Edward Fisk - American Modernist Artist
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A MODERN LIFE

Essay by Rachael Sadinsky

1 - Intro, New York 1886-1912, Paris 1912-1913, N.Y. 1913-14
2 - Provincetown 1914-1916, New York 1916-1926
3 - Lexington Kentucky 1926-1944

LEXINGTON 1926-1944

In time, Fisk distanced himself from New York and began to consider Lexington his home. In May 1928, he was promoted to assistant professor of art; in October 1929, he moved into more comfortable living quarters at 322 West Third Street, in the heart of the city’s historic district. Lexington itself seemed to cast a spell over the artist: he described the city as having "great possibilities in a literary way":

. . . the background is perfect – the people have a provincial decadence. . . . . lntrigue reigns here and colors the whole of their lives. . . .48

As a teacher, Fisk explored a diverse range of topics. He encouraged his students, as he had been encouraged by Friesz and Henri, to always look at nature and to base their art on their perception of the world around them: "As each lives differently, so each is differently impressed by life."49 Hired to teach drawing and painting, Fisk inculcated in his students a respect for Old Master draftsmanship and painting techniques. (One former student remembered laboriously painting a wall mural in egg tempera.) His critiques of student work elicited a standard refrain: "You work on it to make it sing."50 Not long after he began at the university, he proposed and developed a graphic arts series to explore the diverse media of modern printmaking techniques, including etching and aquatint, lithography, and mezzotint. During his studio lectures, he worked in his own perceptions as an artist who has spent his career looking at the art that came before:

What the Roman could not express flowered into the Gothic; what the masculine mind could not idealize in the warrior it idealized in the woman; no architecture that ever grew on earth, except the Gothic, gave the effect of flinging its passion against the sky . . . .

Religious art is the measure of human depth and sincerity; any triviality, any weakness, cries aloud. Chinese art is in reality extremely accessible to the European sensibility, if one approaches it in the same mood of attentive passivity which we cultivate before an Italian master-piece of the Renaissance, of a Gothic or Romanesque sculpture. . . .

The first thing, I think, that strikes one is the immense part played in Chinese art by linear rhythm. The contour is always the most important part of the form.51

He praised the Classical tradition, evident in Greek art and works of the Italian Renaissance, as "the apotheosis of the bodily phenomenon." Rembrandt and his fellow painters of the Dutch Baroque were "the first to fully realize the soul in man." Rubens was "the full realization of the ripe sensuous appeal to the eye. His art is like a dish of hot house fruit, overripe, bursting with its richness and wealth overflowing. . . ." Western portraiture "begins to wake out of stone from about 1200" to become "complete music in the seventeenth century."52 Of his own era, Fisk relished the energy of the modern age:

There can be no return to the yesterday. We eat thunder, smoke, fire and steam and glory in our baroque life. The picturesque figures of the past seem sentimental when compared with the gigantic handling of life and material today.53

He was, however, uneasy with the pace of modern life:

. . . the new generation is hurled in [before] the past generation flowers and blooms. Will we ever settle? Now there is too much to be done. And there is no time to think. We haven’t time for a rest. Man must move . . he’s dynamic . . . this is the age. . . . .54

In due course, Fisk began meeting and socializing with colleagues at the university. He established a warm friendship with mathematics professor Claiborne Latimer (1893-1960), who taught at University of Kentucky from 1927 until 1947, when he moved to Emory University in Atlanta. Latimer was an amateur photographer and often accompanied Fisk on trips throughout the state, taking photographs for the painter to refer to while working in the studio.55 Another close colleague was the British art historian John Rothenstein (1901 - 1992) who was named visiting professor of art during the 1927/1928 academic year. The eldest son of the artist William Rothenstein, John Rothenstein developed lifelong ties to central Kentucky: before returning to London in 1929, he married Elizabeth Kennard Smith, daughter of Lexington natives Mr. and Mrs. Charles Judson Smith.56 Rothenstein and Fisk maintained a cordial relationship over the years, exchanging encouraging letters and visiting one another whenever the former traveled to Lexington. They also met during Fisk’s year-long stay in England while on sabbatical in 1933.

