The New Precisionism: William Fisk’s Paintings
by Donald Kuspit
Supposedly a photorealist, William Fisk is more properly called a Precisionist: a new kind of Precisionist, for while the Old Precisionist was preoccupied with objects as such—Charles Sheeler, who explicitly called himself a Precisionist, is the exemplary figure—the New Precisionist, epitomized by Fisk, is concerned with their subjective, “all too human” meaning.(1) However exquisitely rendered—described in meticulous, lucid detail, with a hygienic clarity, a rigorous exactitude, a scientific verisimilitude, an immaculate conciseness that reminds us that the first Precisionists were called “immaculates,” in appreciation of the “highly controlled approach to technique and form” for which they were renown—Fisk’s objects are not as soulless as they seem, as the fact that he calls his pictures of them “Portraits” indicates. His camera, eyeglasses, telephone, light bulb, office chair, watch, drill, among the other objects he represents---but they have the “presentational immediacy” that the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead thought was characteristic of non-objective or abstract art, so-called pure art(2)—have “personality” despite their impersonal appearance.
Fisk’s pictures are paradoxical in more ways than one. They can be said to be concerned entirely with line and color, like pure art—color is subliminally present in his linear objects,(3) giving them an affective resonance, a sort of inner depth, an expressive undertone(4)—however ostensibly “impure,” that is, representational rather than straightforwardly presentational (abstract). And, as their hypnotic, hallucinatory presence, and Fisk’s fascination, even obsession, with them—conveyed by their redundancy—suggests, his pictures of them are so-called “waking dreams,” confirming their uncanny, poignant quality. No longer functioning—stilled forever in Fisk’s pictures—his machines—all his works are variations on the theme of the machine—haunt us like ghosts. They have a hadean presence, an archetypal character, which is why we are unable to get them out of our minds. The so-called ghost in the machine is Fisk’s implicit subject matter, not the machine as a phenomenon in itself, however phenomenally—flawlessly—his machines may function, and however well-made they are, like Fisk’s paintings, which also never break down, and also linger in our consciousness because they unconsciously possess us.
Our lives are full of machines—depend on machines—which is why they have become an inalienable part of us, however alien, that is, mechanical rather than organic, mindless automatons rather than autonomous minds, instruments rather than ends in themselves, as we think we are. Fisk’s machines continue to function, to be useful, remain intact—however obsolescent, “second hand” they have become (they are all [Duchampian] “found objects,” that is, they were found in second hand stores, giving them a conceptual provenance, so to speak, whatever their physical and formal character)—while our bodies can break down, are vulnerable to pain and flawed, whatever pleasure they may give us, while Fisk’s machines seem invulnerable, beyond pain and pleasure, neither bad nor good, but simply unavoidably there—omnipresent--in our super technological society and dreams. This is the dilemma posed by—built into--Fisk’s flawless machines and paintings. They are rich with terrifying existential meaning.
To use Freud’s distinction, the object is in effect the manifest (visible) content of a dream whose latent (invisible) content is the subjectivity of the person who once owned the object that Fisk now owns and paints as though to evoke the spirit of the person—and in which he invests his own spirit, suggesting they are what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut calls selfobjects(5)—not simply symbols of himself and/or of the previous owner of the object. He identifies with them—and the mysteriously anonymous person who once owned them--in the process of painting them. The final painting is in effect a self-portrait as well as a portrait of an object—a perfect portrait, not only because Fisk is a perfectionist, as his technique shows, but because it is a strangely “living likeness,” for it is given inner life through his aesthetic refinement of it even as it remains outwardly dead, inert, sterile, banal. The nuanced interplay of light and dark, often poised in dialectical tension, however equilibrated, on the surface of the object, brings it to dramatic life, in effect rescuing it from obsolescence, the fate of becoming dead junk, meaningless material.
Fisk’s preoccupation with the subjectivity that informs the object—the subjectivity of its previous owner--and his own subjectivity—the subjectivity that recreates the object as art--is transparently clear in his account of his relationship with a chair he owns. It confirms his deep relational needs as well as cognitive curiosity—probing intelligence. And also his sense of isolation, an isolation reflected in the isolation of his objects. Solitude pervades Fisk’s pictures, the solitude of the artist alone in his studio, alone with his model—for his objects have the stilled nakedness of a posing model—and himself. “I found a chair in the basement of my studio. I still have this chair to this day. On top of the chair was scratched the name Salvatori. So I thought ‘Who is Salvatori? Who is this guy and what did he do with this chair? What was his job and what was his family life like?’ I kept projecting on this object what and who I thought Salvatori was. Obviously, I couldn’t come to a concrete conclusion,” says Fisk.”(6) If Fisk could come to a concrete conclusion, and thus connect to the unknown owner of the chair, if only cognitively—if only by mentalizing him--he would finally gain self-knowledge. Salvatori is such a foreign name, an exotic name, an Italian name, a South European name, unlike William, an Anglo-Saxon name, the name of a king, a North European name, suggesting that the mysterious Salvatori is William’s alter ego, or at least the self he would like to be, or imagine he can be—his repressed self, his estranged self, his forgotten self—and yet there is something alien and exotic about his objects, estranged from social reality by reason of their obsolescence, yet undecayed, embalmed in enigma by art. Clearly he is instinctively drawn to them, perhaps because their “outsider” status confirms his own feeling of being a misunderstood outsider and stranger, not to say a member of a minority, as Salvatori is likely to have been in Anglo-Saxon Canadian and American society.
