Reflections: An Interview with Janet Fish

by Ira Goldberg | October 1, 2009

Reflections: An Interview with Janet Fish
Janet Fish, Box of Four Red Apples, 1969–70. Oil on canvas, 30 x 34 in.

Ira Goldberg: You grew up in Bermuda. Art was part of your early upbringing.

Janet Fish: My mother was a sculptress, my grandfather was a painter, and my uncle was a wood carver.

At what point did you decide you were going to become a painter?

I always thought I was going to be an artist, but I didn’t do a lot about it when I was a kid. I would draw things sometimes.

But nothing too serious.

Well, I was going to be a sculptress, so I would try to make sculptures.

When did you decide it was going to be painting?

When I went to Yale, I didn’t want to do that kind of Albers-style, you know, that kind of Bauhaus-y thing that they were doing there. So I went and signed up in the painting department, which was looser.

Reflections: An Interview with Janet Fish
Janet Fish, Red and Green Dishes Monarda, 2007. Oil on canvas, 60 x 36 in.

Did you study art at Smith?I went to Smith first and then to Yale.

I did. It was called practical art then, and I took as much as I could.

Whom did you study with at Smith?

I studied with George Cohn, Leonard Baskin, and Mervin Jules.

This was in the late 50s?

Yes, then I went straight to Yale.

In the late 50s, everything was abstraction, wasn’t it?

At Smith, I remember Leonard Baskin brought us all to look at a show that had work by Lee Bontecou in it. He gave us a lecture on how bad it was. I always remember that because I sat there thinking, “Gee, that’s really great.” And then I was being told why it wasn’t.

Do you remember his rationale?

Basically, I think he was for imagery.

I always thought there was imagery in Lee Bontecou’s work, just not of a conventional type.

I barely remember his argument; I just remember disagreeing.

Were you inspired by what was taking place in the New York art scene during the early sixties?

I didn’t know about it. We weren’t exactly being told what was happening in New York. When I got to Yale, Alex Katz taught the beginning painting class. He would tell us about shows in New York and send us off. That’s really when I began to go to galleries and see what was happening.

Alex Katz was always figurative, wasn’t he?

He’s kind of figurative, I guess.

I wanted to be a good artist, but I wanted to define what that meant.

Was he against what was going on?

No, no. He wanted us to see what was happening. So it was good. Whatever was going on, we went and saw it.

What were you seeing? How was it affecting you?

Well, I wanted to understand it, De Kooning and all those guys. I spent hours staring at things, seeking to absorb the whole idea that’s abstract expressionism, the ideas about paint and surface and movement.

Did you have your own ideals at that point? Or did you try to be objective and sit back to observe what was going to happen?

I wanted to be a good artist, but I wanted to define what that meant. We students spent a lot of time arguing about what was good and what wasn’t. They closed the school up at ten, and we would go to a bar and start fighting and drinking.

Do you remember anything about the fights?

Somebody would promote one kind of thing, and everybody else might disagree. Most of the students there went on to show. There was Richard Serra, Chuck Close, and Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, and Sylvia Mangold. A lot of people. Everybody was kind of high-energy.

Was figurative work considered passé at that point? Was it taken with any kind of seriousness?

It depended. I mean one friend did a kind of pop art painting, and she got really shot down for it.

Wasn’t pop art in fashion?

That was just starting as we were leaving, but maybe it was too new or too raw for some of the teachers.

Your friend was shot down in favor of a more purist…

The people who were teaching there weren’t all that narrow-minded, so there was usually a lot of leeway.

You were at Yale for two years?

Three, from 1960 to 1963.

You got your MFA?

I got a BFA and an MFA.

If you could survive a Yale crit, you could survive New York.

You graduated from Smith, too?

From Smith it was a BA. Yale has changed their whole program. Back then everybody was there for different amounts of time.

You liked the Yale experience a lot?

Oh, yes, it was good.

You’ve described to me the critique process, which sounded like a deliberately maddening experience.

It was very aggressive. If you could survive a Yale crit, you could survive New York.

If I recall, you described it as getting it from all sides; any one thing you showed would elicit a range of reactions, from positive to repulsive.

Yeah, which is a good experience.

Can you describe a session?

I don’t know. It sometimes came down to people standing on chairs and screaming, so at least there was feeling.

How did it help you? What did you take from this seemingly crazy enterprise?