By far the most significant relationship of his years in Lexington was with Lucy Young (1898-1988), daughter of Milton and Lucy Spalding Young of McGrathiana, then one of the largest thoroughbred breeding farms in the world.57 Initially hired as a model, Lucy soon became his companion. Fisk, accompanied by Lucy, her sister Spalding and other friends, and occasionally his students, enjoyed Lexington’s cultural attractions. They toured horse farms, visited dance halls, and regularly attended events at Woodland Auditorium and other venues for concerts, lectures, and readings, whether an evening about folk songs with John Jacob Niles or a poetry reading by Carl Sandburg.58 In time, he began to cherish Lucy for far more than agreeable companionship:

The more I am with [her] the more I like her – She has a freedom of understanding and manner that closely relates to my past with an added charm of this place – the two are agreeable. . . . We went through the old part of Lexington out to Ashland. We talked about houses, backgrounds, the kind of houses she would like to have and the fact that she never walked so far in her life – She said I meandered and that she walked – She also said I was a bad influence as l made her think – She’s delightful. I find delightful surprises about her – new notes – She is unlike anyone I have known. She has terrific power under a languorous sleepy personal exterior – I am quite sure she will be charming to know more of: . . .59

By 1930, Fisk proclaimed his affection. In a letter to Lucy written in his journal he wrote:

I do give to you whatever I have is my desire. That you should be pleased with me is my delight. One who knows so much and understands so readily is all that one could ask from another . . . .60

They married on December 3 of that year, initially living in Fisk’s Third Street apartment before moving in 1935 to what would be-come their primary Lexington residence, 26 Hampton Court. During the summer of 1931, they vacationed in North Carolina where Fisk made several sketches that resulted in paintings and prints in subsequent years. In February 1932, Lucy gave birth to their son Milton Thomas and, in March 1933, their daughter Allethaire.

In 1933, the University awarded Fisk one year’s sabbatical leave, which spanned fall I933 through spring 1934, to study in England. Fisk visited his friend John Rothenstein in Sheffield, toured Cornwall, and researched etching techniques in London. Printmaking was a relatively recent passion for the artist and he seized the opportunity to immerse himself in history and techniques, both for his own work and for his teaching. His grasp of the medium was quickly rewarded: in June 1936, the University of Kentucky was awarded a two-year $1,000 Carnegie Corporation grant for graphic art, with its goal being to stimulate "the esthetic appreciation of graphic art, through an understanding of the technical processes and actual visual contact. . . ."61 Fisk, the facilitator of the grant, visited New York City where he selected books and original prints, and lantern slides. The materials were made available to women’s clubs, civic clubs, and other adult education organizations, and Fisk, often accompanied by his wife presented numerous graphic art programs throughout the state during 1936 and 1937.62

Following his sabbatical, Fisk readied himself and his work for a full year of exhibitions in Lexington, Louisville, and New York City. Exhibition of Paintings, Water Colors, Monotypes, Pastels, Prints and Drawings by Edward Fisk was his first solo exhibition in Kentucky. The 1935 exhibition was mounted in the University Art Center in Lexington during March and subsequently traveled to the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville in June.63 Comprised of fifty-nine works (plus an additional twenty-eight at the Louisville venue), the exhibition was a comprehensive survey of Fisk’s paintings and prints, and featured landscapes of Kentucky, North Carolina, Cornwall in England, and the hill country of northern Italy; flower and fruit studies; and figure pieces. In a review in the Lexington Leader; J .C. Graves wrote that the exhibition was "an event which has been awaited with increasing impatience":

While the work of Mr. Fisk is modern in feeling, it bears a relation, in one respect at least, to the work of the old masters. . . . In this age of specialization, when painters are likely to take the preparation of color and surfaces for granted, a preoccupation with the different methods of painting is rather rare, and it is a wholesome sign when a painter begins to search for new ways to achieve effects in color and form. . . . The impression one gains from this exhibition, is of an individual with an absorbing interest in the expression of ideas. . . . There is nothing academic about his work, there is no rigid formula to restrict his vision.64

Another reviewer remarked that Fisk’s work was refreshing for being "dazzling" examples of genuine and true modernism:

In Edward Fisk we see an artist who works with a rare zest which is a delight to those interested in art as a sincerity. At least we see none of the embroiderers who infest our exhibits; although modern in feeling, we see none of those blotched atrocities of bad drawing backed by riots of inharmonious color labeled Modern Art.65