Fisk’s “Portraits” of machines remind me of Francis Picabia’s Machine Portraits and his so-called “mechanomorphic style.” “Almost immediately upon coming to America” (1913), Picabia said, “it flashed on me that the genius of the modern world is in machinery, and through machinery art ought to find a most vivid expression.”(7) Precisionism, “the first indigenous art movement in the United States,” emerged after World War I and flourished from 1920 to 1930 (grew on a wave of postwar optimism and ended with the Depression), is an extension of Picabia’s belief. Its climactic statement is Sheeler’s 1921 photograph of a Ford factory conceived as a “technological utopia.” One might say that Fisk’s objects are the relics of this technological utopia—the land of technological promise that Picabia thought America was—suggesting that Fisk offers us a technological dystopia, or at least casts a jaundiced eye on technology. Sheeler’s Drive Wheels and Rolling Power, both 1939, are grand and glorious—instruments and symbols of American power, proclaiming the triumph of its technology, celebrating the brawn of the heroic machine. In sharp contrast, Fisk’s objects are peculiarly pathetic--dubiously majestic: small household machines rather than majestic machines raring to go. Their “fallen,” second-hand state—and their banality--announces the built-in obsolescence of machines, and with that their peculiarly tragic character. But there is nothing tragic about Sheeler’s aggressive, energized machines: they are on the move, swiftly, unstoppable, invincible. Both Sheeler’s monumental wheels and Fisk’s banal objects have sculptural presence, but Sheeler’s activated wheels take up all the space of the picture—dominate it--while Fisk’s de-activated objects hover and huddle harmlessly in space, as though compressed by and submissive to it—too small and inconsequential to fill it, unlike the huge wheels.
It is worth noting that Sheeler’s two paintings are part of a series of six called “portraits,” but where Sheeler portrayed powerful machines—instruments and signifiers of America’s power, ambition, and good fortune (not to say relentless drive and conquistador energy), as the fact that the portraits were commissioned by Fortune magazine suggests—Fisk’s “portraits” show powerless, hollow, exhausted, “unfortunate” machines. Certainly his static, tame, commonplace machines are not as powerful—"on a roll”--as Sheeler’s uncommonly dynamic machines, or, for that matter, Picabia’s manically moving Machine Turn Quickly, 1916-1918. They are emblems of ruthless, brute force, as their oddly brutal, disconcerting appearance suggests, while Fisk’s unpretentious machines are emblems of spent force. They are of the present—and perhaps the future—while Sheeler’s machines belong to the past and its pretentions.
Like Sheeler’s paintings, Fisk’s have been erroneously called photorealistic, for, as Fisk wrote, “it is the understanding of the intent that differentiates [their] work from photorealism,” which is merely descriptive reporting, and as such expressively shallow. While Sheeler’s Precisionism is optimistic—a blind endorsement of technological society, an unthinking acceptance of its delusion of grandeur—Fisk’s Precisionism is pessimistic about it, or at least critical of it, not to say disillusioned by it. But both believe that “perception is the fundament of visual art,” as Sheeler said, and that “linear precision” is its instrument. It is noteworthy that many of Fisk’s machines are instruments of perception, among them an Exacta camera, with its cyclopean eye—ironically alluding to the exactness or precision that Sheeler and Fisk insist upon, and acknowledging that they both used cameras to take photographs that were in effect preparatory drawings(8)—and the elaborate movie camera, with its many eyes (lenses), each like a hydra-head, suggesting that it is all-seeing (and sharp seeing) like God. (It is worth noting that Picabia’s most famous “Machine Portrait”—of the photographer Man Ray—shows a camera, labeled Ideal, 1915.)
