This catalog accompanies a travelling exhibit of drawings by the late artist Joseph Fiore, who worked and exhibited in NYC and ME. The exhibit will open at the Asheville Art Museum in Asheville NC June 15th, 2012. In the essay, I trace Fiore’s development from his beginnings at the famed Black Mountain College, through his acclaim as a realist painter, to a late body of work that fused abstraction with elements of writing and visual symbols.
Joseph Fiore (1925-2008) was an artist widely respected by other artists, but not widely known by the art public. This exhibit of 48 of Fiore’s drawings, pastels, and watercolors spans the years from right after World War II to the early 21st century. It is a small sample from a steady, dedicated, and prolific life in the studio. For Fiore these works were visual meditation. Occasionally a drawing here was done in preparation for a painting, but most often these were made for the artist. In this exhibition we see the incubation of what artists and critics admired, and get some sense of the range of Fiore’s visual intelligence. That intelligence is by turns naturalistic, abstract, lyrical, planar, atmospheric, symbolic, calligraphic, and pictorial.
These qualities do not all coalesce into a neatly ordered body of work, held together with a distinctive style, or clear progression. In this Fiore was like his teacher, Willem de Kooning, whose work and interests also resist easy stylistic categorization. They are very different artists in most respects. Fiore’s work doesn’t resemble de Kooning’s, and Fiore did not possess the existential doubt that fueled de Kooning’s extensive revisions, but they shared a tendency to move back and forth across interests and methods. Both were allergic to notions of artistic purity.
Fiore’s embrace of artistic diversity can be seen in this exhibit’s earliest works. Number 8 Landscape (Lake Eden) is a small watercolor and ink done in 1946, the first year he studied at Black Mountain College. It is composed of clearly delineated planes of muted color. Some are dryly brushed, while others have the delicate blooms of evaporating pools left by a loaded brush. Simple black ink lines, some of which have bled and frayed into still wet areas of watercolor, minimally locate the landscape’s elements on the substrate of color. The effect suggests that the few lines of observed landscape are latecomers to a much larger and more ancient geologic and atmospheric presence.
Eight years later, when he was teaching at Black Mountain, Fiore painted Number 11 Lake Eden (1954). This image of the same landscape is more naturalistic, and has the feel of the momentary passing of air and light over the first flush of an awakening natural world. While we don’t see examples in this exhibit, Fiore paintings of 1946 resemble the later Lake Eden painting seen here.1 Thus, from the beginning, Fiore used differing artistic languages simultaneously.
We encounter this again in two ink drawings, both from around 1952. Number 1 Untitled is a composition of U-shaped open forms, with some up and some down. They move across the page horizontally, a bit like writing or musical notes. Most forms are made with chunky, scruffy, dense black lines full of assertive presence. But a few are thin, and sketchy or broken. They have a delicate, almost graceful counterpoise to the bluntness of the basso profundo shapes. The association with music here is fitting, as Fiore grew up in a musical household. His father, a concert violinist, was a founding member of the Cleveland Orchestra, and music was a constant in Fiore’s life. At Black Mountain, he studied music composition during the summer of 1948 with John Cage, and also studied piano and harmony.2
Number 9 Untitled is a lyrical study of the landscape at Black Mountain which locates the essentials of clouds, mountains, lake trees, and buildings with deft, sure economy. Both the watercolors and the ink drawings indicate a facility with two fundamentally different ways of creating images. One is predicated on an atmospheric space with observed elements that recede into a unified distance; the other deploys abstracted shapes and planes onto a shallow picture plane. Fiore seems equally at home with either way of seeing and thinking.
One might dismiss such variety as the natural result of youthful experimentation. But this pattern of making differing types of images continued through Fiore’s life, and can raise questions for an engaged viewer. How do we assess his development as an artist? What do these changes do to our idea of a body of work? Can we discern a core of creative sensibilities?
