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Morgan Fisher, Projection Instructions, 1976
Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin

The Rewards of Self-Repression

by Christopher Williams

Should art be the result of a subjectivity that conveys highly personal and partial images, or should it aspire, instead, to systematically order what lies around us, analysing, putting into relation, exhausting a finite number of options? Morgan Fisher has no doubts as to the answer, and for years his work has attempted to produce non-subjective things, films that explore exhaustive combinations of possibilities, monochromes that avoid any arbitrary aspects of composition. Artist Christopher Williams met up with Fisher and his universe, where there is nothing that does not make perfect sense.

Christopher Williams: I would like to start by discussing your early film works through two frames of reference. The first is the construction of the works around a predetermined structure, which could be considered a score, a program, or a model for production. Second is the role of the performative in these works, for example Picture and Sound Rushes and Projection Instructions.

Morgan Fisher: As you imply by raising these two issues together, they have something in common: they can be ways to make work that is not a composition. You are absolutely right to use the word “construction,” which to me is opposed to composition. Composition is personal and subjective, which is to say arbitrary; construction is impersonal and, if not objective, then not arbitrary, that is, not expressive in the ordinary sense of being self-expression. Broadly speaking, the performative, if it’s the right kind, is consonant with construction. When a construction leaves room for the performative, the performance can reinforce what the construction already does, which is to shift attention away from the artist as the origin of the work. Of course we know that without the artist there isn’t a work, but at least construction and the performative within construction enact the wish to reduce the visibility of this unavoidable fact.

cw: Are there artists whose work influenced you in that regard?

mf: Sol LeWitt’s early work is as pure a case of construction as I know, and Picture and Sound Rushes more than any of the films shows how important that work was for me. As LeWitt’s work did, the film presents exhaustive combinations, in this case four: picture and sound together, picture alone, sound alone, and no sound and no picture. Of course this last combination is absurd but the logic of exhaustive combinations demands it. The basis of the film is a construction, or a score, but its production was realized by means of performances, of which there are two kinds. One is the performances of the camera operator and the sound recordist, who each had a score he performed. Then there is my performance in front of the camera, in which I explain the score of the film. The score is ridiculously simple; it’s embodied in what you see and hear, but it’s hard to grasp as you watch the film. The inadequacy of my performance is compounded by the scores that the camera operator and sound recordist are performing, which cut my explanation of the score into fragments. You hear only half of what I say, and there are sections when you see me but don’t hear me. And there are sections in which you don’t see me and don’t hear me, which add up to one quarter of the film’s length.

cw: What about Projection Instructions?

mf: Projection Instructions is literally a score that is performed by the projectionist, and the audience is able to see the score and, at the same time, the performance of it. But Projection Instructions offers the performer far more latitude than Picture and Sound Rushes. In Picture and Sound Rushes all of the choices are binary: on/off, off/on. In Projection Instructions some instructions are binary, but others are variable. The projectionist chooses how loud to make the sound, for example. Projection Instructions further differs from Picture and Sound Rushes in that it does not enforce obedience to the score. If the performers hadn’t followed the score in Picture and Sound Rushes with some accuracy, I would have shot the film over again. Projection Instructions tells the projectionist to follow the score, but the projectionist is free to perform the film as he or she wishes and I have nothing to say about it. On one occasion, the projectionist ignored the instructions completely. Being given the freedom to interpret was not enough; she afterwards said that she did not like being told what to do; her flat refusal to follow any instructions was a retort to the obedience that projection in general requires from a projectionist.

cw: How does the interplay of construction and performance work in other films?

mf: Construction and performance are in some of the other films, sometimes as their foundations. One kind of performance that some of the films makes possible is the freedom, within limits, to invent. Paul Morrison determined the route we followed in The Director and His Actor Look at Footage Showing Preparations for an Unmade Film (2), and the film gave him the freedom to take photographs as he wished. The film presents his photographs parallel with mine but in way that privileges his. The performer in Documentary Footage improvised her performance in the intervals that the film’s construction gave her, and her performance makes the film what it is. The photographer in Production Stills, Thom Andersen, was free to choose what photographs to take within the structure of the film, a pack of Polaroid photographs exposed within the duration of a 400’ roll of 16mm film. The latitude for invention that these films allow supposes good faith on the part of the performers, and I have been very lucky in that respect.

cw: At a certain point, you started to shift your interest in constructing films to constructing paintings. I’d like to ask you first about the perimeters for the construction of your earlier, irregularly shaped gray monochromes.

