Considering Norman Fisher

A local whose intimation shaped contemporary art by Thony Aiuppy

Published May 15, 2013 in Culture -

Image of Norman E. Fisher. By Robert Mapplethorpe, Untitled, 1972, Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Gift of Norman E. Fisher.

Norman Fisher, a Jacksonville, Florida native was born July 31, 1938 and died of cancer April 9, 1977. He was 39 years old at the time of his death. In the late fifties, Norman found his opportunity to visit New York City. By the mid-late sixties he had relocated to SoHo permanently (until just before his death). After his death, his son, Douglas, inherited an amassed a two-hundred piece artist collection from his estranged father. Not knowing what to do with it, a college freshman at the time, the young Fisher donated the entire collection to the then called Jacksonville Art Museum. It would become the first prominent contemporary art collection in the city of Jacksonville. The collection would later go on view in “The Norman Fisher Collection at the Jacksonville Art Museum: A Collection – A Collector.”

Among the pieces in the collection include signed manuscripts and screen plays, drawings, shots and photos of works in progress, intimate portraits of the collector from some of his artists, etc. Mario Amaya once said that, “Norman Fisher was a collector or people.” [1] During his time in New York, he established in his penthouse apartment a salon, fittingly called “Norman’s” and displayed the work of the people he collected: Robert Maplethorpe, Mary Heilmann, Gordon Matta Clark, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, and Keith Sonnier just to name a few. He was hospitable and from what can be said in interviews and records about him he was more than willing to give an attentive ear or even aid in times of trouble.

The most popular way in which Fisher was able to amass such a unique and intimate collection was through the use of barter. Many of the artists that he dealt with in such a way were up and comers, whether conceptual artists or performance artists. All-in-all, Norman found great potential in them and was willing to do whatever he could to see them succeed in one of the most dangerous part of “The City.” By account of John D. Abbott, Jr. Norman believed artists “ were real human beings but they were also stars, celestial beings. They were to be loved, respected, scolded, supported, encouraged, collected and beheld with awe.” [2]

Fisher has been considered a collector's collector. He was always "on the hunt." He collected rarities as well as oddities. This also ties back into an earlier statement made, the fact that he also collected people. Among some of these within the collection are poets like Patti Smith, rock gods David Bowie, writers like William S. Burroughs, and modern composers like Philip Glass. This neapolitan group impressed upon him the importance of the progressive, forward thinking attitudes in the arts and the ways in which it could bring understanding to such sub cultures dealing with issues such as gender and identity politics, post modernist attitudes in art through Conceptualism, minimalism, and performance, and the role of women in art society. To say the least, Norman Fisher is not as well known as he should be. He was a subversive collector and curator, entrenched in the subculture of burgeoning art movements that would explode and land certain artists on the international platform in the blue chip art world.  

It isn't well known how involved Fisher was with the 112 Greene St. Workshop. 112 Greene St. was "founded in 1970 in an old rag-salvaging factory in a decrepit downtown neighborhood only then becoming known as SoHo, 112 Greene Street had no formal opening. It had no official name, other than its address, or 112 Workshop, which it was sometimes called. Almost any artist willing to install and dismantle his or her own work was welcome. Technically, some of the work made or shown there was for sale, but the majority of it disappeared, either because it was meant to or because no one had the slightest idea what to do with it outside of its hothouse hatchery." [3]

While it is uncertain the roles in which Fisher played, financial or otherwise, it is undeniable the significance he played in the lived of the artists that participated in such a formidable art space. "The six-story, cast-iron-facade building was owned by Jeffrey Lew, who bought it with Rachel Wood, his wife at the time, as their home and studio. Many artists who gathered there had been cast upon the unpeopled shores of SoHo by the cultural tidal waves of 1968. Gordon Matta-Clark, who helped Mr. Lew open the ground floor and basement as an art gallery, was an architect who had been studying French literature at the Sorbonne. Richard Nonas was an anthropologist who came to art after working in the Mexican desert. Willoughby Sharp had been imbibing Meyer Schapiro’s Marxist modernism at Columbia." [4]

Robert Mapplethorpe, perhaps one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, is severely indebted to the connecting prowess of Norman Fisher. His rise to stardom was not of his own doing since he was brought into the inner circle [5] that Fisher created in the 1970s through his apartment salon and his savvy demeanor. Mapplethorpe may never have had the access and intimate proximity that he had with such icons as Bowie, Richards, etc., photographing them and exhibiting his works at 112 Greene St. The same can be said for other artists including Cherry Vanilla [6] and Gordon Matta Clark.

Suffice it to say, Fisher was a friend to many of the artists that he came into contact with. Where he say potential and ingenuity, he became open handed in his support financially, emotionally, and critically. On occasion, Fisher would pay rent for artists or supply them with materials to do that next great thing. There are not so many types like him today, or even back then. Living in a sub cultural context necessitates the initiative of the influential. This influence can be seen in the personalized gifts that his artist friends endowed to Fisher, whether singed personally to him as with signed first copies by Ginsberg and Burroughs, or through the giving of preliminary drawing and other materials for larger works. This is an extraordinary collection held by this museum, exemplifying the character of an extraordinary figure in the history of Western Art.

Article by Thony Aiuppy

1. Norman Fisher Catalog, p. 6
2. ibid, p.10
3. Randy Kennedy. "When SoHo Was Young ‘112 Greene Street: The Early Years,’ ’70s Art in SoHo." New York Times.
4. Ibid.
5. Patricia Morrisoe. Mapplethorpe:A Biography.
6. Cherry Vanilla. Lick Me:How I Became Cherry Vanilla.

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Metro Jacksonville