Interview by J. Fiona Ragheb
Beverly Fishman’s work adopts the language of abstraction to explore the body, issues of identity, and contemporary culture. Her career-long investigation draws upon medical imaging and the pharmaceutical industry to create seductive works that entice the viewer with their luminescent forms and chromatic lushness, while also referencing the trajectory of modernist painting. Fishman’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at galleries in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Thessaloniki, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Detroit, and has also been shown at the Chrysler Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Columbus Museum of Art, among others. Her work is represented in many collections including the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, the Cranbrook Art Museum, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art, and the Pizzuti Collection. She is Artist-in-Residence and Head of Painting at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Her upcoming solo exhibition at Kravets Wehby Gallery in New York, NY will open in September 2017.
J. Fiona Ragheb: I'm curious about your recent show that was curated by Nick Cave, and I would be interested to hear from you what it's like to work with an artist as a curator, as opposed to a more traditional curator, because that must be such a different experience.
Bev Fishman: I don't know how long I've known Nick. We laugh about it, because it feels like we’ve known each other forever. I'd have to look to try to figure out when we met each other; but it's definitely within the last ten years. It's like we met and pretty much became friends almost immediately, and he's been a huge supporter for my work in many different ways. We've been in regular contact with each other, and I really admire him, both as an artist and as an activist. I think what he's doing—the social component of his work—is very, very important. Working with him through the CUE [Art Foundation] was a great experience. Different artist-curators worked very differently with the artists that they selected. I actually asked Nick to mentor me very seriously and honestly. I wanted him to be critically involved.
J. Fiona Ragheb: Was he involved in a critical role throughout the development of the body of work itself, or just the exhibition?
Bev Fishman: The body of work was made within the space of a year. During that time, he visited my studio in New York a couple of times, and we spoke often. He would provoke my thinking with great questions that I would dwell upon in the studio for hours at a time. Once we went around New York together to look at art along with his partner, Bob Faust, and Matt, my husband. Then we all went to my tiny little shoebox studio in Chelsea. It was boiling hot that day—it was like 110 degrees in the studio. I had some pieces on the wall, and I remember Nick saying, "You know these are great. You could do a show with them. But you know what these works are. Show me what you don't know." And that really resonated with me.
It's about someone just saying something at the right time, and you're hearing it in a way that opens the work up. I mean I could've not heard that and heard something else, but I heard that and it was really, really important. He's so sharp. When he came to the studio months later, I had all these new collages on the wall, and I was in the groove just making work, night and day. He responded very positively, saying, "Now, let's look at what would work well together or what would talk to each other."
We were moving things around, and he was really, really active, and really, really part of the process. What was great for me was that I completely trusted him, and he also knew that if I didn't agree with him I wouldn't do it. So we understood each other. The level of respect that I have for him is really deep. I also felt honored to have the opportunity, because I knew he could have picked anybody for the show.
The CUE exhibition was probably one of the exhibitions that I've worked the hardest on. Instead of knowing what the show was going to be beforehand, I wanted it to be something that I didn't know and couldn’t predict. So every single piece had to raise both formal and conceptual questions—relating to the history of modern painting and raising questions about the ways in which our identities are tied to medicine. So, when I was thinking about how the forms were supposed to break apart and recombine, I thought I had to show it differently than in the past, when I used the score marks or indentations to show this. I also created cutouts in the middle of the quadrants to express the breaking apart of pills and their combination into drug cocktails.
The show allowed me to develop the work formally in ways I had never thought about before. As I worked on it, I kept thinking about how I could bring two different pharmaceuticals together, so [that] the work is a combination of two different appropriated tablet shapes. Once I made that move, my practice opened up and became endless—it became easier to develop a nearly infinite series of permutations. Then I started dealing with questions about the relationship of the inside of the work to its outside, and I could bring the wall into the work.
I kept pushing myself to make the work more and more complex, all the while not knowing where these moves would lead. I made hundreds of color collages trying to find the color and shape combinations.
