Too Sincere To Be Ironical: Eric Fischl, Bad Boy
Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone
I fondly remember seeing Eric FIschl’s psychoanalytic pictures in the 1980s. While most of the newly fashionable American art of the day—Julian Schnabel’s and David Salle’s paintings, but also Sherrie Levine’s appropriations of male masterpieces, Cindy Sherman’s self-photographs or Barbara Kruger’s critical riffs on commercial advertising—was frankly custom made for Artforum subscribers, Fischl showed scenes which anyone could understand. While his peers were wrestling with the history of European painting, advancing feminism or presenting leftwing critiques of the art market, Fischl’s narratives about the middle-class white American male would make great cover illustrations for novels about suburban life. “I’m an American,” he rightly says in Bad Boy, ”not particularly worldly or sophisticated” (p. 159). This compulsively readable book tells how Fischl became a significant figurative artist at a time when critical opinion marginalized painting.
Fischl’s family was a mess: his parents fought and his mother was a dysfunctional alcoholic who eventually committed suicide, which relieved him and of course also made him feel guilty–“We didn’t want her to be our mother” (p. 9). He chose what he calls “psychosexual subjects,” traumatic scenes from his own life because he thought that realist painting “needed a little shock therapy.” (p. 153). This art making mattered for him because he learned how to relive, and thus to master, his guilty memories. Certainly it’s striking how little impact the public events of the day had on him. Totally alienated from the politics of drug culture of Haight-Ashbury, where he spent the summer in 1996, and saved from the Vietnam war only because of a communications glitch at his local draft board, Fischl focused instead on domestic life.
When Fischl went to art school at CalArts there was no interest in painting. He recalls a scene where “everybody in the studio was naked. . . . The model was sitting in a corner of the room absolutely still, bored to tears and smoking cigarettes” (p. 47). In that environment, he had to struggle. After doing abstract pictures, a failed synthesis of Richard Diebenkorn and Brice Marden, he found that telling stories was “a way back to my feelings through narrative association and evocative imagery” (p. 107). In the early 1980s, when he had moved to Manhattan,
Nobody knew what made a good painting or sculpture or performance. The so-called experts—the critics and curators and academics—continued to opine. But without history or any objective criteria in which to ground their opinions, their theories seemed increasingly personal or political or just plain bizarre. We artists sure as hell had no idea (p 190).
The challenges posed by his contemporaries in this environment made him “a better painter. I felt I had to be clearer and more assertive, to stretch the limits of what I was doing” (p. 243). If Fischl had some ambivalence about his fame, “the truth is I felt like a fraud. I felt I didn’t deserve the recognition I was getting” (p. 199), still he comes off as a man who has achieved genuine self-satisfaction. His long-lasting stable relationship with April Gornik, who is a distinguished landscape artist, seems enviable.
When Fischl compares his early paintings to those of Edgar Degas and Max Beckmann, or when he notes his more recently felt relationship to Edward Hopper, then you see how hard he is to place within a history of contemporary art. Recently, of course, there have been a number of fashionable younger figurative artists. But they tend, generally, to be ironists, artists who place the act of representation making within brackets, as if it were inherently untrustworthy. Fischl is too desperately sincere to be ironical. When he says that he painted his Self Portrait: An Unfinished Work (2011) showing him with close friends in a favorite place, “to remind me that I’m no longer alone” (p. 344), he really sets himself apart.
Bad Boy is very honest about the real pleasures and extreme perils of recognition and world success—and about how much Fischl has been driven by rivalry. Struggle is a more attractive subject for an autobiography than success. Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl: A memoir (2012), marvelously lyrical when it tells the story of her difficult early life, becomes oddly dull when it describes the celebrities she met after achieving success. The story told in Bad Boy, analogously, effectively ends in 1990, when Fischl, finding himself out of sync with the emerging younger artists, moves to the country, and turns to making sculpture. It’s a mistake, a wise editor once told me, to score points in print. I’m not surprised that Fischl doesn’t admire Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, but I am a little disappointed that having himself been the beneficiary of the broadening of stylistic options in the 1980s, during what Arthur Danto called our ‘post-historical’ period, he doesn’t allow his successors also to break with tradition. “Many of the new crop of artists,” he complains, “seem to be using the styles and techniques of art in order to make advertisements for themselves” (p. 308). That, I would think, is a good description of his achievement, which I admire.
See Listings for details of Eric Fischl’s conversation with Robert Berlind this week at the National Academy Museum