Peter Plagens

Confessions of a (Six-) Figure Painter

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My mommy doesn’t like him because he has long hair.
My daddy doesn’t like him. He says he heard him swear.
He’s a bad boy, but I don’t care.
— The Holy Modal Rounders, “Bad Boy”

To get a couple of things out of the way at the top: Eric Fischl isn’t all that bad, either as a painter or a person. As a smart-ass conceptual artist friend of mine (who has no particular affection for the dauber’s craft) points out, “He can move it around.” But before I get to Fischl’s recent memoir, this personal anecdote:
My wife, Laurie Fendrich, teaches at a university that, in 2006, organized a symposium about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She invited Eric Fischl, whose commemorative bronze sculpture, Tumbling Woman, had met with great protests and ultimately a rejection, to participate. He did, for free. The school scheduled several simultaneous sessions, so that the audience for the Fischl panel was much smaller than it should have been, and, moreover, the tech stuff got screwed up so that the artist was unable to project images from his computer. But he took the snafu like a trouper and, afterwards, over a cup of coffee, waxed calm and philosophical about the whole event. A real gentleman, she said.
For those who haven’t followed particularly closely the dramatis personae in the art world’s metamorphosis from, at the end of the 1970s, a late-stage academic dole, with avant-garde artists ensconced as securely salaried teachers in every college across the fruited plain, to the hyper-moneyed reincarnation of vaudeville it is today—Eric Fischl is one of America’s most successful contemporary serious figurative painters. His calling card has been, as Fischl himself says of one of his most famous pictures, Sleepwalker, 1979 (a pubescent boy standing and masturbating in a wading pool), a “queasy sense of voyeurism.” This, plus one of the best brushstrokes in the business, has made his work a hot item—sexier than the dependable carpentry of Philip Pearlstein or the cool verisimilitude of William Beckmann—and signature features are what set him apart from his c. 1980 rocket-to-stardom painting cohort, Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Although, looking back, Fischl is a little uneasy about how—and why—it all shook out, he’s hardly apologetic about his $350,000 per picture good fortune:

 

“I’m not an ivory tower artist. I understood the value of building a career and getting my work out in front of the public. I was grateful for the recognition I’d gotten. And I was glad not to be poor. I’d worked hard all my adult life, sometimes at two or three jobs. I didn’t complain when money was scarce. I refused to feel guilty now that my pictures were selling for six figures.”

 

Born in Manhattan in 1948, Fischl was raised in the Long Island suburb of Port Washington. His father, Karl, was a salesman for an industrial filmmaker and his mother, Janet, as per the norm of the times, was a stay-at-home housewife with, eventually, four kids: (in order) Holly, Eric, Laurie, and John. The elder Fischl’s friends were “bridge players, yacht clubbers,” and they all put their tootsies on the edges of suburban marital hijinx. At parties, the husbands and wives would take turns standing as a group behind a sheet hiding everything but their legs while the spouses tried to spot their particular mates. Mrs. Fischl was also a “ferocious alcoholic,” a condition partially responsible for Eric’s being sent off to boarding school in Maryland. While he was there, his mother’s concurrent emphysema prompted Karl to relocate the family to Phoenix.
Reluctant to return to the fractious family fold, young Eric instead traveled to San Francisco to experience that 1967 Summer of Love—i.e., to live in a crappy apartment with people he didn’t really like and do a lot of acid. Back in Arizona, he started taking art classes at the state university in Tempe and applied, rather ingenuously, to the California Institute of the Arts, the Disney family’s academy in Los Angeles that was about to undergo a sudden transformation into the hippest art school in the country. Much to Eric’s surprise, he got in. He drove to L.A. in the early fall of 1970 to secure lodging before classes started. A few days before the semester began, Janet Fischl got drunk, grabbed the keys to the family Volkswagen bus, sped off, and rammed the vehicle into the only available tree standing alongside a desert highway. She lingered long enough for Eric to come home and see her, barely recognizable, in a hospital room.
At CalArts, the big issue was whether painting was, yet again, dead. Photography’s superiority in capturing the visible world on a two-dimensional surface supposedly killed painting in the nineteenth century and now, as the 1970s got under way, video and conceptual art were putatively ending painting’s—mostly abstract painting’s—place on the cutting edge of modern art. Fortunately, the painting department offered some compensation to the forlorn students of a fading mode. For example:

 

“[Allan Hacklin, the painting professor] solicited our opinions of his work. But someone produced a bottle of tequila instead, and one woman began taking off her shirt. Then another took off her top, and pretty soon everyone had their clothes off, and the house was filled with naked, writhing bodies.”