J. Fiona Ragheb: So those are collage when you're working on the color palette?
Bev Fishman: Yes, they're very much a collage when the work begins. The collages are all handmade and very raw. They are made through color selection, cutting, and gluing. I'll make 3 to 10 color collages dealing with [some] particular combination of shapes until something sparks my interest, and then I’ll pick one. That’s the way I work. I don't know if it's laborious—it's not laborious to me. I love making the collages.
J. Fiona Ragheb: Obviously it’s laborious but it seems very methodical and investigatory... I mean it's one step after another.
Bev Fishman: Yes, exactly. When I started the stacked forms (which combined the shapes of two different drugs), they were all over the map in terms of what the color could be. Then I pared it down to just a few colors. This was so drastic for me to select two colors and just do a very simple collage. When I began to translate the collages into wood and urethane paint, I then added color to the edges and the back of the piece. But it was still very, very simple. These were all ways of painting that I had never done before, so everything was new.
J. Fiona Ragheb: Can you tell me about—because these are collages—the material that you're using? Does it have a direct correlation to colors that exist out in the world?
Bev Fishman: I use a number of different color systems, some natural and some that have very artificial or synthetic connotations. I stay away from Pantone, because I'm just not interested in it—maybe because it's become too familiar. I use color systems that I can buy at the art supply store, but then I also go to Home Depot and take all their color samples—so I'm always in different types of stores scavenging. I also use cut vinyl, some of which is fluorescent or has a very artificial color. Particularly over the last year, I was looking at the color schemes for makeup, using the color of cosmetics as another way for me to deal with questions of identity. How we beautify ourselves has lots of implications for society and politics. And the ways we use makeup are in some ways analogous to the ways we use medicine: namely, to make ourselves better than we are.
J. Fiona Ragheb: You said something about rejecting Pantone because it's familiar, so what is it about the familiar or—?
Bev Fishman: My color is very old school, so I’m not following a system in any way. When I bought Pantone books, I just wasn’t feeling it. I was just cutting up the stuff, and it was a fortune; and I thought, “I'm not going to pay a fortune for scraps of color.”
J. Fiona Ragheb: Your rejection of Pantone: you used the term familiar. Is it that you're looking for something unfamiliar? How do you develop the palettes in terms of their relationship to the work? Because clearly it's very considered, if you think of the way you were describing the fact that you have paint on the edge and then on the back—what is the motivation there?
Bev Fishman: When I say "familiar," it's because a lot of younger artists immediately go to Pantone. They immediately say, "So you're using Pantone color?" As if that's the system, the way the entire world operates or thinks about color. So I thought to myself, just don't use it, because so many people of a certain age group think that’s all there is when it comes to color. They think the color of the world is Pantone—the color you see in all magazines, the color you see in fashion. Pantone, you must use Pantone. And I reject that.
J. Fiona Ragheb: It's become so ubiquitous that there is even a line of mugs and all kinds of household things that are all Pantone colors.
Bev Fishman: In a certain way, I kind of stayed away from it because it was so known, or so understood, and I'm looking for a color that's not understood. I'm looking for jarring juxtapositions and a sensorial experience that is not expected. I want people who look at my work to think about color in ways that can't really be deduced down to something. One of the things that I don't do at all is that I never look at color on the computer. The color for me has to be a physical, material thing, because what I'm making is physical.
It's not that I'm against the computer. If my pieces would remain in the computer, then I could use a computer as a color system, but because they exist in the world, I can’t. I think of color in a physical way—as a physical as well as an optical sensation. I literally have to put color down to see it; otherwise I don't know what it is, and I don't know how it's going to react to another color that's sitting next to it. In that way, my approach is very old school. I’m going back to Albers, back to putting one color next to another color—having to see it in order to understand it.
J. Fiona Ragheb: You're not using the computer, and you're not using a Pantone system, but you just mentioned Albers, and clearly you're very knowingly using a language of abstraction, whether it's the color studies of Albers, or the abstraction of minimalism and post-minimalism, or the dizzying effects of Op art, not just in these works but in your stainless steel works and others. Can you talk about how you negotiate that territory and relate yourself to that trajectory?
