Drew Sawyer: Morgan Fisher's Melancholic Modernism

A new exhibition at Maureen Paley in London features new work by Morgan Fisher.

From his structural films in the 1960s through the 1980s to his monochrome paintings begun in the 1990s, Santa Monica–based artist Morgan Fisher has consistently and intelligently deconstructed the machinery of representation. For a new body of work on view at Maureen Paley in London and his first solo exhibition, titled “Past Present, Present Past,” the artist turns his attention to the dashed hopes of photography at mid-twentieth century. Twelve photographs document unopened boxes of rolls of film by European manufacturers from the 1950s, the decade in which he both grew up and became aware of photography and its history. Also using film, Fisher shot each unused box, with its bold color and graphics, against a gray background that simultaneously recalls the detachment of commercial photography and the cool aesthetics of Pop and Minimalist art. The repetition of subject matter and formal strategies shifts the viewer’s attention away from authorship to consider systems of production and technological obsolescence. The photographs, according to Fisher, “are examples of waste, things that have gone unused and are now useless, specific signs of what more generally we can call oblivion.”

Fisher and the gallery juxtapose the photographs with two early films, Production Footage (1971) and Red Boxing Gloves / Orange Kitchen Gloves (1980), respectively shot on 16mm film and Polavision. They demonstrate the artist’s early interest in camera equipment and structures as well as his own changing relationship to outmoded technologies. Working as an editor in the commercial film industry led to Fisher’s deep interest in dissecting the systems of cinema, from its physical materials to moviemaking production methods. Production Footage, for example, records the use of two cameras, one an archetypal black-and-white film Hollywood studio camera on a dolly and the other a small handheld camera using color film, in addition to the type of image that each of them produces.

While much of Fisher’s art relies on acts of impersonalization that remove intentional markers and subjectivity, his works often derive from autobiographical sources. In 2013, the artist produced a series of monochrome paintings based on paint chips in Exterior and Interior Color Beauty, a 1935 booklet by General Houses, Inc., a prefabricated house manufacturer founded by his father, Howard T. Fisher. The canvases originate in found materials that at once reference the artist’s childhood, the history of modernism, and the production of images—here, the ideal middle class home. The photographs of expired film boxes similarly memorialize the artist’s childhood and father, also an accomplished photographer, who introduced him to the medium as a boy.

For over a decade Fisher has been producing work that examines now-vanished photographic cultures. In 2011, he produced a similar body of work that documented film boxes produced in the United States in the 1950s. First exhibited at Bortolami Gallery in New York, the photographs were shown alongside a series of pencil rubbings made from 1950’s embossed covers of the conservative British photography annual Photograms of the Year, which his father had in his library. In 2002, Fisher also produced tracings of advertisements in the now long-defunct journal US Camera Annual. The line drawings of the aspirational pictures and slogans heighten and commemorate the naivety of amateur photographic cultures and postwar middle class dreams while also referencing the camera lucida, an optical device that refracted a section of a landscape view on to paper, which photography rendered archaic.

“In the most general sense,” Fisher says, “what underpins these bodies of work is anxiety about what the passing of time will have to say to our ambitions and hopes, earnest and in good faith though we may be. And how quickly and irrevocably what had once been the present becomes the past and with it oblivion.” Fisher’s photographs present relics that reflect on both old and new systems of image production, distribution, and consumption. Ultimately they reveal, as the artist has stated, “the power of obsolescence to disturb.”

“Past Present, Present Past” is on view at Maureen Paley in London through January 25. 


Drew Sawyer, an art historian and curator, is currently Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.