By ERIK LA PRADE January 15, 2024
Norman Fisher was not an artist or an art dealer with a gallery, yet during the 1970’s, he was an important presence in and around Soho, known as a friend to many artists and a number of musicians. Before coming to New York from Jacksonville, Florida, Fisher was a banker, married, with a family. In her book, The All Night Movie, the artist Mary Heilmann, wrote about meeting Fisher in and around Chatham Square, a building in Chinatown into which Heilmann had recently moved, where a contingent of artists lived or stayed while visiting New York:
"And then Norman Fisher started showing up at Chatham Square. He did some kind of office work with Michael Kern, where he also picked up extra change selling nickel-and-dime bags of pot. He supplied us with grass too, and pretty soon he started coming around with cocaine. Shortly after that he quit his job to devote himself full-time to the night life... Norman lived in a tiny apartment on Madison Avenue, right down the street from the Whitney."
Devoting himself to the night life meant dealing cocaine full time to artists as well as musicians. From his Madison Avenue apartment, Fisher moved downtown to a penthouse at 12 Abington Square. It was here that Fisher hosted salons for his artist and musician friends.
Fisher was a supportive friend to a wide range of artists; either through trading or buying, he amassed a large art collection of approximately 700 works from a broad cross-section of 1970’s artists. Now, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Fla., is hosting its hundredth anniversary opening on January 18th, with an exhibition of Fisher’s collection:
“A Walk on the Wild Side: ‘70s New York in the Norman E. Fisher Collection, traces this exciting time through works in the collection, complemented with loans of sculpture, video and installations, by such seminal figures as Lynda Benglis, Tina Girouard, Philip Glass, Joan Jonas, Joseph Kosuth, Richard “Dickie” Landry, Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Nonas, Richard Serra, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Wiener, and Robert Wilson, among many others.”
In 2015, Lawrence Weiner was generous enough to talk to me about Fisher and his salons.
ELP Would you talk a bit about Norman Fisher?
LW I don’t know how far we’re supposed to go into it. Norman was a great enthusiast. He lived on Abington Square. For most of his existence he was almost a cult. He had soirees and people - from Jack Nicholson to Philip Glass to Keith Sonnier to Susan Harris to me; everybody would go there. How Norman made his living? It was purported he was a high-class drug dealer, or he did some very interesting things with people. And, I think, he was good friends with Holly Solomon.
ELP They either traded or sold art.
LW Yeah, they did things together. He’d get art from people; he’d buy it or sell it.
ELP He liked Reggae.
LW He didn’t like reggae and I did. He would just give his reggae albums to me. I would smoke dope but that was it. It wasn’t involved in anything requiring a trade. Run Run Run Catch A Puff Two, doesn’t require trading. I did trade him something for a drawing of somebody’s. I had a lot of postcards and memorabilia from Berlin, when I shot a film in 1975.
ELP Was he involved at all in the music scene?
LW He knew a lot of musicians. I don’t know what he was involved in. I don’t know anything about his business dealings.
ELP What were his salons about?
LW Making it possible for people whose worlds were not intersecting, to meet each other.
ELP Introducing them to each other?
LW No. Making it possible for them to get to talk to each other. They usually had already met. If Robert Wilson didn’t like somebody Philip Glass was having trouble seeing, then he (Norman) would invite all of them or make it an open house party and people would show up; then this one could talk to the one they needed to talk to, despite the objections of other people. Norman was very involved in that.
ELP He liked to open lines of communication.
LW He liked to watch the fireworks.
ELP He certainly died too young.
LW I know. I was corresponding with him when I was in Amsterdam. He was writing to me from the hospital. Very good letters. I met Norman through Suzie Harris. Suzie and I were friends. And Tina Girouard. They were quite close with Norman.
ELP Did you visit him when he lived near The Whitney?
LW Yes. I had been in and out of the apartment. The one with the long, straight white stairs.
ELP And the apartment at Abington Square?
LW That was the penthouse. There were two and he had one. It was a smallish place with a very large outdoor area. It was enormous. It was like a small city vest-pocket park.
ELP Was it a kind of 24 hour . . .
LW Life was different then. Yes. What you would call 24 hours was no time one way or the other. If there was something exciting happening people were up at seven in the morning. If there was nothing happening, you were going home at seven in the morning.
ELP Word of mouth meant something then.
LW I think it was the excitement in the air. WM
Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College. Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle. His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010. MidMarch Arts Press. His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS. Olympia, Washington. 2020view all articles from this author