Artist transforms Union Square, merging modern with historic

For R.M. Fischer, sometimes art is where you find it.

The Jewish artist has created many striking works over his long career, occasionally from materials he stumbles upon serendipitously.

Take his sculpture "Adam's Rib," now part of the permanent collection at New York's Jewish Museum. Fischer fashioned it out of a wall mounting he found at a nondescript small-town auction in upstate New York.

Cast off years before by some long-forgotten synagogue, the tablet-shaped mounting once held the names of the temple's dead, engraved on glass and illuminated for yahrzeit and Yizkor memorials.

Like a weed-addled cemetery, the abandoned piece seemed to dishonor the departed.

"It was something from the '40s that could easily have been thrown away," recalls the artist. "I thought it was very provocative, so I brought it to my studio and worked with it. I felt an obligation to resurrect it. It's my most sentimental piece."

Adds Norman Kleeblatt, curator of fine arts at the Jewish Museum, "With 'Adam's Rib,' you get this notion of empty spaces that used to house people's memorials, almost as if life was being created in front of us in a continuing cycle."

Fischer is making an impact locally as well with a new San Francisco installation, the "Union Square Colonnade," dedicated last week, with Mayor Willie Brown officiating and Fischer in attendance.

The piece was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission and is the first permanent sculpture in Union Square since the familiar Dewey Monument, installed in 1901.

To assemble the Colonnade, Fischer used parts of historic San Francisco: street lamps juxtaposed with modern stainless steel globes, all mounted on four separate 13-foot granite bases that line the south side of the square.

The overall effect evokes the spirit of the city's past and present.

"I didn't want to be too futuristic and out of context," says Fischer in a phone interview from his Brooklyn studio. "The city has such a strong Victorian-era heritage. I wanted to connect to that and at the same time look to the future by doing a modified park lamp."

Having his work become a part of the city is a point of pride for Fischer, who earned his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, and who once had a studio in a converted candy factory on Townsend Street. "The beauty of the city always struck me," says Fischer. "It was such a seductive area. This is a creative homecoming for me."

Long before his days in the Bay Area, Fischer grew up in Brooklyn amid the thick cultural atmosphere of Jewish New York. "My parents were not religious," he recalls. "I'm a secular Jew, but certainly proud of my heritage."

As the first artist in the family, he ventured into uncharted waters, but he did well for himself. Fischer's work has been displayed in galleries and museums around the world, including New York's Whitney Museum, the Galerie Beaubourg in Paris, Boston's Contemporary Art Museum and Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art. He's also had public installations in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Though Fischer considers himself an independent artist first and foremost, he does tip his hat to Kleeblatt of the Jewish Museum for inspiring a measure of Jewish self-expression in his work.

Says Fischer: "[Kleeblatt] introduced me to the idea that contemporary art could somehow respond to or be involved with the heritage of Judaism. He encouraged me in that regard."

Comments Kleeblatt, "For many secular Jews who make a living outside the Jewish world, issues of identity crop up in nodes. There is a handful of artists who continue to have Jewish ideas preoccupy their whole work. But for R.M. Fischer, it crops up occasionally."

Though the Union Square Colonnade is not one of Fischer's Jewish-themed works, he is excited about contributing to the San Francisco landscape. "What I like about public art is that it impacts urban environments in a real way, becoming part of the city," he says. "It takes on a life of its own, which is interesting to me. I know I designed it, but sometimes I look at it as if someone else made it. Still, it is what I hoped it would be."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.