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Artists Eric Fischl

Eric Fischl

American Painter & Sculptor

Movement: Neo-Expressionism

Born: 1948 - New York, New York

"I vowed that I would never let the unspeakable also be unshowable. I would paint what could not be said."

Synopsis

In the 1970s and 80s, Eric Fischl became Neo-Expressionism's noted bad boy with his psychologically charged depictions of American suburbia. His own dysfunctional childhood centered upon a mother who was desperately depressed and an alcoholic, which became a large influence on his paintings. Committed to "never let the unspeakable also be the unshowable" he offered a refreshingly unflinching glimpse of the underbelly in human relationships and everyday life, which lurked beneath society's manicured facade. His work invites us to reflect upon our own place within the worlds he portrays and to explore our hypocrisy, internal conflict and complacency. He asks that we never grow too comfortable. This keen critical analysis weaves from his earliest work through today in which he continues to welcome us to consider what's hidden beneath the exterior.

Key Ideas

Many of Fischl's paintings portray moments in which potential disaster or the taboo can be felt lingering on the periphery. They evoke feelings of discomfort or human vulnerability within the viewer transforming the personal into the universal.
Fischl's work can be seen as a way in which the artist processes his own internal conflicts. In the early suburban pieces we see him probe the unseen dynamics of family. In later pieces, showing the leisurely seaside lifestyles of the elite, we see him exploring his own place within its privilege. In recent work, highlighting participants at major art fairs, we see him emphasize the divide between the beauty of art making and the commodification of art within the market.

Most Important Art

Bayonne (1985)

Fischl called the separation between these two subjects a caesura, a metrical break in verse; the older woman and the young girl may be related, they may be the same person in different times, or they may have no relationship. Perhaps they share a room - notice the similar walls, floor, and lighting - but the overlapping canvases hint at an emotional hierarchy. The woman might be reflecting on the girl with envy, affection, or bemusement within her lounging posture of resignation. Note the girl's stiff posture in contrast to her ballerina costume, her inelegant foot position and forward lean; now look at the woman's graceful pose, the muscled calves and relaxed nudity. Both subjects are trapped within Fischl's framing and the limitations of their age: the woman is no longer nubile, the young girl lacks grace. Cynical portraits, perhaps, but when viewed straight on the duo become a singular piece. It's only when viewed from an angle that the break, the caesura, occurs.

Through this comparison, Fischl gives control to the viewer. Is he making us responsible for deciding how the subjects interrelate? His answer is unusually generous: all interpretations are valid, though only a few are consciously intended. Read left to right, Bayonne evokes the sorrow of memory, even as the girl seems to reject this label. With her outstretched hands and rooted pose, she pushes back, perhaps against her future self, perhaps against our projections of her yet to be realized life.

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Sleepwalker (1979)

A young man stands in a plastic swimming pool in a suburban backyard, shoulders hunched, gaze fixed downward, penis in hand. A hint of prurience mingles with the conservative hues and totems of everyday America. The boy might be sleepwalking or just peeing in the kiddie pool.

Completed shortly before his career took off in New York, Sleepwalker typifies Fischl's blend of voyeurism and sexually-tinged banality. It is also a great example of the Neo-Expressionist style in which painters known as New Fauves, or "The Wild Ones," portrayed recognizable subjects with jarring intensity and vivid color. Although we don't know who this boy is, we are thrust upon his private moment, perhaps triggered into feelings of awkwardness, embarrassment, disgust or compassion for our common human foibles. Are we witnessing an unconscious foray in the middle of the night or a brash pubescent marking of territory as household rite of passage? Regardless we are reminded of the resonant human vulnerability that lurks within the perceived shelter of our own homes. Note the quadrupled circles - his head, his head's reflection, the round pool, and the round lawn - allusions to a spotlit subject on an accidental stage. The light, whether from moon or sun, is glaring. The pool is still. The lawn chairs bear silent witness, as do we.

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Bad Boy (1981)

Slatted with gauzy light, a nude woman sprawls out across a bed. She appears unaware of the boy standing directly in front of her. The boy watches the woman as his hand slips into what is presumably her purse. The woman's pose is languid, post-orgasmic, and unashamed. The boy is seen in mid-theft but his pose suggests preternatural confidence, as though he's done this before. Perhaps she has, too.

