Jack Fischer, art critic for the San Jose Mercury News from 1999 to 2006, and later a contributor to Squarecylinder, wrote at least three authoritative articles about the art of Walker Evans, even as he was trying to put his finger on why Evans’ pictures so moved him. At the end of his review of the Cantor Arts Center’s 2012 Walker Evans show, he quotes the photographer: “‘Stare,’ Evans famously said. ‘It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.’”
On February 9, after a two-year battle with lung cancer, 59-year-old Jack Fischer died knowing something. Born in Hoboken and raised in New Jersey suburbs (he was writing a memoir at the time of his death), he earned a journalism degree at the University of Kansas. After jobs in New Jersey, Texas and Washington, D.C., he joined the Mercury News in 1986 as a nuts-and-bolts reporter, covering garbage truck drivers’ strikes, ethics violations at the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and such. He was part of the team that won the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for its coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake. That same year, acting on a love of photography that stretched back to his college days, he took on reviews of photography books. A decade after that, he graduated to art critic.
From the start, Fischer took the path laid out by photographer Robert Adams in his 1981 essay “Civilizing Criticism.” Adams argues against censorious and theory-based criticism and in favor of clear and affirmative writing. “Criticism’s job is to clarify art’s mystery without destroying it,” he asserts, evoking 8th-century Chinese poet Po Chii, who reportedly read his drafts to an old peasant woman and changed anything that perplexed her. Fischer’s version, it seems, was to mentally read his drafts to Target shoppers and 101 commuters and change anything that might perplex them. He wrote art criticism for people who don’t read art criticism and (maybe) got some to see that the art of postminimalist Richard Tuttle, say, or that of expressionist painter Phe Ruiz could mean something.
Whether writing reviews, profiles or feature stories, Fischer focused on the artist’s and curator’s subjectivity. (Here he parts company with Adams, who would deny biography a role in criticism, on grounds that the images should speak for themselves.) Fischer’s Diane Arbus is probing, sensitive, and generous of spirit. His Wanda Corn – the now-retired Stanford art historian – is cogent, trailblazing, and slightly eccentric. His Dale Chihuly is excessive, adroit, and self-promotional. Chihuly, he adds, “is to glass art what Hershey’s is to chocolate.”
Regarding Chihuly’s work, Fischer has no fundamental quarrel with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kenneth Baker. But to compare Baker’s 2008 review of Chihuly at the de Young Museum to Fischer’s 2000 review of The World’s Largest Private Collection of Blown Glass Vessels by Dale Chihuly at the San Jose Museum of Art to is to observe two different minds at work. Baker takes a power drill to the de Young exhibition, arguing that Chihuly’s work lacks intellectual content and thus fails to qualify as art. Fischer, in contrast, builds his evaluation – that Chihuly’s popular success owes more to the seductive qualities of hand-blown glass than to the artist’s achievement – using a tool kit of biography, contextualization, description and humor. He observes that the “Venetians” and “Piccolo Venetians” series, executed with “astonishing excess and graceless flourishes…look a lot like scientific models of viruses, or a hooker’s idea of a ‘classy’ perfume bottle. And I may be short-changing the aesthetics of hookers.”
Yes, he was lippy and funny.
Of photographer Chris Verene’s photographs of people in his hometown, Galesburg, Illinois, he writes: “Any disdainful irony that coastal dwellers might initially bring to viewing these images should be a cause for introspection on their part.”
Of SFMOMA’s The Darker Side of Playland: Childhood Imagery from the Logan Collection: “Hey, there’s Mickey Mouse at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art! Wait a minute. That’s not my perky little pal from ‘Steamboat Willy.’ This Mickey looks a little mean. This Mickey looks like Michel Eisner’s id.”
Of Bay Area artist Paula Levine’s Canned Testaments: “Let’s all be glad that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani lives so far away. Otherwise someone would have to explain to him why it’s OK that the artist Paula Levine…has pureed a Bible and poured it into two mason jars – one for each Testament.”
The medium is the message, and Fischer brought to art criticism the experience and instincts of a pre-blogosphere print reporter. He probed. He fact-checked. He read. He listened. No rants, no hatchet jobs, no bad grammar. Just a relentless desire to understand.
Like many who worked with Fischer, the San Jose Museum of Art’s former marketing and communications director, Diane Maxwell, remembers, above all, his “sense of wonder and deep curiosity” about artists and art. The Jersey boy was still staring across the water toward the Manhattan skyline and still pondering what it is about Walker Evans’s pictures.