Double Talk: Eric Fischl

The Process of Painting and Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas

I have been interviewing the American painter, Eric Fischl, for 25 years, beginning in 1985 when his first touring exhibition, organized by the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, was circulating to major European and North American galleries and, most recently, in 2010 when he came to Winnipeg as a keynote speaker for “My City’s Still Breathing,” a symposium on the arts and urban culture. In between we have talked on CBC network radio about Edouard Manet and about Eric’s own work for the “Artist’s Talk” series at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario and for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C.

The interview also supplied the main text for the monograph published in 2000 by The Monacelli Press in New York (the second, expanded version was published in 2008). To put the book together (it included an introductory essay by Arthur C Danto and a meditation on the painting, Barbecue, by Steve Martin) I spoke with Eric generally and specifically about ideas connected to his art, and then removed my questions and left only his answers. It was a question of separating the artful wheat from the inquisitorial chaff.

Finally, he has appeared in the pages of this magazine on four occasions, in separate conversations about Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Max Beckmann, and again with April Gornik and Steve Martin in a free-ranging discussion about the state of contemporary art and the attitudes that have determined its tone and direction.

I mention this list of interviews as a way of emphasizing the generative nature of a conversation with Eric: I have come away from each of these encounters with my head full of insight and ideas. He has made me a better critic, and because of the challenging nature of his comments he has also made me a better interviewer. In his aesthetic game, when you step up to the plate you have to be prepared.

Now there are two recent opportunities to see and read Eric Fischl’s observations about his life in art: in a 38 minute-long film called Eric Fischl: The Process of Painting, a documentary made to accompany an exhibition of his paintings entitled “Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting” at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2012, and in Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, a memoir written at the suggestion, and with the help, of Michael Stone.

Eric Fischl and Michael Stone, Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas.

The film is less a documentary than the recording of what ends up being a genial and peripatetic lecture during which Eric talks to a class of art students in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, visits the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and looks at books of photographs by Pierre Bonnard and Leni Riefenstahl in his studios in New York City and Sag Harbor. For the most part, The Process of Painting is not a film you watch as much as one you listen to and think about. You can hear the edit points, there are dead spaces, and when the film moves from one subject or location to another it simply cuts to black. But whatever technical sophistication the film lacks is compensated for by Fischl’s comments on his own practice and on the art of other artists, including Thomas Eakins and Auguste Rodin. It is the particularity of his way of seeing the world that is so compelling; he describes Rodin’s Gates of Hell as “an amazing sensual apocalypse, as though it were an erotic fantasy. Everything about it is both terrifying and luscious at the same time;” and when he zeros-in on the scalpel-holding hand of Dr. Samuel Gross from Eakins’s famous 1875 painting, The Gross Clinic, he says, “it is probably the most blood-stained hand in the history of painting; it’s so moist, so fresh. It’s absolutely perfect.” Fischl makes evident his gift for looking closely at the body and the ambiguity that is an inescapable part of that scrutiny. “A person’s body is this interface between an internal world of feeling, self-regard, self-loathing and then this interface with the socialized world. That’s what I find so compelling about watching people.” As he said in 2000 for the monograph, “I’m interested in things that look like one thing and then have become something else, and flip back and forth.”

There is one scene in The Process of Painting that is absolutely magical. In talking about the relationship among watercolour, sculpture and photography, he has been looking at the photographs taken by Leni Riefenstahl in 1976 of the Nuba of Kau, an African tribe untouched by Western influence, and which has served as a model for his own sculpture. The watercolour medium is thrilling because “it’s so direct; it’s a one-shot deal. It takes me right to the edge of control, out of control.” We see him place a large sheet of paper flat on the studio floor, put down a foam cushion to kneel on, and then pick up one of his Nuba-generated sculptures, which he places centrally in front of the watercolour paper. What we see is a tableau of the artist and his model. Then, Eric begins to apply daubs and rivulets and traces of colour onto the surface, first in beeswax gold and then in rusty brown. In a matter of minutes, the sculptural figure has been reconfigured on the paper, fluidly doubled in two dimensions. “There is something about the solidity, the density of the sculpture and the ephemeralness of the watercolour that has a kind of magic feel to it.” It is an astonishing thing to have seen. We have witnessed something being made from nothing.