Depending on one’s attitude toward the relationship between what we loosely call abstraction and the equally imprecise label “real,” Fiore may be seen to either progress or regress as he moves back and forth between two systems of imagery. But such a way of thinking about the images artists make, and the order in which they make them, can be misleading. We typically use the changes we see within a body of work as one way to understand the development of an artist. But in Fiore’s case his changes have to be uncoupled from the idea of a linear, chronological development. Here we also butt up against the story of modern art. While a century has passed since the advent of abstraction, the passage from representation to abstraction still seems like the preferred pattern for artists who are identified as “modern,” and who came of age in the first half of the 20th century. Mondrian’s moves from an early romantic naturalism through several apparently logical steps to arrive at the spare ideal world of grids are the archetype of this pattern.
Fiore himself was aware that this way of looking at his work might confuse instead of enlighten. David Dewey, the curator of the Fiore collection and his former student, recalls discussing chronology with him, when Dewey was trying to arrange and date works by appearance. Fiore wagged a finger at him and said, “You have to be careful, because I overlap a lot.”3
I am going to heed Fiore’s admonition, and discuss his work without seeking a pattern of consistent stylistic development. Rather, I want to examine the natures that form and inhabit both this exhibit and the entire Fiore corpus. The most obvious nature is the natural world that he depicted so poetically. But there are two other natures in the work that help us locate and understand the scope and depth of his artistic achievement. They are the nature of the art that shaped and interested him and Fiore’s temperament—his nature.
Art at Black Mountain
Black Mountain College has an oversized presence in the story of American 20th century art. It is improbable and a bit ironic that such a small institution, which existed for all of twenty-three years, would be an important vehicle for the transmission of modernism to American culture. Founded by a classics professor who sought an alternative to typical college experiences, Black Mountain was not an art school. It was located outside Asheville, North Carolina, far from any cultural center, in a rural area inclined to view strangers and progressive politics, arts, and letters with suspicion. It was continually underfunded, and students and faculty farmed and built studios and residences, as well as studying or teaching. It did not offer an accredited degree. Yet Black Mountain attracted faculty who were seminal in their fields, and students who went on to help define the course of postwar American art.4
Fiore first attended a summer session in 1946. He was fresh out of the army, and had initially heard of the school from a friend attending a summer work camp there. He had studied art as a teenager in Cleveland, and was attracted to Black Mountain by its progressive ideals, and small student-teacher ratio.5
Joseph Albers, who was at the school from 1933 to 1949, was responsible for the shape and direction of the art curriculum. He had been at the Bauhaus in Germany, and Bauhaus ideals meshed with the educational philosophy of Black Mountain. He was forceful in promoting his beliefs, which could be experienced as imperious and authoritarian (Fiore described Albers as “more of a pedagogue than a painter”). Fiore studied that summer of 1946 with Jacob Lawrence, the African American painter and collagist who had just achieved recognition for his Migration of the Negro series. Lawrence’s sense of color and form impressed Fiore. After he was accepted into the regular college program, Fiore studied with the painter Ilya Bolotowsky, a founding member of American Abstract Artists. Fiore felt Bolotowsky had the most permanent influence on him, because he taught from a Cubist base that could be adapted to fit individual needs.6
Fiore studied with de Kooning in the summer of 1948. At the time, de Kooning was virtually unknown. He had been asked by Albers at the last minute to replace the painter Mark Tobey, who had become ill. De Kooning was not accorded much respect, and his teaching did not fit the methods espoused by Albers. Another student, Gus Falk, recalled how in the first class, de Kooning fussed with arranging a still-life set up for a couple of hours. When he was finally satisfied he announced to the class, “Vell, ve’re going to spend all summer looking at this ting. On one paper or one canvas and we’re going to look at it until we get it exactly the way it is.” All of Albers’s devotees rushed for the doors.7
Fiore stayed, and I believe that his immersion in observation and the discipline of representation—even as he was surrounded by and studying with advocates of modern art—must have affected his thinking. De Kooning never thought of abstraction as the replacement for representation. Rather, they complemented each other. At the time, de Kooning’s own work was what Fiore later characterized as “fluid Cubism.” In a 2004 interview Fiore said he had a delayed response to de Kooning and the Abstract Expressionists, and it was not until the early 1950s that he deliberately absorbed their influences. He characterized himself during his early years as being “like a sponge, soaking up everything.”8
There was plenty to soak up. After Albers left in 1949, the college’s leadership gradually shifted to the poet Charles Olson, who eventually became Rector. Olson was interested in language forms, that provide images for direct experience, instead of our phonetic language forms, which require deciphering, and seemingly separate us from the immediacy of our own present. He had spent a summer studying Mayan glyphs, and was deeply affected by their physical presence and visual imagery. Olson’s interests dovetailed with the ideas animating artists like Adolph Gottlieb, who believed ideogrammic forms were a direct language, capable of opening up realms of feeling and experience inaccessible by other means.9
Fiore made some illustrations for seminars Olson convened at the college in 1953.10 Several of Fiore’s drawings from 1954 resemble the kinds of imagery Olson and Black Mountain artists like Theodore Stamos had been exploring. Both Number 2 Untitled and Number 3 Untitled have the shallow space with similarly sized graphic strokes that I noted in Number 1 Untitled. But here the stroke forms are more evocative of and related to pictographic imagery. There is a black arrow-like form in the upper right of Number 2, and a calligraphic figural mark on the lower left side of Number 3. While there are still several U-shaped forms in both drawings, the variety of shapes has expanded well beyond the relative uniformity of Number 1.
