In Memoriam: A Personal Recollection of Vernon Fisher

by Matthew Bourbon May 3, 2023
Vernon Fisher with friends at his show in a gallery

Vernon Fisher with friends at his show at UNT/CVAD.

Writing about someone who’s died is daunting. It seems far too difficult to reduce a person’s life and work into a page of words. It’s even harder when you have known them professionally and as a meaningful friend for 23 years. I won’t attempt the act here. Vernon Fisher, who recently passed from a prolonged illness, was too large a personality and too significant a figure in many people’s lives to fill these paragraphs with that hubris. Frankly, I’m at a loss as to how to do justice to the man. I will not list his accolades or history of exhibitions. Anyone can find the mammoth list. Suffice it to say, he was one of the most important artists that Texas has ever been able to call its own. His art is as distinctive as his personality was witty. An original, through and through. 

I met Vernon for the first time through his art. Stumbling into one of his exhibitions in SoHo in New York, I was enthralled by the sheer complexity of his paintings. I knew immediately I was witnessing a keen mind playing at the top of his artistic game. A year or so later I met Vernon properly, when I became his colleague at the University of North Texas. What was clear from the start of our introduction was that we’d get along swimmingly. My first impression of him that I’d gleaned by seeing his art was reinforced as I came to know him better. Vernon was wickedly smart about many things, including, of course, art. He possessed a deep knowledge of contemporary art and theory, but more importantly he had an insatiable impulse to uncover the philosophical reasons why one might take the practice of making things seriously. 

In conversations with Vernon, I felt as if I was playing tennis with someone who knew the game profoundly. I could hit those conversational balls back to Vernon, even sometimes keeping him on his toes, but inevitably he would send the ball back with an expertise I was yet to possess. As one of the senior faculty at the College of Visual Arts & Design, he mentored me in an unplanned, but focused manner. He took the time and sincere interest to understand me as much as I was committed to understand him. That was the thing with Vernon — he did not suffer fools well, but if you were smart and curious, then the relationship he fostered with you was authentic and generous. I felt challenged and cared for at the same time. I know I am not the only one who had this relationship with him. He mentored many a student in a similar, if less familiar, fashion.

I got to know Vernon in a more sincere way during our shared time at UNT; our offices were near each other, and we’d chat regularly about all sorts of subjects. I also came to know him with a different depth by my genuine and frequent engagement with his art. In fact, I wrote about his paintings many times. Each time was a fresh opportunity to think about his project anew. With every attempt to put words to his art, I felt enriched in my understanding of his aims, and I grew to notice and adore the droll and dark sense of humor he cleverly inserted into many of his paintings. Over time I became convinced (though he would never admit such a thing) that his entire oeuvre of paintings and installations was an expanded self-portrait. Not in a prosaic way, but instead he filled his paintings with content specific to his generation, particular to his life growing up in Texas, and each and every work he made embodied his sense of the profound absurdity of life. 

Knowing Vernon and his personality, I can see him in every pictorial choice he made. There is always an abundance of skill. There is also his investment in language and a substantial connection to authors such as Raymond Carver, Joseph Conrad, and Donald Barthelme. There’s the love of old films, old cartoons, and myriad suggestions of trying and failing to measure our world and experience. If I could reduce it all, I’d say that Vernon was an artist as thinker, defined by his fearless experimentation. He restlessly sought to enliven his art by a repeated and careful collision of visual and material discrepancies. I believe Vernon’s art looks the way it does in large part because he would never settle for an easy answer. He knew life was precarious, difficult, and irreducible. His art reflects this sense of frailty — it is a sustained portrait built from a foundationless, seemingly arbitrary (but actually smartly curated) merging of images and modes of representation. At their core, Vernon’s paintings reflected his sense of the inherent pathos housed in human behavior. 

Over the past days since his death, I’ve been reflecting about the person behind the art, and I keep returning to Gustave Flaubert’s famous suggestion to “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

This is exactly what I saw in Vernon’s personal life; he frequented the same restaurants, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and cared little for pretense or the flashy trappings of life. Well, he did like a quality car. What I saw of Vernon made me believe that he was dedicated to his daily repetitions — controlled and predictable — so he could be wild and daring in his studio. It was all about the work — his elaborate art was made with conviction and doggedness of purpose. There was a singular focus about Vernon. That’s not to say he did nothing else — he definitely enjoyed the challenges of golf. But the studio was never far from his mind.

What else can I say? If those who knew and cared for Vernon are to honor him, which is what I hope to do here, we should look carefully at his art, for I believe you can find Vernon Fisher there, lurking in the maps, the spiraling rockets, the images of war, the sublime landscape vistas, and the portraits of himself as the foolish seer. All I can confidently say here is that I will miss him deeply — but I also know I can find my friend at any moment in the profound and cleverly funny artwork he left us all. 


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Lucy Nye May 4, 2023 - 07:24

Very well written. He must have been a dear and close friend. Excellent tribute.
I wished I had met him during my time at North Texas as he sounded like a memorable person to have known.
Take care


I spoke to Vernon Fisher once and only once. He visited East Texas State University in the 1980s and was critiquing our M.F.A. portfolios. He looked at my work and said, “Most of this is typical graduate level work. You will get in some shows and win some awards…but THIS I have not seen before.” This one statement resulted in the SOPHISTO SERIES for which I won a Dallas Museum of Art Kimbrough Award as well as a Mid-America/NEA Fellowship for drawing and printmaking. What an insightful teacher and amazing artist was Vernon Fisher!

Patrick Kelly May 4, 2023 - 09:08

So well said Matthew. Thank you!

terri thornton May 9, 2023 - 11:01

This is perfect Matthew. Thank you. It choked me up and made smile and mostly, I think Vernon would appreciate it.

Benito Huerta May 12, 2023 - 10:21

A wonderful tribute to Vernon and his art. Thank you Matthew.


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