Vernon Fisher is enjoying the life of an artist

[17 August 2007]

By Gaile Robinson

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

FORT WORTH, Texas—In 1981, Vernon Fisher hit an artist’s trifecta.

His paintings were included in three extremely important museum exhibitions—the Whitney Biennial and exhibits at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. There were also 10 gallery shows that included his works that year.

At 38, Fisher had been welcomed into the club of the worthy, and doors were flying open. Most artists would have packed their paintbrushes and decamped to New York to live the boho life in Soho before their mothers even noticed the basement was empty.

But Fisher opted to stay in Fort Worth with his young family, and to teach. For 28 years he taught painting as the Regents Professor of Art at the University of North Texas.

“I don’t think it would have made much difference if Vernon had come to New York,” said Charles Cowles, owner of Charles Cowles Gallery, which represents Fisher, in New York City. “He would have made it anyway,” Cowles said. “He’s a very cool, relaxed guy. He didn’t need any training.”

Today, at 64, Fisher remains relevant and rewarded, with fellowships, grants and honors for his teaching abilities. His paintings have been added to the permanent collection of more than 40 major contemporary art museums across the United States. He has a solo show every year, sometimes two, and he’s represented in five galleries across the nation that expect a regular influx of work.

“I can’t think of any artist-teacher who has had the impact Vernon has had,” said Michael Auping, curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

While his work is ensconced in impressive collections both public and private, a more lasting legacy may be in the students he has taught. Many of them are becoming nationally recognized, although Fisher did his best to dissuade them.

“When you choose to be an artist you have to be perfectly willing to live like a student the rest of your life. You’re going to be poor far longer than you might imagine, maybe forever. I’ve been luckier than most,” Fisher said.

Like many young men who grew up in Texas in the mid-20th century, Fisher’s interests were more athletic than scholastic, although he went to college intending to become a math teacher. During his senior year at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, he took an art course to fulfill his elective requirements, and it redirected his life. He stayed on for an additional year to take more art courses. While his parents were skeptical, they were not discouraging. “They kindly supported me through that final year,” he said.

He went to graduate school at the University of Illinois on a fellowship. “They gave me a full ride: no tuition, no fees,” Fisher said. “My only responsibility was to go to the studio and paint every day. I couldn’t believe it.”

Fisher realized then that choosing art as a vocation would be financially limiting. He and his second wife, Julie Bozzi, who is also an artist, bought their first house in 1987: “I was 44 years old, most people get in a house earlier than that.”

Success, as measured in museum sales and solo museum shows, came quickly for Fisher. His work “84 Sparrows” was purchased by Fort Worth’s Modern in 1980. Less than 10 years later, a retrospective of Fisher’s toured the country.

Many of Fisher’s works from that period were presented in multiparts, like “84 Sparrows,” where a flock of red birds, each individually cut out and stapled to the wall is the first unit, a painted panel depicting a travel trailer is the second element and the third is a “Nancy” cartoon. The elements seem dissimilar, but there are connections—the graphic vocabulary of the cartoon strip with trajectory lines and splashes reiterate the curved line of the trailer top and the flocks of birds. A moment passes and soon the likenesses appear and the story line of chaos—a startled flock of birds, a family trailer vacation or a kitchen mishap begins to unspool.

“My paintings usually have a narrative thread. We tend to believe the narrative, we want things to hang together as a story. And when I employ formal strategies that undercut the narrative, it can be disconcerting to some viewers (but hopefully delightful to others),” Fisher said.

In the catalog for Fisher’s 1989 retrospective, the art critic Dave Hickey suggests there is a recipe in Fisher’s tripartite works, one of “imperfectly analogous juxtapositions of three imperfectly distinct kinds of phenomena (the personal, the social, the natural), described by three imperfectly distinct information systems (the literary narrative, the iconographic image, and the cartographic grid).”

Or, imagine them as math formulas, a social group (Nancy and Aunt Fritzi) + an organic unit (the birds, or water) + a scientific subdivision (a grid or map) = a literary unit. Fisher combines text panels with his images—written narratives that may or may not be a reference to his painted scenes are a common feature of his work—to challenge the viewer. His pieces command more than the four-second engagement, the average time museum visitors give to an object on display. To hijack Fisher’s cartoon vocabulary, it is easy to imagine them standing in front of his work, without the light bulb of revelation over their heads but rather the head-tilt of quizzical thinking.

Combining photo realism, cartoons, text and familiar icons such as Dairy Queen signs, road maps, blackboards or grids, begs deciphering. This desire to know the back story or to create a personal story out of his images propels Fisher’s art and the fascination with his work.

