1986: Eric Fischl

Eric Fischl’s mid-career retrospective at Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986 consisted of 28 paintings of obliquely-observed, semi-scandalous, sexually-charged situations taking place in spacious upper middle class houses, yards and beaches. Fischl’s subject matter is greatly enhanced by his equally licentious painting style, which consists of loosely-handled, summary brushwork, and an approach to the nude that is at once awkward and fluid at the same time.

Reviewing the show, New York Times art critic John Russell stated that Fischl’s work was controversial because his combination of anxious expressionism and suburban anomie, “had come down hard upon the exposed nerve of our time.”¹ Less portentously, Robert Hughes, writing about Fischl’s 1988 show at Mary Boone, credited the artist with conjuring scenes of unforeseen prurience “so vivid that for the moment you ignore the formal lapses in Fischl’s painting.” He also noted

… Fischl’s desire to turn the viewer into a voyeur, a reluctant and embarrassed witness. At such moments you realize that, whatever awkwardness his work harbors, he is up to something worthwhile at least on the plane of psychic narrative.²

By the 1970s, performance art had appropriated the representation of the body, which abstraction had programmatically displaced from painting and sculpture. As Fischl candidly acknowledged his lack of formal training in basic technique, pointing out that basic skills like drawing from the nude were not taught in the progressive American art schools (Fischl received his MFA from Cal Arts in 1974) and the were no American figural artists to serve as exemplars.

The figural tradition was thriving, however, in Britain, and Fischl clearly looked hard at and learned from Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and above all, David Hockney, whose glaring sunlight, anomie, and swimming pools filled with surprises suggested new directions for narrative painting. Stylistically, Fischl is more indebted to the slash and burn manner of Bacon and to Freud’s turgid and vexed exploration of the metaphorical relationship of oil pigments to skin.

The bulk of Russell’s review of the Fischl retrospective reads like an undergrad art history exam: pictures by Fischl are compared to and contrasted with works by Manet, Degas, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and Max Beckmann:

[Degas] sets up a charged situation with his incomparable subtlety of insight and characterization, and then he goes away and leaves us to figure it out as best we can. That is the tactic of Fischl, too, though the society with which he deals has an unstructured brutality and a violence never far from release that are very different from the nicely calibrated cruelties that Degas recorded.

These artists were regularly mentioned at the time in conjunction with Fischl, either to demonstrate his place in the tradition of modern painting, or to show how short he fell from it. To a much greater extent, Julian Schnabel, and David Salle, to a lesser extent, were also discussed with reference to the canon in the same tendentious manner. Then again, the terms of the debate had been set by the artists themselves (Schnabel: “I’m the closest thing to Picasso that you’ll see in this fucking life”⁴), who proclaimed their project to be nothing short of the revival of painting itself.

Russell’s review is important not for its pictorial analysis, but because all of the comparisons to past masters are favorable to Fischl. No ironic points are scored and no falling off is lamented. It is clear that Russell feels not only that it is legitimate to assess Fischl’s paintings in terms of their place within the western tradition, but that they can hold their own in the process. At that moment, Eric Fischl, the ultra-hyped, contemporary art star, became a modern master charged with representing “our time”, and an object of art historical analysis. Neo-Expressionism was here to stay.

Notes

1. John Russell, “At the Whitney, 28 Eric Fischl Paintings,” The New York Times, 21 February 1986.

2. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (Penguin, 1992).

3. Russell, 2.

4. Michael Stone, “Off the Canvas: The Art of Julian Schnabel Survives the Wreckage of the 1980s,” New York Magazine, 18 May 1992, p. 32.

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