In Fisk’s adroit hands, these cameras—all his machines--become sacred objects, relics of technological society as worthy of worship as relics of the true cross. Indeed, Fisk’s pictures function as reliquaries, the venerated machines, with their patina of obsolescence, on display for the adoration of the true believers, who expect miracles from them, or at least believe in their magical power. They may have lost their technological magic, but they have historical authority, according them at least fine art status, making them museum-worthy. Indeed, taken together Fisk’s “Portraits” form a kind of cabinet of curiosities—a collection of objects that arouse curiosity and wonder because they belong to another era, and so seem outlandish and obsolete, all the more so because they are past their prime. Behind the technological times—no longer new and innovative, but outdated mechanisms, whatever use value they may still have—they have become specimens of a technological past. All one can do is contemplate them, which is what Fisk’s paintings invite us to do. High art is an invitation to what Kant called “disinterested contemplation”--perception for the sake of perception, more purposefully perception of form for its own aesthetic sake, form coming into view as the essence of the existing object--and Fisk’s paintings are high art. The objects pictured seem oddly immaterial, more surface than substance—thus their ghostly, hallucinatory look, as I have suggested. They seem flattened into the picture plane, rarely conveying three-dimensional space; only the office chair seems three-dimensional, but the space in which it exists is not. No longer functional, all they have to offer us is their form—the dialectic of black and white, curve and angle that informs them. It is their aesthetic essence, exactingly revealed with discriminating detachment. For all his attachment to them—ownership of them—and his curiosity about their previous owner—Fisk detaches himself from them by treating them as pure forms. Given aesthetic value, they lose technological meaning. I suggest that for Picabia, Sheeler, and Fisk emphasizing the form of the machine is a way of transcending it: art can triumph over technology, or at least hold its own against it, by aesthetically assimilating it. I suggest that the personal and social import Fisk’s objects have for him is subtly undermined by his artistic practice, even as such social and personal import gives his paintings of them an existential aura.
Aesthetically transfigured, so that they read as geometrical abstractions, Fisk’s objects seem peculiarly “classical,” if classicism means “restraint and compression,” “balance and completeness,” as the art historian Kenneth Clark said. Precisionism has been called a “new classicism,” and Fisk’s New Precisionism, with its subjective edge, is a subtle new classicism. More broadly, it signifies the revival of refined objectivism and the decline of raw subjectivism—climactically evident in Abstract Expressionism, where we see the beginning of what has come to be called “de-skilling,” involving what Paul Valéry called “the depreciation of our fine old objective criteria” in art. “No one any longer enjoys the laborious study…of a piece of cloth thrown over a chair, of a leaf, or a hand…nor takes any pleasure in a slow, disinterested, close-up communion with any object, drawing therefrom a degree of self-knowledge and a sense of collaboration between his intellect, his motive, his vision, and his hand, in relation to a given thing,” Valéry wrote.(9) Clearly Fisk takes pleasure in slow, disinterested, close-up communion with his given objects, suggesting that he is a new objectivist(10) as well as a new classicist. Fisk’s skillfulness is one of the great satisfactions his art affords, all the more so because it suggests that rationality is still possible in an irrational world, all the more irrational because of its absurd belief that technology will solve all human problems.
(1)Claudia McCoy, “William Fisk’s Double Take,” Mix, 30.1 (Summer 2004), 33 notes Fisk’s “desire for humanistic narrative within his work.”
(2)”Presentational immediacy is what is usually referred to as ‘pure sense perception,’ unmediated by any causal or symbolic interpretation, even unconscious interpretation.” By way of illustration, Whitehead held that “an ordinary person looks up, sees a colored shape, and immediately infers it is a chair. However an artist, Whitehead supposes, ‘might not have jumped to the notion of a chair,’ but instead ‘might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape.’ This is not the normal human reaction; most people place objects in categories by habit and instinct, without even thinking about it. Moreover, animals do the same thing.” Quoted from Wikipedia entry on Whitehead. Whitehead’s illustration can be found in his essay “Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect,” An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 533-534. There he writes the artist—presumably the abstract artist—deals in “direct experience,” which is “infallible,” for “what you have experienced, you have experienced.”
(3)As Fisk writes, “my work has often been described as monochromatic, which is inaccurate, ass the paintings are actually carefully constructed using a mixed palette of Titanium White, Burnt Siena and Ultramarine Blue (on occasion, Olive Green and indigo), mixed straight out of the tube.”
(4)Kandinsky’s discussion of “the psychological effect of color, the psychological power of color”—his descriptive analysis of the emotional import of every color in the spectrum--in On The Spiritual in Art (1912) makes the point decisively. Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994) 157
(5)”Kohut defined selfobjects as those persons or objects that are experienced as part of the self or that are used in the service of the self to provide a function for the self….The term selfobject has meaning only with regard to the experiencing person; it is not an objective person or a true object or a whole object.” Michael St. Clair, Object Relations and Self Psychology: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2004; 4th edition), 149
(7)H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004; 5th edition), 252
(8)Fisk writes: “The objects are sourced second hand (i.e ebay). I work with a photographer to shoot them to my specifications.” One might note that an object in a photograph is seen second hand—the object is not at hand in the photograph—suggesting that Fisk’s paintings of objects are doubly second hand, as all representations are.
(9)Paul Valéry, “Degas Dance Drawing,” Degas Manet Morisot (New York: Pantheon, 1960), 59
(10)See my essay “The New Objectivism,” Quebec (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2017), 170-189