Bad Boy is a riveting, revelatory and courageous memoir that covers Eric’s upbringing, education and career. It takes its name from the 1981 painting in which an 11-year-old boy steals something from the purse of a woman who lies naked on a bed, her skin alive with slivers of light penetrating through the louvred window blind. In his simple description, it is “a picture that touched on themes of incest and voyeurism and is to date my most famous and notorious painting.” While you can’t control notoriety, you can create conditions that might move in that direction. “The truth is my choice of themes was not entirely innocent,” Eric writes, “I deliberately painted psychosexual subjects—the taboos of middle-class suburban life—and I wasn’t altogether unhappy with the reputation it earned me.” Eric had come to prominence in 1980 with an exhibition of paintings at the Edward Thorp Gallery in New York. The show included a number of dramatic paintings, including Woman Surrounded by Dogs, A Funeral and especially, Sleepwalker, a picture in which a young, somnambulant boy masturbates in a wading pool. The paintings in this game-changing exhibition were scenes depicting what the artist calls “adolescent sexuality and adult misbehaviour.”

That Eric Fischl is the most important American realist painter is an uncontested claim and a slightly misleading one. He paints recognizable subjects and objects and places them in situations that, while not alien, are often not immediately understandable. The realist label works, then, to the extent that it allows us to name what we are looking at but not always explain what it means. He himself declares that he was never “a pure realist. On the contrary, one of my main preoccupations was with how factual I needed to be, how little I needed to include to get across what I wanted to say, how much I could leave out before my imagery tipped over into abstraction.” Bad Boy is loaded with this kind of considered recognition about what he was doing, why he was doing it, and how successful was the doing.

Fischl admits the full range of stupidities to which we are all susceptible, but to which few of us admit. He is candid about the cycle of cocaine and alcohol abuse he was using “to smooth out the edges of my social skills, to dull my fears and insecurities” but that was also endangering his personal safety, as well as that of April Gornik, his life partner, fellow artist and, since 1998, his wife. Bad Boy opens with a harrowing story about how far out of control Eric’s substance abuse had taken him; after the opening of his major touring exhibition at the Whitney in 1985, he acts in a way that could have been fatal. The next morning he wakes up, swears off alcohol and cocaine, and has been clear ever since. “I’m extremely stubborn,” he writes. “Once I decide to do something, it becomes almost impossible to stop me.”

His narrative has its own sense of unstoppability. It is a story he has come to understand over time, but aspects of it are psychologically startling for a first-time reader. After finishing Bad Boy, you realize that he was not so much commenting on the American Dream gone bad as delineating the world in which he grew up, with a ferociously alcoholic mother who throughout Eric’s adolescence walked around the house naked, as did his father. From this vantage point, personal history begins to colour class and social commentary as the central drama addressed in his most intense paintings. “I was trying to paint what I needed to see,” he says. “I paint to tell myself about myself.” It is true that painting is often a way towards self-knowledge, but rarely is it the case that the knowledge gained in that process finds such poignant and courageous expression in words. Bad Boy is scrupulous in its candour and no less meticulous in its generosity.

In addition to Eric’s text, there are comments from a list of family members and friends, including Bruce Ferguson, John McEnroe, Steve Martin, Mike Nichols, Mary Boone and the artists April Gornik, Ross Bleckner, Bryan Hunt, Ralph Gibson, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. They often give their perspective on incidents that Eric has just described in his text; the result is a layered narrative apprehended from different but richly compatible perspectives.

Eric has said that he finds inspiration in the unwavering honesty that Rembrandt shows in his self-portraits. What Rembrandt did in pictures, he has now duplicated in language. “Every 10 years he would take a hard look and reveal himself unflinchingly,” Eric says of the Dutch master, and he has now directed that same unflinching gaze at himself. “What more could you want from art than for someone to honestly say, this is what it’s like to be alive and to make that a shared experience?” It’s a rhetorical question with the same answer you get when you ask what more could you want from an artist doing the same thing? It’s all here. The bad boy has made good. Eric told me in the first of the interviews for the Monacelli monograph that in the work he was making in Halifax when he went there to teach painting in an environment where painting had been declared dead “I “trusted words more than I trusted imagery.” What both The Process of Painting and B_ad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas_ make abundantly clear is that he has reached a stage where we can place equal faith in the uncompromising integrity of both.