Color—though limited—plays an important role in these drawings. The two forceful red-orange shapes in Number 2 read as the word “it.” This may indicate the drawing is both fully its own present tense, but thanks to the arrow, it might also take us outside of its immediate universe. The polyvalence of this “it” succinctly articulates the nature of art—as an image in itself, and an image referring to another world. In the drawing Number 3 the roughly textured, wonderfully muted lilac-grey and pinky-orange crayon shapes add rhythmic and atmospheric complexity, breathing and sounding lightly among the louder blacks and more assertive medium greys.
By the time these drawings were made, Fiore had been teaching visual arts at Black Mountain for five years. He was appointed to teach when Albers left, and did so, with a few brief interludes, until the college closed in 1956. Both his longevity at Black Mountain and his position as a faculty member immersed him in the work and ideas of the country’s leading avant-garde artists. Some of Fiore’s own interests might be intuited from the fact that he invited Philip Guston to teach for the summer session of 1950. Guston was interested, but already had other plans.11 Through his faculty years Fiore worked alongside an impressive range of artists. For instance, the summer faculty of 1951 included the painters Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell and the photographer Harry Callahan. Such exposure was highly unusual for a young artist. Thus Fiore didn’t so much study contemporary art as live it.
That was the great legacy of Black Mountain. As we’ve seen, Fiore soaked up a lot, including Cubist planar structures, ideographic and musical forms of notation, the use of color as an independent structural agent, and the apparently spontaneous brush work prized by Abstract Expressionists. Even this list doesn’t exhaust Fiore’s range of imagery. Drawings Number 7 and Number 13 are two pastels from 1954. Number 7, is almost pointillist, where color’s character seems to exist without much structure. Color is again dominant in Number 13 in loosely scribbled patches, as if Cy Twombly (who had been at Black Mountain) had fallen under the spell of Monet. For the next half-dozen years, Fiore’s facility in working from observation lay dormant.
Moving to New York, and to Landscape
After Black Mountain closed, Fiore and his wife, Mary, moved to New York. In terms of their artistic world, the move afforded some continuity. Fiore’s first important exhibit at the Davida Gallery in 1958 was with the sculptor John Chamberlin, another Black Mountain alumnus. That same year he entered a painting in the National Arts Club’s Young Artists show, and won first prize. One of the jurors was Franz Kline, who had taught at Black Mountain in the summer of 1952.
Yet New York was hardly an extension of Black Mountain. The discords between styles and ideas experienced at the school were writ large in New York, and amplified by partisan criticism, the jockeying of galleries, and the advocacy of some museums. Abstract Expressionism’s dominance was challenged as Pop, minimalism, Conceptual art, and several nascent realisms all flowered.
