November 16, 2009 · Print This Article
Guest post by Damien James
I walked into Woman Made Gallery on Wednesday, October 14th, to view and review the Beatrice Fisher retrospective, which surveyed fifty years of art making. Intrigued by the gallery’s website, which noted that this was Fisher’s first solo exhibition and that she had studied under such renowned Chicago artists as Karl Wirsum and Don Baum, for better or worse I had fairly high expectations.
Everything had just been hung, and the space was still a bit of a mess—the opening wasn’t for two more days and I hadn’t let anyone know that I was coming—then I realized that the mess consisted mostly of Fisher’s work, of which there was just too much to fit on the walls. (I was told that Fisher had thousands of pieces in her Evanston studio. Thousands was later corrected to hundreds.) After a moment of orientation amidst the clutter, I was able to focus on the walls, on her art, and was instantly taken, overtaken, by not only the range of her work but its consistent beauty and energy.
Fisher’s Attachment/Separation series focuses on divorce in the most physical terms; bodies in surreal Siamese union, some split apart by knives or attached by zippers rendered with a level of detail which brings the stark flatness of the paintings and their sharp lines into a kind of focused intimacy that looks cleanly through you. At least, they seemed to look through me. Some are paintings of women and men joined at the hips or shoulders, others of women joined to women, skin stretching into long bands waiting to be broken, their faces staring so pointedly, hypnotically. On another wall were military-themed works which dressed disembodied penises in camouflaged field gear, while across the room a group of small paintings of Jesus clad in ruby slippers and floating in the clouds shimmered. The slippers were glitter. Jesus had a beatific and tranquil face. Maybe it was the shoes.
Truthfully, there was so much work that this could easily have been a group show of six or seven entirely different artists, though it wasn’t difficult to see the common thread—the unique handwriting as it moved through all the pieces; the tongue-in-cheek humor, the cultural critiques, the exploration of sexuality and religion—yet each period in her career seemed to point to the absolute need to make art, out of anything and everything available. It was without a doubt the life of an artist on the walls of Woman Made, not just her art.
This was what I felt in the first five minutes with Beatrice Fisher’s work. The next 20 minutes were spent with Beate Minkovski, co-founder and executive director of the gallery, who joined me in the lower-level space where the exhibit was getting prepped for the opening. Beate told me it was entirely possible that this would be the 70-year-old artist’s final show, as she was currently fighting brain cancer. She informed me that Fisher’s son had just been in the day before to say that his mother wouldn’t be able to attend the opening, mostly because they wouldn’t be able to get her down the stairs. Beate pointed out some of her favorite pieces—Jesus among them, as Beate and Beatrice held similar views of organized religion—and offered a bit of background, brought me a chair, and welcomed me to spend as much time with the work as I wanted.
My eyes went immediately to the peaceful Jesus in his ruby slippers, then onto the painting of a crucifix wearing a long flowing blonde wig. Further still were renderings of tombstones, one with plump rouged lips as an epitaph, and two paintings from an under-the-table viewpoint of a woman’s legs with red painted toes next to which the long white femur, tibia, and fibula of a skeleton also dangled. Fisher seemed to keep close company with the idea and imagery of death, often casting a wink and a smile in its direction. For a moment the show read as if it were a wry goodbye, and though it was never really my intention, I accepted the fact that it would be literally impossible for me to maintain any semblance of critical distance.
After being moved so quickly by the art upon my arrival at Woman Made, the unfolding story as it was just laid out to me felt surprisingly overwhelming. I came hoping to be knocked over, and I certainly was.
Friday morning, October 16th, the day of her opening, I got a note from Beate that Beatrice Fisher had just passed away.
I went back to the gallery a few hours before the show opened and, save for the occasional footsteps from above, the space was silent. I might have brought a bit of my own silence as well, out of both respect and sadness, having just met the art of an artist I felt I could really sit down and have a conversation with, only to realize I was too late. It was a mildly heartbreaking place to be, as I have always been one who gets instantly and incredibly excited about the things I like, admire, respect, connect to; and the conversation which stems from that connection and admiration has always been fuel for me in my own art and life. (Yes yes, it sounds like I was being a bit selfish, but this is the self I have.)
The art looked entirely different to me. I hadn’t noticed on my initial visit that the very first piece one encounters was a self-portrait in which Fisher had painted a Rorschach inkblot over her mouth. It felt like an invitation to interpret and associate at will, to take what you could. (I was later informed that Fisher spent many years in classical Freudian psychotherapy, which wasn’t at all surprising when one stood in the context of the show; the number of sexual images, the way so many of her paintings seemed to descend through layers of experience, ego, and the inviolate resolution she seemed able to wrest from the works all pointed toward a sort of systematic investigation.) Below the portrait was a single votive on a white pedestal. Later would be placed a photo of the artist with the inscription “In memoriam, 1939 – 2009.”
