- Photograph by Jonathan Williams
Sandra Fisher died before dawn the nineteenth of September 1994. She was born in 1947 on the sixth of May, a Friday, when Mars and Venus happened to be joined, one to another, to bestow upon her an emphatic sensuality. Her libido, pressed into aesthetic service, would manifest itself in the desire to possess and be possessed by beauty. This urgency for association, to express pleasure and affection, this need for intimacy, the need to be open, to feel comfortable and balanced came to obsess her, and her art. She found her own visual direction in the appropriation of what she received historically, reshaping and imposing upon it a feeling for the personal. A depth of perception born from immediate physical sensation invigorated then strengthened her resolve. She celebrated that mysterious alchemy which compels some part of us to flow beyond our immediate physical boundaries and become invisibly attached to certain specific things in this world, thereby creating for ourselves a sense of what we belong to, and what belongs to us.
Collaboration was the root of her art. She is continually there in the work with someone else. And that other person joins her in making the picture. Her friends became models, her models became friends. The sessions however short or long involved a vibrant exchange. Anyone who sat for Sandra Fisher immediately felt her need for intimacy; how only when it had been satisfied could she set the image, first in her eye, then on the canvas, paper, or plate. Her concern for these collaborators was unbounded. She wrote in a letter to Joe Shannon, the curator of Representation Abroad (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 5 June - 2 September 1985): Two weeks after the pastel [Louise (1980)] was finished, she committed suicide by throwing herself off a bridge into the sea because of her love for a young man (bizarrely like the discredited legend in the nineteenth century of Sapphos own death!) and to this day I still feel strong grief and anger at this talented and intelligent girl of seventeen throwing her promising life away.
A dramatic example, but no less dramatic than her own life, which indeed had the stuff of legend about it. I was always surprised when we were in public by her glamour, and the subtle theatrical touches. But those occasions were rare. Mostly we knew each other where we worked, in letters, in sketches. Our three books together were just that: together. When she died we were on the verge of a new undertaking. But werent quite sure what direction it was going. Sandra had three images of me in mind. A portrait inspired by David Hockneys recent crayon drawings Id be wearing a blue shirt she liked. Another was a life-size oil, Im standing in a doorway. A nude pastel, The Dying Slave (1979) fifteen years on, that would be the third. The poems would arise during the sittings. We werent quite sure how, but we knew they would. And this would be the next big step for both of us.
We first met in January 1972 at Odins restaurant. She was with R.B. Kitaj, their long and passionate mutual devotion had only begun; and David Hockney and Peter Schlesinger, whose affair of the past four or five years was coming to an end: and I was with Jonathan Williams, wed just restored a cottage in the Yorkshire dales. Suzi Gablick told me that R.B., who was recently returned from L.A., had brought with him some woman, younger than himself, who was the quintessential All-American Homecoming Queen and Prom Date. Sandra? I wondered. Apparently not. A month later these same four came to visit us at Corn Close in Dentdale. The weekend was spent walking and drawing from life. There were power cuts, and beef stew cooked in the fireplace, a miners strike well underway. Chile con carne, and Mrs Beetons Saxon pudding. They took the milk train back to London Sunday night, and a supper of bread, cheese, and red wine. A tin of Coca-Cola for Kitaj.
The next seven years Sandra and I saw each other two or three times a year. A New Years Eve party in Elm Park Road where Wayne Sleep kissed me at midnight was it 1973? Dinner at a new, larger Odins (November 1975) when I inscribed a copy of my book The Umbrella of Aesculapius to Kitaj but didnt include Sandra. Years later she told me this had hurt her deeply. Dinner with Stephen Spender, an evening with Joel Grey. We had long, intense, flirtatious conversations about poetry and painting, sex and companionship, almost nothing of which I remember now. Though I do recall how urgently we shared the circumstances of living with men whose careers were well established. Of feeling put upon the edge of things. Not so much overshadowed, but misread by the context. The enormity of our separate aspirations left us with the impression our talent was considered marginal, even by our immediate circle.
Then in 1976 I saw a coloured pencil drawing, Portrait of Mike, which Kitaj included in The Human Clay (Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery and regional galleries 1976). A supine young man wearing only a T-Shirt and leather neck-thong. Technically, it owed much to Hockney, though the face and genitals were rendered with such a lush attention that the resulting erotic languor was unnerving It knocked me out. And I think must have been one of the first works anyone, including Kitaj, had ever seen. So at the end of the seventies, in New York, at dinner, I asked Sandra if shed make a pastel of me. Id seen a couple more of her male nudes the previous autumn, one of Mark Haworth-Booth, another of a model. Seen their intense eroticism aligning itself, tentatively, but finally, opulently, alongside her own sensual balance, poised within a feathers weight one side or the other of tumescence. What struck me was how worked their picture plane was, right to the very edges. Pastel covered the entire surface, none of it left untouched. And from within that total claim laid upon the paper, something was just about to break forth: a clear direction her eye would follow for the rest of her life. The beautiful moment when old-fashioned genius takes charge.