“Vernon uses language, quotes, systems of knowledge—blackboards and maps. In that multilayered approach to making art he is extremely important,” said Charles Wylie, curator of contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

“Scientists like a high signal-to-noise ratio. I’m just the opposite. I like the paintings to be noisy. Like Phil Spector’s `wall of sound,’” Fisher said.

Fisher moved from these multipart presentations to individual works that looked like musings on a blackboard.

The wiped-chalk effect was painted, not really erased, and the ghostly images of classes past have a universal familiarity that makes them so accessible.

The chalkboard paintings are his most successful series, often selling in the resale market for $80,000, of which Fisher sees not a penny. His new pieces are priced at half of that, and Fisher has to split any proceeds 50-50 with the gallery. He’s a successful internationally recognized artist, but this is the financial reality. His galleries will get half of any sale, then, auction houses, galleries, owners and dealers reap any subsequent profits from resale.

In his new works, he has used a map of colonial Africa and overlaid it with images of inflatable gorillas, Mickey Mouse and secondary characters (the guys with thin mustaches and evil intent) from Tarzan movies.

A central image is often a swimmer or someone emerging from the water. He points to the swimmer, comments on the splashing struggle and likens it to himself, beset by his fears.

Fisher has boxes of photographs, movie stills and cartoons that he has saved.

These carefully culled visual aids snipped from magazines and gathered at garage sales, inspired an entire show, “Vernon Fisher’s File 00” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2000.

“The heart and soul of Vernon Fisher’s art lies in his archives,” writes Valerie Loupe Olsen, the curator who took scores of files with labels such as “mad science, boy scout, gloves, a-bombs, cloud atlas, Nancy and Mickey, knots, diagrams,” then juxtaposed his inspirational clips with the painting in which they appear.

The open-ended interpretations available in Fisher’s work cause art writers to wax oblique.

Fisher, though, is as inclined to credit a need for a deep yellow as he is to espouse the symbolism inherent in a smoking simian.

He pauses before a recently completed work and points to the chimpanzee smoking a cigarette. “I wanted something yellow there. It’s hard to paint in yellow ochre, hard to get the smoke right with so little contrast.”

“I tried to be straight with everybody. I couldn’t say that was the norm. Teaching is a hard job. Especially art. There’s just so much subjectivity that a reasonable person has to give the student the benefit of the doubt. You don’t always know good art when you see it, but you do know bad,” Fisher said of his teaching.

Rarely is art taught by a successful, working, exhibiting, artist. Rarer still are the ones who are effective teachers and brutally honest critics.

Fisher was infamous for his lashing criticism that often ended with students in tears. Their memories of critique days are still tender, and several of them can still recite, word-for-word, his withering comments.

“I was in his graduate painting seminar,” said Marty Walker. “I had come from a small, conservative undergraduate art department in Missouri. Many of us in this class were from the Midwest. At the first critique, he looked at our work, the room got real quiet, he didn’t say anything for a while then shook his head and finally said, `You children of the corn need to get out and look at what’s going on.’”

Aaron Baker, former student and curator of the Playboy Art Collection in Chicago, remembers: “Vernon was the first professor I had who actually accomplished something. There was tangible proof that in his field he was a success. I was so excited to be taking his class; he was a guy who was really doing it.”

These same ex-students are now working artists, gallery owners and curators. They say that what they learned from Fisher about their work and the art business prepared them for the realities of the art world. Walker owns her own gallery in Dallas. Jeff Elrod, who studied with Fisher in the `80s, spent eight years in New York City and has now moved to Marfa. Currently, he’s in two group shows in New York, one in Los Angeles. His star is on the rise.

“When I got out of school it was immediately clear how lucky I was to be in that school to get his tutelage,” he said. “I didn’t go to grad school. I got everything I needed from him to go out there and be successful, I was so prepared in my mind. I was ready.”

Fisher’s mentoring era has ended. He no longer teaches. Last year, he retired from UNT, and he doesn’t miss it. He admits he rarely thinks about the school, the classroom or the students. “I liked it well enough,” he said. “I like this better.”

“This” is working every day at his studio in Fort Worth, every day except the occasional Friday when he plays golf.

He’s part of a regular foursome with Michael Auping and the Blagg brothers, Dennis and Daniel. It’s a powerful art foursome, although they say they never discuss matters of art on the golf course.

“The only time I am not making art, or thinking about art is when I am on the golf course or in the middle of a (Dallas) Cowboys game,” Fisher said.



Vernon Fisher’s paintings are in most of the major contemporary museums in the United States. For a complete list of institutions, visit the Web site of Dunn and Brown Contemporary, his Dallas gallery, at

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