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 Edward Franklin Fisk  (1886 - 1944)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: landscape painting, prints

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Edward Fisk: American Modernist

Adapted by Rachael Sadinsky from her essay, "Edward Fisk: A Modern Life," in Edward Fisk: American Modernist (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1998).

When it comes to early twentieth century modernism, Edward Franklin Fisk (1886-1944) is something of an odd man out.  Although his art was championed and exhibited by several New York galleries, his reputation never attained the mixture of glamor and spirituality enjoyed by his close friends Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, and Eugene O'Neill.  Born in New York City, Fisk studied in Paris, where he joined in the soirées at Gertrude Stein's apartment, and later he was an active participant among the intellectual circles of Greenwich Village and Provincetown.  Having absorbed avant-garde styles and ideas, he moved in 1926 to Lexington where he taught at the University of Kentucky, raised a family, and struggled to maintain his artistic integrity in a setting far from the front lines of American modernism.

The bulk of Fisk's extant works are oil paintings?gently abstracted, often intensely colored?that balance the influences of European expressionism with American realism. Devoted to red, blue, and green, Fisk developed a formalist rigor that emphasized the flatness and frontality of his subjects, whether an isolated tree beside a house, a tabletop still life, or a portrait of a model in his studio.  When he was in his late 40s, Fisk took on the printmaking media and mastered the difficult processes of etching and mezzotint, producing prints that are impressive for their range of tone and intimate subject matter.

Born in New York City in 1886, he had already decided to pursue a career in the arts by the time Fisk reached his late teens.  Beginning in 1904, he studied at the Art Students League and, in 1909, enrolled in the life class at the National Academy of Design.  He also spent two years studying with Robert Henri, whose core principles?freedom of expression and freedom from academic rules, from classical notions of beauty, and from formulaic subject matter?had long-lasting impact on Fisk, who, later in his career, incorporated much of Henri's philosophy in teaching his own classes at the University of Kentucky.  Fisk found more than encouragement from his years at Henri's studio: it was probably here that Fisk first met Stuart Davis, and the two became lifelong friends, corresponding and visiting over the years.

In 1912, Fisk traveled to Paris where he continued his art studies at the Académie Moderne.  He also developed friendships with other American painters then studying abroad: Stuart Davis, whom he already knew from Henri's school; Charles Demuth, Fisk's colleague at the Académie Moderne; and Marsden Hartley.  (Like many Americans in Paris, Fisk made his pilgrimage to the residences of Gertrude and Michael Stein.  Of his visit to Gertrude's, he wrote in his journal: "I met Gertrude who was shaped and draped like a Hindu idol.  She was not the sphinx I expected but a very gracious & charming hostess & had a tinkling, humorous laugh that one would never forget?.")

Upon his return from abroad, Fisk lived with his family on the Upper West Side, though he was drawn to the bohemian life among writers, painters, and actors in Greenwich Village.  When war made travel to Europe impossible, the downtown crowd summered in Provincetown.  Stuart Davis first summered there in 1913 and the following year Fisk and Demuth joined him.  The playwright Eugene O'Neill also summered in Provincetown where he conscripted his fellow artists and writers into his theatrical troupe, the Provincetown Players, and staging plays.  Marsden Hartley joined his friends in 1916 and later described the season as "the Great Provincetown Summer."  In 1917, Fisk shared lodgings with O'Neill and, in the fall, the two returned to New York to share an apartment in Greenwich Village. (Fisk and O'Neill developed a very close friendship in the first half of the 1920s, which included sharing apartments and also a brief stint as brothers-in-law after they married sisters, Agnes Boulton to O'Neill and her younger sister Cecil to Fisk.  Fisk's marriage dissolved by the mid-1920s.)

The convivial bohemia of Provincetown merged seamlessly with their lives in New York. Throughout the late teens, Fisk, Demuth, and their friends among the downtown intellectual elite?John Reed, Marcel Duchamp, Carl van Vechten, and others?frequented jazz nightclubs in the Village, such as the Golden Swan, popularly known as the "Hell-hole," and uptown clubs, such as Barron Wilkin's in Harlem and Marshall's on West 53rd Street.  Demuth made watercolors of these evenings in which he depicted himself carousing with Duchamp, Fisk, and Hartley.

