the ritual of discovery and celebration, and in no way represents any desire to idealize or perfect an imperfect world. He has found his inspirations in nature, and sometimes as a result of visiting other cultures and seeing their rituals and art. What he has brought back, he uses, either through reinvention, or actually figuring it into the work, like using a piece of coral he found on a beach. Sometimes the drawings came first, like visions telling him where to look. By calling these drawings maps it was not intended to suggest that they represent blueprints that prescribe the outcome of a particular sculpture. They don’t. That would run against the grain of both the sculpture and the drawing. Instead they exist as maps showing the places where Fishman has gone, places where he might find ideas to inspire sculpture, much in the same way sculptures no doubt helped inspire them. These drawings are much like their sculpture counterparts in a number of ways. First, they are figures isolated in a field much the way sculpture is in the round. This is very important because it maintains an attitude that stays clear of our cultural icon, the rectangle. By keeping the drawings away from the edges he stays away from the issues of picture-making and design. In that sense they are two-dimensional images in much the same way that sculpture is a three-dimensional image. This kind of consistency between the sculpture and the drawing is a tribute to Fishman’s evolution as an artist. It serves to affirm the integrity of his vision.

The nature of the color in the drawings reinforces this: he uses color like personality , like clothes. Once again they are not simply pictures, they are form and structure with specific color. Both also are predominantly linear in character, although they have plenty of planar activity (drawings) and mass (sculpture). Through line Fishman tends to charge both with emotion: it might be humor, it might be longing, it might be anger. The overall tone of the work has always been relatively constant while the mood may swing from time to time and Fishman may even attempt to force a change-an example of this would be to make the work ugly if he felt it was getting too pretty , thus jeopardizing its outward credibility. That overall tone is one suggesting that life is a garden. In that garden we can find many beautiful and sensual pleasures, like flowers and sunshine and water, or dangers and pain, like snakes and thorns. It is Fishman’s sense of the garden, and furthermore his sense of being a child in that garden, that no doubt led him to where he is now. It has also taken him into the gardens of other cultures, so-called primitive cultures, where rituals closer to nature have echoed his own dimension. This is the same kind of involvement which occupied Carl Jung, and suggests that this balance is what makes life complete.

In the sculpture the step from collecting objects to actually incorporating them in the work seems a natural one, but then taking as much interest in these objects as in the work itself to the point of letting them be more and more unaltered is what makes this work what it is. This demonstrates just how proportioned the balance between making and allowing has become. Fishman takes objects from nature like driftwood, coral, and rocks, and bonds them together or binds them with wire or rod. They get pieced together as he finds them for the most part, and then he might coat them with paint, cement, sand, and shells, or gold leaf. Ultimately it becomes equally a question of choice not unlike the revolution Duchamp initiated seventy years ago with his ready-mades. Isn’t the act of choosing as much a part of art as making? The impact of these sculptures is striking, intense, sensual, and wondrous all at once, whether they are ten inches tall or ten feet. They have the fantastical quality of strange and exotic jetsam we might have found wet at the waters edge as children. They are magical and yet not too magical. They also maintain the touch and tension of their emotions by never letting us forget that they have indeed been “Made,” which brings us full circle. Finally, it is no accident that Richard Fishman’s latest work has butterflies shimmering on its surface. How well they represent just how far his journey has taken him.


(The Garden of its Experience: New Sculpture by Richard Fishman by Addison Parks, Arts Magazine, Summer 1987, pp.732-736)