[PAINTER AND SCULPTOR]
Masturbating Post-pubescent Boys
The ghosts of the dead
The first paintings were domestic in subject and radical in nature. These were lucid suburban narratives bathed in pellucid oils of sunlight and frozen on bodies, often naked with legs splayed, caught languishing in master bedrooms or sunning restlessly on crowded beaches. In Sleepwalker (1979), a post-pubescent boy masturbates in a backyard wading pool over his own shadow as two empty lawnchairs watch from the sidelines. In Bad Boy (1981), an older woman, lying nude on a bed, picks at her foot while a young boy secretly slips his hand into her open purse. Eric Fischl’s paintings rarely preach, but their frank, coolly aloof treatments usually fixate on American family or marriage life at its most ordinary, most stripped, and most dysfunctional. Their entrance on the scene came during the reign of minimalism and conceptual art, when the painted human figure was about as acceptable as speaking Russian or joining the U.S. Army. It was Fischl, along with artists such as Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, and David Salle, who literally resurrected the human body and returned it—kicking, fucking, sleeping, and mowing the lawn—to the galleries and collections of the early 1980s.
Don’t miscast Eric Fischl in the role of bad boy, however: he was never really bad, and he was never just a boy caught between an open purse and an open body. Fischl’s work has progressed through the years in incredibly sinister and seductive ways—roaming from India to Italy, and from pivoting corporal watercolor forms across white paper to memorializing friends and famous acquaintances in head-to-toe portraiture. In 2002, controversy surrounded his sculpture of a woman falling in space (Tumbling Woman, 2002), inspired in part by those victims of the World Trade Center attack who jumped from the windows before the buildings fell. The memorial sculpture, placed at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, drew public outrage and the usual conservative mill of shock-art criticism. Fischl meant to express grief, not to give it, but like most of his works, it brilliantly exposes the runny gray area between art-world and popular values, acceptability and expression. Currently, this master of the figure is painting domestic scenarios modeled on two actors whom he routinely photographs by following them around the house. Any trace of scandal appears to have died down lately, but his dark vision of human interaction is still alive and well.
THE BELIEVER: Eighties art has had a renaissance lately, specifically in terms of the political, anti-Reagan, agenda-driven content of that decade—groups like ACT UP and the Guerrilla Girls. I think there is a tendency to see eighties art in two camps: the social-justice fringe camp and then those artists—more traditional, often young white male painters—who were making names and fortunes in the New York gallery world. This is a crude line to draw—aesthetes vs. activists—but is it an accurate one? Was there such a feeling at the time?
ERIC FISCHL: I think that we, and again I’m saying the generation as we, had a profound degree of self-consciousness. The self-consciousness came from a feeling that everything was a cliché, that everything had such a strong predecessor to it—that basically you were in pantomime. So political art seemed like a stylistic choice as opposed to a political choice, the same way that painting sexual imagery was a stylistic attitude instead of something about its content. A lot of discussion in my generation, through the art, was about whether you could legitimately make work that had an initial impact, as opposed to a self-conscious one. You had artists making art about whether painting was dead or not. Artists were making dead paintings to show you that painting was dead. And there were artists trying to make live paintings, fearful that maybe painting really was dead after all. Cindy Sherman’s early work imitated film stills. Robert Longo was imitating advertising. You had many artists working in a self-conscious way. The success of it was something that became a critique of it. But I never equated the two. The success was being in the right moment at the right time and filling up what was clearly a profound need in the art community—for museums, galleries, and collectors—for something that felt new and vital and exciting.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.