In 1960 Fiore had a one-person exhibition at the Staempfli Gallery. It marked a turning point in his career in several ways. The work was “more or less abstract landscapes,” as The Nation’s reviewer, Fairfield Porter, put it.# Thus the exhibit featured a subject—landscape—that reactivated Fiore’s powers of observing and responding to his surroundings. In the 2004 interview Fiore stated that he’d been working toward landscape since 1956, and when he and Mary began summering in Maine in 1959, that intensified his interest.12
What Fairfield Porter responded to in Fiore’s paintings was the sense of an overall whole, which he saw as “oriental.” He argued that Fiore painted relationships rather than objects. Porter had summered in Maine since he was a child, and was especially appreciative of how the paintings were “unspecific as to place (but) … specific about such things as the quality of a storm from the sea in Maine … the blackness of a north wind, the color of deep water over rocky bottoms ….”13
Porter, who was a generation older than Fiore, was a respected voice in New York. As a critic, Porter was known for insight and independence. He defended the experience of art as a good in itself, and was critical of beliefs that justified art by appeals to social usefulness, or the capacity to transmit ideas. Porter was also a painter who wed modernist aesthetics to traditional subjects like landscape and portraiture, and his paintings have garnered wide recognition since his death in 1975. Porter was open in acknowledging influences, and included Fiore among a small group of younger artists he admired and learned from.14
Fiore’s public face for the next two decades was as a landscape painter. His work never lost its visible links to modernity, but he refined the realist idiom initially seen in early Black Mountain work. The small pencil studies from about 1964, Numbers 14, a, b, c, and d, are typical of Fiore’s views and subjects. They are marvelous little evocations of the ordinary, of what can be seen when one sees the commonplace, the easily overlooked. We see a few hay bales, a line of trees, a barn, or a few rocks in a field, and that’s about all. In these landscape drawings Fiore seems to love the simple thereness of the world, and acts to give voice to that, rather than searching for or inventing something extraordinary.
When Fairfield Porter wrote that Fiore painted relationships rather than objects, he was calling attention to Fiore’s ability to evoke qualities beyond what is pictured. We see this in the drawings. Number 20 Central Park is a simple charcoal of a sapling’s trunk in the foreground, with some large rocks covered with snow behind, then a few barely indicated trees, and the towers of the El Dorado building on Central Park West in the distance. It is rendered with great economy, yet it gives an uncanny sense of a moist atmosphere enveloping the landscape. We see not only the haze of fog, but have a palpable awareness of the damp cold accompanying heavy city snow.
Number 18 Cedars, also from around 1977, is another charcoal. It pictures a smallish field with two dark trees in the foreground. At the edge of the field are five rich, dense black cedars, and the receding shoulder of a hillside beyond. In the stillness, little air moves, and the play of light over the open space suggests warmth. It is worth studying these two charcoals, because so much is indicated by subtle changes in the medium. We can see how intently or softly the artist has pressed the charcoal, filling or leaving open the tooth of the paper, and how deftly he used charcoal’s capacity to range from granular to smooth.
The pastel, Number 17 Flatbrook, was also done in 1977. Here color is an agent of both expression and description. The pastel is applied with a similar range of energy and deftness as the charcoals, and we also see similarities to the marks of the two early pastels, Number 7 and Number 13. The little flecks of pink, magenta, white, and green are delicate blushes of awakening in the low-lying marsh and on the far hillside.
The views in the charcoals and the pastel are not inherently arresting. They are the kind of thing one might see on a country walk, or if you looked up while cutting across Central Park. Signs of habitation or cultivation are often present and are treated with the same spirit as natural elements. In these landscapes civilization is not pitted against nature, but evidently seen as part of it.
Fiore’s turn to landscape in the period from 1960 to 1980 necessarily involved turning away from some ideas about advanced art. It wasn’t that he turned against the art world. He exhibited regularly, was part of the short-lived Alliance of Figurative Artists in New York, taught at the Philadelphia College of Art and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and was a resident and critic with Artists for the Environment. But such a move was—and still is—often understood as regress, a step away from the vortex of innovation that energizes contemporary art’s trajectory and indicates artistic importance.
One can get an idea of how Fiore’s work might have been perceived by artists and critics in advanced quarters by an essay by a fellow landscape painter who was describing his own artistic journey. In “What the Sixties Meant to Me” (1974), Rackstraw Downes tells of his first encounter with a Fiore painting.