I wanted to know stuff, so I was trying to figure out what the person who was talking to me knew that I could find out. A lot of that had to do with seeing things, learning how to analyze, then to find the form to explain what you see. And, since it was Yale, you had to be able to articulate it. So much was involved. I remember the first puzzling thing I encountered. Alex Katz would go around saying, “Well, make it flip.” It was kind of New York. And I’m thinking, “What’s flip mean?” I’d keep trying things painting and looking.

janet fish interview
Janet Fish, Basket of Shells, 2008. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

What did flip mean?

Well, a boy from one of the upper classes came down and painted on my painting. I painted everything out that he’d done on my painting, except for this one mark. And when Katz came by, he points to that one mark and says, “Well, that flips.” So I thought, “Well, I now know what ‘flip’ looked like.” It was a certain way that the paint went on and sat there.

Was there anything that you did then that one would see in your work today? Or did your work completely change?

I was doing abstractions at first. Then I went to Skowhegan summer school. I was really thrashing around and ended up going off the campus to some graveyards and painting. I started painting landscapes, because I felt like I didn’t see where I was going with the kind of abstract expressionist painting that I was doing. I needed something to hold on to, an image. So I started doing things that were really more like California expressionist-type painting.

I read that you admired Diebenkorn.

Well, David Park was the one whose painting I really loved.

You started studying drawing with Gustav Rehberger at the League in the summer.

I studied at the Art Students League while I was in college one summer. I still have some of those drawings, line drawings and things. And I took a painting class from Stephen Greene. I remember him coming by and saying, “Well, you at least will do what I say.” I was sitting there—I was very shy at the time—and I was thinking, “Well, how do I know what it is that you’re thinking or what you want?”

Greene was a pure abstractionist. You attended the League while enrolled at Yale?

No, it was before.

janet fish interview
Janet Fish, Majorska Vodka, 1976. Oil on canvas, 60 x 48 in.

Was there a focus on figurative drawing at Smith?

At Smith, no. You took classes. For the Leonard Baskin drawing class, we drew a shell for one semester in pen and ink and then we drew water the next semester. And if you could get through that, I guess, you could get through anything.

So this was more of a boot camp experience. You got a degree in arts, not fine arts at Smith?

It was called practical art.

What happened after you graduated from Yale?

I ended up in Philadelphia for a year working in a museum card shop because I was married at the time. And then I broke up, and thought since I’m miserable here, I might as well go to New York and be miserable. In New York I took a lot of part-time jobs. I wasn’t really willing to work full-time. I lived way downtown in a loft with no heat or hot water.

Were you painting then?

Oh, yeah, I was painting. Slowly I got to know people. I ran into some people I’d known at Yale, and they were forming a co-op gallery so I joined up with them. That’s when I really got to know people in the city. We made a gallery called Ours Gallery on Grand Street. We cleaned it out, threw away all the heavy machinery, put some wiring in, and painted it white. We all managed to have one show before it folded.

Who were the other artists involved?

There was Paul Tschinkle, Frank Lincoln Viner, and Leo Bates. It’s hard to remember everybody. Diane Karol. I can’t remember them all now.

How long did that gallery last?

We each got one show out of it. We completely fought, and the whole thing fell apart. A couple of us who were more mature (I’d like to think) joined another co-op, 55 Mercer Street, which was starting up at that time.

Nevelson was not interested in realist painting, but she was supportive of young artists. She gave me lots of really terrific advice.

At that point where had you taken your work?

When I first got to New York, I was simply trying to figure out what I wanted painting to be. There were problems with what I could do. I was trying to paint something three-dimensional on a two-dimensional surface. I threw some apples down on the table and started painting them. The paintings took a long, long time. Slowly I began enlarging the things and then focusing more on the object than on the surroundings. I went from that to painting packages, supermarket things. I liked the way the plastic was going over the solid objects, and I liked how it broke the forms up. I was trying to define my interests and I was eliminating everything that I wasn’t interested in. Trying to get more and more toward something I wanted to paint. So this was a kind of reductive approach.

That was sort of a self-imposed process?

Yeah, I’d do a painting, then another, and I’d compare them. I’d take down the bad painting and leave the better one up and keep pushing along that way. From there I found some jars of pickles, and it was a similar problem, solid object covered by a transparent surface. Once I started doing that, I got really interested in the light coming through the liquid. And that took me into painting bottles and jars, things like that.

Did you have any mentors during this period?

Not really. But Louise Nevelson lived around the corner from me when I was on the Bowery. Her assistant had to gone to Yale when I was there, so I got to know her. Nevelson was not interested in realist painting, but she was supportive of young artists. She gave me lots of really terrific advice. She was a great role model and it was really a good experience knowing her.