Fisk's appreciation for modernist artists remained high and their influence upon him strong.  Often in the company of Demuth, Hartley, and other artists, Fisk regularly visited New York City's avant-garde galleries, such as Stieglitz's 291, Montross Gallery, and Daniel Gallery.  Daniel Gallery represented both Fisk and Demuth, Fisk during the years 1915 to 1921 and Demuth from 1914 to 1923, and both exhibited there prior to 1917: Demuth in annual exhibitions of his watercolors and Fisk in the exhibition in American Art of Today in 1916. In 1917, Fisk and Demuth had a joint exhibition that received much positive attention.  Earlier in the year, Fisk had participated in Futurist Paintings by American Artists at the Gamut Club.

In December 1917, Fisk enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to a submarine chaser in Brooklyn.  While stationed in Brooklyn, he regularly saw his friends and continued to frequent jazz clubs with Demuth and others.  He was subsequently assigned to work in the coal yards at Norfolk, Virginia.  In January 1919, Fisk received an honorable discharge and returned to the life of an artist.  In 1921, he participated in the Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings Showing the Later Tendencies in Art held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  The following year, Fisk was included in the Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art at Montross Gallery in New York City, a group show of American and European modernists, including Braque, Burchfield, Matisse, Pablo Picasso, the Prendergasts, and Diego Rivera.  And in 1926, Fisk had first one-person exhibition at The Artists' Gallery in New York City.

By the mid-1920s Fisk's career as an artist was progressing well; he had been included in several important exhibitions of American modernist painters and received warm critical response.  Yet, Fisk was unhappy living in the city and the freewheeling and intoxicating atmosphere of Greenwich Village and Provincetown.   Despite close friendships, Fisk felt isolated and alone.   In September 1926, he left his wife in New York City and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to teach drawing and painting at the University of Kentucky.  An academic position had much to recommend it?financial security, professional standing?and Lexington offered itself as a calmer, more sedate refuge from the frenetic pace of life amid the Greenwich Village bohemia.   In May 1928, he was promoted to assistant professor of art and decided Lexington was home.  He remarried in 1930 to Lexington native Lucy Young (1898-1988) and together they raised a son and a daughter.

As a teacher, Fisk explored a diverse range of topics.  He encouraged his students to always look at nature and to base their art on their perception of the world around them.  Hired to teach drawing and painting, Fisk inculcated in his students a respect for Old Master draftsmanship and painting techniques.  Not long after he began at the university, he proposed and developed a graphic arts series to explore the diverse media of modern printmaking techniques, including etching and aquatint, lithography, and mezzotint.
In 1933, the university awarded Fisk sabbatical leave to study in England, where he researched etching techniques.

Fisk's first solo exhibitions in Kentucky were in 1935 in both Lexington and Louisville.  The same year, he had his third (and final) solo exhibition in New York City at Ferargil Gallery and also had work in the American Artists' Congress group exhibition, organized by his long-time friend Stuart Davis for the ACA Gallery.  In 1940, the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield, England, mounted a solo exhibition of Fisk's works, which was the last exhibition during his lifetime.  In October 1944, Fisk died of heart disease at his Lexington home.  During his final years, Fisk was cheered by the support of both old and new friends. Stuart Davis sent encouragement to keep working:

"Makes me feel bad to hear that you have had to give up your work for the time being. You have a good independent spirit and it is important to have people like you active and pushing in the right direction.  Make sure you get going again soon, because I think it is necessary that you should follow your ideas in painting and graphic art?good stuff is needed now more than ever; and you have an obligation to deliver."

Information provided by Rachael Sadinsky, former curator of the University of Kentucky Art Museum and author of the exhibition catalogue Edward Fisk: American Modernist (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1998).  

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