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Janet Fish: The Radiance of Still Life

Updated: Oct 26, 2023


Who is Janet Fish?

Janet Fish is an American visual artist working in the realist and still life traditions. Ms. Fish works primarily in oil painting, and has also produced work in lithographs and screen printing. Her output is distinguished by its deliberate choice to return to the painting of objects of the physical world at a time when abstract expression was trending art away from representation. Fish’s use of ordinary objects is “strikingly” rendered through her depiction of light, color and reflection. She has written: “I paint still life paintings, some light reflecting off of different surfaces, and empty/partially filled glassware.”


Family Background and Upbringing

Born in Boston on May 18, 1938, Janet Fish was raised largely in Bermuda, as her family moved there when she was ten. Fish is from a family of artists. Her mother is potter and sculptor Florence Whistler Voorhees, her sister is a photographer, and her maternal grandfather is American impressionist painter Clark Voorhees. Fish’s father was art history professor Peter Stuyvesant Fish. She is said to have been inspired to paint by her grandfather, and is quoted as having said: “I came from a family of artists, and I always made art and knew I wanted to be an artist.” Initially intent on becoming a sculptor, Fish served as an assistant to sculptor Byllee Lang as a teenager.


Education in Painting and Printmaking

Janet Fish attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, with a concentration on printmaking and sculpture. While at Smith, her instructors included Mervin Jules, Leonard Baskin and George Cohn. She also spent a summer at New York City’s Art Students League, attending a painting class conducted by Stephen Greene. Fish graduated from Smith in 1960, earning a Bachelor of Arts, and proceeded to study at Yale’s School of Arts and Architecture.


Early Influences on Janet Fish’s Artwork

At Yale, Fish studied with both Alex Katz and Phillip Pearlstein, and was part of a graduate art environment that included fellow students Sylvia and Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Nancy Graves, Chuck Close and Richard Serra. This “tight knit group…formed an intense, ambitious, competitive cohort that motivated one another to develop and defend their work.” During the summer of 1961, she attended a summer residency program at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine. In 1963, Fish received a Master of Fine Arts degree, one of the first women so designated at Yale’s graduate program.


Art Movement: Abstract Expressionism

The predominant thrust of the art world while Janet Fish was attending Yale was Abstract Expressionism. Coming out of the expressionist and surrealist traditions, Abstract Expressionism was first used to describe work in the 1910s and ’20s, but really took hold in New York City after World War II.


The movement, stylistically prevalent since before the Second World War, was in lock step with the trend away from representation initiated since cubism and surrealism towards the abstract. Fish was determined to represent real objects in her work.

According to the D.C. Moore Gallery’s overview of Fish’s work: “From the beginning, Fish focused on commonplace objects, insisting that her subject matter, glasses, fruits covered in supermarket cellophane, or liquid filled containers, was unimportant.”


Impact on Janet Fish’s Work

From Fish’s 2009 interview with Ira Goldberg for The Art Students League: “Well, I wanted to understand [abstract expressionism], de Kooning and all those guys. I spent hours staring at things, seeking to absorb the whole idea that’s abstract expressionism, the ideas about paint and surface and movement….I wanted to be a good artist, but I wanted to define what that meant….When I first got to New York, I was simply trying to figure out what I wanted painting to be. There were problems with what I could do. I was trying to paint something three dimensional on a two-dimensional surface.


I threw some apples down on the table and started painting them. The paintings took a long, long time. Slowly I began enlarging the things and then focusing more on the object than on the surroundings. I went from that to painting packages, supermarket things. I liked the way the plastic was going over the solid objects, and I liked how it broke the forms up. I was trying to define my interests and I was eliminating everything that I wasn’t interested in. Trying to get more and more toward something I wanted to paint. So this was kind of a reductive approach….After a while, I began to see what I was doing, based on a feeling. I became very suspicious of theory, so I was coming at it another way.”


“…Louise Nevelson lived around the corner from me when I was on the Bowery. Her assistant had gone to Yale when I was there, so I got to know her. Nevelson was not interested in realist painting, but she was supportive of young artists. She gave me lots of really terrific advice. She was a great role model and it was really a good experience knowing her.”


Elements of Abstract Expressionism in Janet Fish’s Work

From materials accompanying the Lehigh University Art Galleries 2007 exhibition “Janet Fish: An American Master”: “Precisely arranged compositions of visual movement and vivid color have become the hallmarks of her mastery, both in paintings and the innovative screen prints, lithographs and woodcuts with which she began experimenting in the 1970s. She is especially interested in the abstract effects of light through translucent objects, such as glass jars and bottles. They are often depicted as part of everyday indoor and outdoor life in her farmhouse in Vermont and at her loft in Soho, New York City.”


Fish told Ira Goldberg: “Sometimes it seems like, “Oh my god, That’s really like such a great idea” or “This is a fabulous color.” So you take things like that from painting that that person did. Then there are some artists who are totally exciting and admirable, and yet there’s nothing there to steal. But I definitely look for things to use as well….[T]o pick a few would not be right.