Several days after the opening, I spoke with Janet Bloch, artist, teacher, and former partner of Beate Minkovski as director of Woman Made, who first came upon Fisher’s work several years ago while organizing a group show for the gallery. “I curated her in,” Bloch told me. “Hers was a small piece, with several penises all wearing different hats. I remember it really just tickled me,” Bloch laughed. “I was so surprised when I met her because she wasn’t what I expected from seeing her art. I told her this and Beatrice said, ‘You didn’t expect an old lady?’”
Fisher went on to take one of Bloch’s workshops geared toward helping artists market themselves more effectively, prepare their work for grant applications, and take advantage of opportunities they simply might not have known existed. “Beatrice was really quite frustrated with her career and the lack of attention she received, but I think I was able to help her,” Bloch said. “In fact, we helped each other quite a bit in that way, keeping each other motivated and buoyed regardless of disappointment.”
With Bloch’s assistance, Fisher’s work was more widely circulated and appreciated, and the artist received residencies at colonies such as Ragdale in Illinois and Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado, which is where Fisher first met Ed Paschke (long associated with the Chicago Imagists), who she had always greatly admired and became quite fond of. Bloch recalled that Fisher was thrilled to meet Paschke and that he had been very kind to her at Anderson Ranch, inviting her to his studio in Chicago once the residency was complete. “Beatrice called me from her car outside Ed’s studio, frozen by nerves,” Bloch said. “I talked her through it, told her to just breathe, and she was eventually able to go in. She had an amazing time and felt very drawn to him. She even began to think that maybe the two of them were meant to be together. Two days later, though, Paschke died.”
Fisher was diagnosed with brain cancer in April of 2009 during her residency at Ragdale, where she began suffering from dizzy spells and numbness. Eventually the dizziness caused her to fall and she was taken to the hospital, where several lesions were found on her brain. She was given two to six months to live. “I haven’t even had time to mourn,” Bloch said. When I spoke with Daniel Zellman, Fisher’s second child from her first marriage, he hadn’t had time to start mourning either. “It just happened so fast, and it’s been such a roller coaster,” Zellman said. He was laid off from his job in Canada shortly after his mother’s diagnosis, a “blessing in disguise,” as he said, which allowed him to come home and be with Fisher for her remaining days. “She had the most beautiful opening,” he told me through a long sad smile. “All her friends were there and I know she would have been overjoyed.”
Though we spoke only briefly, Zellman poured out a handful of close memories of his mother. “One of my earliest was of the smell of oil paint and Dr. Pepper in her studio,” he said. “She always had Dr. Pepper. She also wallpapered the bathroom of a friend of hers with covers from The New Yorker, which she avidly read. She was a great reader, traveler, adventurer—even at the end she had travel brochures on the table next to her bed.”
Zellman was clearly worn out, and I felt more than sympathetic to him. In fact, there is certain empathy in me for him, for the whole story of Beatrice Fisher as it opens itself to me. Many mothers are taken by cancer, my own among them; mine, too, was an artist who, though she never produced work as avidly as Fisher, was clearly always making art in her head, and whole-heartedly lived artfully. I didn’t want to push too hard but I was compelled by the story, by my own overwhelming feeling of affinity for both art and artist, so I took more time from Zellman than I had right to, yet he graciously offered what he could in the time he had, for which I was grateful. I decided to give the rest of the family more time, however, which is why their voices are not heard here.
Zellman went on to laugh about his mother’s parking Karma. “She always, always had rock star parking, always right in front of wherever she was going. I’m hoping it’s something I inherit from her.” Both Zellman and Bloch corroborated on some of Fisher’s other characteristics, such as her occasional outrage and befuddlement that things sometimes did not go exactly as she wished them to, especially things for herself. “She just couldn’t understand,” Zellman said, “why everyone around her wouldn’t do everything they could to make her happy, or that she sometimes didn’t get what she wanted. It was a mystery to her.”
Once Bloch found out about Fisher’s condition, she called Minkovski at Woman Made and suggested a solo show, which was instantly agreed to. Bloch made several trips to Fisher’s studio, going through hundreds of pieces of art, much of which she had never seen before, carefully choosing what would eventually create several entirely unique bodies of work to fully flesh out a retrospective of, in my opinion, incredible originality.
Fisher’s life as seen through her art was built of the same materials as most others: passion and pain, wry awareness and understanding, labor and love. The totemic penises (seriously: 8 feet tall), gorgeously erotic glittery paintings of tangled limbs, camouflaged fetuses (some of which actually plug into the walls), nesting dolls which diminish in layers like acetates from Gray’s Anatomy, circus performers balanced and perched on the noses and ears of unseen giants, and Paschke-like double portraits from whose mouths sing columns of honey bees, illustrate clearly, however, that Fisher’s perspective on life was anything but common. Whereas so many of us simply live among the wonder of everyday, Beatrice Fisher chose to make art of her wonder, of each thought and moment she had. It was a small but bursting retrospective of what is possible when one lives artfully, and it was a fine gift to leave behind for the rest of us, regardless of how late we come to it.
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Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things, for the most part. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project, various apartments in Berlin, London, and a tiny village in Romania.