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Meet the Artist

'80s Art Star Eric Fischl on How Artists Can Find Their Second Act

By

'80s Art Star Eric Fischl on How Artists Can Find Their Second Act
Artist Eric Fischl

In the late 1970s, a rumor swept across the art world about the auspicious rise of a group of CalArts kids new to the New York scene, including Ross Bleckner, Matt Mullican, and David Salle. So total was their success, detractors speculated that they’d taken a course at art school on how to ride the swells of the art market. It wasn’t true. But their ascents did mark a new surge in the art industry.  

Among the young CalArts grads surfing the wave was Eric Fischl. A figurative painter when painting was declared dead and representative painting, well, Paleolithic, Fischl moved to New York in 1978 and emerged in the 1980s with other Neo-Expressionist like Elizabeth Murray, Salle, and Julian Schnabel. Though styles ranged wildly, the group dismissed the detatched cool of Minimalism and Conceptual art in favor of figurative work with raw potency. Fischl painted scenes of American suburbia charged with sublimated eroticism, and also deep pain. The narrative canvases loosely depicted his own childhood growing up with an alcoholic mother and hapless salesman father. 

The storied dealer Mary Boone scooped up these psychologically fraught canvases, and by 1986, the artist had a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney. ("If the paintings of Eric Fischl get people hot and bothered, it is for a very good reason," the New York Times raved. "He presses down hard upon the exposed nerve of our time.") The following year, the market crashed and, along with his peers, Fischl was abruptly set adrift. It’s a familiar story of art-world caprices, and one told candidly in the artist's recent memoir Bad Boy—cheekily titled, because by all accounts the soft-spoken Fischl is unfailingly decent—in which Fischl recalls the feeling of being “swept up and carried by something much bigger and more powerful than yourself.” 

Today, Fischl is experiencing a resurgence, with a widely praised retrospective taking place at Vienna's Albertina museum earlier this year. To get a take on how young artists can resist bending to the changing winds of the market, Artspace spoke to Fischl from his seaside home in Sag Harbor before the opening of his new show at KM Fine Arts in Los Angeles, which is now running through August 24.

In the new show, you are working in a wide range of media, from glass sculpture to small oil paintings, and yet there wasn’t much in the way of technique taught at CalArts in the 1970s, which was then a hotbed for Conceptual art under the influence of John Baldessari, who was a teacher there. What was that educational experience like?

“Not much” is an overstatement. There was zero technical stuff. There is a rich historical language for paintings, but no one taught it to me. No one taught me how to glaze or under-paint or suggest different materials to use for direct painting. So everything was totally hit and miss. I even had a painting crack on me once because I put too much dryer in. And there was certainly no drawing from models. Any kind of life drawing was really frowned upon. It was all about mechanical forms of reproduction, which was believed to be sufficient for the art practice. In my own work, I never resigned myself to it. But it was a constant argument. As I look around the art world, I think maybe ultimately they were right. But it’s not what I needed from an education. 

When you say art world, do you mean trends in the art market?  

[Laughs] Is there any difference between the two at this point? 

In your memoir, you describe riding the ups and downs of the market in the 1980s. What’s your take on the young art stars today who are soaring on this hyper-charged atmosphere?

I think that a lot of the hugely successful young artists right now have yet to do their second painting. They are still producing the thing that got them there. But everything shifts once they start their second act. It will determine if they can carry their collectors and devotees forward into their journey or whether they leave them scratching their heads going, “I can’t go there with that artist anymore.” 

What advice would you pass on to artists today?   

They shouldn’t abandon their first thing until they are tired of it, but they must know that their life is not going to just be that first act. There is a second act coming and they should prepare for it. That’s where the real test is. It’s not as big a leap in terms of finding your voice, finding a gallery, getting people interested in what you do. That’s all huge. The second act is subtler, but it can erase you or land you as a major artist.

Does the second act need to be a dramatic shift from the first?

I always told myself that the journey for an artist is one that moves out from a central core, a thematic thing, which is the experience and meaning of our individual lives. It moves out in a kind of spiral. You’re not simply circling this core, making art pointing to this center.—you’re taking wider loops or tighter loops around it. You’re going upward as it evolves into something else.  

What would you say your second act was?

I think probably the second act was when I went and started doing these multiple panel paintings, which still dealt with images of or suburban interiors or exteriors. They still dealt with naked people, and you know boundary issues and stuff like that, but formally they were fragmented. Then, when I started doing paintings of India and people just were going, “What the fuck?” [Laughs]

After the ’87 stock market crashed, prices dropped, and a new breed of business-savvy artists emerged: Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and the YBAs. Did you ever think about following the herd? Did you have thoughts of abandoning your style for a more bombastic, monumental kind of art? 