Bad Boy offers a scene of daytime noir in which the harlot and the scamp are dramatically lit, the sheets are rumpled, and a screw is followed by a theft. But Fischl's Freudian puns nudge the observant viewer like an elbow to the ribs with the phallic bananas in the fruit bowl and the boy's hand in the woman's purse. Even the shape of the purse's opening conjures her sex. The Old English pusa means purse, slang for vagina, leading to our modern-day pussy. Fischl offers a wink amid the weirdness, just enough to lower our guard. The scene suggests a triple-manipulation: the boy gets what he needs, the woman gets what she wanted, and we get a narrative suitable for the cover of a pulp mystery. Although a lesser artist would have closed the woman's legs, Fischl's daring establishes himself as a master of clinical hedonism.

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A Visit to / A Visit From / The Island (1983)

Created from the combination of two canvases, this painting juxtaposes two polar scenes in comparable settings. On the left, a family enjoys a sunny day by the sea. The foreshortened figure of a nude woman reclines on a raft while a child snorkels beneath her. A man walks jauntily through the turquoise water and a child stands facing the viewer. The mood is stridently different in the companion scene. A group of black men and women frantically cross the shore as dark waves crash upon it. Poorly clothed figures, reminiscent of the reclining woman, lie motionless on the sand. A woman pulls at the unresponsive arm of one such figure.

In this diptych, Fischl confronts the irony of island resorts, locations sought out by vacationing families while simultaneously fled by native groups. Within his career, Fischl completed several paintings of nude scenes sea or poolside. Often of wealthy families, these works portray more than mere studies of the recreational human form and the dynamics of that stratum. Paired with the secondary image, which Fischl based on photographs of Haitian refugees arriving on the Florida coast, the message becomes more biting. The relaxing family seems completely oblivious to a more universal strife that could very well have occurred on that very same beach.

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Ten Breaths: Tumbling Woman II (2007-2008)

Following the events of 9/11, Fischl sculpted "Tumbling Woman" for the Rockefeller Center as a tribute to the lives lost. The bronze sculpture depicts a nude life size woman in free fall, her legs twisted perpendicular to her compacted torso as her neck comes into contact with the ground. Despite the massive death toll, there were very few bodies following the terrorist attack and the media censored such images. Yet Fischl, in his commitment to "never let the unspeakable also be unshowable," created this work as an embodiment of human vulnerability both on that infamous day and in general. It confidently reiterates his underlying artistic intention of bringing the dark currents of everyday life out into the open; a distinct signature of his work within the Neo-Expressionist genre, in which artists pointedly break the veil of intellectual distance and invite the viewer into a more forced intimacy.

Despite, and perhaps provoked by his intentions, "Tumbling Woman" met with severe hostility from a wounded public. Fischl was accused of exploiting the sensitive emotions surrounding 9/11 to bolster his then dwindling art career. Not long after its debut, the sculpture was covered and then subsequently removed. Despite the general public's rejection of the work, copies of the sculpture can be found in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the New York Academy of Art. It remains an important iconic reminder of a dark day in our history, one in which our collective internal fears were turned inside out to tumble freely, exposed.

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The Clemente Family (2005)

In this oil painting, Fischl captures an unorthodox portrait of Francesco Clemente, an artist friend, and his family. The family members are widely dispersed within a dark room, pierced in sections by harsh light that may come from an opening door. Whiteness engulfs the faces of Clemente's wife and one of his daughters, yet Clemente sits alone on the edge of the canvas and his two sons stand in the shadows of the back corner. This separation of brightness and shadow carves a sense of striking emotional disconnect between the family members augmented by the awkward spatial composition of the room.

Fischl's fascination with family dynamics and relationships remains a central theme of his oeuvre. In this particular case he utilizes the composition to communicate the dynamics he observes: the strong centrally located matron, the reluctantly present sons, and the complacent daughters. Like many of Fischl's social realistic portraits, he invites the viewer into the role of photographer even while his lush brushstrokes and slightly skewed perspectives remind us of the inherent liberties of painting. Fischl never poses his subjects but rather notes their behavior and the manner in which they interact truthfully and without artificiality.

