Essay by Rachael Sadinsky
Available from Amazon.com – Edward Fisk – American Modernist
When it comes to early twentieth century modernism, Edward Franklin Fisk (1886 -1944) is something of an odd man out. Although his art was championed and exhibited by several New York galleries, his reputation never attained the mixture of glamour and spirituality enjoyed by his close friends Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, and Eugene O’Neill. Born in New York City, Fisk studied in Paris, where he joined in the soirees at Gertrude Stein’s apartment, and later he was an active participant among the intellectual circles of Greenwich Village and Provincetown. Having absorbed avant-garde styles and ideas, he moved in 1926 to Lexington where he taught at the University of Kentucky, raised a family, and struggled to maintain his artistic integrity in a setting far from the front lines of American modernism.
The bulk of Fisk’s extant works are oil paintings — gently abstracted, often intensely colored — that present the farms and towns of Kentucky and Vermont in a style that balances the influences of European expressionism with American realism. Devoted to red, blue, and green, Fisk developed a formalist rigor that emphasized the flatness and frontality of his subjects, whether an isolated tree beside the side of a house, a tabletop assortment of vases, flowers, and fruits, or a portrait of a model in his studio. When he was in his late 40’s, Fisk took on the printmaking media and mastered the difficult processes of etching and mezzotint, producing prints which are impressive for their range of tone and intimate subject matter.
NEW YORK CITY 1886 1912
Edward Fisk was born on October 17, 1886, in New York City to Edward Franklin Fisk (1858-1917) a map engraver in the family-run Fisk & Company, and Sarah (Sadie) B. Robarts Fisk (1866-1942)1 He was the oldest of four children: Helen (born 1889), Arthur (born 1891), and Dorothy (born 1893). During the 1890s the Fisk family is believed to have resided in Brooklyn although, around the turn of the century, they moved to Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. In 1907, the family moved back to New York City and took up residence at 213 West 106th Street.
By the time Fisk reached his late teens, he had already decided to pursue a career in the arts. Beginning in 1904, he commuted from his family’s New Jersey home to New York City to attend classes at the Art Students League. In 1909, he took the life class at the National Academy of Design and then spent two years studying with Robert Henri at his independent studio at 1947 Broadway2 At the Henri studio, artists received not only training but a decidedly modernist, even radical, point of view. Henri extolled freedom of expression — freedom from academic rules, from classical notions of beauty, and from formulaic subject matter. He urged his students to draw their inspiration from the people and places of their surroundings:
The development of an ability to work from memory, to select factors, to take things of certain constructive values and build with them a special thing, your unique vision of nature, the thing you caught in an instant look of a face or the formations of a moment in the sky will make it possible to state not only that face, that landscape, but make your statement of them as they were when they were most beautiful to you. 3
Fisk found more than encouragement from his years at Henri’s studio: it was probably here that Fisk first met Stuart Davis, and the two became lifelong friends, corresponding and visiting over the years. Davis studied with Henri from 1909 to 1912 and his autobiography, published in 1945, includes his assessment about the importance of Henri’s teachings:
The Henri School was regarded as radical and revolutionary in its methods, and it was. All the usual art school routine was repudiated. Individuality of expression was the keynote, and Henri’s broad point of view in his criticisms was very effective in evoking it. Art was not a matter of rules and techniques, or the search for an absolute ideal of beauty. It was the expression of ideas and emotions about the life of the time. . . . The idea was to avoid mere factual statement and find ways to get down some of the qualities of memory and imagination involved in the perception of it. 4
