Richard Fishman One-Person Exhibition
The Bell Gallery, Brown University
Catalogue Essay by Kermit Champa, 1976
Speaking as one whose responses are jaded to much of what has called itself sculpture over the past decade, I confess herewith a considerable and persistent respect for the recent work of Richard Fishman. But respect is probably too cold a word suggesting critical approval rather than aesthetic excitement, and it is in fact the latter which has for me induced the former. There have been, and continue to be, inherently genuine if unexpected, sculptural sensations in Fishman’s work which convince me of their quality simply by looking as though they were brought into being by a will certain of its ability to form an expressive response to materials that abrade, irritate and, as a result, negatively fascinate it. An utter absence of self-indulgence in person- ally attractive materials (and their concomitant tactile or conceptual refinement) has not always been the rule in Fishman’s work, and its achievement marks a breakthrough as auspicious in its guarantee of quality as any I have seen in recent sculpture. The formal certainty and the openness with which Fishman currently handles tin-flashed and hand-tempered copper foil, and thin shafts of roughly finished cold-rolled steel reminds me of certain of the most moving cofflicts and suspensions in David Smith’s best works without ever emulating them directly. Lacking Smith’s manual confidence and his hard won sculptural momentum in terms of scale, shape and surface, there is in the best of Fishman’s recent work the feeling of a more nervous and more provisional entertainment of materials, which, however, conveys an expressiveness uniquely its own.
The comparison of Fishman’s work to Smith’s is not intended as a bit of art-historical aggrandizing, nor is it made for purposes of convenient dialectic in a discussion of abstract metal sculpture. Fishman’s work seems to me to be on the verge of edging in on a consistent level of sculptural achievement maintained since Smith’s death by Anthony Caro and approached less dependably by a small group of British and American sculptors directly reactive to him. The Smith-Caro tradition with its strong cubist underpinnings constitutes what, for want of better words, is contemporary sculpture as sculpture. Distinct from the sculpture as event (or assertion) orientation of minimalist and conceptualist efforts (with historical gestures toward Duchamp and Brancusi) where the issue of quality merges with the issue of material and contextual surprise, the Smith-Caro tradition is inherently manipulative and quality seeking, at once, historical and personalized. Fishman’s recent work is all of this, but more importantly, it is good work.
Five years ago I would have called Fishman’s sculptures “academic;’ and I would have been right. The straight, bowed or serially grouped black monoliths (Fig.1) of smooth, painted steel that represented his efforts of the early ’70′s seemed calculated to avoid any direct confrontation with major issues of quality in form or of richness in concept. His pieces seemed not to recognize the degree to which they were vacant by reason of selflessness -a selflessness born of the desire to assure an aesthetically unbiased sculptural position, uncritically appreciative of Caro on the one hand, Judd and Morris on the other. However, the vacant, well-mannered and aesthetically unassertive character of the early ’70′s pieces seems in retrospect to have been an important dead spot of sensibility for Fishman to have let show. Comparatively few decent artists work out such an extended series of monuments to the most meretricious side of themselves, and then realize that they’ve done it. Fishman did and began around early 1973 to look for some signs of personal life in his nearly still-born sculptural facades. He began to poly- chrome his pieces, watching in the loosening and tightening of sculptural intervals (Fig. 2) that resulted for a quality of form to emerge against or upon which we might begin to exercise a manner of control that would feel natural.
Simultaneous with the polychrome came continuous vertical couplings of steel sheets of widely differing thicknesses, combined with randomly angled bends (at the connecting seams) applied to the thinnest sheets. Sometimes two or more sheets were connected at a vertical seam in such a way as to leave short flanges behind the seams to complement the planar sections moving frontward from the seams. The small back sections of vertical flanges, clustered tightly around a single seam began, however, to contest rather than complement the still-suave surfaces predominant else- where in Fishman’s early 1973 pieces, and the works, simple as they were, refused to unify themselves through color changes or shifts of slab angle. The thorny quality of the flange channels was so apparent both to the eye and to the touch that no pictorial (via color) or compositional adjustment seemed capable of controlling’ or for that matter even markedly affecting, their unexpected sculptural pre-eminence. In his most courageous move as a sculptor to date, Fishman refused to refine out or simply throwaway his troublesome flange channels. Their sharp-edged, slightly torn and pointed, thin yet bristly presence was sculpturally alive in a way very little else in his work was or had been. The problem was how ( or at least so it seemed) to make a response to this liveness develop into a whole piece of sculpture. As a first step, the evenly painted, untextured surfaces of his omnipresent large (now aluminum rather than steel) sheet sections had somehow to yield their formality. In the process of sanding them out for re-painting Fishman suddenly “discovered” latent in his surface, layers of his own old paint, and in the rough shapes of it that gradually emerged, there appeared a kind of free, substanceless color atmosphere that adhered to the flat metal surface while seeming at the same time to peel at it optically. The more this atmosphere was elicited and the closer it moved toward the flanges, the more a strange half atmospheric, half physical unity emerged in the whole configuration of vertically joined sheets. Once this unity was recognized and developed, the flanges, having exerted their effect, could come and go in the pieces at will, at times even transmuting themselves into a single, rough-trimmed edge running the full vertical height of a piece. Fishman’s two-paneled vertical pieces (Fig. 3) of 1974-1975, with their sanded out surfaces and their selectively roughened edges, constitute his point of entry as a potentially major sculptor. These pieces were the product of a period which saw Fishman working both in Providence and New York. They were shown in New York at Max Hutchinson’s in the spring of 1975, but even as they were being shown, elements of Fishman’s newer work in photo collage (Fig. 4) (a dominantly New York side of his production) were promising (or at least gesturing after) a kind of edge and surface freedom that remained largely frustrated by the problematic and inherently redundant mass of the aluminum slabs in Fishman’s exhibited work.