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Art Fair: Booth #17 Instructions (2014)

From Fischl's most recent series, this painting captures the interface between three art fair attendees. Although a significant departure from his sexually charged suburban scenes, this series still focuses upon the behavioral humanity of its subjects in contrast to their environment. Fischl creates these scenes from photos that he takes of people at fairs, but they are not intended to be portraits. They instead are meant to capture stereotypes: the wealthy art collector, the posh gallerist, the glamour-seeking intern, the art party socialite, and others. With notepad and smart phones in hand, the three figures converse, presumably about the art that surrounds them yet without looking at the art at all, more enthralled by being part of the "scene." In an ironic role reversal, the artworks remain in the background, witnessing the interaction of the attendees, as opposed to being observed by them.

As a member of the generation of artists that experienced the effect of the economic boom of the 1980s upon the art world, Fischl simultaneously witnessed and participated in the transformation of the New York City art scene. Following the publication of his autobiography, Fischl began to scrutinize this shift and the resulting state of the art world. The resulting series, documents the commercialization and dehumanization of art (here, the art is mere commodity).

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Biography

Childhood and Education

Eric Fischl was born in New York City in 1948 to a salesman father and an artist mother. During his ensuing upbringing on Long Island, he and his three siblings experienced a stereotypical childhood ensconced in the burgeoning facade of American suburbia. His home life was secretly peppered with the dysfunctional behavior of his mother, a tragic character who articulated her depression through bouts of erratic rage assuaged by a teeming alcoholism. When reflecting on his childhood, Fischl disclosed that his mother often walked around the house naked and was even arrested for running through the neighborhood in the nude. The family strove to keep her struggle private and succeeded for the most part. There is no doubt that this hidden chaos provided him with an anxiety that would express itself later upon canvas.

Eric Fischl Biography Continues

In 1967, the Fischl family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. Fischl shortly left for college in Pennsylvania but dropped out not long after starting. The young man then moved to San Francisco where he partook in the bohemian lifestyle of the city. But Fischl quickly found himself dissatisfied there and returned home where he took art classes at a local community college, as well as at Arizona State University. It was during his second year at ASU that Fischl began to explore themes of the bed and the home as an arena. He began to create "dramas" centered within various rooms of the home, especially the bedroom. In 1969, the seminal California Institute for the Arts accepted Fischl into its inaugural class. Before he began classes, however, his mother's erratic behavior reached a crescendo. After years of threatening suicide, she drove her car into a tree. Fischl returned home from school in time to share her final moments in the hospital. Although Fischl was part of a generation that did not bare its dirty laundry in public, he notes that in hindsight, it was at this point he vowed to "never let the unspeakable also be unshowable." Following his mother's death, Fischl returned to CalArts and graduated with his BFA in 1972.

Early Period

After graduation, Fischl spent a brief stint in Chicago working as a guard at the Museum of Contemporary Art before moving to teach at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design in Halifax. In 1976, Jean-Christophe Ammann curated an exhibition that included Fischl's work, along with that of sixteen others. As both mentor and patron to the artist, Ammann helped bring his work to Basel, Switzerland. While his work began to accrue greater acclaim, Fischl moved to New York with his girlfriend, the landscape painter, April Gornik. Arriving in the city shortly before the economic boom of the 1980s, the two witnessed the rapid transformation of the city's art market and were swept up in its climb. Fischl had his first solo show in the city in 1979 at the Edward Thorp Gallery. He became an art market darling alongside his sometimes competitor Julian Schnabel, both part of the surge that began to place artists in much the same vein as rock stars. His painting, "Sleepwalker," of the same year, is the epitome of what came to be termed as his "psychosexual suburban paintings." The work depicts a young boy masturbating in a plastic swimming pool. Through the use of brash color and hyper-real figuration expressed with aggressive gesture, the piece marked Fischl's inclusion within the Neo-Expressionist aethetic. Amman was skeptical of the direction Fischl had taken but the artist continued on his way. In addition to his suburban scenes, Fischl also began painting seaside scenes. Often including nude figures of the affluent middle class, these works continued the artist's analysis of the American psyche. Having anticipated these psychologically charged and licentious works to be more appropriate for museum exhibitions, Fischl was surprised to find how well private markets received his paintings while museums hesitated to exhibit them. He was placing society, specifically the one in which he dwelled, under a revealing spotlight, alluding to the lurking dynamics within and probing its repressed underbelly.