She came to Corn Close late that summer and began work on The Dying Slave. Having been encouraged by R.C. Kennedy at the V&A to make a set of pastels that addressed the work of Sappho, Sandra hoped this would be one of the first. The pose was based on a Michaelangelo sculpture and I didnt find out until much later which of Sapphos poems she meant it to accompany. But when she went to choose her texts, she realised that although a translation of one poem suited her, the same translators version of another didnt. Could she mix and match the translators? In any case, there was also the problem of rights and permissions. It was definitely going to be published as a book. But she wasnt quite sure where the words would come from. We discussed all this during our first long session together. Later, in the afternoon, as she sketched, I said Id be willing to try my hand at versions of a few poems and see if they were what she had in mind. I wasnt a classicist, but could find my way around in a Greek lexicon, and had a definite feeling for the period. Id written a little book of poems based on early Greek fragments. During the next four or five days, Sandra and I fell in love with each other and with the hours and hours we spent together. Their lovely rhythm. Her eyes. Words. Me naked, unable to contain an erection, which rose and fell throughout the afternoons and mornings, because of her attention, because of the talk, because of what was happening. We came upon a life, a life of collaboration. Intimacy and devotion. Poet and painter.
In the next few months the specific poems she had in mind I worked into English. She liked my versions, and wanted to know what else I thought might be appropriate. I had ideas about the unfinished, about process, about the indeterminate. About glittering ruins. Ambiguity. Uncertainty. Poignancy. None of which interested her. At each step of the Sappho project, Sandra forced me further and further away from the lucid fragment toward emotional fullness. She refused to leave anything incomplete. She demanded closure and containment. I realised what was going to become clearer and clearer in her work. I had already recognised it in those early male nudes. Their composure demands you relinquish rather than shield your glance. They invite you to enjoy their fulfilment. The act of looking, like the act of longing, embodies anticipation, desire driving itself into or out of completion. There is no teasing. Passion may take its time unfolding or folding back up, but it will not be withheld.
As we worked on Sappho (1982) the modelling, the long conversations, the letters back and forth, their candour wed each fallen in love with the same young man. He was sitting for Sandra. But the inclination of the affair made my chances for him slim. I decided to watch as she seduced him over a period of months. The experience of our first collaboration turned out to be the thematic tenor of the second. Sonnets & Tableaux (1987) followed. A deliberate attempt by each of us to loosen up and take some risks. We wanted to see if it was possible to keep the surface of a complex design untangled and fresh without resorting to virtuosity. I was reading Walter Pater and Marcel Proust. Sandra was in Paris where she began painting a series of small oils, each finished in one or two sessions, many en plein air. Their debt to French impressionism was obvious. So whatever the difficulties of quick bold oils and crowns of sonnets, the development and recollection of that heady eroticism we encountered while making Sappho was the wellspring for Sonnets & Tableaux. Id been sent a poem by Warren Wigatow with the word sonnet in its title. It turned out not to be a sonnet. But with a little tinkering I was able to make it the start of one, finishing with my own conclusion. Les fleurs du mal, Rimbaud, Renoir, Monet, all came to mind immediately. Luxe, calme, et volupté. But the poems this time we decided would be my own. S & T. Sandra & Tom. The text was finished, and most of the paintings done by the time Max Kitaj was born, November 1984.
Our lives were changing. Sandra was now a mother. She embraced maternity with the same intensity as she did that electric network of voyeurism, seduction, and testosterone. The happy result was a confident sense of how appealing her work was, that she had something that would enrich the lives of others. There were commissions and public attention. She stepped into the world. Though I was at the bitter beginning of a long mid-life crises. For different but intersecting reasons we both needed big doses of sadness. Black and white and grey. Monotypes & Tracings (1994), our last project, used the German romantics as the unlikely compliment to the previous two. It turned out to be a very beautiful book, taking about twice as long to produce as the others had. We probably rejected as many images and texts as we included. We moved back and forth in long gaps between letters and visits. We were both preoccupied with our immediate lives, though our passionate devotion was maintained. We worked in silence.
For most of her life as an artist, Sandra laboured away in a retentive, self-imposed isolation, hundreds of abandoned or discarded paintings, thousands of drawings. Nonetheless, her culling was never hesitant. Perseverance and consolidation established a gravity that once discerned would never feel ponderous, nor awkward. Her work opens up as you stare at it, preferring to let its accomplishment be self-evident rather than self-proclaimed. Each of the three books were assembled and laid out by her. My instinct was to stand back and say nothing, letting her anticipate my intentions in her own, which she did with an unflinching clarity. The images were never to illustrate the texts; nor were the texts ever to explain the images. Yet they were meant to be joined in books. It peeved us that the results, as handsome as they were, could not help but being limited editions. Perhaps we were silly to expect things otherwise, such are the times. Neither of us was really finished with the nineteenth century, yet we did not want to be anywhere else but here at the end of the twentieth. The previous hundred years were our privilege and a source not an escape, an echo not an answer, filling us with an urge to see how far we could go.
Modern Painters (London)