Well, the simple answer is no. I spent so much time and energy trying to cut out my terrain and actually was successful doing it. I was not going to try to do catch up work way outside my skill set and comfort zone. And so, I just kept plugging along.

You continued painting the human body, in other words. It’s interesting, today there is you, John Currin, and Elizabeth Peyton, but as for younger artists, the body is not a particularly popular subject of painting—that is, a visceral, sensual description of the human form, of desire, of eroticism. 

Right. There's a lot of figurative work today—I’m actually curating a show right now for the Flag Art Foundation of artists who use dolls, mannequins, toys, robots, all surrogates for the human body. But artists are not working with the body in quite the same way. 

Why do you think so many artists have moved away from it as a subject? 

I think that’s a really interesting question. What is it about the body that can’t be dealt with in art today, except in the most extreme forms, which is body art and performance? Like Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden, where they’re cutting, shooting, and depriving the body? Has art become such a thing that it can’t handle metaphor anymore, and so people have to be literal about it?

Could it also signal something larger about a discomfort with more intimate and corporeal depictions of life?

I think that as a culture we really haven’t been able to process death as part of our life experience, and so we live in fear of it and we run away from it. We were a youth culture, so we don’t really know what to do with ourselves now now that we’ve gotten old. We further have issues around sexuality. The AIDS epidemic slammed the door on a generation that had been about free love. All of a sudden, sex and death became absolutely linked. Other cultures have ways of dealing with all of the transitional stages of life, from birth to puberty to marriage to aging to death. But we don’t process through rituals. And so we’re isolated. We’re alienated. We’re terrified.

Perhaps this leads us to your bronze sculpture Tumbling Woman, a depiction of a female body in free fall that pays homage to victims of the World Trade Center attacks. In 2009, the work—which notably recalls Maillol's famous work The River, a centerpiece of MoMA's sculpture garden—was removed from Rockefeller Center after public complaints were issued. Now it’s included in the new show cast in glass. What was your concept for the work?

Some 3,000 people died in the towers, but we didn’t see bodies, except for some jumping. As a result, it didn’t become a tragedy about the loss of life—it became a tragedy about the loss of architecture. The sculpture is called Tumbling Woman because tumbling implies horizontal movement and has no end. Falling, on the other hand, has an end when it hits the ground. On some levels, the impact is less frightening at first, but it’s also more troubling because the question becomes, “Will it ever end?” And that’s also why I extended the hand of the woman. I was hoping that if this were ever to find its way into a public place, people would grab that hand, try to hold it, try to stop it, try openly to connect.

Why do you think people were uncomfortable with the sculpture?

The public didn’t turn to their artists when our culture fell apart, when our society fell into such anger, fear, and disarray. Why? They didn’t turn to their artists because art doesn’t have any relationship to their daily lives. Why would they think to turn to artists? Are you going to turn to somebody that is doing some kind of highly hermetic conceptual work? Are you going to turn someone who is doing cartoons? Are you going to turn to someone who is making toys?

What do you think that says about the state of art today?

It says everything about our situation, the fact that so few artists jumped in to try to deal with the trauma. It highlights the gulf between these two worlds. It shows the weakness of the culture, that art is not at the center of it.

During this time, you lamented that today’s art schools are in part to blame for training students in an “ideological gamesmanship.” 

I tend to generalize and I hate when I hear it read back to me. Because there’s also an emerging group of artists that realize the Koonsian business model on that scale is just not possible for the lion share of artists. They’re beginning to examine other ways of either getting out of the art world or going into more community-based work. They’re trying to figure out how to make art without being consumed by the consumer.

But yes, along with that, there are a lot of art students that I’ve talked to who demand more technical knowledge because they want to develop a high-quality product. It’s not about the versatility of their craftsmanship. It’s about finding something that they can do that’s really well made and would be considered an excellent product. It’s part of a strategy for becoming branded, which is just a concept that is so far outside of the art world that I was schooled in and came up believing in. For me, it’s very hard to process. But that’s the model today. It’s the way of art fairs and auctions and giant commissions.

What do you say to these students?

I say horrible things to them. [Laughs] No, I don’t. I don’t say horrible things to anybody. I mean, you know, you have a discussion about what that actually means. I talk to them from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know what being branded is.

You do know what it's like to have a stylistic hallmark—after all, you were labeled in the ’80s as a painter of psychosexual suburban dramas. How do you explain the difference to your students?

That’s a theme, that’s not a brand. Anyone who has followed my career sees that I’ve remained constant. It’s been a lifelong meditation on desire and objects of desire, identity, sexual identity, the connection and the space between people, and the discomfort within a body. I’ve been plowing those fields for my whole artistic life.

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