Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Louise Fishman, celebrated abstract painter and prominent feminist, dies at 82

Her long career featured an eclectic variety of expressions. In addition to traditional large canvas paintings, she decorated books, and painted on scraps of floor carpet and other objects.

Ms. Fishman (left) enjoyed sharing and talking about art, especially with students.
Ms. Fishman (left) enjoyed sharing and talking about art, especially with students.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Louise Fishman, 82, of New York, an innovative Philadelphia-born abstract painter, consummate craftswoman, and passionate feminist, died Monday, July 26, of complications from heart surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Regarded as a groundbreaking Jewish lesbian woman in an art field dominated by men, Ms. Fishman was celebrated for affixing her personal articulation of the modern world to her work in abstract expressionism. That included depictions of her emotions, reactions, and interpretations of daily life she painstakingly translated from abstract thought to abstract art.

Critics described her work as “emotionally evocative’' and filled with “emotional intensity.”

“She was a very powerful voice for women, for the power of painting, and for the emotional impact of art,” said William R. Valerio, director and CEO at the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia. “It’s what art is all about.”

Ms. Fishman’s long career featured an eclectic variety of expressions. In addition to traditional large canvas paintings, she did miniature pieces, decorated books, painted on scraps of floor carpet and other objects, and made sculptures by folding, stitching, molding, stapling, and gluing items of fabric, rubber, wood, and other materials.

Her work is shown in museums and galleries around the country and in Europe — most often in Philadelphia at Woodmere, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Locks Gallery. She won numerous awards, grants, fellowships, and residencies.

“Philadelphia was very important to her,” Valerio said. “She had a unique and powerful story connected to the city.”

The daughter of Philadelphia artist Gertrude Fisher-Fishman and niece of Russian-born artist Razel Kapustin, Ms. Fishman had her first solo show in 1965 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. With her work ever evolving, critics later noted how she progressed over the years from producing precise, delicate, gridlike images to bold, gestural works that evoked strong sentiments.

Part of that transformation, she said, came from using her emotions and experiences as a Jewish woman and lesbian to accentuate her pieces. She was also inspired, she said, by trips abroad with other artists.

In an interview distributed at a 2016 showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Ms. Fishman said her gay and feminist awareness as a young woman in the 1960s and 1970s helped her see that “everything I was doing as a painter — in terms of scale, gesture, and even using a stretched canvas and a paintbrush — was male, and this was problematic.”

Her series of “angry” paintings in the 1970s are an example, she said, of how she injected her work with emotion. The paintings often feature chaotic and dark backgrounds highlighted with the names of women she supposed were angry with modern society, such as Angry Louise, Angry Gertrude, and Angry Marilyn.

Ingrid Nyeboe, Ms. Fishman’s spouse since 2012, said Ms. Fishman was especially adept at combining her skill in choosing the proper materials and executing the expression with her recollection of how pieces she found moving affected her.

“I often said to her, ‘You are channeling all of art,’” Nyeboe said. “And she’d light up and smile broadly.”

In 1993, Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski said it was Ms. Fishman’s “balance between structure and painterliness that distinguishes her approach to abstraction.” He said that her work expressed “quiet authority and emotional force” and that she created “a sense of inner light emanating from beneath layers of pigment.”

Born Jan. 14, 1939, Ms. Fishman studied at the Philadelphia College of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. She earned a bachelor’s degree in art at Temple in 1963 and a master’s degree at the University of Illinois in 1965.

Ms. Fishman, who had lived mostly in New York since 1965, collected Venetian glass, milk stools, Buddhist objects, and art by friends. She suffered no fools, was direct in her views, and revered by many of the art students she mentored.

“She was the kindest, most generous woman I’ve ever known,” Nyeboe said. “Her goodness was the foundation.”

In addition to Nyeboe, Ms. Fishman is survived by a brother and other relatives.

A memorial celebration is to be later.

Donations in her name may be made to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, 130 W. 30th St., New York, N.Y. 10001.