In an interview with the critic Donald Kuspit, Eric Fischl said of his paintings, "I want to give just enough muscle tone or flesh tone, enough of a dose of life that you don't think about how it was made... That's the kind of realism that I admire, that I'm trying to achieve." Whether he's been able to achieve this is open to discussion.
Fischl's strength as an artist is that he challenges the viewer. He lets you into his pictures by placing his nudes in familiar suburban surroundings. He then provokes you by having his figures engage in some sort of sexual mischief. Looking at a Fischl leaves you intrigued but slightly embarrassed for feeling like a voyeur. However, the main problem with Fischl is that while he has something to say, he isn't a strong enough painter to say it with authority.
As many will tell you, Fischl was a victim of the art-school mentality of the 1970s. Whether drawing can be taught is debatable, but in that period it definitely wasn't considered a skill necessary to master. Assuming Fischl possessed some natural ability, he suffered from not sharpening his skills during those years. What's ironic is that when Fischl emerged in the 1980s, along with Julian Schnabel and David Salle, his drawing ability seemed great by comparison.
During the 1980s, Fischl developed a mini-mystique. Wealthy collectors pursued his work because they thought it had a gutsy "bad boy" edge. The work allowed collectors to think of themselves as gutsy because they were willing to hang a painting of a teenage boy masturbating. Buying a Fischl also became an exercise in humiliation. His dealer, the Mary Boone Gallery, made you prove to them that your collection was worthy. That way, if you were allowed to acquire a Fischl, it wouldn't be lonely. One collector compared the gallery's interrogation process to the rigorous interview he went through to adopt a baby. Perhaps that's a bit exaggerated, but the bottom line is that the system worked, at least for a while.
In the heat of the late 1980s, large Fischl paintings routinely brought $300,000-$500,000 at auction. The competition was heavy, as you had great dealers like Thomas Ammann competing with collectors who were shut out of the gallery system. As prices, in general, came down in the mid-1990s, Fischl continued to do surprisingly well at auction.
Now that we're in the year 2001, the Fischl market is stronger than ever and collectors have been willing to pay increasingly escalating prices. Gallery prices are supposedly $400,000 for a new painting. In 1999, the painting Time for Bed brought $783,500 at auction (Sotheby's Nov. 1999). Last year, Fischl set a personal auction record when Noonwatch brought $996,000 (Christie's May 2000).
Who knows what this year will yield? However, now that Fischl has been approaching a million dollars at auction, collectors certainly have options if they want to buy blue-chip realism. It would seem far better to pay a little more to buy a major work by David Hockney or Wayne Thiebaud. What's even sadder is that Fischl is now more expensive than Philip Guston -- who was a truly great painter.
Ultimately, Eric Fischl is a decent artist. But any buyer who thinks that acquiring a Fischl identifies him as a serious risk-taking collector is wrong.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.