In October, he had his third (and final) solo exhibition in New York City when Edward Fisk: Etchings and Monotypes debuted at Ferargil Gallery. 66 Fisk’s twenty-two etchings and fourteen monotypes were carefully promoted by the gallery, including advertisements in The New York Herald Tribune and the magazine Parnassus, the latter with a reproduction of Fisk’s etching Kentuckiana. Carlyle Burrows, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, praised the artist’s mastery of the difficult printmaking process:

Now and then an artist appears before the public tending to defy one’s capacity to analyze his technical processes. Such is Edward Fisk, whose etchings and monotypes make an engaging group in the front room at Ferargils. Experimenting with the media, he achieves sensitive effects in soft-ground etching, while in color; bits like the nude group, "Conversation Piece, " are delightful in tone.68

That Fisk’s newest and most experimental works were well received by New York audiences was especially gratifying since the work had to stand on its own merits. The artist, it seems, was unable to attend his own exhibition: a note from a member of the gallery staff is inscribed "It is good to see you showing again, but I wish you would show yourself."69

In November 1935, Fisk reestablished his ties with progressive, politically active artists when his work was included in the group exhibition of the American Artists’ Congress held at the ACA Gallery in New York.70 Eighty-eight artists participated in the exhibition which was organized by Fisk’s long-time friend Stuart Davis, executive secretary of the Congress and who later served as the group’s national chairman. Davis wrote in the exhibition brochure that:

. . . . the purpose of this exhibition, held by the sponsors of the Call for an American Artists’ Congress, has as its primary function, the raising of funds to help finance the Congress [which will be dedicated] against Fascism and War and for the Defense of Culture. . . .

The exhibition preceded the formal opening of the Congress, which was staged at the New School for Social Research in New York City in February 1936.71 Fisk was among the original signers for the call against war and fascism, joining over 480 artists from across the United States and Mexico. It was a large, broad-based alliance of artists who were aimed:

. . . to achieve unity of action among artists of recognized standing in their profession on all issues which concern their economic and cultural security and freedom, and to fight War Fascism and Reaction, destroyers of art and culture.72

Two years later, in June 1938, Fisk traveled to New York City to visit with friends and see exhibitions. At Davis’s invitation, Fisk attended the Federal Art Project dinner at Town Hall and later accompanied him to see his mural Swing Landscape hanging in Federal Art Projects’ Murals for the Community at the Federal Art Gallery. 73

I had an interesting time at the Federal Art dinner that was held at the Town Hall, Stuart Davis dragged me to it. It was a great success, speeches over the radio by heads of various projects. . . . It was very very impressive and very stimulating to me. . . . The evening was devoted to "Art in Democracy" – Many well known political figures in N.Y.Cy. spoke. The mayor was absent but had a representative. There seems to be a tremendous interest in what is being done here. Stuart’s mural that is on exhibition in the Federal Art Gallery on 57th St. Is stunning and is one of the most objective abstractions that I have seen. It fairly sings in its gorgeous color spacing. I was really carried off my feet. It made the rest of the work look like enlarged drawings or illustrations. That boy has something.74

Following their brief visit in New York City, Davis wrote to Fisk about his most recent project, "another mural for the WNYC radio station," and his growing involvement with the upcoming World’s Fair in New York:

We have had a lot of meetings on the World’s Fair Art Exhibition and have made a lot of progress in organ/king the state committees on a democratic basis.75

Fisk, too, was deeply involved in the Fair exhibition, having been named to the Kentucky Committee of Selection in late November 28 1938. (Fisk appointment coincided with – and he served in spite of – convalescing from a recent car accident.76) He, along with fellow committee members Adele Brandeis, Paul Childers, and Marion Long, all of Louisville, selected representative work of Kentucky artists which were then sent to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond for a preview exhibition and final selection among works from other southeastern states.77

In 1940, the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield, England, mounted a solo exhibition of Fisk’s works, comprised of twenty water-colors, mezzotints, oils, and etchings.78 Fisk had received an invitation to show in Sheffield several years earlier from his old friend John Rothenstein, who was, at that time, director of the Sheffield Art Galleries and Museums.79 This exhibition was Fisk’s last during his lifetime. In late May of 1941, he suffered a heart attack and took a prolonged leave of absence from his teaching responsibilities. By the following summer, his deteriorating health forced him to retire from active teaching responsibilities.80 Accompanied by his family, Fisk spent the summer of 1942 living in a cabin in Nada, Kentucky, where he "painted morning to night."81 Two years later, on October 8, 1944, Fisk died of heart disease at his Lexington home. During his final years, Fisk was cheered by the support of both old and new friends. Stuart Davis sent encouragement to keep working, both for himself and for the good of American modernism:

Makes me feel bad to hear that you have had to give up your work for the time being. You have a good independent spirit and it is important to have people like you active and pushing in the right direction. Make sure you get going again soon, because I think it is necessary that you should follow your ideas in painting and graphic art . . . good stuff is needed now more than ever; and you have an obligation to deliver: 82

 

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1 - Intro, New York 1886-1912, Paris 1912-1913, N.Y. 1913-14
2 - Provincetown 1914-1916, New York 1916-1926
3 - Lexington Kentucky 1926-1944


Source: Rachael Sadinsky, "Edward Fisk: A Modern Life," from Edward Fisk: American Modernist (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1998). Exhibition catalogue available from the Museum.


A MODERN LIFE: NOTES

48. Fisk journal, p. 25 (p. I8 transcription).

49. Fisk journal, p. 88 (p. 36 transcription).

50. Transcript of Sackett interview, pp. 2 and 27.

51. Fisk journal, loose pages (pp. 5-6 transcription). Former students remember Fisk’s lecturing style as dry, noting that "he was a mumbler" who only came alive when he departed from his prepared text and spoke spontaneously about art. Transcript of Sackett interview, p. 5.

52. Fisk journal, pp. 88-9 I (pp. 36-8 transcription).

53. Fisk journal, p. 68 (p. 29 transcription).

54. Fisk journal, loose page (p. 4 transcription).

55. John Hunsaker recalled driving Fisk and Latimer to eastern Kentucky to see the coal mines. Along the way, they stopped outside of Winchester and Mount Sterling to take photographs of tobacco and corn fields. Transcript of Sackett interview, pp, 19-20.

56. Rothenstein’s later career focussed on museum administration and he became director of the Leeds City Art Gallery (March 1932.December 1933) and the Shefield Art Galleries and Museums (February l934-May 1938) before being named director of the Tate Gallery (1938.1964). Correspondence dated May 27, 1997, from Jennifer Booth, Archivist, Tate Gallery to author.

57. McGrathiana later became later Coldstream Farm and is currently a research facility administered by the University of Kentucky’s Department of Agri-culture.

58. Fisk journal, pp, 32-3, 35-9, 41-61 (pp. 20-27 transcription).

59. Fisk journal, p. 29 (p. I9 transcription).

60. Fisk journal, p, 37 (p. 21 transcription).

61. Kentucky Kernel (lune 30, 1936). The Carnegie acquisitions - comprised of etchings,engravings, lithographs, and woodcuts by such artists as Thomas Hart Benton, Howard Cook, Charles-FranGois Daubigny, Honor-e Daumier, Stuart Davis, Paul Gauguin, Gino Severini, and David Siqueiros –were later accessioned into the collection of the University of Kentucky At-t Museum.

62. See the Lexington Herald(October 25, 1936), the Kentucky Post (November 6, 1936; March 19, 1937; March 23, I937), and the Lexington Leader (January 3 I, 1937).

63. Exhibition of Paintings, Water Colors, Monotypes, Pastels, Prints and Drawings by Edward Fisk< University Art Center, University of Kentucky, Lexington, March I I-25, 1935, and J. B. Speed Memorial Museum (now the J.B. Speed Museum), Louisville, June 16-30, 1935.

64. J.C. Graves, ‘Art work of Professor Fisk, Now on Display at University of Kentucky, Modern in Feeling," Lexington Leader (Sunday edition, March 17, 1935).

65. William D. Frazer, "Fisk Exhibit Reveals Art-ist with Rare Zest," Lexington leader (March 19, 1935): 3.

66. Edward Fisk: Etchings and Monotypes, Ferargil Gallery, 63 East 57th Street, New York City, October l-14, 1935.

67. See The New York Herald Fibune (Octo-ber 6, 1935) and Parnassus 7 (October 1935): 27, illus.

68. Carlyle Burrows, "Notes and Comments on Events in Art: Art in Brief," The New York Herald Tribune (October 6, 1935): IO.

