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Speaking “Syntax”

An Interview with Hadley Martin Fisher

By Shana Beth Mason

If it were possible to describe an “ideal” contemporary art collector, it is more than likely that Hadley Martin Fisher would fall into that discussion, somewhere. One who collects on the basis of his vigorous, passionate engagement with the artist (as a person) and his/her professional practice, Fisher has taken the leap into publicly exhibiting his works with “Syntax: Text and Symbols for a New Generation” at the Tampa Museum of Art. This critically challenging and bound-to-be publicly popular show will feature works from artists including John Baldessari, Tracey Emin, Liam Gillick, Seth Price and Jason Rhoades among other celebrated personalities in the contemporary art sphere.

Art Collector Hadley Martin Fisher. Photo: Lynn Parks.

Sitting down on a very hot Thursday afternoon in Miami Beach, Fisher and the collection’s curator Kimberly Marrero bounced back and forth about the origin of Fisher’s interests in contemporary art and how other artistic fascinations (specifically related to Fisher’s training in method acting) have informed his pursuits. “I want to get into the artist’s head,” Fisher says intensely, “see what they’re wanting to display. Like when you’re watching a Sean Landers film…you begin to see ‘oh, there’s a synopsis playing out here. In acting, Stanislavski says that the work of the artist begins with the person. For me, the artist’s work is the person.”

Fisher “inherited” a love of contemporary art with more than just a certificate of authenticity or directions to a long-lost attic. His grandmother, Emily Fisher Landau, gathered works over a period of forty years (from artists including Ellsworth Kelly, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and newer staples such as Barbara Kruger and Matthew Barney) and built the Fisher Landau Center in Long Island City, New York, as their home. Trustee and board member positions with the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, MoMA and the Whitney Museum left more than just a legacy, it left a successor. For over a decade, Hadley Martin Fisher actively sought out works from living artists who continue to impress the critical and commercial world.

The culmination of an artist’s artist (Fisher) and a meticulous curatorial program (Marrero) translates into a show effectively dispelling and complicating the actual definition of “syntax” as a word. The title suggests not only a system of bridging grammatical terms which creates a cohesive language, but also illuminates languages beyond speech, ones that visual art tap into. “We’re very insistent that people don’t just apply the grammatical term to this show,” says Marrero, “in that ‘syntax’ has wide-ranging implications. You have those who vaguely associate the show with a single word and think nothing more and then you have those who look too closely and argue that the word is an inaccurate description. We want to strike a balance.” In addition to the show’s intellectual rigor, Fisher has channeled his philanthropic involvement into its presentation. “We’d been talking with Todd [Smith, director of the Tampa Museum of Art] and had pushed for all students to have free admission to the show,” says Fisher, “not reduced, free.” Marrero adds, “It’s important to Hadley that the educational aspect of his own background and upbringing are shared.”

Joseph Kosuth (American, born 1945), W.F.T. # #2, 2008, warm white neon, transformers, 96” x 180”. Courtesy of the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection, Miami, Florida © 2011 Joseph Kosuth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Fisher recalls, “When my parents took me to Europe, to Paris, we didn’t just see the Louvre. My father would wake me up at 7:00 am to visit the Place des Vosges to experience the history behind the culture. I’d experienced wine, theatre, food, everything that informs art.” This rich, diverse education had carried through for Fisher, influencing his collecting at an intuitive level. “I was brought up around Picasso, Motherwell, Gauguin,” he continues, “I know that they might have big-name value and all. Maybe if I’m appraising for insurance purposes that would matter. But when I see something I love, I want to be a part of it. I collect works that I love. That comes first.” Even if Fisher’s collection features prize-winners, international biennial participants and academics, he is also engaged in discovering artists closer to home. “Some Miami-based artists I own: Aramis Gutierrez, Agustina Woodgate. There’s some great young talent here.” Marrero agrees that Miami, in a cultural context, has influenced and produced artists on par with the major-leaguers. “I think, sadly, there’s a defeatist attitude towards Miami as a visual arts backdrop. It will take time for it to develop. That’s not to say that Art Basel Miami hasn’t been a driving force, either. It has. But the Fisher Collection is enriched by artists from all over the globe, Miami included.”

Liam Gillick (British, born 1964),1968, 2008, painted metal,12” x 34” x 2” each. Courtesy of the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection, Miami, Florida © 2011 Liam Gillick. Courtesy of the artist, and Casey Kaplan, NY.

The Hadley Martin Fisher Collection’s mission has been geared towards opening incredible artworks to a larger audience, specifically, an audience that will eventually engage in critical dialogue about contemporary art. Its emphasis on education and an open-door policy versus a closed gallery-type setting is one that Fisher, himself, insists upon. Fisher’s late brother, Andrew (whom he never mentions by name, but clearly holds in the highest emotional regard) was headed for a bright artistic future himself. Memory, it seems, has inspired Fisher to drive the collection towards all manner of viewers and backgrounds, not only to contemporary art’s elite ranks. “Art should be shared,” Fisher says, “and I repeat how important it is for students, young people, to be exposed to it as I was.”

So what now for a collector entering into the company of connoisseurs/philanthropists such as the Cisneros, De La Cruz, Margulies and Scholl families? “The collection is the main sponsor for the Wynwood Art Fair this October,” Marrero explains, “we’re really looking forward to partnering with the Lotus House Shelter. It’s an outstanding cause.” One thing is certain: with “Syntax” on view at the Tampa Museum of Art and acting as premier sponsor for an art fair organized with local audiences in mind, the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection will soon become a significant cultural contribution to international and homegrown viewers alike. As for Fisher himself? “He’s a man of very few words. He’s too modest,” says Marrero, “but Hadley is a true champion of contemporary art in his mind and in his heart.” Sipping at his water, Fisher shrugs and smiles.

“Syntax: Text and Symbols for a New Generation. Selections from the Hadley Martin Fisher Collection” is on view at the Tampa Museum of Art through September 25th. The Tampa Museum of Art is located in downtown Tampa on the Hillsborough river at 120 W. Gasparilla Plaza. For more information visit, http://www.tampamuseum.org/exhibitions/syntax-text-and-symbols-new-generation

Shana B. Mason is a South Florida-based art critic and consultant. She pursued an M.A. with a focus on Modern and Contemporary Art from Christie’s Education in London.