In Conversation: Beverly Fishman, New National Academician
By Gregory Wessner
The National Academy of Design welcomed its newest class of National Academicians last fall, 15 extraordinary artists and architects who join a community dating back to the founding of the National Academy in 1825. Learn about the election process and watch the Induction Ceremony here.
As part of the celebrations, the Academy’s recently appointed executive director Gregory Wessner interviewed incoming members about their work and ideas, and how the upheavals of the past year have affected their practices. Conversations will be released in the coming months.
Beverly Fishman (NA 2020) is an artist based in Detroit, Michigan. Her glossy, three-dimensional works are influenced by the imagery, advertising, and power of the pharmaceutical industry. She researches how science, technology, and medicine affect our bodies and minds, and uses what she learns in her creative work. Here, she discusses the 26 years she spent as an artist-in-residence and mentor at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, how advertising has propelled the pharmaceutical industry’s growth, the placebo effect, and more.
Gregory Wessner: Thanks so much for taking time to talk with me. We’re excited to welcome you to the Academy! How has your lockdown been?
Beverly Fishman: Well, it’s gray in Detroit in the winter. But I am so fortunate because when I left teaching, we purchased a building here. Detroit is still affordable, no matter what anyone says—you can find a deal. I live upstairs, and I walk down a very good set of stairs, open the door, and I’m in my studio. Had that not happened, I would be having such a bad experience during the lockdown. Many other artists have not been able to get to their studios because the buildings were closed.
The pandemic has pushed some of my exhibition dates further away, and it has ended up being positive for me because I haven’t had continuous outside pressure. Of course, I want the pressure; I accept what I accept.
When I interviewed Charles Gaines (NA 2020), he said something very similar about how the pandemic reconnected him to the studio in a way that he hadn’t been for a long time, because there used to be all these distractions—the business of being an artist, the meetings and the openings.
I have fabricators that I work with, and they work for me full-time, but they don’t actually work in my studio. I am mostly alone in my studio, where I cut and paste paper and vinyl to work out the colors and forms that my paintings take. There were times when I was working side by side with someone, but as I’ve gotten older, I need the mental space of being alone. I’m very private. I use fabrication, and pieces have to go back and forth to the fabricator if they’re not right. When I get a piece back and the color isn’t doing what I want it to do, it goes back to the fabricator and I’ve got to orchestrate all that. It is a hassle, but it allows me the freedom to sit on a chair and think in an uninterrupted way. The creation of art, a lot of times, is literally sitting, thinking through, or staring.
I saw that you only just recently stopped teaching, right? When did you stop?
May 2019. I had been at Cranbrook as Artist-in-Residence and Head-of-Painting for 26 years. At Cranbrook, the artists-in-residence live and work on the campus. It’s part of our position. So, when I chose to retire, it meant everything had to change. When normal people leave a job, they don’t leave their home, studio, and community. When I decided to leave, I honestly felt like I was leaving a community and a practice of mentorship to which I had given my whole heart. But more and more things were happening in my career, and I was absolutely ready to leave. More than ready—I had to.
You have so much space now, with the new studio. How did you manage the space issues at Cranbrook? Do you work on a lot of pieces simultaneously?
Not really. I make collages, and I’ve worked on a ton of those at the same time. That’s how I get the ideas. From there, we build the form offsite. It comes to me, and then it goes to a painter I’ve worked with for maybe eight years. The paint is toxic. I can’t be around it. I’ve hit the toxic limit from how many years I worked with it incorrectly.
When the work comes back, I look at it, and I either accept it or reject it. A lot of times, things sit on the wall and I continue to look at them. If they don’t make sense to me, they have to go back and be repainted.
Do you first decide on form and then paint, or are you adjusting both while the work comes together?
I think it’s now playing back and forth. A lot of it has been evolving conceptually with my ideas about pills and tablets. In the early stages of my polychrome reliefs, the works between 2012 and 2016, the forms were based on single pills. So, even though they are abstract and even though I’ve made them gigantic and even though I’ve changed the color, if you see a particular pharmaceutical, then you recognize it and perhaps identify with it. You can see the form—Xanax, for example—and know what it is.
Then, in the last couple of years, I’ve moved to an idea of polypharmacy: A medical concept that tries to deal with the fact that most of us are on several pills by the age 45, and by 65 we can be on 8 pills, and by the time we’re 80, we might be up to 18 pills. Because the pills and tablets I’ve based my forms on have scores on them to divide them, I’ve broken up the individual pill forms, and now I create compositions of pharmaceutical fragments. I’ve also excised some of the interiors of the pill fragments to create thin outline shapes. You can’t do that with real pills, but I wanted to convey a sense of active interiors, or powerful material forces lying beneath the machine-like surfaces.
This is a good segue into research. I’ve been really interested in this question in talking to this year’s artists. So often attention gets focused on the finished work, and we tend not to talk about the work that goes into making the work. You spend a lot of time on research.
In the 1980s, I started dealing with identity through cellular imagery. I was obsessed with everything under the microscope and with the minute differences that can make one life totally different than another, like those between one brother and another brother.
Then I became more aware of the cures that were being sold to us, and how they had become so culturally loaded. In 1999, Prozac was the big cure for depression, right? It was an interesting cultural moment, where we were being asked to work all the time. We needed to be productive all the time, or at least a lot of the time. So, Prozac being held up as a cure meant that we were no longer being asked to delve into the deep psychological sources of our depression and to develop introspection through the long process that you spend in therapy, but rather to do something quicker, something that wouldn’t take years. You could just pop a pill, feel better, and get back to being productive. Of course, this is not in any way to make light of clinical depression, of real anxiety. There’s no question that it’s real. It’s chemical, and you can do something about that, which interests me because the chemistry continues to evolve. Now, Ketamine and MDMA are being introduced. They’re finding incredible success as drugs for depression, and someone who has suffered from depression is going to try anything they can to live a decent life. So, drugs for depression help immeasurably, but at the same time, they also cover over things in our personalities that we really should explore.
What was happening in the late 1990s and 2000s was that everyday conversations really shifted. Women were starting to talk about the pills they took for depression. That discussion had been taboo for a very long time. You never talked about the medicine you were on. You would never even say the word “depression.” And then suddenly mental health became part of a conversation that could be held more openly.
Once, I was having dinner with a friend—we’re still friends—and I didn’t feel well. She opened up her handbag, took out a pill box, and said, “I have everything from antacids to anti-anxiety. What do you need?” And every single square had a different pill in it...