CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Krannert Art Museum has purchased a large-scale painting by abstract painter and University of Illinois alumna Louise Fishman. It is the first work by Fishman to enter the museum’s collection, and the latest of many artworks by women that KAM has recently acquired.
The new acquisition will be on view in a spring exhibition of large-scale 20th century paintings entitled "Emphatic: American Painting from the Collection," opening on Feb 28.
Fishman’s 1995 painting “Blonde Ambition” is more than 7 feet tall and 5 feet long, with brilliant white gestures of paint across a dark background. Madonna's 1995 concert tour of the same name, which Fishman saw that year, inspired the artist, and the painting connects to a network of powerful blondes referenced in her work, including Marilyn Monroe and Fishman herself.
The museum received a grant from the John N. Chester endowment fund to support the purchase of “Blonde Ambition.” Grants from the fund are given annually by the university system for projects that contribute to the beauty of the three U. of I. campuses. Support from the Chester fund was pivotal in making the purchase of “Blonde Ambition” possible, said Krannert Art Museum director Jon Seydl.
“It will totally grab you from across the room,” Seydl said. “Fishman is an extraordinary technician, and she brings an important feminist cast to her work. She has a restless and vigorous imagination, and continues to evolve in really interesting ways at 80 years old.”
Fishman, a New York-based artist originally from Philadelphia, earned her master of fine arts degree from the School of Art and Design in 1965. She exhibits her work widely and is increasingly collected by museums, Seydl said. “Blonde Ambition” will bolster Krannert Art Museum’s “incredible legacy of modern painting. We’re excited to show it to the public right away this season,” he said.
"Blonde Ambition" is an example of Fishman’s approach to the grid, which she bends and stretches to emphasize some areas of the canvas and de-emphasize others, a reference to the legacies of abstract expressionism and minimalism.
“The painting is very expressive and very physical. She’s known for larger canvases that match the span of her arms,” said Amy Powell, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art.
“She’ll heavily apply paint with a trowel or other tools and use various materials, like tape or paper towels, to transfer or remove paint from her canvases,” Powell said. “She’s left the paint drips to dry on the canvas (in ‘Blonde Ambition’). It really announces itself as a painting. You can see her brush strokes, all of the physicality evident in her work. And the ways her process is layered with questions of feminism and desire is really wonderful and indicates her involvement in the feminist and LGBT movements. I’m thrilled that we had the opportunity to acquire it.”
Museum visitors also will have a chance to hear Fishman speak about her work, Powell said. In April, the artist will visit the university to accept a distinguished alumni award from the School of Art and Design. She’ll give a public lecture at 5:30 p.m. April 24 in the KAM Auditorium, followed by a reception.
"This work and the other paintings on view in 'Emphatic' will show off the strength of American painting in the KAM collection,” Powell said. “The paintings that will be shown are all really powerful in terms of how the artists handled the materiality of paint and the subject matter of the paintings, which, even when abstract, can be quite political. These works all have a deep emotional and visceral pull.”
For example, “The Assassins” – by Sue Coe, an artist whose work stems from political activism and social protest – is a dark, ominous depiction of the assassination of Malcolm X, with hooded figures holding guns behind their backs in the foreground.
The exhibition will include “N.Y. 1 (Road #4),” by abstract artist Hedda Sterne who donated it to the museum in 2006. Krannert Art Museum was the site of Sterne’s first major museum retrospective, "Uninterrupted Flux: Hedda Sterne, A Retrospective," that same year. Sterne used acrylic and spray paint to create the dark blue and black image, with pops of bright yellow. “She was trying capture the immediacy of the city and the movement of the city on canvas,” Powell said.
Artist David Park's “Standing Couple” is a vividly colorful, large-scale painting of two figures wearing swimsuits. At a time when abstract expressionism and non-objective painting was influential on the West Coast, Park continued to paint representational scenes, Powell said. “But his figures are still really abstract and his settings are ambiguous. His paint layer is incredibly thick. You can almost count the brush strokes,” she said.
"Emphatic" also will feature work by Leon Golub, Robert Indiana, Annette Lemieux, Mark Rothko and Purvis Young. It is a preview of an upcoming long-term reinstallation of the museum's collection of modern and contemporary art. “Art Since 1948,” also curated by Powell, will open in August.
Powell also is planning a 2021 retrospective of Fishman’s works on paper at Krannert Art Museum.