Morgan Fisher: The Kid Stays in the Picture
Stuart Comer

‘I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original’, claims the affable British architectural theorist Reyner Banham in his book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.[1] Mobilising both car and camera, his 1972 BBC documentary Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles meanders through the alleged anonymity of Southern California’s staggering sprawl, cleverly articulating the city’s many contradictions as a virtue. One renowned scene in the film features the artist Ed Ruscha, who chats with Banham about his fascination with gas station architecture. Seated in a convertible, eating ice cream sundaes in the parking lot of Tiny Naylor’s, an iconic drive-in restaurant on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha and Banham discuss such car-related, commercial ‘monuments’, suggesting that their standardisation and ease of construction is a virtue. Ruscha remarks, ‘Sometimes it takes longer to tear down an old building than it does to put up a new one.’[2]


I think I learned how to read Los Angeles in the original when I first saw Standard Gauge, Morgan Fisher’s 1984 paean to 35mm – Hollywood’s standard industry film format – shot on the amateur 16mm gauge. It chimes with Ruscha’s fascination with the play between the slow entropy of history and the instant ruins of California’s expedient architecture. One is constantly aware that both artists have a sensibility shaped by the commercial standards rallied to tame the volatile enormity of Southern California. In particular their work seems mediated by the car window, by the passing forms of a city regulated largely by two industries – Hollywood and the automobile industry – crossing their field of vision through a virtual frame. The images that coalesce within the borders of this frame are serial chains of fragments caught somewhere between elegant chance and ruthless repetition.


Windshields, billboards, movie screens, ocean views, econ-o-box apartment buildings and long expanses of asphalt and concrete form a unique Angeleno vocabulary of monochrome surfaces on which the symbolic configuration called California is played out. This seemingly limitless expanse of flat planes is the arena in which Fisher has staked his challenge to existing regimes of representation and narrative. Fisher recently commented in a lecture about the German artist Blinky Palermo that he is fascinated by the ways in which Modernism brings about its own end over and over again, noting slightly ominously that ‘it always ends at the surface’.[3] Standard Gauge is a systematic palimpsest of these fatal surfaces refracted through strips of celluloid, the rudimentary measure of Fisher’s cinematic arithmetic.


While Ruscha’s paintings, books and photographic series present an atlas of uncanny architectural archetypes and semiotic slippages, Fisher’s films are cunning, rule-based compositional exercises organised around the infrastructure of the film industry and of the filmstrip itself. Fisher and Ruscha, much like their contemporary Jack Goldstein, make clear the extent to which they are inherently part of the apparatus of California’s mechanical mobility. Contrary to unseasoned East Coast critics of the city (Barnett Newman, for instance, who claimed, ‘Los Angeles is like Brooklyn and the Hamptons with no Manhattan in between’), they actively participate within the machinery of Los Angeles’s technological landscape as much as they bare witness to it from a critical distance. Like Banham’s, their work is a tribute to the city rooted in paradox.


Fisher’s career itself is a paradox of sorts. After earning a degree in art history at Harvard in 1964, he moved west for an abbreviated stab at film school at USC, but it was a newfound friendship with Los Angeles filmmaker Thom Andersen that steered him toward embracing the ‘totality’ of film: ‘Thom explained to me why Fellini was not interesting and made me understand why Warhol was interesting... This way of thinking about film totally opened my eyes: that here were several kinds of film culture and that one could try to form a relationship to film that embraced all of them.’[4] Although Fisher’s films are considered a benchmark of classic structuralist cinema, unlike his New York compatriots filling the seats at Anthology Film Archives and dismissing the importance of Hollywood directors, Fisher was as delighted watching Warhol and Jack Smith films and reading Film Culture as he was sitting in the old ‘popcorn theatres’ of downtown Los Angeles devouring triple bills of Budd Boetticher, Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller films for 50 cents a pop. He even worked in the industry briefly, editing films for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and doing stock footage research for Haskell Wexler.


I think the first time I fully recognised this happily schizophrenic cinephile was in 1995 as he walked up the hill from Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, where many of those old cinemas now lie in ruin. He was making his way to Bunker Hill for a screening at the Museum of Contemporary Art held in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965–1975’, in which he was rightly situated alongside other California friends and peers such as Ruscha, John Baldessari, Al Ruppersberg, Michael Asher and William Leavitt. I had seen Fisher around at various art world events in Los Angeles and had always wondered who this curious figure was, sporting a fedora and trench coat like a film noir spectre from one of the movies he might have watched on Broadway twenty years before. Fisher often remarks that his films are about the making of films, but they are also about the making of Morgan Fisher, a character within the narrative of an industry town.

[1] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 5.


[2] BBC, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, 1972.


[3] Morgan Fisher, ‘Morgan Fisher on Blinky Palermo’, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 11 January 2011.


[4] Morgan Fisher quoted in an unpublished interview with Mark Webber, 2005.