January 19, 2020

Judy Fiskin: The Hammer’s Summer Blockbuster

Judy Fiskin’s video “I’ll Remember Mama” is a witty, complex story of the artist’s relationship with her mother. Photo courtesy of Judy Fiskin

In keeping with summer being the season for superhero sequels, the Hammer Museum is presenting “Made in L.A. 2014,” its second biennial selection of contemporary artists working in Los Angeles. Organized by the museum’s chief curator, Connie Butler, along with independent curator Michael Ned Holte, the exhibition features a diverse and eclectic mix of 35 artists working in a variety of media, and it aspires to be, as Holte told me recently, “The most accurate representation of what’s happening in Los Angeles at this time.”

Among the works included is “I’ll Remember Mama,” a 10-minute film by Judy Fiskin, a well-known artist in her late 60s, known originally for her photography but who turned to film and video 15 years ago. Fiskin’s work has been shown at the Getty, the Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and The Centre Pompidou in Paris, and I wager you will find Fiskin’s “Mama” more enjoyable and more interesting than “Spider-Man 2” and scarier than “Godzilla.”

Fiskin, who I recently interviewed in her L.A. home not far from the Westside Pavilion, grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, near Century City — before there was a Century City, when it was still part of 20th Century Fox’s studio property. Her father was a stockbroker, her mother a “homemaker” (as they were called then). Her mother, who had been an art history major, was a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was then in the basement of the Museum of Natural History. As a child, Fiskin’s mother took her to the county museum, the Getty Villa and the monthly gallery night on La Cienega Boulevard. “My mother was interested in all of it, and she took me to a lot of it,” she said.
Fiskin studied art history at Pomona College and then went to UC Berkeley for her master’s degree, which she completed at UCLA. “In college, I started reading Artforum,” Fiskin recalled of the avant-garde art magazine, saying that it was like reading, “the Holy Bible.” Through the magazine, she became aware of many artists’ work — however, seeing them only as small, two-dimensional photographs heavily influenced Fiskin’s aesthetic.

Around 1970, she began to take photographs and develop them herself. “I feel really lucky to have come upon [photography] when that was what you did,” Fiskin recalled recently. To work in the darkroom, she said “was so pleasurable.”

She said she spent around three years “trying to make some good photographs.” However, once she was ready to show the work, she realized that she didn’t know anyone in the art world. So Fiskin, 26 and, in her own words, “fearless,” applied to be co-director of the Womanspace Gallery, a now-legendary artists’ cooperative in what was known as the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. There, she not only met artists and made art-world contacts, but she was also in a position to do them favors. Fiskin singles out Judy Chicago as the major force at the time: “Talk about fearless,” Fiskin said with admiration. “In my mind, she was the leader.”

Still, Fiskin only worked at Womanspace for a year. “It’s not that I wasn’t a feminist,” she said. “I just wasn’t their kind of feminist. I wasn’t into the rhetoric and the politics.

“My idea was, here is something I want to do. The men own it; so let’s go and disrupt it,” she added.
Still, in Fiskin’s estimation, “Womanspace was very effective. They got press from the moment they opened.” And Fiskin is quick to acknowledge that, without the women’s movement, she would not have developed as an artist as she did.

Her photographs, which first brought her acclaim, were square small-format images of domestic details, such as flower arrangements and home decorations, compositions that, while referencing more classical artworks, were also depicting the traditional domain of women. There was something sly about Fiskin’s early work, a deadpan, wry humor that added layers of meaning to the imagery.

In the mid-1990s, however, Fiskin abandoned photography. “I got sick,” she said. “I got an auto-immune disease that runs in the family, and it affected my back and my peripheral joints — my feet. So standing in the darkroom became next to impossible. I could do it for two hours, and then I would be wrecked for several days. And two hours was not enough time, so I was very unproductive,” she said.

“And then one day I woke up, and my unconscious mind had given me the idea for a one-minute video, and I said, ‘I can do that.’ I did that one idea and that was it. … Immediately I was on to narrative.” Her new medium became film.

