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Almost as Odd as His Life-Style, Bob Fischer's 'Glitzy Art' Makes Him the Windy City Warhol

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Bizzarte makes a mentally indelible mark. Once people see it, they never forget it.

—Bob Fischer

Bob Fischer? What does he conceivably do that is worth making a fuss about? The work has really no vision or imagination. I imagine he thinks of himself as Chicago’s Andy Warhol, with the whole parade of people at Warhol’s factory, the transvestites and Edie Sedgwicks and down-and-out freaks who made for supposedly outrageous atmosphere. Anyone in the so-called serious art world of Chicago thinks Fischer’s a clown. Does it even matter what the artwork is? It’s like heavyweight wrestling—and just as sincere.

—Chicago Tribune art critic Alan Artner

Actually, Alan Artner picked a pretty good metaphor. Bob Fischer might make a very decent pro wrestler. He would need a name, of course—something like Lavender Picasso or Kid Van Gogh or maybe the Windy City Dauber. He’s already got the heft—225 pounds on a 5’7½” frame. And the attire: A typical Fischer ensemble consists of an orange pith helmet studded with neon dots, be-buttoned, be-chained and be-brooched Oshkosh B’gosh overalls, leopard-skin-style T-shirt, a cape and a painted purse.

Fischer again resembles a pro wrestler in that, perhaps, he doesn’t do the thing he claims to be doing as well as he talks about it. He is the creator of something called Bizzarte, which involves projecting photographs on a canvas, painting in the resulting image and affixing sequins, feathers, costume jewelry and the occasional chicken’s foot on it. Small minds fixed on artistic quality might indeed see little there but accessorized Warholana.

But somehow you can’t help thinking that critic Artner is missing the big picture. Because what is best about Fischer, what has gained him an enthusiastic (if limited) following and has earned him the approval of a prestigious London critic, John Russell Taylor of the Times, is not just his talent as an artist; it is his ability to project his own image onto the canvas of the public consciousness. Bob Fischer revels in an extravagant, ebullient gift for self-promotion.

Right now, he is in Paradise. Paradise is a former gay hustler’s bar in Chicago’s Near North district where Fischer has just been made director of entertainment and promotion. The wall of the nightclub’s upstairs lounge is covered with Bizzarte originals: a vivid Carmen Miranda, Luciano Pavarotti nibbling on a diva’s neck. Downstairs, Fischer presides amid preparations for tonight’s live attractions, namely the blond, 200-pound new-wave hula dancer; the Tap-Dancing Zebra Ladies; and Karena Kanunga, mistress of yoga aerobics. “I basically turned the whole place upside down,” he says. “Whatever I want to do I can do, as long as I remember the yin and yang of art, which is that it’s gotta sell drinks.”

Bob Fischer means business, and because the boss should be treated with respect, and because, after all, he’s a family man, he has laid down some ground rules for the Paradise employees. “You never call me ‘Hon,’ ” he tells them. “You never refer to me as ‘she.’ You never call me ‘Bobby’ and don’t ever give me a kiss.” Primacy established, Fischer crows, “I was always an arrogant a ——, but I’ve taken that and made it pay off for me.”

Bob Fischer was a late bloomer: For a long time it looked as if he would be a flamboyant, eccentric failure rather than a flamboyant, eccentric cultural icon. Born in 1949, he grew up with parents he now describes as “obnoxious Jews from [Chicago suburb] Morton Grove,” from a family “involved in slum land lording, insurance and distilling.” A bright, overweight boy who regularly failed gym, Fischer took $80 from his father’s dresser one day during high school, left town and called home 10 days later to inform them that he was in Lake Placid, N.Y. working as a bus-boy. “My father said, ‘Go ahead,’ ” Fischer recalls. ” ‘Stay there. We’ll save more money than if we had to take you to Florida with us on vacation.’ ”

Eventually, Fischer returned, and even managed a halfhearted stab at Roosevelt University as a psychology major. But on a bus he met a girl named Paula Pinhasik, who weighed more than he. Five months later she came to live with him in his new Chicago apartment. Bob, until now no social lion, sprang into a courtship. “The first day, I gave her this whole lecture on women’s liberation and how she should free herself sexually. That night she came to bed with me. She crawled in completely dressed and had her army boots and girdle on. I said, ‘Paula, I think you have to make a few changes. I think you should loosen up and take off your boots.’ ” They were married in 1969 and Bob kept tutoring. “I used to give her swearing lessons,” he says. “I used to make her stand in the middle of the living room and say ‘—-!’ at the top of her lungs.”