But by and large you were figuring this out without guidance?

I really wanted to figure it out for myself. You go to Smith and then to Yale, and it’s a lot of talk. I felt that words are fine, but I need to explore what felt true and right for myself. So that was my process.

Do you feel that exploration is ongoing, that even at this point, there is still a lot of discovery to be made?

Yeah, but it’s different now. My interests have changed. I was always going from one painting to the next. Some people work more cerebrally, and they make a decision to make the change. I’ve been less conceptual. I went from painting to painting, and then I’d discover where I was going. After a while, I began to see what I was doing, based on a feeling. I became very suspicious of theory, so I was coming at it another way.

When was your first gallery success?

Nothing happened fast. When I was at 55 Mercer, I kept going around to galleries and I was being turned down. One gallery person told me that the dealer didn’t think women could paint. He bought a painting from me, but he wouldn’t show a painting.

I remember Ivan Karp told me that he could be interested in them if I cleaned them up but didn’t get too close to Richard Estes. I think at that time he was looking for photorealism, but that wasn’t where I was. I went around…tried to get a gallery, and then finally Jill Kornblee came to a show I had at 55 Mercer. She looked around, she pointed to the only painting that sold and asked me how much it was. Then she said, “Well, give me a call in a few months.” So, I thought, “OK that’s not exactly a brushoff.” About a month or two later I got a call from her, and she said, “Well, do or don’t you want to show uptown?” And I said, “Oh, yeah. OK.”

janet fish interview
Janet Fish, Pomegranate and Gladioli, 2006. Oil on canvas, 50 x 56 in.

When was this?

Around late 1970s.

Do you go from one subject to another?

No. It’s just that the packages got me interested in reflections, and then that become more defined as light, and then as I painted the glass, I started to paint light. My subject was what happened within the object. The paintings at that time weren’t about the environment at all, but about the objects themselves.

Color obviously plays an important role in your work.

Color is light. Color gets the character of light.

When did you reach that conclusion about color and light? Early on?

Pretty much early on. I think it really came out of all the abstract expressionist training, those paintings are about color and paint and movement and the idea that you can organize a painting through movement. I went along with that, and then saw other ways of organizing the painting through repetition and change, more like music. Things that happen and happen, and then change and happen. So that first training still was a thread, it was where I would go with it.

It sounds like you were always on solid ground wherever you went creatively. Did you ever go through periods where you were doubting what you were painting?

Constantly. I finally decided that I needed to have some grounding in the world around me to bring stuff in from outside of myself into my head. I needed to look at things to be a painter, to interpret what was around me in one way or another.

Were the objects—the bottles, the packaging—that you painted influenced by pop art?

No, actually, but it was made possible by the environment. I wasn’t really interested in the pop art idea at all. The paintings happened more organically: first painting things that were life-size, and then becoming interested in what was happening on the form itself rather than what was around it , so they became larger. I was in an elimination process. I got rid of the arrangement and I was painting the object.

But you’re still structuring a painting. You’re still structuring a picture.

I was structuring a painting by what was happening on the form. I was dubious about a lot of ideas about structure, too, so I was trying things out.

What happened to me in my life wasn’t going to stop my working. I always kept painting no matter what. Maybe my life wasn’t so great, but the painting was.

Were you ever interested in the figure as a subject?

Not really. I did the figure, I drew the figure, and I painted some figures when I was at Yale. I wasn’t really interested then. I never had any money, so I wasn’t going to have a model. I painted some figurative things, if somebody posed for me, when I was trying things out. But it didn’t seem to work for painting for me.

The figure took too much space, was too aggressive a subject; I was more interested in exploring formal issues. Working with still life was something that I could spend a long time with. It wasn’t going to leave. It wasn’t going to talk back. I could concentrate, think things through.

At what point did it all start coming together in your career?

Well, career-wise it was slow. By the time I had my first show uptown at Kornblee I had a pretty well-developed group of paintings. They weren’t expensive, and she sold them all, which was a very nice thing. Selling them all wasn’t enough to live on though, but it was, of course, really encouraging. For years I kept taking part-time jobs because I didn’t want to be dependent on art sales, to have that kind of pressure on me about what I was doing. To make sure that wasn’t there, I kept working. I’d gotten used to not having to have a lot, so it was OK. I didn’t have to have a lot of money.

Didn’t you want to travel?

