“I feel kind of bad for AbEx…It’s vulgar, it’s the phallocracy, it’s nothing but an empty trophy, it celebrates bourgeois subjectivity, it’s a cold-war CIA front, and well, basically expression’s really embarrassing. A dandy wouldn’t be caught dead doing something as earnest as struggling, or channeling jazz with his arms. An old-style dandy, at least,” writes Amy Sillman in her defense of abstraction “AbEx and Disco Balls,” published in the Summer 2011 issue of ArtForum. True to Sillman’s observation, it’s still difficult to divorce the grand gestures of abstract painting–its giant canvases and over-the-top physical performance–from its contextualization as a largely straight male art form. Women and queers, at least in the normative conception of AbEx, have no–or at least little–place in the storied and sordid history of painters punching each other out at the Cedar Tavern or pissing in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. How gauche!
However, the language and techniques of abstraction are currently being reclaimed by a younger generation of feminist and queer artists, as they have been since the 1970s. As Sillman later observes, “AbEx was something grand lying around the dollar bin at the secondhand-book store, something to be looked at, cut up and used as material, like punk music or underground movies or other sloppy, enthusiastic things made by a lineage of do-it-yourselfers and refuseniks….”
Recently, there has been renewed interest in what is now being called “queer abstraction,” as exemplified by a roundtable on the topic held at the Knockdown Center last November in conjunction with their exhibition Read My Lips. Discussing the ever-growing interest and engagement with “queer abstraction,” the roundtable largely focused on a new generation of artists like Kerry Downey and Loren Britton who use abstraction to refuse stable and stagnant representations of the body, harnessing formalism to reflect fluidity.
While zeroing in on these younger artists, the roundtable also located a historical lineage of queer abstraction, coming out of feminist and lesbian activism in the 1970s including painters Louise Fishman and Harmony Hammond. In her current solo exhibition at Cheim & Read, Fishman emphasizes her importance as a foremother and pioneer of “queer abstraction.” Not only does she play an essential role in the genealogy of queer women artists working in abstraction, but in her Cheim & Read exhibition, Fishman proves that she continues to push her own painterly practice. At a time when “queer art” continues to mainly describe representational work, relying on (homo)eroticism and the body, a turn toward abstraction inevitably and unavoidably becomes a breath of fresh air as seen in Fishman’s show.
Ranging from smaller watercolors on paper to enormous splattered canvases, Fishman’s exhibition showcases a body of all new work from 2016 and 2017. Given the dates, intersecting with the rise of Trump and his white supremacist, sexist minions, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Fishman hasn’t returned to more outwardly furious and obviously political work like her famous 1973 series “Angry Women,” a forerunner to our current “nasty women.”
But, thankfully she didn’t. Instead, by continuing her investigation into abstraction, Fishman makes perhaps a stronger political gesture by reclaiming abstraction from the guys. This is nothing new for Fishman who has been exploring abstraction for years despite its hypermasculine roots. Discussing her entry into painting with ArtForum, Fishman recalls, “When I moved to New York after graduate school, I thought I was going to meet the Abstract Expressionists. I found out very quickly that there was no place for me, though; I wasn’t going to be sleeping with Milton Resnick or any of those guys for passion, for love, or to become an artist. My involvement with the women’s movement started out as a strict practice of feminist consciousness-raising, and then I got involved in the lesbian movement, which really changed my life. I blossomed in a way I don’t think I would have without it. I’d watched my mother and my aunt, who is a well-known painter in Philadelphia, be isolated and stepped on. It was hard to imagine a career as a female artist then—but I loved painting.”
And just because the work is abstract, it’s not any less angry than her “Angry Women” series. Take, for example, Fishman’s My Guernica. With jarring intersections of grid-like rectangular splotches, bright splatters of blood-like red and deep black, and violent slashes of paint bisecting the canvas, My Guernica is violent and frankly hard on the eyes. While Picasso’s Guernica represents sociopolitical turmoil and war through figuration, Fishman’s literally battles with your eye sockets. I wanted to look away since it was making me dizzy, but I couldn’t.
Speaking on her own work to art historian Tirza True Latimer, Harmony Hammond, another abstract painter mentioned with Fishman in the Knockdown Center’s roundtable, explains, “You can’t say these paintings are overtly feminist or overtly queer in the coded ways we were referring to about queer paintings during the queer renaissance dealing with representation and queer identity. These paintings don’t do that. But, we can say they perform queerly.” Likewise, Fishman’s canvases perform queerly through conscious aesthetic refusal. Simply, they refuse the aesthetics of good, polite taste.
Many of Fishman’s paintings, from Monongahela, which, with its vibrant blues and greens, looks as radioactive as the actual river (I’m from Pittsburgh. I know) to As Is, with its various vertical stripes and clashing colors, can be downright excessive. Delving into abstraction in In A Queer Time And Place, Jack Halberstam paraphrases David Batchelor, explaining, “In the world of painting, color, as Batchelor implies, sparks irrational responses that mirror homophobic responses. If straightness (masculinity in particular) is associated with minimalism, then excess (of form, color or content) becomes the signification of the feminine, the queer and the monstrous” (121).
Fishman’s clashing colors act as a conscientious revolt against, as John Waters states, “the tyranny of good taste.” And trust me, that’s a compliment. Embracing chaos in her variety of marks and colors, her dynamic paintings blur and complicate the viewers’ position, leaving it a difficult viewing experience in which the eye doesn’t know where to land. This destabilization of the normative picture plane can only be described as “performing queerly,” as Hammond articulated about her own work. Similarly, Fishman’s work is unabashedly difficult, unwieldy and impolite.
In the catalog to the 1978 New Museum exhibition Bad Painting, even though it concerned figurative rather than abstract work, Marcia Tucker delves into the strength of “bad” painting: “Bypassing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want. In part, this is one of the most appealing aspects of “bad” painting – that the ideas of good and bad are flexible and subject to both the immediate and the larger context in which the work is seen.” Much like the flexibility of good and bad, Fishman’s abstractions, consequently, speak to the destabilization or dissolution of other strict categories, even though Fishman refuses to obviously articulate her identity in the work.
And when so much art in 2017 is about the clear representation of identity, her refusal to prioritize her own is a subversive statement in and of itself. The press release to Fishman’s exhibition states, “She occupies the paradoxical position of reconciling her formalist concerns with a strong commitment to her Jewish, feminist, lesbian identity.” But as artists and writers like Amy Sillman and Jack Halberstam have revealed, this is anything but a paradox. In In A Queer Time And Place, Halberstam notes that “nonnarrative abstract forms…circumvent the imperative on the female artist to tell stories, to narrate self and to reveal psychology.” Abstraction, as Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, can act as “a recourse for all those in the margins who want to resist the demands to transparently represent themselves in their work.” Abstraction, in the case of Fishman, is resistance.