American Painter and Sculptor
New York, New York
Summary of Eric Fischl
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.
- 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.
Biography of Eric Fischl
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.
Important Art by Eric Fischl
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Eric Fischl
- Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the CanvasOur PickBy Erich Fischl & Michael Stone
- Eric FischlBy Klaus Albrecht Schroder & Elsy Lahner
- Dive Deep: Erich Fischl and the Process of PaintingBy Eric Fischl & Harry Philbrick
- Sketchbook With VoicesBy Eric Fischl & Jerry Saltz
- Eric Fischl: 1970-2007By Arthur Danto, Steve Martin, & Robert Enright
- Eric Fischl: Early PaintingsOur PickBy Phyllis Tuchman & Eric Fischl
- Eric Fischl: Beach PaintingsBy A.M. Homes and Eric Fischl
- Eric Fischl: The Krefeld-ProjectBy Robert Rosenblum & Martin Hentschel
- Eric Fischl: Ten BreathsBy Kay Heimer & Veit Gorner
- 'Bad Boy,' by Eric Fischl and Michael StoneOur PickBy Laura Kipnis / New York Times / June 21, 2013
- To the Bone: In New Book, Eric Fischl Talks Painting, Drinking, SnortingOur PickBy Andrew Russeth / The Observer / May 7, 2013
- Fender BenderBy Emma Allen / The New Yorker / October 6, 2014
- Nightstand: Body IssuesChristopher Frizelle / The Stranger / August 31, 2006
- Eric Fischl: 'What America wants is artists who are doing very expensive toys'By Tim Adams / The Guardian / October 12, 2014
- Culture, Rolling Into Towns on Big RigsBy Randy Kennedy / New York Times / March 30, 2011
- Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture SeriesOur PickSmithsonian American Art Museum, September 17, 2014
- The Un-Private Collection: Eric Fischl & Steve MartinThe Broad Museum, June 23, 2014
- Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of PaintingOur PickPennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, July 24, 2012
- Eric Fischl: The Beauty Behind ControversyThe Reserve Channel, May 22, 2014
- Whitney Museum, Audio Guide