(Arts Break) The Work of Eric Fischl and an Impressionable Teenager

If you pledged your support at any amount to NPT this past December, you were thanked with a pass for two to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. If you haven’t taken advantage of the passes yet, now’s the perfect time. This weekend, a major new exhibit opens at the Museum. Paint Made Flesh presents paintings created in Europe and the United States since the 1950s in which a wide range of painterly effects suggest the carnal properties and cultural significance of human flesh and skin. Among the many works in the exhibit are ones by Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Willem de Kooning, Alice Neel, Leon Golub, Philip Guston, Eric Fischl, Georg Baselitz, Jenny Saville, Wangechi Mutu, John Currin, Cecily Brown and Daniel Richter. “As a revisionist study of post-World War II art,” says the Frist’s press materials, “the exhibition offers a rejoinder to the modernist orthodoxies of the mid-to-late 20th century by contending that paint’s material properties make it well suited to convey metaphors of human vulnerability.

One of those artists represented, painter Eric Fischl, will also speak on January 24th as part of the Frist Center’s opening symposium for its new show. Daniel Tidwell, NPT VP of Marketing and Development, and sometime NPT Media Update arts correspondent, offers this retrospective on Fischl’s work, and its impact on him as a young artist.

It was the spring of 1987, and I was walking in the rain down Greene Street in Soho looking for the art of the 80s. I’d come to New York to check out the non-degree-granting art school that I’d soon attend for a year and a half, and even though it was dark and cold and rainy, and all the galleries had already closed, I had taken the subway downtown to walk through Soho anyway. I had finally arrived at the destination I’d been longing for, after so many years holed up in my basement room at my parent’s house. Back home in my room I’d worked on painting after derivative painting, fantasizing about New York and diligently trying to emulate the neo-expressionists that were so in vogue according to my pre-internet, art-magazine-formed view of the New York art world.

In Nashville during the 70s and 80s the prospects for viewing contemporary art were bleak. New York and the hundreds of galleries in Soho were a distant dream. At the time, and in such an isolated setting, the only way for an aspiring young artist to access new art was through art magazines such as Artforum, Art in America and ArtNews. Today, images are so readily accessible online that it’s hard to imagine a time when you could sit alone in your room, with only a couple of magazines — filled with tantalizing glimpses of work being created somewhere else — fueling your longing to escape, to break out and dive into that unknown world of image creation.

BARBECUE, 1982. Oil on Canvas. 65 x 100 inches.

Eric Fischl: BARBECUE, 1982. Oil on Canvas. 65 x 100 inches.

In Soho, I was on a mission — searching for work by my hero Eric Fischl. His work, which I had only seen in art magazines, was one of the primary inspirations for the wanna-be-expressionist paintings that I had been producing in that basement room in the suburbs. One issue of ArtNews, which featured him on the cover and had a fairly extensive article on his work, stands out in my mind. It featured Fischl’s work from the early 80’s and included paintings that depicted scenes from suburbia where things were not quite right. All manner of taboo activity lurked beneath the scenes, blown up to heroic scale and rendered with loose, painterly effects. Seeing these paintings for the first time opened my eyes to the possibilities that painting could have to convey whatever crazy thoughts might be running through your head at any given moment, or the idea that an artist could develop a clear conceptual framework and then make paintings that were fueled by a particular world view. More than that, I felt a sense of excitement and opportunity, and through the naïve eyes of a teenager, I set my sights on moving to New York to pursue a career in art.