 

Hacklin later secured Fischl a teaching position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, which at the time probably out-hipped even CalArts as the most groovily conceptual art school on the continent.
Once again, Fischl found himself in a camp for the artistic minority, and once again, there were consolations: “There’d be Bacchanalian nights with a succession of anonymous coeds, a Laura-like interlude with a transfer student…” The artist, by the way, was precariously married at the time (not to Laura), and would shortly meet the woman who would become his life partner, fellow student April Gornik, when she heeded his call to come over and ease him out of the hallucinatory paranoia brought on by a severe overdose of marijuana. Fischl subsequently completed his back-asswards art education by going to Europe with April and topping off a grounding in the contemporary avant-garde at CalArts and NSCAD with in-the-flesh viewing of the art of such ancients as Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Velázquez, Ribera, Ingres, Jacques-Louis David, and Géricault. Thus fully equipped, Fischl moved with Gornik to New York in May 1978. He got a job with an art shipper, whose premises were in the same SoHo building—420 West Broadway—as Leo Castelli’s gallery and, more important, which furnished occasional sightings of the about-to-be-prima young dealer, Mary Boone.
Fischl remembers the years 1978–1980 as the “hinge period” for his contemporaries who set up shop in New York at about the same time; he speaks of Robert Longo’s “coolly ambiguous drawings of chic white people,” Cindy Sherman’s “photographic disappearing act,” Barbara Kruger’s “scalding satires on male authority,” David Salle’s “brilliant, ironic takes on popular culture,” and Julian Schnabel’s “bombastic neo-expressionist canvases.” And, oh, the sculptor Bryan Hunt, who—in one of the frequent bits of breathless People magazine writing that this book’s co-author and presumably more professional scribe, Michael Stone, should not have permitted—is said to have “exploded on the New York art scene in the late seventies.”
Fischl didn’t do so badly himself. His first New York solo show, at Ed Thorpe’s gallery, “sold out—eight or so canvases at several thousand dollars each.” A couple of years later, after being celebrated for four straight days as one of the artists in an exhibition entitled Tendencias in Nueva York, Fischl found himself at a big party on the outskirts of Madrid, at which “a glamorous crowd milled around—some dancing, others naked” and “waiters carried trays of champagne and offered guests a choice of cocaine or heroin.” The host? “A prominent commodities trader rumored to be a partner of the American tax evader Mark Rich.” (Name? Hey, even bad boys know when to be discreet.)
Fischl writes that the last picture he painted in Halifax, Rowboat (1978), “turned out to be the first painting of the type I would make for the rest of my life.” Just as there’d be many more quasi-enigmatic, expressionist canvases in his future, there’d already been a couple of similar artistic turning points in Fischl’s incipient career. While still a student at Arizona State, Fischl was working on a picture he wanted to finish but couldn’t. “I thought about quitting several times,” he says. “Then I threw my brushes at the canvas, walked over to the offending area in the middle of the picture, and swabbed it wildly with primerlike white paint. Only when I stepped back did I recognized the shape I’d produced. In the midst of this abstract space I’d painted a white cartoon floating bed.” In the wake of his mother’s funeral, Fischl “vowed that I would never let the unspeakable also be unshowable. I would paint what could not be said.” Finally, at CalArts, Fischl was taken aboard a commission project—a mural in an L.A. bar—that another student had secured.

 

“The result was mayhem, an orgy of all-night drinking and uninhibited painting. I’d painted a naked couple; all I remember is that the man looked a lot like Nixon. I have no idea why I made him look like that or why I’d ever made the picture. My first reaction was chagrin. The image confirmed to me what an outsider I really was in the world of art. But there was a message in it. I realized that when left to my own devices, and in a spirit of spontaneity, I’d produced a representational painting—one with recognizable figures. And it was the most fun I’d had painting in a long time.”

 