“When I first started, I thought that my career was over, and that was OK,” she said. “But I did know a lot of people … and the first that I made that I wanted to show in public was ‘Diary of a Midlife Crisis.’ I took it to Ann Goldstein [a curator] at MOCA, and they showed it for a weekend. For me, that was a huge big deal.”

Fiskin took so well to video, in part, because she grew up in L.A. “I loved movies, and I grew up in the golden era of the 1960s and ’70s. There used to be a film festival here called Filmex,” the precursor to the American Film Institute’s international film festival and to the American Cinematheque, “and the Z Channel was a huge education, and before the Z Channel, there was the Friday night ‘Midnight Movies’ on TV — I always watched that.”

Over the last 15 years, Fiskin continued to make films, many of which contained elements of personal video diary and often exhibited inspired comic touches. Her films include “My Getty Center,” commissioned for the opening of the Getty Center; “50 Ways to Set the Table,” which focused on a table-setting competition at the L.A. County Fair; “The End of Photography,” Fiskin’s ode to the lost pleasures of the darkroom; and “Guided Tour,” which features voices of what appear to be museum docents talking about various works. “All Six Films,” a survey exhibition of all Fiskin’s films, was shown at Angles Gallery in Culver City in 2011.

Holte, the independent curator, who had been aware of Fiskin’s work, saw that show and loved it. “I thought it was really terrific, all of them at once, and thought it was a very substantial body of work. I actually included Judy in a Top 10 end-of-the-year list in Artforum magazine,” he said.
“There’s a personality that is all Judy that really emerges in the films and videos,” Holte added. “It’s there in the photographs, but after getting to know her film and video, the photographs read differently.”

In developing “Made in L.A.,” Holte met with many artists, including Fiskin, who had several projects that she was considering, but Holte felt that “none of them was developing in a focused way.” Fiskin recalled, that she, too, thought that none of those projects was going to work. What Fiskin was beginning to think was, “I’m old. I’m going to retire.”

Curators Butler and Holte decided to issue a challenge to motivate Fiskin: They told her they wanted to include a new work of hers in the show. It worked. As Fiskin recalled, “Once he [Holte] asked me, the next day I produced a script that was just about my mother. It was all there, I just didn’t want to do it.”

“I’ll Remember Mama” explores Fiskin’s complicated relationship with her 93-year-old mother, who lives in an apartment in the Wilshire Corridor. It is penetrating and funny — elements are reminiscent of scenes in Woody Allen’s work — and, in the end, it is both mysterious and revealing and has layers of meaning. “This is a kind of hidden thing,” Fiskin said, in that it references her earlier photographic series “Portraits of Furniture,” divulging how those images were “about my mother.”
Holte thought it was important to include Fiskin in the exhibition. “There’s a level of maturity and confidence in Judy’s work, because she knows who she is and has been working so long. Judy’s work provides some context to the other work in the show, while, at the same time, sitting comfortably next to it.”

For her part, having made “I’ll Remember Mama,” Fiskin feels re-energized and is already contemplating her next project. “I have an idea for a new film that’s so good, I’m not going to tell you,” she said, laughing.

Holte is pleased. “I think a show like this can also be just as important and meaningful for an artist like Judy, who’s shown at the top museums,” he said. “A show like ‘Made in L.A.’ can still propel an artist like Judy to make dynamic new work, and that’s very exciting.”

Speaking of exciting, the best superhero movies all feature an origin story, a form of Oedipal conflict, a towering creature that must be understood to be defeated, and a happy ending. If all this can be accomplished with some tips of the hat to film history, and a few doses of irony, all the better — which is not a bad description of “I’ll Remember Mama,” and is why Fiskin’s work, and “Made in L.A. 2014,” are worth seeing this summer.
“Made in L.A. 2014” is at the Hammer Museum June 15-Sept. 7. Admission is free. For more information, visit hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions

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