mf: The short answer is that a monochrome with an irregular perimeter is what is left after subtracting the subjects. So then the question is how I came to this result. As you are careful to imply by saying “construction,” the question in painting was the same that it was in the films: how to avoid composition. In film the rectangle of the frame and its proportions are given to us, and the conditions of projection tend to make them invisible. A result is that filmmakers and film viewers think only about what is happening within the frame, so its perimeter, to use your word, disappears. This is especially the case with commercial films, which are designed to absorb us in the world they create. And the size of the projected image is usually not under the filmmaker’s control, so filmmakers don’t work with it and viewers in turn don’t pay attention to it. In painting, all of these things—shape, proportions, size—are under your control. This means that there have to be reasons for them to be what they are: they cannot be arbitrary. Paintings do vary in size and shape, but most are rectangular, and the size and proportions tend to fall within conventional limits. We tend not to notice them until they are extreme. But even if paintings vary in size and shape, the reasons tend to be imprecise, more a matter of convenience or preference or whim—all symptoms of composition—than necessity. And in the case of such paintings, in accord with the model of film but not as strictly, we tend to pay attention only to what is happening within the painting; size and shape tend to disappear from our perception of it. The exceptions to this and their consequences are instructive, but that is another topic.

cw: How were you able to avoid potential imprecision or arbitrariness of composition?

mf: There are several ways in painting to avoid composition, but the one I was most drawn to was the monochrome, I think because it was the simplest. It was only a matter of size and shape and color. A solution was to make monochromes based on books, which gave these three things. I did studies in pencil, but books are rectangular, and my concern was that even if there were a reason for the paintings’ size, shape, and color, they would end up just looking like more monochromes, that is, generic monochromes. One kind of book I worked from was travel guides. I did gouaches that showed two guidebooks to the same place. They were published in different years, and so were, as I would put it, diachronic views of the same place. Sometimes the publisher for both years was the same, sometimes different. And I added shadows. The rectangles that were the books were the exact sizes of the books, and the shadows were the exact sizes of the books they corresponded to. I did what I could to make the organization of the paintings non-compositional. The books and the shadows jutted out beyond the gray rectangular background that I put them on. Obviously the paintings weren’t monochromes any more, but at least they weren’t rectangular. Then one day I laid out a painting in pencil and began by painting the gray background. I realized that the gray was all I needed, because the sizes of the books and their shadows were inscribed in the shape of the painting, that is, in its perimeter. The painting was a monochrome, there was a reason for its size and shape, and it was not rectangular.

This gouache was the basis of a series of ten paintings I made in 1999 called the “Italian Paintings,” and they showed me the way to the work that came immediately after it. The uniformity of the monochrome is a sort of index in relation to which you see the unaccustomed non-rectangular perimeter. So, as you suggested, the edge is what you pay attention to. You look at the edges as such, at the difference between what is on either side of edge, that is, at what is inside the perimeter of the painting and what is outside it. These are exactly the things you don’t pay attention to in films, or, for that matter, in most paintings.

cw: I am interested in the specificity of the source material. Why did you choose Italian travel books as the subject for the works, as opposed to, say, books on trauma photography?

mf: The books were beautiful as objects and their subjects were dear to me. There were two kinds: “Blue Guides,” a series with a long history that at the time was published by Benn, and the series called the “Guide Rosse” (Red guides) published by the Touring Club Italiano. The “Guide Rosse” from the ’50s into the ’70s are among the most beautiful books I have ever seen, and they are devoted to Italy, a country I love. The “Blue Guides” include places not in Italy, but some of those for Italy were the ones I worked with. I would say that guidebooks such as these are topographical, in that they are systematic descriptions of places, not in pictures but in words. And now the crucial thing: making an adjustment in the covers of the red guides, both series, when rendered in the frontal view of mechanical drawing, are monochromes. So there were red and blue monochromes that represented books I love that were topographical descriptions, or more, simply, pictures of places I love. So the monochromes were pictures that contained pictures. These pictures and the pictures within them are not included within the paintings, but they are nonetheless present, figured by the irregular perimeters.