After this cascade of epiphanies had led to Rowboat and Sleepwalker was in the works, Fischl still had doubts. “I had another reservation,” he says. “My new paintings swerved sharply away from anything that could be considered modernist.” (Funny, isn’t it, how artists in an age in which originality is everything, worry when their work doesn’t conform to some sanctioned type.) Fischl’s misgivings were only exacerbated when Jean-Christophe Amman, the sophisticated European curator who’d included Fischl in an exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel, dropped in for a studio visit. “Jean-Christophe hit every single thing on my list, from the direction the work was taking—how reactionary and suicidal, how poorly drawn, how poorly painted—to how thin and transparent the lines of the glassines were [Fischl created his initial figurative work on overlays of glassine] that they could not convincingly hold their own image.”
But in 1981 came Bad Boy, the painting that cemented Fischl’s rep and furnished the slightly disingenuous title of this memoir. In the middle foreground stands a backlighted adolescent boy facing away from the viewer. His shadowed hands dip thievingly into a purse on a bureau behind him. The purse belongs to a naked woman lying oblivious on the tousled bed-sheets in front of him. Her head is farther away from the boy than is her pubis, an open view of which he has because her legs are spread. One of her legs bends at the knee while she picks at a toe with her left hand, on which she wears a wedding ring. Diagonal striations of bright light coming into the room through a Venetian blind complete the scene in terms of visual drama, and some big bananas in a bowl lend obvious symbolism. At this point, Fischl couldn’t draw all that well, but he didn’t have to. The impact of the whole scene pretty much comes across instantly via the picture’s free, heated painting.
With Bad Boy, Fischl’s career was off to the races. (The reader of the similarly titled book will, however, have to pause for a supremely Duh! moment: “Over the years,” Fischl writes, “I’ve tried to understand the elements that contributed to Bad Boy’s notoriety.”) He knows he’s destined for a bigger and better future than could be provided by poor Ed Thorpe, who “lacked the promotional skills to take [his artists] to the highest levels.” Fischl asked Salle to introduce him to Boone so that he could arrange a studio visit for her. She visited, but went away apparently unimpressed. Fast forward to 1985 (the book is a little cloudy on exactly when Mary said yes), and Fischl is netting $250,000 on his first show with Boone and racking up a cool million in annual income.
With capital-S success, however, doubts about other people’s work arise, particularly work produced by his stablemates Schnabel and Salle. “Julian and David belong to this category of painters [‘you remember for their style and energy’] . . . Julian’s impressive use of scale and David’s remarkable command of the rectangle. But the individual canvases don’t come to mind. I belong to the second category of painters. I try to create images so poignant they burn into your brain, not to be forgotten, like the boy masturbating in Sleepwalker or the adolescent voyeur/thief in Bad Boy.” The snot-nosed kids coming up behind him didn’t appeal to Fischl, either: “Young artists, suddenly flush with cash, were shedding the gritty bohemianism of the seventies and embracing a modish upscale urbanity.”
At this point, more about the writing in Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas. Most of the time, it’s a little breathless. Stone should have worked to vary the tone a bit, or at least ratcheted it back to something less than one astounding revelation per page. A bigger problem, though, is the inclusion—more like intrusion—of occasional gray-boxed pages (in a different font) entitled, “Other Voices.” They’re merely long, unenlightening blurbs by teachers, siblings, fellow artists, a dealer, and comic actor Steve Martin, who collects Fischl’s work and has, annually for the past eighteen years, “taken long walks in the blazing sun of St. Barth’s.” Nobody says anything actually disapproving about the author of Bad Boy in these gray boxes—as I said at the top, Fischl seems like a pretty nice bloke.
The closest “Other Voices” gets to controversy is with Salle’s furnishing a contradictory account of an argument with Fischl that resulted in the pair not speaking to each other for a while. In Salle’s account, he questioned the value of an artist’s sincerity—obviously Fischl’s—and, in frustration “slapped [a small bowl] of ketchup down on [the restaurant’s] white tablecloth . . . it ended the argument, and we didn’t speak for a long time after that.” In Fischl’s version, the two were arguing over the same matter, but standing in a Tribeca traffic island. “In the end both of us shouted: ‘Fuck you!’ It was the last time we spoke to each other for several years.” Of course, there could have been two arguments, but I just don’t see Fischl as a hissy-fit kind of guy.
In the conventional Hollywood memoir—and Bad Boy is an art-world Hollywood memoir—the star experiences a rude awakening regarding the price of success and the livin’-large it has provided. Fischl opens Bad Boy with his own such moment. It’s 1986 and Fischl and April Gornik are driving home from a dinner in honor of a Whitney Museum survey of the painter’s early work. Ripped on cocaine and drunk on Armagnac, Jack Daniel’s, and wine apparently too generic to specify, Fischl has a road-rage incident with the driver of a Cadillac bearing the vanity plate, “Mr. Laughter.” “I knew,” Fischl says, “that if I didn’t stop barreling down that road, my recklessness would bleed onto my canvases, and my life would truly go into free fall.”
Fischl straightened up and flew right, but more comeuppances waited in the wings. After the crash of 1987, Boone had to cut Fischl’s prices from $350,000 per painting down to $250,000. (I hear a chorus of “Awwwww” emanating from readers of this review.) Even at those cut-rate prices, Fischl “felt like a fraud. I felt I didn’t deserve the recognition I was getting. And part of me wanted even more. And of course the greater the hype surrounding my work, the more distanced I felt from myself.” The presence of Tom, a local painter of duck decoys who worked across the street from the small house in Sag Harbor (at the eastern end of Long Island) that Fischl had bought in the mid-1980s, got under Fischl’s skin: “At the same time he was making these precious small masterpieces, I was across the street making paintings that I was struggling to define the criteria for, struggling to figure out which parts of a painting had practical value and which parts were purely aesthetic—that is to say, decorative. And yet I was the one becoming famous.”
Nothing, nevertheless, kept or keeps Fischl from painting. For all the literary histrionics about his personal and professional life (but who’d want to read about a painter in the act of painting; it’s pretty boring if he’s not Jackson Pollock), Fischl is a genuine artist. If he had to hold down a job as a hod-carrier in order to paint pictures in his free time that never, ever sold, he’d probably still do it. The fact that the work of artists who followed in his wake (Matthew Ritchie, John Currin, Will Cotton: “arabesque everywhere—along with the obsessive processes and the lack of sentiment”) or artists who stole the art world’s attention from him (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst) pisses him off is really more an indication of artistic depth than shallow careerism. (Only dilettantes, hobbyists, and autotherapeutic artists don’t care about the direction in which the art world is going.) Fischl isn’t bashful about confronting his less-than-all-star status in recent art history. He asks Stefan Edlis, a “major collector” of his work, “‘Why would anyone choose a ten-million-dollar shiny balloon bunny over one of my paintings?’” Edlis answers, “‘You’ve got to face it, man. You didn’t make the cut.’”
Bummer. But Fischl does have a life, and in it a woman he dearly loves. On Fischl’s fiftieth birthday in 1998, April Gornik asked him what he wanted. Fischl said he wanted to get married. They did, and honeymooned in Rome. Which brings us to what might be called “The April Problem.”
Fischl’s list of his contemporaries who experienced a “hinge period” in 1978–1980 New York, concludes with his calling attention to “April’s dramatic landscapes.” At other points in his memoir Fischl similarly touts his spouse’s painting: “She began to understand that it would be through landscape that she would be able to capture the magic and power of light”; “April’s paintings are both spiritual and psychological. They are metaphoric and specific. They are about nature and about bearing witness to a metaphysical conflict between earth and sky, light and dark”; “. . . by any normal measure, April was a very successful artist.”
Fischl just can’t understand why Gornik isn’t considered to be in the same league with Salle, Schnabel, Longo, and himself. His resentful dumbfoundedness leads to the end of his friendship with the critics Roberta Smith (chief art critic of the New York Times and probably the most powerful critical voice in the New York art world) and Jerry Saltz (Smith’s husband and New York magazine art critic, who’s not too far behind his wife in clout) because of “Roberta’s failure to give more than a passing mention to April’s work in the 1989 Whitney Biennial.” (Actually, Smith’s review didn’t mention Gornik at all, a neglect visited upon at least half the artists in the show.) By page 245, Fischl has had enough:

 

“April had put up a show in 1989 that had been panned, and she’d been viciously attacked in the reviews. The degree of disdain expressed toward her and her work came out of nowhere and was incomprehensible to me . . . Her paintings were in prestigious collections, including those of important museums. She had just been on the cover of ArtNews, the subject of a glowing profile, and had been included the year before in the Whitney Biennial. None of us could figure out what had brought this on.”

 

It’s more than passing strange that Fischl, who accepts with equanimity his own collector’s assessment of his limited importance, can’t grasp the probability that Gornik, a painter of big, attractive landscapes that don’t seem quite believed-in, is a pretty good artist, maybe even a good-good one, but no more than that. Fischl’s advocacy on behalf of his wife’s painting is, however, understandable as a convincing indication of his affection. Eric loves April. April paints and shows, too. Eric has a big fat career. April has a very nice career. Eric would like April to have a big fat career, too. Why can’t they both have big fat careers, not for the money, but so that April can be happy? That a thread of fretting about this runs through Fischl’s remarkably honest memoir (what other successful contemporary artist has demystified him-/herself to this degree?) shows that love is, if not blind, at least nearsighted. Love is also nothing if not sincere, which is Fischl’s basic predicament: he’s a sincere artist in an art world that’s turned almost entirely strategic. The wonder is that he’s done as well as he has.

* Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, published by Crown Publishers, 2013.

 

 



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