The artist's career reached a new high when the Whitney Museum exhibited 28 of his paintings in the late 1980s. The show marked a climax of the artist's career in New York and also his personal envelopment in the art world of the city. Fischl found himself collaborating with artists of various disciplines, such as Jerry Saltz, Allen Ginsberg, and Jamaica Kincaid. While his rising success brought him into the realm of other artists, the fierce competition also stressed and even fractured other relationships. David Salle, an artist colleague of Fischl's, helped him establish himself in New York, connecting him with prominent art collectors there. The two had a falling out around the peak of Fischl's career in the city. This became a highly emotionally charged period of the artist's life in which he grappled with drug and alcohol use in response to his rapid fame coupled with the desire to maintain artistic integrity with his fresh, narrative style.

Fischl's intention was to create art that acted as an impetus for conversation on a public stage. He attempted to satisfy this desire to create public art in 2000 when he created a bronze sculpture for the United States Tennis Association and again in 2002 when he received a commission for the Rockefeller Center in New York. Neither elicited a strongly positive response, but Ten Breaths: Tumbling Woman, conceptualized in commemoration of 9/11, was particularly singled out. The unilaterally negative response to the statue was so strong that not even Fischl's agent stood behind his work. Accused of exploiting 9/11 to remain vital in his art career, Fischl ultimately removed the statue. Copies of the work and studies he created during its production can be found in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well as outside of his own studio.

Current Works

Fischl, his wife, and their two cats, Hooper and Beebop, now live in Sag Harbor, New York. Located near the Hamptons, a notorious destination for the affluent, Fischl's resides directly amid the demographic he loves to observe and paint. In addition to the house he helped design, Fischl and Gornik continue to work in individual studios on the property.

In 2011, Fischl founded America: Now and Here, a privately-funded organization devoted to addressing what Fischl describes as an American identity crisis. As President and lead curator, Fischl plans to share the work of over 150 artists, poets, filmmakers, songwriters, and playwrights throughout the states. Thus far the traveling art "circus," packed within semi trucks, has reached Kansas City, Detroit, and Chicago.

In 2013, Fischl's alma mater CalArts bestowed him with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree. Within the same year, Fischl published his autobiography, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas. The intimate book is both biography and confessional, delving into the manner in which Fischl's dysfunctional childhood surfaced within his work. The artist admitted that he was high for the majority of his opening reception at the Whitney Museum, disclosing his own struggle with addictive demons. Bad Boy also allowed Fischl to reflect on the transformation of the art world in New York during the 1980s where he witnessed a vast adulteration of the market, in which art became an overly monetized commodity.

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This disillusionment with the art world inspired his most recent series, which debuted in one of London's leading contemporary art galleries in 2014. The paintings depict attendees at art fairs, focusing less on the art being displayed and more upon the art world itself. They allude to the lack of separation between the poignancy of art and the claws of capitalism. The artist balks at what he perceives as the corruption of the art world.

Legacy

Eric Fischl Portrait

Similar to Edward Hopper who he notes as a source of inspiration, Fischl's oeuvre gazes upon the American lifestyle through a critical lens. But instead of a maintaining a calculated distance, Fischl asks us to step inside the lives of his subjects; to experience a communal, existential identity. He positioned painting into a role of fresh provocateur rather than mere object of observation. This journey through a kind of social realism accentuated Neo-Expressionist's boldness, paving the way for painters such as Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin who continue to probe the disconcerting. Fischl's forte within astute artistic commentary laid ground for others who wished to process their internal conflicts about society at large outward onto canvas. Through his organization America: Now and Here, Fischl maintains his commitment to engage the public in a dialogue about American identity through a traveling multi-disciplinary exhibition of today's most important art and artists.

Quotes

"Art never is exactly what you hoped it would be. It always falls short."
Eric Fischl
"Discovery and execution should happen simultaneously on the canvas. That's real painting. I love that idea. It makes painting seem so important, so existential. You go into the void with just your wits and you just struggle through this thing."
Eric Fischl
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