"I was totally thrown by that," Eric Fischl said, as we discuss the controversy surrounding his Tumbling Woman sculpture. Following 9/11, he made the bronze and it was installed in an underground concourse at Rockefeller Center. Two days later, the work was pulled.
Fischl is no stranger to controversy, of course. His 1981 Bad Boy painting depicts a nude woman exposing her sex to a young boy. Both subject matter and bold brushwork turned the painter into a symbol of macho power.
We are in Fischl’s orderly SoHo studio, orderly because the artist now mostly works in his Sag Harbor studio. He and wife April Gornik have been together for 34 years, and divide their time between Long Island and New York. On the walls are his latest works, large bold bullfight pictures from the Corrida in Ronda in southern Spain, the same subject that provided inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon and Goya’s paintings.
I asked him whether he thought Tumbling Woman was too early after the terrorist attack for people to deal with.
"No, it’s more complicated than that," he said. "America has a hard time with the human body and the issues surrounding the body and certainly, mortality is one of those problems. The thing around 9/11 is that it was this horrific event killed 3,000 people but there were no bodies. If you remember all the passion was centered on architecture to replace the Towers. To secure the footprints of the Towers. It had nothing to do with human tragedy because it was too painful. So I think that the Tumbling Woman reminded people that it was a human tragedy."
Were you in Manhattan?
"No, I saw it on television, like everyone else. You know in the rest of the world people were not spared the gory images, they saw the bodies. In America we very briefly saw the leapers, jumpers, fallers. So it became harder and harder to image in the human tragedy, and therefore Tumbling Woman in this urban environment totally threw people with its vulnerability. All of us now saw that the images of the people who leapt or fell represented the ultimate statement of how horrible it was. To choose one death over another. People saw this as not just an American tragedy."
We talk more about Fischl’s reputation, and his pivotal part in re-energizing painting and realism. I ask if he sees himself as at the forefront of the realist movement.
"Let me talk about it a little differently. If you look at the history of modernism, you will see that each movement has a pet realist who is part of that movement. You will see that Balthus with the Surrealists is a good example. Or like David Hockney to the Pop artists. Fairfield Porter, the Abstract Expressionists. Each avant garde movement needs a retrograde to push the movement to its max. There’s always been realist painting. The avant garde ignores 99 per cent of it. I think about my success, there was a kind of dialogue about the meaninglessness of painting, and the opposite of that is the meaningful. So I tried to find sincere imagery and create it into sincere painting. The other thing is that myself, Julian Schnabel and David Salle were kind of singled out in the ‘80s because what was prominent then was a groundswell of female artists. What we represented were three definitions of the male persona, the misogynist, the sensitive, the bravura male."
That’s really interesting. . . .
"Nobody has ever talked about that. In the ‘80s two things were happening, the critique of the male gaze and the critique of painting. And both were dying. Painting was less potent, less viable. And the fact that all three of us were painters makes sense, it makes sense that we were singled out. It’s no coincidence that we were used as examples.
Thirty years later, Fischl is still with Mary Boone Gallery. I comment about the longevity of that relationship, and the loyalty that it implies. Eric smiles and replies, "She has always been able to sell my work. She has been an incredible business partner. My next show will be in the fall of ’09 or in 2010."
"I’m showing these Bullfight paintings in Berlin, at the Jablonka Galerie. Jablonka has opened avenues that are able to breathe life into my European presence. Germany still really appreciates painting."
"Do you think PETA will protest these paintings?"
"I don’t know. Things are kind of shown from the animals’ point of view. There is a tremendous amount of pathos."
I ask Eric about light, which is especially beautiful in the "Bullfight" series and has long been a constant in his art. "All the reasons for light are obvious," he begins. "Think of the meaning of light in the literary sense. . . ’cast in a certain light,’ ‘illumination’, even Revelations comes from illumination. . . ’the light bulb goes off’. . . The meaning of something is specific to the light it is seen in. Light can come from all different sources, from the Impressionistic colors to Caravaggio’s theatrical light. In the Baroque, a profound sense of light and shadow. For me, great art is always about a specific light."