“In 1964 I saw the work of Joe Fiore at a Maine Coast artists’ show in Camden. I took him for a provincial buckeye painter; but I looked a second time, and the apparent plainness fascinated me: it approached the condition of stylelessness. I wanted to get rid of style, art, artiness, everything extra. I think this is what Stendhal meant when he said that every morning before writing on the Charterhouse of Parma he would read a few pages of the Civil Code. Fiore’s art was especially appealing in the light of the official painting of the time, for Barnett Newman was then showing his Stations of the Cross, paintings which seemed to me to be scraping the barrel in terms of visual resources and creating a new high-water mark in terms of pretension and bombast.”16
Plainness sounds simple enough, but it isn’t easy to do well. Developing a look, a signature style, is far easier. Plain representation leaves an artist exposed. When Downes used pretension and bombast to describe Newman’s work, he chose words that have a personal as well as an artistic dimension. They leak back toward the character and motivation of the artist, as well as describing qualities in the art.
Someone once quipped that when modern art got rid of stories, the artist became the story. It’s not true—but true enough—given our culture’s equation of art with personal vision, and personal expression. With some artists it seems that, regardless of the subject, the content of their work is always them. I find Picasso’s work to be very full of Picasso.
There is not a lot of Fiore in Fiore’s work. It has a modest, almost self-effacing quality to it. His character certainly shaped the work, but Fiore is not lurking behind the art, demanding recognition. Descriptions of Fiore usually stress his reticence. In James Thompson’s essay on Fiore, he is described as “not a garrulous person, given little to explanation or description,” with a life that “lacks sufficient tabloid despair or deviance to draw a crowd.” Thompson also notes that Fiore’s students “invariably mention him with admiration and affection.”17
What was unusual about Fiore, and helps explain the quality of his work, is that his ambition was directed toward art, not his career. His wife, Mary, has said that though he felt the weight of work, and the need to support a family, “he didn’t play the game.”18 We see this most clearly in a letter written in March of 1962, withdrawing his name as a candidate in Yale University’s search for a Chair for the Painting Department. He wrote, “The reason is primarily that I feel it is not a propitious moment in my life as a painter to sacrifice the time and energy that would be required for reorganization and administration of a new program, to the detriment of my own work.”19 He went on to say that he would be glad to have an appointment as a visiting critic for one or two days a week, which was the type of position he later had at the Maryland Institute and the Philadelphia College of Art. Surely the prospect of tenure at a prestigious university must have been enticing. It could provide both security and an entrée to other institutions of influence.
The painter Paul Resika, speaking recently about Fiore’s later work said, “Thirty or forty years ago Joe Fiore left the ranks of modest, revolutionary landscape painters. He became a metaphysical painter of rocks, stars, and mysterious signs depicted with subtle color-values and perfect intonation.”20 Resika understands the modesty in Fiore’s landscapes, but also sees them as “revolutionary.” This combination of words indicates that the painters Fiore was grouped with were united by a preference for their subject matter over artistic chest-thumping. They were working against the grain of new trends in contemporary art, such as Neo Expressionism, which was full of visual theatrics and exaggerated personalities.
The artistic change Resika describes began to occur in Fiore’s work in the late 1970s, and ushers in a very fruitful period, but one that hasn’t been as visible as the landscapes. In a 1982 Art News article, “The Artists’ Artist,” several well-known artists were asked to “name two colleagues whose talents you feel are underrated and would like to see better exposed.” One of the two the painter Philip Pearlstein named was Fiore. He said, “He’s had a number of shows, though never enough for the quality of his work. His paintings are beautiful, accurate and lyrical.”21
The Synthesis of Observation and Abstraction
We can see the changes Fiore was working toward in the drawings Number 15 Falls and Number 16 Drawing Series, both from about 1977. Falls is a charcoal and pencil study, and is related to the 1983 painting Guardian of the Falls. In both the drawing and the painting, Fiore has depicted an angular, broken rock face supporting a cascade of water. He has faced the cliff directly; it fills the whole picture plane without a horizon, which makes a shallow, flat-ish space. This is a natural subject whose formal properties relate to Cubism. It is a harbinger of works to come.
The six small drawings in Number 16 show how Fiore transformed observation into abstraction. a and b are the two most naturalistic. c and d are transitional, and by the time we’ve gotten to e and f, the representation of an observed place is gone. It is as if the planes in the rocks of a and b had been removed from their volumes and arranged as flat patterns. The result is a synthesis between elements taken from observation and the Cubist picture plane Fiore was drawn to.