No. I wanted to be a painter more than any of that. I went to McDowell Colony a few times. I met interesting people there, writers, musicians. I remember a writer friend of mine who was friends with Robert DeNiro, the painter, told me how he had this incredible success with his first show, and then had taken the money and gone to Europe, and everything fell apart because he wasn’t here to make it happen.

You learned a lesson from that?

I remembered that story. But really I wasn’t so financially well off that I could just take a trip to Europe.

Were there things you saw in museums that influenced you?

Sometimes it seems like, “Oh my god, That’s really like such a great idea” or “This is a fabulous color.” So you take things like that from painting. I still do. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to do the painting that that person did. Then there are some artists who are totally exciting and admirable, and yet there’s nothing there to steal. But I definitely look for things to use as well.

Any people in particular?

No, to pick just a few would not be right. There were so many artists. I’ve always looked at lots of art. As a kid, I looked at art books because they were around.

It still sounds like this path you’re on has been fairly linear. There weren’t that many bumps along the way.

As far as my work, it was always steady. I always maintained a working situation. What happened to me in my life wasn’t going to stop my working. I always kept painting no matter what. Maybe my life wasn’t so great, but the painting was.

What’s your impression about what’s happening in art education today?

Well, it’s very theoretical, but I’m not sympathetic to all that talk. I think people go off on verbal tangents and stop looking. Some of it leads to interesting imagery or forms, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I’m happy not to have to teach it. Universities have got to have a rationale about what in art is valuable; it’s got to be intellectually rigorous.

janet fish interview
Janet Fish, Nasturtiums and Pansies, 2006. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 in.

Do you feel art education has taken a wrong turn? It sounds as if the experience you had at Yale forty-something years ago is probably very different from what one would experience today.

None of the people who taught us had university degrees. They were artists who’d gone through art school training and had really solid, formal knowledge, however they chose to use it. Now it seems there’s a lot of talk. When people tell me about what they’re doing, I hear really pretty good things. It sounds fabulous but we’re looking at a mess. And so the ideas aren’t being followed through.

So their talk doesn’t line up with the art?

Yes, the talk is better than the work, which I’ve always thought was a danger. If I paint the painting in my head, it’s got all that rosy feeling in it; it’s going to be great. And then the reality of making it isn’t. It seems to me better to just paint and keep painting and then you’ll make a painting.

Do you think the prevailing technology and its advancement is sort of getting in the way of that direct contact?

I don’t want to say that because people are making great stuff out of it. It doesn’t work for me. I want to be hands-on; I want something I can touch. I want the marks I make to have to do with gesture. It’s a more physical thing for me. If you’re working mostly with a computer, it’s not really. Sometimes I think it is the programmers who are really creative because they are the ones who come up with the stuff that people are using.

What they come up with is the ideas; they are the words.

Well, they also make all the little things you can use in Photoshop.

But they are making a sophisticated tool that is an enabler.


I think there is still a fascination with being connected to a very simple instrument: charcoal or pen or brush.

You make something without paying a lot of money to do it, too.

I liken it to the impulses that a piece of chalk can convey versus the amount of circuits that the tap of a keyboard has to go through in order to express the same thing, but not as well.

A person who is drawing can put a feeling into it the way an actor can put a tone in a voice. They can put their body language and their feeling into those lines.

There is also an amazing amount of gratification one gets from having that contact. It’s almost like an act of sorcery. We consort with our creations. I find it a little discouraging to see people not quite relating to that direct contact anymore.

People need to be successful so early now that they can’t waste time to build up the amount of skill and visual vocabulary that you need. On the other hand, I think a lot of times people who’ve had that hands on drawing and painting experience have more to bring to the digital work. I’m not charmed by the flat smooth surface of a printout, but that’s just a personal taste because I like to see something tactile there.

There is also a lack of that surface space that is so important in a picture. Isn’t it ironic that the longer our life expectancy, the less patience people have?

Yes. Somebody has just made it straight from art school and is suddenly getting like $100,000 for a painting. Well, that’s a lot of pressure on everybody else to try and get there too.

When you’re obligated to paint in a certain way so young—before you have an opportunity to discover—it’s pressure on that young artist.

For a lot of those people, who are suddenly successful, then after a while you don’t hear about them anymore, because it is all about the new. Hopefully they get a job somewhere.

I’m still struck by that Damien Hirst sale last September. Andy Warhol kind of made culture out of the marketplace, now it’s the marketplace making culture because it’s all about hype and marketability. Rather than the quality of art, people place value in a name.

There has always been a part of the art market like that. It’s our new academy. There’s a sense of “You’ve got to do things this way and this way and this way.” It feels like an academic thing to me.