The photo collages featured combinations of indistinct, often mutilated, Polaroid SX-70 snapshots and freely cut metal surfaced paper. In the best of them quite unexpected cubist transparencies and overlaps were generated through the manipulated interplay of the inherently compressed (or sandwiched) Polaroid surface and the fragmented, partly reflective surface of the metallic paper. The prevailing optical softness of his media combinations established an over- unity, against which the opposing tearing, abrading, and pressing of pictorially different elements reacted. As softness and rather severe rectilinear setups froze the collages, the cut paper, tom emulsions and faint photoimages began to generate graphic movement, and suddenly Fishman, the sculptor, found himself addressing not Judd or Caro but pictorial cubism in a comparatively traditional guise. After the collages came drawings, at first small scribbles, then later larger in scale than the collages, in both color and black and white. Recalling mid- ’50′s deKooning and Motherwell as clearly as the photo-collages recalled Arp or Schwitters, Fishman’s drawings continued an historical review of quality modernism that had never (except in an intellectual sense) occurred in his works. The fact that this review was undertaken (and it was undertaken as much from frustration as from plan) suggests in retrospect the troubling combination of self-belief and modernist formal naivete which Fishman increasingly felt in the presence of the residual sculptural arbitrariness of his two-panel pieces. Suddenly Giocometti ‘s work for all its personal indulgence looked formally more coherent, even more articulate, than Fishman’s own, while the likes of Gonzalez (not to say Smith) looked almost unapproachable in the quality of their sculptural address. Fishman’s photo-collages and drawings began ultimately to project pictorially a vision of a kind of sculpture that consisted of self-sufficient surfaces, armatureless, but capable of graphic movement both across those surfaces and along their edges. However, the medium, or for that matter even the potential three dimensional appearance of this imagined sculpture, refused for a time to emerge. Returning to Providence in mid-1975 Fishman discovered his medium -industrial weight copper foil randomly adherent to wall-hung or floor based rods of steel. The sculptural freedom encouraged almost immediately by this medium was astonishingly close to that which had emerged pictorially in Fishman’s smallest and least finished abstract expressionist drawings and in his photo- collages. The foil could stand flat or turn. Its areas of soldered contact to the rods could spread or contract. The rods could bend or run straight, or join with wire sections of random thicknesses to make graphic moves in two or three dimensions ( or both) apart from the foil sections. Hanging or standing options in the new medium were remarkably open and even capable of combining in the same piece.
But the freedom that emerges in Fishman’s rod, foil, and wire pieces does not exist without some basic, if potentially complementary, limitations. Freestanding effects have to be forced. Relief, relating to a wall, is more controllable- with the third dimension outlined rather than entertained. Single, floor-based rod pieces- even those with deeply turned foil layers-look provisional in their scale of incident and extent. In the relief (wall hung) pieces themselves, clear overall shapings seem required to accommodate the expressively random peelings and flutterings of the foil and the counterpoint of rod drawing that runs through, behind and over the foil. Latent triangular, rectangular or shaft shapes currently seem necessary to project the movements of feeling in Fishman’s work. Non- geometrical substructures seem to evoke varying degrees of naturalistic illusion -to leaf or stem forms, to broken shells or crustacean remains.
The apparent need for latent geometry in Fishman’s new work seems to have its natural origin both in the particular metal materials and in the pictorial origins (collage and drawing) from which current methods of handling derive. These methods, and to a degree the materials, will probably change over the next few years of Fishman’s work. There is certainly no a priori requirement for change in principle to occur, since 20th century sculpture has achieved high quality as frequently working from a two as from a three dimensional point of departure. Rather, it seems as though the potential self-sufficiency of the foil as sculpture remains comparatively unexplored. It seems on the verge of constituting, rather than contributing to the medium in Fishman’s work. The same is true of the rods and wires. They, too, seem sculpturally self-sufficient in Fishman’s hands. The truce between rods and foil in Fishman’s recent work is brilliant, but it is not, I think, final. It sustains the nervousness and provisional suspension of materials mentioned earlier, and it gives the new pieces their very real and distinct quality. But there is even greater quality to come.