Eric Fischl, bad boy of figurative painting, talks to Hunter students about his workIrina Lotarevich
OnSeptember 18, 2002, iconic American artist Eric Fischl was publicly skewered: New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser had declared that his Tumbling Woman, a sculpture installed in the Rockefeller Center, was “violently disturbing,” “moronic,” and “disgusting.” The life-size bronze, depicting a woman seemingly in mid-fall, arms flailing, called to mind the events of 9/11, during which workers in the World Trade Center were seen jumping to their deaths. Nearly overnight, Fischl went from being perceived as a harmless painter of narrative figuration to a cheap, exploitative sensationalist riding on the backs of those who lost relatives and friends in the tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks.
Fischl was shocked at the outraged reaction. “We had just lost 3000 people in the most horrific way. We had to remember that,” he reminisced during a special October 12th talk with Hunter students at the Roosevelt House, hosted by Damien Woetzel, former ballet legend and current director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program, in which Fischl is this year’s Artist in Residence.
In retrospect, perhaps it was no surprise that Fischl courted such controversy. His early work - loosely painted figurative scenes referenced from photographs - was highly divisive due to its embrace of a realistic style of painting in a time of abstraction as well as its seedy suburban subject matter. According to his biography, Fischl’s “upbringing provided him with a backdrop of alcoholism and a country club culture obsessed with image over content.” His own family suffered from intensely private struggles with alcohol while trying to maintain a suburban lifestyle. When Fischl started participating in the art world in the 1970s alongside peers that included David Salle and Susan Rothenberg, “It was the end of something and we were part of the end of that thing….All of a sudden coming from every direction was this energy that was redefining the terrain.”
Fischl’s most famous painting, Bad Boy (1981), depicts a young boy staring at a naked older woman who lies spread-eagle on the bed while he sheepishly tries to slip his hand into her purse. Another well-known work, Sleepwalker (1979), shows a teenage boy masturbating into a kiddie pool.
Despite all this radicalism, Fischl’s painterly process owes a lot to his traditional education at the California Institute of the Arts by Abstract Expressionists like Emerson Woelffer and Paul Brach. He cites as inspiration Robert Motherwell, who wrote, “I begin painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling.” Describing the making of his painting Daddy’s Girl (1984), Fischl talked about how his own anxiety over the subject matter (a naked man cradling his prepubescent daughter in a lounge chair) made him revise the painting several times until he finally arrived at the perfect solution - a strategically placed glass of iced tea.
Fischl’s latest project, launched in 2011, was formed as a response to the Tumbling Woman debacle. “I was surprised in a disparaging way at the muteness of artists on 9/11 and how disconnected the public was to art. I felt then that if ever artists are needed now is the time. It was such a profoundly chaotic experience. I thought this is what art does - it gives order. It gives language, form, images, and a way of sharing with people so we can understand what just happened. We are needed now. Artists are needed now.” The result was America: Now and Here, a massive group show-cum-discussion forum that travels cross-country to engage with different American communities.
Fischl invited 150 of his friends and peers from multiple artistic disciplines to create new works for the tour which are installed in custom-designed mobile truck galleries that each contain an exhibition space, a pavilion, music listening stations, and a gift shop. Thus far the exhibition has had a successful premiere in Kansas City, Missouri, where it displayed works by such seminal artists as Jasper Johns, Kiki Smith, Glen Ligon, Fischerspooner, and Lou Reed.
One of the ways that Fischl hopes to make a national impact is by encouraging young artists to interact with the American cultural landscape. His Artist Corps, a program within America, invites recent graduates of fine arts programs across the country to contribute work about America to the exhibition and volunteer their talents in local communities.
For Fischl himself, getting to experience art was a life-changing event, and he hopes that it will be as well for the young participants in Artist Corps. “I was as shiftless and aimless a child as you could possibly be. I was 20 years old when I took my first art class at a junior college. I had already flunked out of regular college… It was the first time I could really concentrate. That’s when it all turned around,” he said.