Eric Fischl - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Sculptor
New York, New York
Biography of Eric Fischl
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Eric Fischl
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.