Bev Fishman: I think of myself as being in dialogue with the history of painting, so I'm well aware of historical work, and I've seen that work in person, and it has affected me deeply. So, for example, seeing the Albers show this fall of his grayscale paintings, I was shocked how sensitive and gorgeous they were. I thought to myself that I should not concern myself with color theory, because when Albers was making those paintings, he wasn’t theorizing about them, he was just painting. They are so beautifully made and their variations and tonal qualities were so sensitive—it was as if I had never seen them before. I thought that's what painting needs to be for me: I need to start painting without knowing what will emerge. It's the opposite of making a series knowing what the works will be like in the end.
[Pointing to the studio wall] For example, on the right side of my painting here, there are two very strange shades of a greenish blue; the outer frame is sort of gray green, and it's near a color that's almost a flesh tone. But because of all the different color relationships in the painting, we can’t see those colors as what they truly are. They are changed by the colors that are placed next to them. So that's a surprise to me: I didn't know what that painting would look like before it was painted. Even the collage upon which it was based was only an approximation. For this reason, if the colors don’t look right in the final piece, I repaint them two, sometimes three, times.
J. Fiona Ragheb: It's interesting to think about your work in terms of what you're saying about the color, as well as the example of Albers, because obviously we have become so accustomed, for better or worse, to looking at work in reproduction. To actually experience it in person really does give you that opportunity for revelation; the nuances, which are perhaps not so subtle in some of your work, really, are lost in reproduction.
Bev Fishman: I think most painting—indeed, most art—is lost in reproduction. But we've become so accustomed to believing that we’ve seen a thing when we see it in reproduction. I never believed that, though. The only way I can look at a reproduction and think I know what the original looks like is if I’ve seen an example of that type of work in person. Then I can translate my experience of the work back into the reproduction. With my exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation, people would say to me that the works look very graphic, when they only saw them as reproductions in the catalogue or online. They had no idea that there were scores in the pieces as well as beveled edges and cutbacks. They thought that they were flat, which they most definitely are not.
J. Fiona Ragheb: Right. They might get that a little bit in terms of the geometries of the pills and the score lines and things, but you really only begin to get that in person with reflections and the spill of the color onto the wall. They really begin to sort of vibrate.
Bev Fishman: Yes. If people don’t see my paintings in person then they haven’t really seen them.
How many times do we go to an exhibition, when we have 10 other things in our minds, and don’t really see the works? That happens most of the time, but, when I was living in New York, I had time and I would go and see just one show. That way I really saw it. But sometimes one visit is just not enough . Just before I left New York, I visited the Kerry James Marshall show, which I realized I needed to see probably five days in a row. It was just brilliant, but I didn't have the time, because I had waited too long. I realized I could have sat in just one room and seeing only those works would have kept me going for weeks. That's what painting is: it's a meditation—both to make it and to experience it after it’s done.
Then when it's rewarded... You know, not all painting will be rewarding, but when it is rewarding, I don’t have the words to describe it; I could almost cry. It's powerful. It's real and it’s moving. That’s what I want spectators to get from my work. I want the viewer to stop and have an experience.
J. Fiona Ragheb: You seem to have very knowingly turned the language of abstraction on its head to continue this sort of bodily metaphor of the viewer's experience by taking seemingly abstract forms, but rooting them in lived experience. I'm wondering if you can talk about this re-contextualization of the modernist ethos of abstraction in terms of a critique or how you see that?
Bev Fishman: It actually started in the 1980s, when I was using cellular motifs, because I saw the cell as a powerful symbol of the self and issues of identity. But you could also read cellular motifs abstractly. At that time, I was making mixed media collages using rudimentary technologies, such as black-and-white and color photocopiers to abstract the images, and then combining them to make large abstract paintings. I thought of myself as trying to infect abstraction. I was trying to mix abstraction with issues of identity. Going back to the 1980s, my work has always asked social and political questions.
