Fort Worth visual artist and educator Vernon Fisher has died at age 80.
The mixed media artist had several opportunities to leave Fort Worth, showing his work at more than 40 museums around the globe in London and Mexico City and nationally at museums like the Guggenheim and Whitney in New York.
But the artist continued to call North Texas home up through his death, which was announced by Mark Moore Gallery on Monday.
“He wanted to stay true to his roots,” Mark Moore said over the phone. His gallery is based in California and the pair worked together for more than 30 years.
“He would definitely be considered one of the most important artists to come out of Texas ever, if not one of the most important contemporary artists to emerge from the United States,” he said. “He had shows at the Hirshhorn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Biennial all the same year. I mean, this is virtually unheard of.”
Michael Auping, who served as the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s chief curator from 1993-2017, was a good friend of Fisher’s. The pair bonded over golf and their love of art.
“We’re very different kinds of people. But the one thing we had in common was the idea that art would get us through all of this, meaning get us through the idea of being a living person and never being able to resolve anything,” Auping said.
Fisher’s art, like his sense of humor, was sharp and acerbic, juxtaposing cartoonish figures with literary references. Fisher’s sense of humor remained intact, even as the artist’s health issues ramped up, Auping said.
“When Vernon got sick, he had to have dialysis three times a week. It was grueling,” he said. But when one of their frequent haunts, an old-fashioned cafeteria, shut down and later became the home to a dialysis clinic, both men laughed at the irony.
“That’s the nature of Vernon’s art. You might think it’s funny because Mickey Mouse is in it, but you might notice Mickey’s arm is missing or something like that,” he said.
In the ’70s, when many people looked to the coasts as artistic hubs, Auping said that Fisher helped put Texas on the map.
“So many young artists I’ve run into here in Texas who studied with Vernon Fisher said he really helped them understand that they could have a career in art and that career could be in Texas.”
As an educator at the University of North Texas from 1978-2009, Fisher helped mold the next generation of artists.
“So often you’re a good teacher and not necessarily a great artist, or you can be a great artist and not necessarily a good teacher. Vernon was able to do both,” Auping said.
Fisher’s friend and UNT colleague Matthew Bourbon said, “He was always the smartest person in the room, but humble. He didn’t lord it over you. He was a down-to-earth guy … I will certainly miss him.”
KERA’s Jerome Weeks and Dane Walters spent time with Fisher in his studio in 2016. He told them that he liked to play with our natural inclination to see an image and create a narrative.
Fisher began as an abstract painter, but then started experimenting with text.
“Language was becoming a very big part of the art world then,” Auping told Weeks in 2016. “Some artists were using just pure language, pure text — like Jenny Holzer. What brought Fisher attention early on was his use of text and image. And he was making ‘narratives’ that were often disjunctive. They made you wonder if the image actually fit the text. And in most cases, the relationships are oblique. They could be based on something you don’t even notice initially.”
When Weeks asked Fisher, then 73, if he’d ever stop painting, Fisher replied:
“I’ve never really attempted to stop, So I wouldn’t know, y’know?”
“Breaking the Code,” a new documentary about Vernon Fisher, is scheduled to screen this weekend:
- Saturday, April 29th, at 5:30 p.m. at the Violet Crown Cinema in Dallas, Dallas International Film Festival.
- Sunday, April 30, 1 p.m. at Campus Theater in Denton, Thin Line Film Festival. Free.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.