Henri’s impact was equally significant on Fisk, who, later in his career, incorporated much of Henri’s philosophy in his own classes at University, of Kentucky. Henri once wrote that school is where “individuality of thought and individuality of expression is encouraged.”5 Fisk, during his own years teaching, wrote that “young people, sensitive young people know much more than their teacher; all they really need is sympathy and direction.”6
In I912, after eight years of study in New York, Fisk traveled to Paris where he continued his art studies at the Academic Moderne under Fauvist painters Othon Friesz and Pierre Laprade. Fisk was particularly impressed by Friesz, who was then attracting an enthusiastic following in the Parisian arts community. Like fellow Fauvists Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck, Friesz was known for vividly colored paintings of the Provencal landscape. In his own work and in his teachings, Friesz advocated the importance of the artist’s direct contact with nature, which then must be heightened and abstracted in order to reveal its truth. Citing the influence of the classical, orderly landscapes of Cezanne, Friesz maintained that “a painting from nature must be re-worked in the studio in order to acquire… ‘authenticity‘. 7
During his year in Paris, Fisk was close to other American painters then studying abroad: Stuart Davis, whom he already knew from Henri’s school; Charles Demuth, Fisk’s colleague at the Academie Moderne; and Marsden Hartley.8 In addition to these artists, the American contingent in Paris included Elie Nadelman, Edward Steichen, Alfred Maurer, Arthur B. Carles, and Jo Davidson, many of who gravitated to the salons hosted by Gertrude and Leo Stein at 27, rue de Fleurus. In the decade before World War I, the Saturday evening gatherings at the Steins’ served as an international meeting place and forum for modern art, attracting not only vanguard Parisian artists, but a mixture of students like Fisk and Hartley, wealthy collectors, and curious foreigners. For the Americans, these evenings provided friendship with fellow expatriates and also a chance to study the Steins’ art collection of the radical developments in Parisian modernism. Fisk later wrote of his visit to the residences of Gertrude and Michael Stein:
When I was in Paris, I met Gertrude & Michael. . . . I had heard a lot about the Steins long before I went. . . . Most of my friends had known them in Paris, had been to their evenings and seen their collections. just before I left New York, I heard a well known collector say that Gertrude Stein was the most remarkable woman he had ever met, that when he was at her studio, she had sat through a whole evening of heavy discussion on art, and had never once opened her mouth. . . . During my stay in Paris, one of my painter friends took me one evening to the Steins’ on Rue de Fleurus. There I met Gertrude who was shaped and draped like a Hindu idol. She was not the sphinx I expected but a very gracious & charming hostess & had a tinkling, humorous laugh that one would never forget. . . . I had not come, as most people had, to meet Miss Stein but to see their collection of modern painting. Painters who were at that time considered the wild men of Paris (Fauves) lined the walls of her studio: Matisse, Picasso & others. Cezanne, Renoir, & El Greco hung with these present day wild men. . . The room was filled with Americans drinking in Gertrude’s charm & modern French art. . . . The young man who brought me there was a Stein enthusiast . . . He invited me, a few evenings later, to see a collection of Matisse that was housed in the residence of Michael Stein. 9
NEW YORK CITY 1913-1914
Fisk’s appreciation for modernist artists remained high and their influence upon him strong. Often in the company of Demuth, Hartley, and other artists, Fisk regularly visited New York City’s avant-garde galleries, such as Stieglitz’s 291, Montross Gallery, and Daniel Gallery. Demuth described one of their gallery jaunts in his essay “Between Four and Five”:
The fore-noon had been this and that. The afternoon dragged through an exhibition or two, a saloon or two, –some art talk. Then, somehow, tired and discouraged, we found ourselves at Fisk’s suggestion, in a place, a gallery, that, I like the word place better than the word gallery, for this place.
‘May we see the new Picasso?’
It was brought into the room.
That was a moment.