Does it make you feel positive about the future?

Alta Tadema was popular in his time, though he might not be now. There’re always going to be people who work well with the wealthy and who move easily in that world. Then there are other people who don’t.

Messoinier was another one: incredibly popular in his day but in ours a minor master, occupying some space in the museums. At the same time there is still this quality one can relate to. It may not be inspiring, but you understand why it’s hanging on the walls. I don’t know if you can say the same thing about some of the things that pass for art. There is something being lost.

It is not exactly being lost because it is a big open field now. The trouble is that there is a lot of interesting art around, but not everybody is making a living at it. It is an awful lot about fashion. And that moves the way clothing fashion does: it goes up and down and up and down. People are always hungry for a new image. I finally decided it was a life in art that I wanted. I remember Oldenberg saying that he made what he liked, and if he was doing what he wanted to do, and if someone paid him for it, it was heaven. I thought, “Well, that’s a happy place to be.”

I get the impression that all schools today, especially colleges, feel that part of their mission is to prepare you for a career.

When I was studying, the goal was to prepare you to be an artist. We weren’t going to think of the crass realities of the world—which was unfortunate, because when I got out and started showing, I had to learn about business the hard way.

interview janet fish
Janet Fish, Yellow Glass Bowl with Tangerines, 2007. Oil on canvas, 36 x 50 in.

When you went to the League, did you get the impression that it was a place where you were learning to be an artist? Were there any epiphanies that you had during your course of study?

It was like what I thought art was. It was kind of a grungy place, but the classes were full and there was a teacher and everybody was working hard. I accepted it as being the way it should be.

It’s really about being an artist, but I think without the feeling that one is going to be able to take this and now have a career.

I grew up with all these artists. I knew people didn’t make a living. My uncle always lived hand to mouth. He was a woodcarver and his wife was an painter and designer. They were always hustling around. I saw that, so I didn’t think this was a career you went into for money. It became one after a while. There were those fabulous creatures, like Warhol, people who made tons of money. But it wasn’t the way that I had perceived it, and I didn’t expect that. So when I actually did sell, it was pretty nice because it wasn’t part of what I thought was going to happen.

Since you spent such a long time developing this body of work and keeping very disciplined at not having material expectations, you could really focus on the work. By the time you did hit it, it didn’t have that big of an effect on you; it just allowed you to continue.

To me it’s the way it should be.

Is there anything today as a painter that you might want to look at in terms of subject matter?

I’m just moving along. A friend of mine, Bob Kushner, loaned me a whole bunch of Uzbekistani wall-hangings. So I have them now to play with. Their very hard patterns are forcing me to think in a different way. So right now, I have something new to play with.

Does your work change at all when you’re in Vermont?

The environment of the country and the city creeps into things. I always thought that in the city there is a lot of rhythm and repetition in the doors and windows one after the other. And there is a kind of low-key color in the city. In the country, there is an overall blue/brown color in the light, and there is a confusion in the forms, it is subliminal information that’s coming in from the side.

You don’t spend time painting the landscape when you’re in Vermont?

No, but sometimes the landscape gets into the paintings.

When you’re setting up, do you keep consistent lighting?

No, I don’t. I like to set up in a window, and I prefer it with direct light so it’s always moving and changing. It keeps me awake and the light changes the forms and brings in new ideas. Sometimes there is a moment when the light does something in one place that is really exciting. I put it in. I might use the light of another time in another spot. I am not a camera.

How do you control the light in a painting when you’re working like that?

Sometimes I decide on a specific direction where the light might be coming from. But basically I play, I work with what happens. It’s really more fun to paint moving light than still light.

It sounds as though you’ve had a rich education.

I had a good education. I was lucky to be at Yale when it was really, really lively, though maybe it still is. Practically everybody I knew went on to have an art career. Yale didn’t know what direction it was going in yet. So they didn’t have one strong figure directing how the school went. There was a conflict of ideas, which was really good because it meant that we didn’t have anybody to trust. Or if we picked somebody, someone else was going to shoot it down. Each individual really had to think things out for themselves, which is more interesting for oneself, though it is anxiety-provoking. When someone is telling you what is right, you don’t have the anxiety of figuring it out. Someone has already decided it for you.

One should surrender it as much as possible during the process of education.

Just trying to get the information is the first part, then figuring out what more information you need and then you must actually do your own work. The League is a real art school where you can learn stuff: you get the tools, and then what you do with it is your choice.

This interview was originally published in the Fall 2009 print issue of LINEA.