But in the end, Paula, a former art student, was to teach him more. At 3 a.m. one morning Bob couldn’t sleep. So he got out Paula’s paints and began throwing globs of color at a cityscape she had done of the Chicago skyline. “I kind of liked the way it worked,” he remembers. “I woke her up and showed her. She liked it. Then she asked, ‘Where’d you get the canvas?’ ”

Heeding the tidal pull of his new-found genius, Fischer set about learning as much about painting as he felt he needed to. “At first I painted abstracts,” he says, ” ‘cuz those were easiest. Then big loose figures. Then stuff that looked like Picassos and Matisses. But I had a lousy sense of proportion. It didn’t matter how big the canvas was, people were always cut off at the knees. I knew I was doing something wrong.” He began tracing his images from photographs, adding sequins, pins and rhinestones, “basically out of laziness and because the people I paint would be wearing things like that anyway.” The portraits went over all right at the gay bars and art fairs where Fischer first showed his work. But Bizzarte was uniformly rejected by major Chicago galleries. The painter did not take the rejection meekly.

He came up with a marketing technique. Leafing through Skyline, the gossip weekly of Chicago’s chichi, Fischer would pick out a likely-looking grande dame, dial her number and tell her he had painted her. If she seemed interested, he would quickly whip off a sequin-and-paint likeness of the Skyline photo and invite the subject to its “public unveiling.” If she liked the portrait, Fischer would make a sale. If she was neutral, he requested she autograph it (he now owns more than 100 autographed portraits). Sometimes, of course, she really hated it. “We all have this image that we look like Snow White,” said one subject. “In his picture, I looked like Sneezy.” But the attendant ruckus might be worth more than his asking price. When music patroness Gloria Gottlieb complained that her unseen portrait was “unauthorized,” Fischer titled it An Unauthorized Portrait of a Blue-faced Bitch. The incident, natch, made the papers.

Something similar—but juicier still—happened in 1981 when Fischer volunteered (the clients’ version) or received (his version) $400 to produce a portrait of the Mid America Commodity Exchange for its 100th anniversary. Fischer spent a month studying the look of the Exchange, but somehow, when the finished product was unveiled, it also included the likenesses of several penguins, dancer Ann Miller and the artist himself. It was re-veiled and returned to Fischer—wrapped in brown paper—with a 12-inch hole “right in my crotch,” he says.

No harm done. Before presenting it to the Exchange, Fischer had taken the precaution of holding a party in the picture’s honor—a doozer involving 400 guests, a rock band, a male stripper and a bearded lady as emcee. The cumulative ridiculousness resulted in a feature in the Wall Street Journal. And, says Fischer, “A little article in the Journal sells more paintings than a full-page review in the New Art Examiner.”

The success pushed Fischer’s art to a plane that perhaps it had always sought: performance. For the past four years, he has been holding Bizzarte “events,” gatherings where as many as 2,500 Chicagoans in everything from business suits to leather bikinis pay $20 a head for a chance to mingle with Jell-O wrestlers, transvestite strippers, bodybuilders and the porn star Seka. “They’re all my art,” says Fischer. Their success led to his opportunity at the Paradise. “I know this club is gonna make a fortune,” he says, “because there’s no club like this. This is my reward for working my butt off for the last five years. I’ve got a guy with all this money giving me a million-dollar club to do it my way. It’s going to allow me to pull all those resources together. I’m not playin’—I’m serious. This is gonna make my name.”

But sometimes Bob Fischer gets depressed. When that happens, he stops talking about Paradise or the $30,000 commissions he supposedly has made, and explains what it was like when he, Paula, 37, and their children, Aaron, 14, and Morgan, 2, had to live on generic macaroni and cheese for a year, and that even now he does not own plates or sheets or towels. He stops claiming that his work is in private collections and explains why the jibes of the Alan Artners hurt, why he never goes to Chicago’s Art Institute. When that happens, his voice becomes almost plaintive. “Ultimately, I really want my stuff in museums. And I can’t get museums to look at my work. Everybody knows me in Chicago, but I can’t get into shows. That hurts.”

He used to think that he should move to New York. In New York they understand his kind of personality, his kind of work. In Manhattan, he says, offbeat art “is selling for $90,000.” But he never moved. “In New York, I’d be dead. At least here you can live in an okay apartment. You can eat macaroni and cheese. Four months ago, I stopped sending my slides to New York galleries.”

There is a pause. Kid Van Gogh is down, victim of the Flying Hammerlock of Fate. Could this be the end? Is it a pin? NO!!! He’s up! He’s rallying!

“If I do enough of what I’m doing here in Chicago,” says Bob Fischer earnestly, “New York will call me.”