One of the images that I vividly recall from that ArtNews article, and one that had a huge impact on me, was Bad Boy from 1981, in which a naked woman lays on a bed with her legs spread. A young boy with his back to the viewer looks on while sticking his hand in her purse — presumably we’re catching him in the act of robbing her (or in the act of virtually violating her with his hand). Even today it’s still a pretty shocking image. The woman seems menacing and much larger than the boy, and her blue bedroom is illuminated by a lurid light coming through an orange venetian blind. My favorite part of the painting is the innocuous bowl of fruit on the dresser next to her purse. Another iconic Fischl image, Master Bedroom from 1983, presents an ambiguous and questionable scene — a young woman clad only in panties, with curlers in her hair, cavorts on a bed with her black lab in a half-lit bedroom. I always thought the room looked like a sleazy motel. In Best Western Study from 1983 — a more innocent, but still ominous image — a boy plays by a pool with toy cowboys and Indians and orange balls. The sky is lit in a way that always reminded me of Close Encounters, like the boy was setting up this display of toys and balls in anticipation of a UFO’s arrival. My favorite early Fischl, however, has to be Barbecue (1982). It depicts an almost idyllic backyard scene, with dad at the grill, two women swimming naked in the pool (are they mother and daughter?) and junior front and center caught in the act of fire breathing. Dad looks on approvingly. In the foreground there’s a beautifully painted bowl full of fish sitting on the picnic table. Today when I look at these images, it’s that juxtaposition of the mundane with the transgressive, and Fischl taking the time to add these conventional elements to an explosive scene, that sets this work apart and elevates it to another level beyond its initial shock value.

BEST WESTERN STUDY, 1983. Oil on Canvas. 80 x 84 inches.

Eric Fischl: BEST WESTERN STUDY, 1983. Oil on Canvas. 80 x 84 inches.

In a 1986 New York Times review of a Fischl show at the Whitney which included these works, John Russell speculated about the content of these paintings:

  • And what actually happens? Nothing much. It is what might be going to happen, or what may have happened already that disturbs people. Incest, bestiality and other forbidden pastimes are never spelled out. It could, in fact, be that we ourselves read them into a perfectly innocent situation as a result of inclinations long repressed. How galling, if so, and what an intolerable fellow is Fischl to bring us face to face with our hidden selves! And what a happy day for paint, if this is so!
  • These images and others of Fischl’s from the early 80s spoke to me in a profound way — or so I thought at the time. I’d finally found an artist who understood in some fundamental way the wasteland of suburbia. His searing images were an attack on this vacuum — hitting right at the heart of phony suburban culture and exposing the seamy underbelly. On the basest level, these paintings appealed to me in a deeply juvenile way. They were all about nakedness and people doing things that they shouldn’t, i.e. the perfect paintings to shock your mother with. The juvenile inside me internalized the shock value of Fischl’s work — what I’d call a surface oriented transgression — and I began painting canvases that featured my own versions of disturbing domestic, suburban scenes. Buxom women and menacing men were featured prominently. In one, a naked couple cavorts in the kitchen with a knife. Others are too embarrassing to mention. Looking back, I had only taken the surface transgression from his painting — for me it was all about the shocking, literalistic nature of the scene depicted — and neglected to appreciate those aspects of his paintings that elevated them beyond that — the mundane aspects of domestic settings which were included in such an offhand way.

    When I finally made it to New York and started art school, much to my embarrassment, I found out that everyone I met hated Eric Fischl. His work was too obvious, too pedestrian, too commercial … too literal. Other dissenting voices felt that he wasn’t a good enough painter or he wasn’t conceptual enough. The negative reaction was overwhelming — so I hid my love of his work and buried myself in this new world of limitless options. As I moved through art school and on to grad school I eventually found my own voice and made work that bore no resemblance to the faux-Fischls that I’d done. However, I do still think that in some fundamental way that early exposure to his paintings has continued to inform my work as I followed it through the years. Even though Fischl’s work moved away from the sensational, I still read ominous undertones. Many of his subsequent paintings remain overtly sexual, yet the sexuality in these works (The Bed…The Chair series) seems more contrived and forced. It’s as if in these later works he’s harking back to his work of the 80’s and trying to regain some of that edge and in so doing is making work that is almost a pastiche of these early works. Fischl’s work is always gorgeous to look at regardless of one’s reading of the content and maybe in the final analysis that’s all that matters. What a happy day for paint, indeed.

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