Vernon Fisher, one of the most renowned contemporary artists in Texas and a longtime educator, died Sunday, April 23, at the age of 80.
Though Mr. Fisher began his artistic career more focused on abstract paintings, in the mid-1970s he began making small books, which eventually evolved into narrative pieces that combined his interests in writing and painting in a new way. In an interview by Christina Patoski for Glasstire, Mr. Fisher explained that being an abstract painter “wasn’t a big enough container.” Elements of his narrative paintings are reflected in his blackboard paintings, for which he is perhaps best known. Some signature elements stretched across his decades of work: references to popular culture, beautifully rendered landscapes, and an overall loose, expressive feeling, though his technique was actually refined and methodical.
Born on February 19, 1943 in Fort Worth, Mr. Fisher grew up in Granbury, a town southwest of the city. In a 2010 article in the Fort Worth Weekly, Mr. Fisher spoke about how he tried to fit into the small town culture by focusing on sports like football, track, and basketball, but said he always found himself volunteering to make posters for school events instead. He attended Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, where he, like many young people, switched degrees several times. Though he started as a math major with a minor in literature, he ultimately received his BA in English Literature in 1967. In what was meant to be his senior year, he decided to redesign his studies to include a focus on art, and ultimately took an additional year’s worth of classes.
Mr. Fisher went on to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received a fellowship which covered the cost of school and provided some funds to help support his young family. After graduating with his MFA in 1969, Mr. Fisher returned to Texas. He worked as an Associate Professor of Art at Austin College in Sherman, a small North Texas town, from 1969 to 1978. Then, in 1978, he accepted the position of Regents Professor of Art Emeritu at the University of North Texas (UNT), which he held until 2009. In his more than three decades as an educator, he shaped generations of artists.
Jeff Elrod, a former student of Mr. Fisher’s, told Glasstire that when he first started taking class at UNT, a friend invited him to sit in on Mr. Fisher’s painting class. “I was blown away by the guy, just the way he talked about art… It really opened my eyes. He was teaching us how to look at a painting and deconstruct it… identifying the signifiers, the semiotics of it… his crits were more interesting than any philosophy class I was taking.” The following year, Mr. Elrod began taking painting classes and ultimately graduated with a BFA in 1991. With guidance from Mr. Fisher, Mr. Elrod gained an array of successes, including receiving artist awards from the Dallas Museum of Art and showing in Dallas galleries. He spent a summer assisting Mr. Fisher in his studio, and even had the opportunity to help with his installation at the Museum of Modern Art in 1990.
Just two years prior to the installation at MoMA, Mr. Fisher had a solo show at the Dallas Museum of Art, as part of the institution’s Concentrations series, which focuses on emerging artists. Mr. Fisher’s exhibition was partially presented in the museum’s Concourse, and involved many works directly painted on the gallery walls.The first decade of the Concentrations exhibitions, more than 20 shows, were organized by then-curator Sue Graze. Ms. Graze told Glasstire: “Working with Vernon Fisher was in equal parts the most demanding and rewarding of curatorial experiences. Lost for Words, the exhibition on which we collaborated at the Dallas Museum of Art, was the first large-scale temporary installation in the architecturally-massive spine and vault of the new downtown building… Throughout the planning and execution process Vernon’s intellect was laser focused. His extraordinary visual imagery engulfed you with his stunning sense of space and time. He met every challenge with his unique humor and humanity always intact — this included breaking his wrist two weeks before the opening with all the wall drawings not yet completed.” Ms. Graze continued, “After that successful project we continued our deep friendship. I included him in as many exhibitions as I could, wherever I worked, both in Miami and Austin. For me his loss is immeasurable, but for all of us his art remains. A testament to his prescience and brilliance.”
Though Vernon Fisher made a name for himself in Dallas through the Delahunty Gallery in the early 1980s, a decade later he was without gallery representation in the city. Talley Dunn, who was 25 at the time, had become Director of Gerald Peters Gallery, and though one of her first acts was to increase the number of women artists on the roster by adding Julie Bozzi to the gallery, she soon also began to work with Ms. Bozzi’s husband, Mr. Fisher.
Ms. Dunn told Glasstire, “Vernon was twice my age at the time, and I was well aware of his commanding presence and his formidable reputation… From the moment we met, the connection was instant. We shared our thoughts about art, literature, philosophy, psychology, and art history, and Vernon visited with me about his many experiences with galleries around the country. To my delight, he wanted to work with me even though I was at the very beginning of my career, and he was an extremely well established artist with a thriving career. Working with me at that time was a leap of faith, I was so impressed that he was willing to take that risk.”
Speaking of Mr. Fisher’s impact on her professional outlook, Ms. Dunn added, “Vernon taught me early in my career to believe in others the ways in which he believed in me, and to welcome risk when partnered with excellence. Our encouragement of each other was limitless, as we worked together over the past three decades. Vernon’s presence and influence was felt by so many and will continue through the transformative artwork he leaves behind.”
Over the years, Mr. Fisher has received many awards and fellowships, including the Distinguished Teacher of Art Award from the College Art Association in 1992, the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995, and the National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist’s Fellowship in 1974, 1980, and 1981. Additionally, his art is in the collections of more than 40 museums across the world, such as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This weekend marked the premiere of Breaking the Code, Michael Flanagan’s documentary film about Mr. Fisher. The project was three years in the making, and along with interviews of Mr. Fisher, the film includes conversations with MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Dave Hickey, and the art historian Frances Colpitt, recorded shortly before their respective deaths in 2021 and 2022.
Mr. Flanagan told Glasstire, “It has been a great privilege getting to know Vernon over the past few years. I’ve met hundreds of people while working on the documentary and the resounding praise for Vernon’s artistry has been unanimous. He can count me among the many students from around the world whose lives have been changed by his work.”
Beyond the exhibitions, collections, and accolades, and across generations, from students to peers to curators and more, Mr. Fisher leaves a tremendous legacy. Mr. Elrod noted, “Vernon’s influence is immeasurable on a generation of Texas artists and beyond I would think… from Myron Stout to Robert Rauschenberg… Vernon Fisher is the third link in that chain of heavyweights who happen to have come from Texas.”
As the original screening of Breaking the Code at the Dallas International Film Festival sold out, an additional screening of the film has been scheduled to take place on Thursday, May 4, at 5 pm.