These guidebooks were not the only kind of book I was interested in at the time. There were also atlases that were monochromes. The key in both cases was the appeal of the book—as an object and for its subject—and the appeal of how that subject was embodied in the pages of the book, all combined with the mutability of the book’s cover into a monochrome. There are many books that treat subjects that interest me, but I don’t know of many books that meet these specific conditions.

cw: You have written: “the monochrome for me is an ideal model.” Can you elaborate? I am interested in how this model functions in relation to the production of your paintings, and how the function of the model might shift as the works take on a specific relation to site and architecture, as with your “Door and Window Paintings.”

mf: Of the several tropes of modernist painting, to me the most radical is the monochrome. It’s the simplest and it requires the fewest decisions; that is, it goes the furthest toward being non-compositional. And the monochrome has a long history that has produced great paintings. These things taken all together make the monochrome a model, not in the sense of its being something we should mindlessly copy, but as something whose history we should be responsible for and whose demands for rigor and ambition we should live up to. I am convinced that painting has a future, and furthermore a future in which the monochrome will necessarily play a part. The question is how to extend the monochrome in a way that is productive, instead of enacting in various ways a sense of hopelessness that nothing new can be done. As I’ve said, one way to extend the monochrome is to make the size and shape a part of the work, so that they are not invisible but instead are just as much a part of the painting and how it signifies as what is happening within its perimeter.

For this to be the case, there have to be reasons for the sizes and shapes; I can’t simply dream them up. The paintings based on architecture were the result of my looking for further reasons for paintings to be the sizes and shapes that they are. The “Door and Window Paintings” were the first in this series. Each is the same size as a door or window, but each is shifted laterally and also up or down, so each paintings is shaped like an L, either right side up or upside down. I am chagrined to acknowledge that I still had to make some decisions: how far and in which direction to shift each painting. My solution was to make these decisions for each painting to produce an array that was bilaterally symmetrical, which to me is non-compositional. The fact that the doors and windows were the origins of the paintings was emphasized by the paintings’ being hung immediately next to the doors and windows that were their origins. I didn’t make the paintings, the doors and window did, and the doors and windows also placed them. The paintings could be installed in another setting provided that they maintain insofar as possible the relations among themselves that they had in their original settings. This means that the paintings have to be hung in a group, which would recall the space for which they were made.

cw: So the relations of the works within groups are important.

mf: Already with the “Italian Paintings,” I had come to the conclusion that it was not possible for me to make a painting that could stand alone, and I still think so. I made the “Italian Paintings” in groups and I want them shown as groups. The irregular perimeters of the paintings implicate the walls immediately around them in a way that an ordinary painting does not, not even, for example, a Stella shaped canvas, and their being shown as a group enhances this effect. I think the “Door and Window Paintings” implicate each other and hence the walls in between them. In the original hanging, where they were next to features in the architecture that ordinarily you never put a painting anywhere near, the paintings implicated the entire room. And they were no more than paintings, finite flat objects.

cw: In the “Door and Window Paintings,” there is an implicit reference to the architecturally-related works of Blinky Palermo. With Sixteen Walls, the new work in your exhibition at Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, that reference becomes explicit. Can you talk about this work and its relationship to the work of Palermo?

mf: All of Palermo’s work is important for me. He had made a wall drawing for Rolf Hoffmann’s office in Mönchengladbach that had been painted over, but the room still existed. The Museum Abteiberg invited me to develop a work that in one way or another would have a relation to that work.

The wall opposite the wall where Palermo’s work had been had one recess within another, which divided it into eight walls of various widths. The specific form of the wall gave me the idea for the work. I had done paintings where you couldn’t see all of the work at the same time, and many years ago I had made castings. I imagined the recesses in the wall making a cast, and placing the cast on the opposite wall. This operation was a kind of mirroring, and it was a variation of an operation that had underlain earlier painting. The narrow walls separating the planes of the recesses and their corresponding protrusions would be the surfaces that were painted, in the same four colors that Palermo had used in his wall painting.

Palermo had done wall paintings that you couldn’t see all at once, but I think it is the general case for all of them that it was possible to look more or less squarely at each wall, as you would a painting. In Sixteen Walls this was not possible for two of the eight painted walls, barely possible for two others, and fully possible for the remaining four, but at the cost of losing sight of the other surfaces of the wall of which they were a part. So the easiest and most likely view of each of the eight painted walls is an oblique one, but there is not one point of view from which you can see, even obliquely, all of the painted walls at the same time. Further, with the exception of the Wandmalerei at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, I think Palermo worked with walls as he found them. In Sixteen Walls, one wall is a recreation in the museum of an actual wall, and this wall created, so to speak, the facing wall.

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