Back then it was AIDS, but it was also female identity. And identity also meant power or lack of power. I was also interested in painting in terms of high modernism or pure abstraction and what that meant in terms of gender. Because art by women was exhibited so much less than art by men, women were not recognized as having the same access to the tradition—it was like we were being excluded from the conversation. I have been pushing against this for decades. Then, in terms of motif, my painting went from focusing on the disease to focusing on the cure, namely, medicine in the sense of scientific imagery of the body and pharmaceuticals. But whether you are dealing with the disease or the cure, you are always dealing with the fragility of life. I was never interested in exploring pure abstraction. For me, there always had to be social content and a critique of contemporary society.
J. Fiona Ragheb: I was really intrigued by what you just said about your place as a woman in terms of modernist traditions not being available to you. You also mentioned earlier [about] beginning to use the colors of cosmetics and whatnot, so I'm wondering where the work goes from here?
Bev Fishman: I never have an answer to that question. My work has always shifted in terms of its materials and its content. I’ve always focused on the body, but almost everything else has varied. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about painterly form and cocktails.
J. Fiona Ragheb: You mean drug cocktails?
Bev Fishman: Yes, drug cocktails. I’ve read reports that when certain famous people died, they found massive drug cocktails in their systems. Seven drugs. How could you take seven drugs? Well, three of them were for pain management, and then one was to pick you up, and then one was for anxiety, and another was for depression, and then there was something to help you sleep because many of the other drugs were making you a little too speedy. All these drugs are found in one system. Today, it is all too common to read about a celebrity or other public figure who has died from an overdose.
J. Fiona Ragheb: It is interesting because it seems that most of the titles of your work address drugs that one might think about more in terms of quality of life issues—anxiety, depression, et cetera—rather than say chemotherapy and that kind of thing.
Bev Fishman: I love that.
J. Fiona Ragheb: You love what?
Bev Fishman: I love that they deal with issues of life.
J. Fiona Ragheb: That's clearly very calculated or very thoughtful on your part, so what is that distinction about?
Bev Fishman: Everyone can relate to quality of life issues. We are experiencing more and more anxiety in the current climate. Doctors, I am sure, are treating a growing number of patients. I am positive that they're seeing more people now for severe depression, anxiety, and insomnia—all the things that are caused by the extreme social and political uncertainty in the United States right now.
J. Fiona Ragheb: Yes, I was actually going to ask you about the political climate and all the discussions of healthcare and how that—
Bev Fishman: I have been dealing with pharmaceuticals in my work since 1999. The pills run parallel to other bodies of work, but they’ve been a consistent area of research and exploration. Right now, I'm very fearful that soon many people won't have any medical care, or will go off their medications because they can't afford them, or will not be able to afford lifesaving medicine.
Right now we're at a very critical moment, but we've shut our eyes to it. The fact is, addiction is rising at a rate that the hospitals and healthcare can't keep up with. And it affects every economic group. Why is addiction so prevalent today? Does it have to do with the way drugs are designed, marketed, and sold? Does it also have to do with the ways in which our identities have become so multiple and porous today? By exploring pill forms I try to raise these questions. So can abstraction have socially critical commentary? Can it? I want to say it can. That's what I've been dealing with. But I don't have an answer—I definitely believe that pharmaceuticals are both good and bad. The situation is clearly not just black-and-white.
I’m actually exploring many types of drug. I appropriate the forms of medicines that deal with quality of life. But I've also taken shapes for diabetes, ulcer, and high blood pressure drugs, among others. High blood pressure is such a huge medical concern in our country, as is diabetes. And they both have to do with the rise in obesity in the U.S. If we don't deal with the obesity in children that causes diabetes, then children just get sicker and sicker.
Disease is in certain ways driven by financial concerns. You eat at McDonald's because you're working three jobs, and it's cheaper to eat there than it is to prepare a well-balanced meal. I talk to a lot to doctors about sickness and health. In addition to my interest in branding and how we are being sold medicine, I'm interested in having conversations with medical professionals about their work, so as to better understand all the important work medicine does.
