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|eric fischl: body ego
by Donald Kuspit
With his eight new figurative sculptures, Eric Fischl proves that he is part of the regression to Old Masterism that in the ongoing postmodern crisis -- the lack of artistic direction, and the feeling that everything is possible but that nothing is really convincing, singular and superior to anything else -- passes as artistic progress. (All the works except one were made in 1997, and are in bronze, a durable Old Master material supposedly assuring instant significance, not to say eternal verity.)
Fischl offers us a kind of aborted Rodinism: secondhand dramatic modeling ostensibly revitalized by daring new "transgressive" poses (or rather posturings). Thus, a male Puppeteer seems to be recoiling from his own erection; the female figure in The Weight is all but doubled up under its burden; the female figure hearing the Message of God crouches in what must be an excruciatingly painful position; an untitled male figure suffers the same fate; the male figure in The Brave Moment stands and looks up to God but seems equally strained; the male Watcher is also in a far from comfortable position; the knees of the abject female figure in The Wait certainly must hurt; and the figures in Hysterics of Love -- the tour de force of the exhibition, all the more so because it brings together what Fischl otherwise keeps separate: the male figure (Christ) and the female figure (Mary Magdalene, who has anointed his dead body with ointment and, in an excess of devotion, is in the process of wiping it off with her hair, thus cleaning him for burial). All this discomfort is supposed to convey suffering, but it is too melodramatic to do so in a sustained, reflective way. One gets the stereotyped point with the first glance.
Fischl has always dealt, in a more or less realistic manner, with male and female figures -- in his most famous pictures adolescent boys and technically (that is, physically) adult women in various ironic degrees of (quasi?) erotic relationship -- but in these sculptures I think Fischl has become the mannerist of his own realism. No doubt this was encouraged by the experience of the visionary sculpture he saw in Rome, which dramatized the human condition, in all its strangeness, in a religious context. It undoubtedly made human beings seem more sublime than they are in emotional and physical fact, even as it permitted expressive excess and intimacy. Certainly Fischl's Roman experience gave his art a new lease on life: it showed that he could, after all, deal with emotionally adult (if disturbed) people, not just the emotionally immature (technically adult or not). It also led him to think of grander things -- death and eternity -- than are usually thought of, at least consciously, in the suburbs where many of his scenes used to be set.
And yet Fischl's sculptures are pseudo-visionary, for they show only a conventional, skin-deep understanding of the eschatological concerns they engage. How can Fischl really understand religion from the inside, since he has none? Indeed, his works are about the lack of faith, or perhaps worse bad faith, that exists in modern relationships, particularly between man and woman. Fischl is at his best when he suggests the underlying emotional primitivism of modern sophisticates -- the way their knowingness lets them down just when it is most needed -- but the emotional primitives of Fischl's new sculptures lack any self-protective sophistication, and as such lack the inner tension to make them more than blankly raw. Thus Fischl ends up mocking what he wants to exploit but doesn't understand enough to do so adequately. He unwittingly renders ironic the visionary moment of inner engagement with "higher things" that he wants to recover, but whose meaning he is hardly equal to.
Of course, as Fischl himself suggests, his new religious themes are a cover for his old interest in sexuality and the intense emotions it can arouse. Indeed, Fischl fancies himself an expert in sexual representation, and an insightful student of the emotions. I think the new sculptures show that he is not unequivocally either. His self-dramatizing figures are not emotionally convincing because they are too externalized -- all too explicitly "expressive." They lack the residue of unresolved interiority -- the introspective, incommunicado dimension, if one wishes -- that Rodin's figures have, and for that matter, and perhaps most tellingly, those of Lehmbruck. (The Wait seems to be a bad quotation of one of Lehmbruck's masterpieces.) Moreover, Fischl's naked figures are unconvincing psychosexually, however much their texture sexualizes their nakedness by making it tangible and vivid -- "sensational" -- because he does not sufficiently appreciate the fact that psychosexuality is emotionally nuanced and intricate, not simply a matter of blind excitement and urgency. Fischl's figures are too melodramatically physical to be emotionally convincing, even as they suggest the body ego in which the most basic emotions originate.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.