Contributed by Marjorie Welish / There’s formalism and then there is formalism. In his solo show at Bortolami Gallery, Morgan Fisher excels at both. He is faithful to the modernist credo of line, plane, and color synthesized through composition. But he is also intent on making his work serve logical propositions generated from the practice of painting itself. This conceptual formalism is his domain, and it rewards close attention. Fitful likes and dislikes begone!
Most of Fisher’s new abstract paintings are presented in pairs with a single title announcing the aesthetic tactics and procedures that inform their composition. One tandem, for example, is called Blue under Green under Red under Yellow/Yellow over Red over Green over Blue. Titled as such, the works instruct the viewer on layering as a mode of operation quite distinct from that of the Abstract Expressionism that the paintings visually recall.
Although Fisher has said that he is not interested in Jackson Pollock, Pollock has clearly influenced Fisher’s all-over style. And Fisher does acknowledge his debts. The main title of each of three ostensibly colorful canvases, in which a filagree of complementary colors coalesces into a fine haze, is Three Gray Paintings. In parenthetical subtitles, though, Fisher indicates different layering for each canvas: (yellow/violet, red/green, blue/orange), (red/green, blue/orange, yellow/violet), and (blue/orange, yellow/violet, red/green). A more archly knowing approach might have been to collectively title the three works Three Non-Gray Paintings, leaving the viewer to puzzle out that a gray of some sort would result if the complementary colors were mixed. But Fisher elected to nod more explicitly to Pollock’s emphasis on grays.
Fisher’s process remains firmly distinct from Pollock’s. Most obviously in Fisher’s work, basic hues, not blacks and grays, color-code the layered painting process. The field of linear spatters tend to form delicate networks, almost approaching grids, because in making them Fisher mounts and rotates the small canvases on the wall, whereas Pollock placed large canvases on the floor and famously darted around them. Fisher’s networks or striations thus reflect a technique of flinging paint not from the shoulder but from the elbow or wrist on intimate rather than vast supports. Paint concentrated in the center of the picture plane and diminishing at the peripheries suggests a plan that assumes a pre-stretched canvas: Fisher determines the size of the field before he starts painting and stays within its bounds.
These differences signal Fisher’s consolidation of an ongoing commitment to an aesthetic focus, post-Minimalist in its emphasis, on formal procedures and operations with respect to the constructed object. This represents a shift away from innovating style, and resistance to the pressure to be avant-garde for the mere sake of it. Fisher also takes pains to avoid postmodern historicism, often manifested in self-conscious stylistic citations that diminish visual coherence. In these efforts, he offers a powerful and constructive counterpoint to prevailing trends.
“Morgan Fisher: New Paintings,” Bortolami Gallery, 39 Walker Street, New York, NY. Through October 29, 2022.
About the Author: Marjorie Welish is a painter and the author of Signifying Art: Essays on Art Since 1960 (Cambridge University Press).