Rocks have been present in many of the landscapes Fiore drew and painted. His scrutiny of them extended into time spent with his family. His son Tom recalls, “… if we went out to the coast … there would be rocks to be picked up, he’d have to be an hour or more just checking them … some were not kept after getting them back home … but most seemed to be kept … as potential references or … inspiration to ideas.”22
Number 26 Untitled (Maine Coast) is a small watercolor from around 1980, and might have been the setting for such a family outing. The rocky shore fills most of the painting in rows of undulating squiggles, almost like the pattern on a fabric. The squiggles are gestural and organic, but their flat, stacked organization comes from Cubism. The whole lower area appears to overwhelm the narrow representation of sky, houses, sea, and a spit of land above, as though abstraction is poised to devour representation. The watercolor also resonates with and synthesizes aspects of coastal paintings by John Marin and Fairfield Porter.
Rocks gave Fiore a vocabulary that was fertile and flexible. They could be taken apart and reconstituted into a new image, but they might carry other associations too. In Number 27 Untitled of 1983, we have a lovely, light charcoal whose shapes are similar to e and f in Number 16. It was a study for Sounds of the Mountain, an oil made in 1985. The music reference in the title is not just a verbal conceit. The white ground of the drawing, with its delicately toned rock faces moving across it, creates a visual score. Like Kandinsky, Fiore was inherently oriented to visual images in which other senses are brought into play.
Yet the rocks were not just sources for assembling images. They also had imagery. Some, as Fiore noted in the 2004 interview, “showed marks which looked like figurations of man’s making … (with) geometric patterns of fault lines.”23 Others actually were written on by humans, and he gravitated to the fusion of the natural and the cultural, where two pictorial sources exist in one material. In 1984 Fiore applied to be a resident at the Santa Fe Institute. In the application he speaks of “… the moving experience of visiting the prehistoric sites and seeing the beginnings of art” in the Dordogne region of France, where he had taught in the summer program of the Parsons School of Design. He went on to say that his interests “included prehistoric art, primal art and culture, archeology and anthropology, land forms, and flora and fauna.” Fiore hoped to visit the southwest, and see the rock art of Native Americans there.24 In Maine, a rock Fiore found near the Medomak River had patterns on it that were authenticated as Native American by an archeologist.25
Two pieces from the early 1990s Number 43 Untitled and Number 44 Untitled show how much Fiore was thinking about primal writing and ancient symbols. The faint patches of watercolor behind the crayon lines in Number 44 give a bit of a structural substrate, as though writing is hovering over rock facets. But Number 43 seems to be purely notational, as if the artist were working on developing a vocabulary. We can recognize a pictograph in the dog-like profile in the lower right of Number 43, and symbols like the crayoned infinity that occurs twice in Number 44. Other signs seem to have been adapted from alchemy, such as the configuration above his signature in Number 43, which resembles the symbol for lead. There is also a Pi a bit to the left above that.
A handwritten inventory of alchemical signs was found among Fiore’s papers, and we also know that Fiore researched and studied ethnographic imagery. In his monograph on Fiore, James Thompson has taken pains to analyze a number of Fiore’s paintings from the 1980s in terms of their symbolic imagery.26 What is clear is that Fiore viewed the pictographs and ideograms as more than visual doodling, or embellishments without meaning. They are signs of human constancy, the marks all people leave on the world’s body, trying to understand it.
The most recent drawing in the exhibit is Number 48, a lush pastel from 2000 that radiates chromatic light. It draws together a number of Fiore’s preoccupations into a color symphony. Here are Cubist planes, the angularity of rock fragments, pictographs, symbols, and primal writing. Its color is reminiscent of Paul Klee, an artist Fiore admired and studied. Like Klee’s work, Number 48 is mysterious, seemingly both ancient and modern, and possesses a feeling of cosmic import.
It has several arrows, some equilateral triangles, the pictograph of a fish in lavender and burnt umber, and three adjacent triangles, outlined in white. The motif of attached saw-tooth triangles occurs in other Fiore works too. These recall the saw-tooth crowns that Jean-Michel Basquiat often put in his obsessive, graffiti-inspired work.