69. The Ferargil card, signed ‘Jack Whuluriger’, is in the Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives.

70. Exhibition: American Artists ’ Congress, ACA Gallery, 52 West 8th Street, New York City, November 10-23, 1935. The exhibition brochure lists exhibited artists, not specific works.

71. First American Artists Congress, Town Hall and New School for Social Research, New York City, February I4- 16, 1936. The Congress mounted large exhibitions and produced traveling shows: sponsored lectures and symposia; pressed the U.S. Congress to establish a permanent Bureau of Fine Arts; counseled museums to pay rental fees to exhibited artists; and joined with other groups in advancing legislation favorable to the growth of the arts in America.

72. See papers published in Erst American Art-k.& Congress (New York: American Artists Congress, I 936); reprinted in Artists Agakt W&-and Fasck-m. Papers of the Fii-st American Artists Congress, Matthew Baigell and Julia Williams, eds., (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986). Fisk’s membership card is in the Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives.

73. Federal Art Projects’ Murals for the Communip, Federal Art Gallery, 225 West 57th Street, New York City, May 24-June 15, 1938. Swing Time was painted for the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, but never installed. Davis’s seven by four-teen foot oil on canvas is presently in the collection of the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington.

74. Letter from Edward Fisk written June I938 to his wife Lucy Spalding Fisk. Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives,

75. Letter from Stuart Davis, dated July 23, 1938, to Edward Fisk. Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives. Davis mural reference is to his Muralfor Studio B, WNYt Munic@al Broadcasting Company, dated 1939, collection of the City of New York.

76. See Lexington Herald ( November 25, 1938). Fisk sustained injuries to his right shoulder and head at 9:00 p.m. when he was struck by a taxi-cab on the corner of Third Street and Broadway in Lexington. Curiously, this particular intersection was the site of the fatal accident that took the life of Lexington artist Henry Faulkner in 1981.

77. See "Fisk to Assist in Selection of Local Art for World Fair," Lexington Leader (November 30, 1938). The exhibition, titled American Art Today, opened April 30, 1939, and had a formal reception on June I. Fisk’s invitation to the reception is in the Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives.

78. [Edward Fisk], Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, England, March-April 1940. Graves Art Gallery archives are unable to confirm exhibition, however there is a letter dated June 27, I935 (Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives) from John Rothenstein, then director of the gallery, inviting Fisk "to allow us to show something here" as well as several news accounts after the fact confirming exhibition. See Lexington Leader (March I7 and April 30, 1940).

79. Rothenstein’s friendship with Fisk as well as his flourishing museum career - by 1940 Rothenstein was director of the Tate Gallery in Lon-don ~ has spawned an enduring enigma about the Kentucky painter: Did he or did he not exhibit a flower study in tempera at the venerable London museum? Numerous Kentucky papers from April and May of I940 mention that Fisk exhibited a painting at the Tate, See Lexington Leader (April 30, I940), Flemingsburg Times-Democrat (May 23, I 940) and Grant County News (May 24, 1940). A letter from Stuart Davis to Fisk, dated March 15, 1940, urging him to "greet Rothenstein without belligerence or propaganda slander of any kind" (Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives) indicates Fisk must have met with Rothenstein, no doubt while the latter was in Lexington visiting his wife’s family, and perhaps this meeting resulted in Rothenstein inviting Fisk to exhibit work at the Tate, perhaps even bringing it back to London himself at the end of his visit. However, correspondence with Jennifer Booth, current Archivist of the T&e Gallery, casts doubt on the reputed exhibition: "I have checked the Board Minutes which record all purchases and loans and can find only one reference to Fisk. It is on November 24, 1926, and simply states, ‘Rejection of offers or purchases of works by F Wheatley, W Shayer, and WH Fisk.’ There is no mention of ‘Edward Fisk.’ The painting in which you are interested could not have been on display at the Tate Gallery in 1940. The Gallery closed in August I 939 for the Second World War and did not re-open until 1946." See author’s research files for letters dated May 7 and May 27, 1997.

80. Lexington Herald (June 3, 1941): 14.

81. Transcript of Sackett interview, p. 2 I,

82. Letter from Stuart Davis to Edward Fisk, December 1942. Edward Fisk papers, Fisk family archives.

 

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