‘What does it mean?’ –even with that felt by someone in the room, it was a moment. 10
Alfred Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue was a regular destination for Fisk and his friends. Stieglitz used his gallery, which later became known as “291” after its street address, to tirelessly campaign for the modern through the exhibitions he organized, the publications he edited, and the collections he formed. After a series of landmark exhibitions of work by Picasso, Matisse, and Brancusi. he turned his attention to American artists who were seeking to absorb the radical ideas of the European avant garde. Hartley, whose first exhibition was at 291 in 1909, described the gallery’s support of modernism as invigorating:
There was life in all these new things, there was excitement, there were healthy revolt, investigation, discovery and an utter-h new world opened out of it all. . . 11
Though he was living with his family on the Upper West Side, Fisk was drawn to Greenwich Village and the bohemian life among writers, painters, and actors. Among those who gave the community its spirit were the writers Mary Heaton Vorse, Hutchins Hapgood and his wife Neith Boyce, and Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook, as well as many of the political reformers and personalities from Mabel Dodge’s New York City salon, including the anarchist journalist John Reed, the activists Hippolyte Havel and his wife Polly Holliday, the artists Maurice Sterne and Marguerite and William Zorach. By I914, this nucleus expanded to include the editor Max Eastman and the staff of The Masses, a left-wing magazine with an invigorating mixture of politics, art, literature, and humor. (The magazine was later branded “dangerous” for its opposition to capitalism and to America’s participation in World War I.) Articles ranged from discussions of world politics to radical feminism and labor strikes to Freudian analysis, and were written by such authors as Walter Lippmann., Bill Haywood, and John Reed. Maurice Sterne, Stuart Davis, Robert Henri and others contributed cartoons and drawings. Though Fisk did not contribute to the magazine — nor, for that matter, did Demuth — both artists were well acquainted with these progressive circles through friends and social gatherings in New York and Provincetown. As Eastman described, life in the Village was vital and all-consuming:
There was a sense of universal revolt and regeneration, of the just-before-dawn of a new day in American art and literature and living-of-life as well as politics. 12
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
1. There is some ambiguity about Fisk’s year of birth. 1888 is the birth year listed on employee records maintained in the University of Kentucky Archives and Fisk’s faculty/staff biographical file; it is also the birth year listed on Fisk’s death certificate. However, Fisk’s personnel card, issued by the University of Kentucky, lists 1887 as the birth year. And 1886 is the birth year in the artist’s listings in Who’s Who in American Art, published during his lifetime. Family archives have photos dated 1891 of “Ted” at age 5-1/2 and a drawing dated ‘96 and inscribed “Thomas Robarts / Drawing by Ted / I0 years old,” indicating a birth year of 1886, although the drawing, the date, and the inscription are in different hands. According to his descendants, Fisk was born in Brooklyn, a birth location circumstantially confirmed by location of photographers who made early cabinet pictures of Fisk children. However, searches in Brooklyn and Manhattan borough records for a birth certificate for the years 1886, 1887, and I888 were inconclusive.
2. Fisk’s studies at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design are confirmed by the schools’ records. His years with Henri however, remain unconfirmed. The artist himself made reference to Henri’s studio on his resume, in his University of Kentucky faculty/staff biographical file and included in other biographical records.
6. Edward Fisk journal, p.22 (p. 17 transcription). The Fisk journal is preserved in the Fisk family archives. It is a loose, disjointed series of reminiscences, thinly veiled fictionalized accounts of his past, teaching points for class and drafts of letters to friends. A microfiche copy of journal excerpts is in the Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.
8. According to Emily Farnham, Fisk first met Demuth in Paris. See Charles Demuth (Univ. of OK, I97 I), p. 72. Milton Fisk, the artist’s son, owns a watercolor portrait by Demuth of Edward Fisk reclining on couch, inscribed bottom left: E.F. Fisk / C. Demuth / Paris 1912.
8. Hartley was in Paris from mid-April 1912 through April 1913. He was in Berlin through November I9 13, when he returned to New York City. He traveled back to Germany in March I9 14. See Barbara Haskell, Marsden Hart/ey (NY Whitney Museum, 1980) and Gail R. Scott, Marsden Hartley (NY Abbeville Press, 1988).
11. Marsden Hartley, “291-And the Brass Bowl,” in Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Dorothy Norman, Paul Rosenfeld, and Harold Rugg, America &Alfred Stieglitz (NY Literary Guild, 1934) pp. 236-42, excerpt p. 239. Hartley’s essay, published in 1934, describes the New York milieu of twenty to twenty-five years prior: “We began to hear names like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rousseau, and it was from all this fresh influx that I personally was to receive new ideas and new education. Stieglitz recalled to me my pointing to a Picasso abstraction and saying, this is the way it will go from now on, only an instinctive reaction certainly.” Hartley goes on to note that the artist’s signature is irrelevant: “. If there is any personal quality, that in itself will be signature enough, and we have seen a sequence of unsigned pictures permeated with an almost violent purity of spirit” (p. 240). Fisk may have shared Hartley’s disdain for the signature: the bulk of his extant paintings are unsigned.