At first thought, there is something ludicrous about relating Fiore to Basquiat. Separated by race, time, and personality, they are apparent anti-types. Basquiat is the poster child for personal and artistic excess. He lived a brief, incandescent life, with tabloids in full attendance, dying of a heroin overdose in 1988. Yet their work shares a use of graphic signs and pictographic imagery, and a fondness for “primitive” marks. Like Fiore, Basquiat turned to a book about rock art for sources.27
Many artists move across styles rather easily now. We only need to recall Gerhard Richter’s passages between photographic realism and abstraction to see that. But for artists of Fiore’s generation, style carried more weight. An artist’s style was a sign of individuality, and of artistic conviction. Artistic means determined artistic meaning.
Today the belief that we can really know something through the experience of art—other than the artist—seems naïve. Doubts about art’s means and meanings, embodied by someone like Richter, are widespread.28 Fiore may seem contemporary in his refusal to stay within the lines of style. But his affinity to Basquiat hardly indicates a shared view of art.
Fiore was modern in his convictions about art, not style. He moved through styles because they afforded him different ways of engaging and understanding the world. He mastered two different ways of seeing, and then synthesized aspects of those in his later work. Fiore’s nature was, as Fairfield Porter presciently observed, to see relationships. He saw and sought aesthetic relationships between ideas and systems, not just things. This is the core of creativity running through his life.
But Fiore’s work stands apart from its explanation. Like all good art, it has immediate value in the ability to give us pleasure and wonder. The critic Hilton Kramer gets at this in a 1997 review of an exhibit he saw in Maine. He wrote, “Mr. Fiore is a modernist who works in a very subtle pictographic style that is basically abstract in its structure, yet easily incorporates delicate references to images and symbols drawn from both nature and the artist’s imagination and memory. … He has a lovely touch, which reaches into every area of the canvas with the kind of fluency that comes from years of experience in mastering the medium. These are paintings that remain comfortably lodged in one’s memory long after they have been seen. They should be better known in New York than they are, and it is surely time for one of the Maine museums to start thinking about a major exhibition.”29
We are still waiting.
- James Thompson, Black Mountain College Dossiers: Joseph Fiore, Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center ([North Carolina]: Western Carolina University, 1995) 17.
- Thompson 10. See also an interview with Harry Naar in Joseph Fiore: 25 Years of Paintings from Rock Fragments ([New Jersey]: Rider University Art Gallery [catalogue] 2004).
- David Dewey, personal interview, December 2011.
- Mary E. Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981) esp. 46 – 71.
- Mark Stevens and Carolyn Swan, De Kooning: An American Master (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) 257.
- Daniel Belgrad, The Culture of Spontaneity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998) 78 – 99.
- Thompson 38.
- Vincent Katz, ed., Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002) 12.
- Rackstraw Downes, ed., Art In Its Own Terms: Selected Criticism 1935 – 1975 by Fairfield Porter (Cambridge: Zoland, 1993) 115. The review originally appeared in The Nation, November 5, 1960.
- Downes 115.
- Downes 31.
- Rackstraw Downes, “What the Sixties Meant to Me,” Art Journal V. 34 No. 2, Winter 1974/75: 130.
- Thompson 6.
- Mary Fiore, personal interview, November 2011.
- Copy of a letter in the Fiore estate archives, 29 March 1962.
- Artist’s statement for the exhibition Joseph Fiore: Works on Paper, Alexandre Gallery, New York, New York: 1 March – 1 May, 2010.
- “The Artists’ Artist,” Art News V. 81 No. 9, November 1982: 90 – 100.
- Thomas Fiore, email to David Dewey, January 2012.
- Copy of a letter in the Fiore estate archives, 1 December 1984.
- Thompson 39 – 40.
- Thompson 39 – 44, see 41 for reference to ethnography.
- “Jean-Michel Basquiat,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Michel_Basquiat, 30 January 2012.
- See Theodore Prescott, “An Aesthetic of Doubt?” American Arts Quarterly V. 27 No. 3, Summer 2010: 19 – 25.
- Hilton Kramer, “In Maine, Two Catches, and Neither’s a Wyeth,” New York Observer, 8/25 – 9/1/97: 26 – 27.