There were so many artists. I’ve always looked at lots of art. As a kid, I looked at art books because they were around.”


In Donald Goddard’s 2001 review of the artist’s show at DC Moore Gallery, he wrote: “Janet Fish is not interested in otherwise fabricating. It doesn’t interest her to make things up, and yet the colors and light are strangely fictitious. They correspond imaginatively, or magically, to what we see, which is generally murky and variously shadowy. But of course they are exactly what we see and feel at the same time. They represent what we know about the nature of things if we are inside them, which we are all the time. And they connect only to things we recognize, but which, now we realize, have qualities other than those we literally see. If we did not know what these objects were we would see the whole, in many cases, as a form of abstract expressionism, more so than ever in these recent works.”


Reflection of Light in Paintings

While Janet Fish’s Bermuda upbringing has been said to account for her bright color palette, she is perhaps most noted for her depiction and interpretation of light.

She speaks at length on the subject in the Art Students League interview with Ira Goldberg: “Color is light. Color gets the character of light….I think [that conclusion] came out of all the abstract expressionist training, those paintings are about color and paint and movement and the idea that you can organize a painting through movement. I went along with that, and then saw other ways of organizing the painting through repetition and change, more like music. Things that happen and happen, and then change and happen.”


Fish has said, "Painting for me has always been like opening a door to a dark room and saying okay, I’m going to step in. I hope there’s a floor there.”


In his Hyperallergic review of Fish’s DC Moore gallery exhibit in New York in 2004, Patrick Neal wrote: “Fish’s singular achievement is the depiction of light as a materializing force — particularly transparency in the form of colored glass. Over the years, she has explored the structural and expressive possibilities of spectral light on ordinary objects: blown glass, plastic bags and wrappers, flower petals, ribbon candy, gummy bears, fleshy fruits, etc. In fact, with their opulence and rich details, her works harken back even further to the excesses of Golden Age Dutch painting….”


Donald Goddard wrote in 2001: “Volumes, textures, reflections, shadows, and light make themselves known on the surface so that there is constant movement. It’s rather like Henry David Thoreau’s observations about the constant cycling of nature, how the falling and death of leaves becomes the beginning of new life, and that nothing, in fact, is ever lost — everything is connected, or, in Fish’s words, ‘everything is part of something else. So I work to present a situation in which things are interrelated and connected through a flow of movement, light, and color from one form to another’.”


Overview of Major Works

Wikiart, the “visual art encyclopedia”, lists the following paintings as examples of Janet Fish’s work: “Kraft Salad Dressing” (1973); “Preserved Peaches” (1975); “Evian Bottles” (1976); “Nasturtiums and Pink Cups” (1981); “Kara” (1983); “Peaches and Sunflowers” (1990); “Glass and Shells” (1990); “Cut Peach, Blue Vase” (1993); “Herb Tea” (1995); “White Tulips” (1999); “Cartwheel” (2000); “Coffee Cake” (2003); “Dishes from Japan” (2003); “Orange Pink Green” (2003); “Turkish Delight” (2003); “Monkey Business” (2005); “Chili Peppers” (2005); “Black Bowl Red Scarf” (2007); “Plastic Boxes” (2007); and “Blue Decanter, Polka-Dot Bowl, Suzani” (2009).


Major Exhibitions

Listed below is a partial list of group and solo exhibitions that have featured Janet Fish’s work:

Fairleigh Dickinson University Rutherford, New Jersey: solo exhibition 1967; New York solo exhibition 1969; Museum of Modern Art – 76 Jefferson (group exhibition) 1976; Marsh Gallery, University of Richmond: Janet Fish, Paintings and Drawings Since 1975 – solo exhibition; The Columbus Museum, Georgia: Janet Fish, solo exhibition; Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, Gainesville, Florida: Janet Fish, solo exhibition; LewAllen Contemporary Santa Fe, New Mexico: Janet Fish, solo exhibition 2004; Ogunquit Museum of American Art, Maine: The Art of Janet

Fish 2004; The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio: Janet Fish, solo exhibition 2006; DC Moore Gallery New York: group exhibition 2012; Makeready Press Gallery Montclaire, New Jersey: Compelling Images – group exhibition 2013; DC Moore Gallery New York: Janet Fish, Panoply, solo exhibition 2013; Marianne Friesland Gallery Naples, Florida – group exhibition 2014; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art Kansas City, Missouri: group exhibition 2014; National Academy of Design New York: group exhibition 2015; DC Moore Gallery New York: Janet Fish, Glass Plastic, The Early Years 1968-1978, solo exhibition 2016; DC Moore Gallery New York: Pinwheels and Poppies Paintings 1980-2008, solo exhibition 2017; Freeman’s Philadelphia -Modern Contemporary Art – group exhibition.

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