It’s a warm October afternoon and I’ve hoofed it down to the spartan Cheim & Read Gallery to see recent work by the abstract painter Louise Fishman. In typical Chelsea fashion I’m greeted with a roundabout of white walls and a pair of gallery assistants huddled behind a desk that looms nearly a foot over their heads, hiding all but a pair of black-haired buoys batting idle gossip. Stifling silence follows me throughout.
There are about a dozen paintings up on the walls, each a flurry of massive brushstrokes. Her work is chaotic, boldly expressive, and physical: the paint rises in flakes and dunes out of the canvas, obscuring the two-dimensionality of the plane, and you can see her brushwork, its intense labor. It’s furiously anti-representational, and its physicality has the impression of tangible mania — a shouting match between artist and canvas. Each piece is an insistent declaration of the picture plane: bare scraps of canvas, litterings of paint embolus, and dripping trails of chemical removers enforce the aggressive, maximalist madness the paintings impart. I imagine Fishman chewing out canvas after canvas in an orgiastic rush; I imagine Tom finds this sense of abandon alluring.
I’m here on his suggestion. Rather, I’m here pursuing his opinion; off the cuff, Tom flips open a magazine to a glossy Fishman reproduction: “She’s having too much fun doing what she’s not supposed to do. I love that.” On the page, her work doesn’t leave much of an impression; it’s the type of work anti-abstractionists pull their hair out over. To Tom, however, it presents a challenge, a thrown gauntlet. “I love artists that make me question, because it makes me want to paint. It’s an audacious show. It made me want to run back to the studio and experiment.”
So I’m here in Chelsea examining her furious canvases, and the more time I spend overwhelmed by Fishman’s work the more I begin to feel as though the two artists differ not so much in goals but in temperament, defined by the distinct sense of time one reads on their paintings. Every piece at the Cheim & Read show seems to capture a single moment of expression, torn from her consciousness to the canvas as fast as the thoughts could translate. She made the work following a trip to Venice and its grand drama and shimmering blues explode onto us as if we are suddenly inside a montage of sensations, experiencing the moments within her during her journey. I’m reminded of the automatic writing experiments made popular by the Dadaists, where one set out words without attempting to corral what appears on the page.
O’Neil, in comparison, seems to write his paintings through endless deletions and revisions, inching along until it’s done. His work extends great swathes of time, containing the history of his minute diversions, exhaustive wringing of the picture plane to determine, exactly, what it is the final image needs. At their core I imagine Fishman and O’Neil work similarly yet she seems able to produce paintings in an instant, and I think this is the freedom Tom finds so compelling; yet, it is precisely the time devoted to each painting, the uncontrollable need to keep revising and reconstituting the visual materials, that makes his work special.
Before leaving Cheim & Read I take note of how demanding the experience has been, and then I step out into the sun and am liberated. Inside I felt overwhelmed by a subservience to the work towering over me. I do not feel that when I’m in Tom’s studio. His paintings invite a playful observation, and ask that we spend some time with them to find out how deeply they may pull us. Fishman’s show is strong, her work impressive, but they are not personal to me. I thrill at O’Neil’s work because I feel as though I can be a part of them, as though the layers of time are long enough to let us in on the experience.