Whitehot Magazine

Breaking the Code

Still from Breaking the Code.

By ALEX BACON February 14, 2024

Breaking the Code, directed by Michael Flanagan, is a documentary film that tracks the life and career of the important Texan artist Vernon Fisher (1943-2023), who passed away last year. It follows the painter from his origins in a small, religious north Texas town through the meteoric rise of his career in the late 1970s into the 1980s, followed by a downturn in the later ’80s and ’90s, and culminating in the more recent resurgence of interest in his work thanks to committed collectors, gallerists, curators, and critics. The film tells this story using compelling archival material and engaging interviews with Fisher as well as art world luminaries, who give life to the narrative, as does the documentation of Fisher at work making his signature densely populated canvases. Breaking the Code positions Fisher alongside better known peers like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, while also emphatically arguing for the singularity of his practice. Indeed, in the 1980s Fisher had the rare honor of having work on display simultaneously in exhibitions at the Guggenheim, Whitney, and MoMA, while being represented by the famed gallerist Barbara Gladstone.

However, as the influential curator Michael Auping puts it in Breaking the Code, if Fisher had moved to New York, which in the 1980s seemed like the inevitable next step for his career, he would have lost touch with his content, which was his memories and experiences of growing up in Texas during the pivotal 1950s and ‘60s, when the state was at the center of a number of debates around issues like civil rights. Ultimately, the film argues, Fisher may have sacrificed some degree of larger success in his lifetime, but this was made up for by an impressive body of work—which engages with everything from literature, science, pop culture, and history—and which continues to feel relevant and engage and perplex audiences. This is attested to, in part, by the impressive line up of talking heads featured in the film, from Auping, to seminal critic Dave Hickey, to artist Jeff Elrod, who was a student of Fisher’s. Teaching being another important facet of Fisher’s career, as he served for more than thirty years as a highly influential professor in the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas.

Still from Breaking the Code.

After being turned on to modernism by a TS Elliot poem in college, Fisher began a journey of exploring literature and then art, which led to him making first highly formalist abstractions where he turned a canvas on a spinning wheel, using a spray gun to make highly perceptual target paintings in the legacy of artists like Kenneth Noland, Jasper Johns, and Wojciech Fangor. However, he really came into his own, the documentary argues, when he merged autobiographical content with his technical skill. The best known of these are the blackboard paintings, in which Fisher combined text, image, and sculptural elements. They lead the viewer on a journey through an enigmatic, sometimes hard to decipher rebus that touches on everything from social issues, to the past, to mass culture, and autobiographical writing.

Still from Breaking the Code.

Lest this be too insular, Baseera Khan, another student, suggests the ongoing relevance of her teacher’s work as an analysis of family structure and the white psyche. Fisher’s critical, analytical mode—which a number of the interviewed subjects touch on in the film—allows for the viewer to extrapolate issues of relevance to him or her from experiences and impulses personal to the artist. Taken as a whole, Fisher’s works can be understood to emerge out of a highly personal space while speaking to universal issues, making a convincing case for the reevaluation of so-called “provincial” work made outside of established art centers like New York. We can only hope that the ongoing circulation of this fascinating documentary will lead to more opportunities to see Fisher’s work in and beyond Texas. 

Breaking the Code will next screen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on March 17th. Visit breakingthecodefilm.com for more information on streaming and upcoming screenings. WM

Alex Bacon

Alex Bacon is an art historian based between London and New York. He is co-publisher of Circle Books and, until recently, Curatorial Associate at the Princeton University Art Museum. He is currently completing his PhD in Art & Archaeology at Princeton University with a dissertation on Frank Stella and the emergence of Minimalism in the 1960s.

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