J. Fiona Ragheb: I wanted to return to something you said earlier about the way in which your work is driven by material investigations. I'm curious, if you could just talk a little bit more about your process in terms of when you're pursuing a certain line of inquiry or investigation... does that consume your entire practice? For instance your glass Pill Spills, are you doing these things in tandem alongside one another?
Bev Fishman: When I won a GAPP Artist Award to work in glass at the Toledo Museum of Art, it gave me an opportunity that I could not have funded myself.
Since 1999, I had worked with cast resin, so I had made a lot of translucent three-dimensional pill forms, which I thought were really beautiful. They seemed to foreground the seductive nature of pharmaceuticals. But I knew that glass was even more seductive, and more beautiful, and I thought that if I could get to work with glass, the end results would be even more alluring. That way, the works would get closer to the critique I was interested in. For that work, I chose the form of the capsule through which to explore color, shape, pattern. My year of residency ended, but I was so obsessed that I continued to produce capsules for a couple of years after that.
J. Fiona Ragheb: I'm curious that you just said that the glass allowed you to get closer to the critique because they are as you say, so incredibly seductive because of the color, because of the translucency, because of the really beautiful patterning. I could see them beginning to anesthetize the audience to the social critique that comes along with your work.
Bev Fishman: Exactly, and that's what pharmaceutical advertising does. Drug ads project the positive side of the pharmaceutical and cover over everything that’s bad or dangerous. When all the horrible side effects are listed, it’s done very quickly, and with a very tiny scrolling text. In addition, the side effects are juxtaposed with very positive images—for example, a beautiful sunset. So you’re looking at something uplifting, and you're not thinking about all the horrible things that could happen to you.
So the seductiveness of shape, form, and pattern is a critical part of the work, and it refers to the pharmaceutical design and advertising industries. The fact that you're anesthetized—and that you want to buy the pills and own them—is so subversive to me. That’s part of their meaning.
J. Fiona Ragheb: It's interesting because before the mid 1980s, pharmaceutical companies were not advertising to the individual.
Bev Fishman: Before pharmaceuticals was tobacco. Cigarettes were advertised heavily.
J. Fiona Ragheb: So the pharmaceuticals have taken over that space.
Bev Fishman: Absolutely. We've traded one addiction for the other.
J. Fiona Ragheb: Aside from Nick's role which was obviously significant, is there any way in which working outside of the Cranbrook Campus and being in New York instead while you developed that body of work—
Bev Fishman: Yes. Because when I'm in New York I feel like I'm home, and I also feel like I'm with a bunch of other artists that are working. My studio was in the same building as Peter Halley's and Ross Bleckner's, and I was across the street from James Cohan. I was living and working in a city where art's important; whereas in Michigan, you can’t see one mind-blowing body of work after another on almost a daily basis, as you can in New York City. It provided just such a jolt. It made me want to reach higher and higher with my work. I was so excited--I felt I could try anything.
J. Fiona Ragheb: That's the best you can ask for, right?
Bev Fishman: When I stood in my exhibition at the CUE after Nick and I installed it, I felt that there was nothing missing. It was all there. In fact, I had made a major 15-foot painting we couldn't put up because the space was too small. But it wasn’t a problem, because what was in the show worked together so perfectly. Early on Nick said, "Bring more work. I don't want you to just bring work for the show; I want you to bring more works than will fit so that we can make choices and move things around." I couldn't have worked harder, and it wasn't about production, it was about everything.
J. Fiona Ragheb: You said that being in New York and seeing this amazing work on a regular basis really did something for you, but what does the role of teaching and mentoring do for your practice?
Bev Fishman: It keeps me young. Heading a MFA program in painting keeps me in touch with what young artists are thinking about: what they find critical or important. I like listening to my students’ concerns and helping them make their work more powerful. I feel that it’s giving back, and that it enriches me personally. Also I think in terms of the culture, I'm very interested in how younger artists are responding to being an artist right now in this climate. In the financial uncertainty of the future, how do artists continue to go in the studio and make work?
Featured image of Beverly Fishman by Matthew Biro