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A Question of Emphasis: Louise Fishman Drawing

8/26/2021 - 2/26/2022
Organizing institution: Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinios Urbana-Champaign
Primary Curator: Amy Powell

Louise Fishman (United States, 1939-2021) was an established artist known for her ambivalent engagement with male-centered abstract painting traditions. Her physical and process-driven work remakes the abstract expressionist gesture and the minimalist grid into tools that communicate history and emotion centered in her identities as Jewish, feminist, and lesbian. A Question of Emphasis: Louise Fishman Drawing is the first career spanning exhibition and publication of Fishman’s works on paper from 1964 to the present. The project includes more than 100 works from the artist’s archive that have rarely been exhibited alongside significant institutional and private loans. Citing John Cage’s response in 1965 to the question, “what is drawing?” A Question of Emphasis encompasses collage, oil and wax, thread, acrylic text, ink, charcoal, printmaking, oil stick, watercolor, and tempera in Japanese-bound Leporello (accordion) books. This full range of mediums foregrounds Fishman’s robust and dedicated practice of works on paper, which have never been studies for her large canvases. Instead, Fishman used drawing to think through physicality, materials, and intimacy on a different register: generally small- and medium-scale, often sculptural and tactile, and aligned to her particular historical contexts and her communities. A Question of Emphasis examines the relationship between artist’s biography and drawing through feminist and queer perspectives. Fishman’s drawings are distinctive within her full oeuvre because many are dedicated to lovers—an illustrious network of lesbian writers, scholars, and critics that include Bertha Harris, Esther Newton, and Ingrid Nyeboe, Fishman’s spouse and longtime partner of the late critic and writer Jill Johnston. Fishman’s works on paper also honor the artist’s greatest teachers—Paul Cézanne, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kline, John Cage, Eva Hesse, and Agnes Martin among them. Some works are collaborative, including prints Fishman made using her artist mother’s collagraphic plates, and her Angry Women acrylic text series made for friends and muses during periods of feminist consciousness raising in the 1970s (Fishman was a member of the activist groups Redstockings and Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell [W.I.T.C.H.] and editor of the Heresies journal issue on lesbian art and artists). Drawing is often perceived as a window to an artist’s interiority and a spontaneous activity that happens more readily than painting on canvas. This project is a curatorial experiment that instead follows Fishman’s lead, through drawing, to convene a community of living and historical figures that are integral to the construction of self. While centered on the artist’s hand, Fishman’s works on paper are in fact radically open and give audiences a strong perspective of artmaking as a world-making project.

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