Tiny is not a word commonly associated with Louise Fishman. Athletic is an adjective more often found in the vicinity of her work, as is abstract expressionist. Both invoke a sweeping gesture of the arm.
But next to a selection of her large canvases, the Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art includes an accumulation of small works by Fishman, as well as objects she surrounds herself with in her studio: handmade wooden milking stools, Chinese scholar’s rocks, ancient figurines, tools and materials found on the street, at the hardware store, on flea markets.
Among the “tiny” works on display are paintings on miniature stretchers the size of a matchbox, the size of a cigarette pack, the size of my laptop screen; accordion-fold artist’s books that would fit in a back pocket; paintings on rug samples; paintings on pieces of sandpaper; and sculptures at the scale of the hand that made them.
In the installation, these small works take center stage and become the lens through which to reconsider Fishman’s oeuvre. This is a welcome opportunity: it seems important to read the work in terms of Fishman’s material and painting vocabulary, and not through biography and anecdote, which are overly present in the literature.
Smack in the middle of the exhibition space, at an angle that cuts through all sight lines and asserts its independence from the perpendicular logic of the institutional architecture, sits a display unit. If, according to Ingrid Schaffner, the exhibition is a viewing machine, then this display unit is its engine. It is an elaborate structure, part pedestal and part architectural model, painted white. A tall wall bisects it lengthwise. Along this wall on both sides, small paintings are aligned at eye level. Further down, at gut level, monocle-sized circular holes are cut out of the wood. They act as viewfinders. As one bends over and peers through them, sightlines open onto the platforms on the other side of the wall on which small sculptures sit and turn these arrangements into miniature exhibition spaces.
Looking down, or peering through one of the structure’s peepholes, I project myself, tiny, into a miniature gallery. As I lift my head I am dropped back into my physical body, to scale again, and the works very small by comparison. To the left and right, past the display unit, large canvases are installed on the gallery walls. They are hung on that same eye level as the rows of small paintings on the display unit’s wall, and driven by that same insistence on large gestures, no matter what size the canvas.
One can look at this exhibition by zooming out, from small to large, or zooming in, from large to small. I imagine that her small paintings are large paintings seen from far away, and I think that Fishman would agree.
Looking up from a case with accordion-fold artist’s books, my eye catches hold of Arcanum, a large canvas from 2015. Broad gestural strokes, predominantly in greens and greys, travel horizontally across the canvas to bunch up in the upper right corner, while a singular narrow black stroke vertically halves the painting, extending almost from top to bottom. A connection between the space of the canvas and the space of a book opens—I see the horizontal movement of written language, an image of two pages bisected by a gutter of darkness.
Modes of address appear in Fishman’s accordion books, which she made for friends and lovers—among others, Bertha Harris, a writer and former girlfriend of Fishman’s. But they also structurally organize what might be Fishman’s most visible works, her Angry Women series from 1973. Enumerating the names of women in her feminist group and beyond, all qualified by the adjective angry, these paintings form a powerful “calligraphy of rage” (Catherine Lord), and continue to function as interpellation and archive.
Fishman understands painting as a language, a language that has long excluded women. A semiological notion of painting, the understanding of how gesture is mediated—by body, tool, and material, each with their particular properties and histories—provides a much-needed distance. Without distance, the painter could easily drown in her paint. Without feminism, one could easily drown in one’s pain.
I forget what exactly I asked Fishman in our panel conversation on the day after the opening, but she responded by talking about feeling like an “impostor” even decades after exhibiting her work. Someone only pretending to be a painter, somehow not entitled to ownership of her medium. It sounded painful, but also productive: something to push against, a reason to keep reasserting oneself, and a way to think of oneself as representative of a kind of experience, a mode of self in the world.
“A painting is a collection,” Fishman said in our panel conversation. I think of Fishman as someone continuously scrutinizing her surroundings—the world, art history, objects left behind by others—for their usefulness in the pursuit of what seems impossible given the limitation of means: expressive lesbian feminist paintings that are also assertive speech acts. Writing about “How She Did It” in the third issues of Heresies in 1977, Fishman advised young women painters to “take what you want and leave the dreck.”
Looking at Fishman’s work through the viewfinder of writing and of modes of address, her recurring use of the grid takes on a different meaning. What if it is not, or not primarily, the disimpassioned modernist grid of endless expansion, but the grid of language and the written page? There is a similar charge of contrast, of cool structure versus urgency of deployment. But a whole new set of references floods in: the diary, the letter, the pamphlet, the book—and, most importantly, the notion of a specific recipient, a reader, an audience that shares the painter’s sense of urgency.
If the anger of Fishman’s early work over the years has given way to ecstatic exuberance, it is because both the lesbian self and feminist painting have become what they could not be presumed to be: legible.
Ulrike Müller is a painter living and working in New York City.