17 December 2011

Crossing The Bridge To Abstraction And Back: Janet Fish

"There are no such things as still lives." - Erica Jong, from Fruits & Vegetables, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1970

Definitely not in the paintings of Janet Fish.    For almost half a century, Fish (b. 1933) has executed compositions of extreme complexity while at the same time using even the brightest colors to create illusions of transparency.  Equally dazzling displays of glass and shrink wrap suggest the comfort of an artist who encountered Pop Art early on.  The works in her first solo exhibition in 1971 sold out before the show opened.  Even people who don't recognize the artist's name have seen her iconic images of canned fruits and massed bottles of Smirnoff vodka or Kraft dressing.

 Fish has said that she turned to the painting of still life as a bridge between representation and abstraction.   When she was a student at the Yale School of Art in the early 1960s, abstract expressionism was a weighty orthodoxy, enforced by New York critics and difficult for young artists to ignore.  Representation was considered old-fashioned, abstraction equaled progress, and the arts post-war were about progress just as  much as business was.  "Progress is our most important product" was the official motto of General Electric, after all.  Fish recalls that "I told a cold look at the product - all hot air and mirrors - it didn't mean anything to me.  It was a set of rules."

Luckily for Fish, one of her first mentors was Alex Katz,  who painted the way he wanted to and encouraged Fish to find her own way, too.  Unable to get an academic position after graduation because of her gender,  Fish moved to New York City where she existed on a series of odd jobs to support her painting.  "My mother had as much influence on my career as any of my instructors did - probably more," Fish told a reporter in 1982, alluding to her determination. 

 "To alter the color is to change the feeling," according to Fish, so her turn to more delicate, abstemious use of color suggests  new interests.  For an artist whose work is described as distinctly American, her use of objects from Japan is notable.   In Dragon Kite the plate, the bag and the tablecloth are covered with scripts that are part of the composition while maintaining their discrete existences   Like Orange Pink Green  and other  recent works, color is still important although it is used sparingly.
For Fish, whose early training was dominated by academic arguments, it may be perverse to suggest that her newer paintings bring to mind an argument from the 19th century academies of Europe, but here it is.  Is drawing primary or does a painting need color to be successful?  The best answer is that there is no answer, a Zen koan.   Maybe this is the message of the Dragon Kite.

Quotes are from the essay Janet Fish by Judith Stein, D. C. Moore Gallery: 1998.
Images by Janet Fish, from the D.C. Moore Gallery in NYC unless otherwise noted.
1. Dragon Kite, 2007.
2. herb Tea, Smith College Museum of Art,  Northampton, MA.
3. Dishes from Japan, 2003. 
4. Orange Pink Green, 2003.


Anonymous said...

These are amazing. I felt as though I could reach out, touch the screen and pick up a flower or a banana...three d effect. Live on the canvas.

Thank you for bringing beauty to me that I am unable to reach at this time in my life.

Caregiver at gettingafoothold.blogspot.com

Jane said...

If you look at some other Janet Fish paintings the colors are often as intense as the light in them. This selection highlights her use of light for its own sake, colors or no. I'm glad they speak to you.