I then mention the painter Janet Fish, who just had a show at D.C. Moore gallery in New York filled with her brilliantly lit paintings. Eric says, "She’s one of the most interesting realists of her generation. Her work is a touchstone, and tremendously influential. Anyone who deals with domestic still life has to go through her, she’s very important." And when I bring up another artist friend, Martha Diamond, he calls her work "fearlessly direct. She is an artist I looked at when she was showing. What I don’t understand about the art world is why it can’t discover a midcareer artist. Younger artists could not be doing what they’re doing without the work of older artists."
Which led me to question which younger artists he is interested in. He mentions a range of realists, "Dana Schutz, Tim Gardner, Alyssa Monks and Helen Verhooven."
Turning back to his own work, I ask him about the Krefeld paintings 2003 series. Using actors and installed props, Fischl created rooms in the famous Mies van Der Rohe Esters House (1928) in Krefeld, Germany. The strained sensuality of the scenes was first captured on digitally reworked photos. I tell him some of my female friends found the middle-aged couple disturbing.
"I know I am surrounded by controversy. I never brought the feminist arguments. I thought they were basing it on a quick look, not on experience."
"So much of your work has been about sexuality."
"Yes, an exploration of sexuality. And the sensuality as the experience of paint and material."
"But isn’t the Krefeld series a man's fantasy?"
"A fantasy of what? A relationship of a man and a woman who are not doing so well. I actually used actors. And a Swiss actress. In order to get them to act, I had to give them problems, like, she wants a hundred dollars from him but won’t tell him why and he has to figure out why she wants the money. I took still photographs of them. If the problem I came up with didn’t give them excitement, then there were no photographs."
Next, we speak about his sculptural work, exhibited at Mary Boone in 2008.
"I do the sculptures by hand. Some are from photos I took of Brazilian dancers, or I use my large watercolors for inspiration. I treat the sculptures like paintings. I heat and paint the bronze to achieve the texture, it’s a chemical process."
Although the show was widely praised by the public, Fischl says, "My sculpture show was mute. Some of it sold. But there was no critical reaction."
Another recent project for Fischl is the sweeping glass mosaic A Garden of Circus Delights in the heavily traveled Madison Square Garden 34th Street subway stop. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the huge piece presents a commuter drawn into a bizarre circus world. Covering five walls, the piece is replete with a vibrant peaceable kingdom, ringmaster, clown and costumed bears. "I thought it would be amusing do a contemporary Dante’s Inferno, to turn commuting into a spiritual quest," the artist has said.
I ask Eric about living in the Hamptons, where he paints. April and Eric still maintain their Manhattan loft, where she had recently held a dinner party for 20 to celebrate his 60th birthday, the night before our interview.
"I sold my old East Village studio to Mel Kendrick and Christopher Walls. I have this place for 20 years. I do most of my work out at the beach because it is nice and quiet and conducive to working. Plus I feel alive and inspired by a closer relationship to nature than the urban beat. The city doesn’t feed me the way it used to. If I had my choice, I would be in New York less often."
"The city was an incredibly stimulating place, especially as a young artist, and helped to define in clearer terms what my paintings were about. The constant assault, the barrage, helped weed out what was arbitrary. So the city made me a better artist than what I would have been without it. The exposure, the variety of arts was great. Within the art world, the city is really a place for young artists. The focus changes. You don’t need to be reminded of that on day to day basis."
Despite the multiple art fairs that have become part of the lifeblood of contemporary art, Fischl said he usually skips them. "It’s not for looking, it’s for something else." Speaking about the crowds and barrage of images, he adds, "It’s like shopping at Century 21. There’s too much stuff, I find it hard to shop there."
And where does he shop?
"Online, or at John Varvatos."
One of Eric’s latest projects is curating a massive traveling show called "America Here and Now." The work will be displayed in expandable trailers that will travel all over, in small towns and mid-sized cities. It is a show involving artists, playwrights, poets filmmakers and musicians.
"Some of the artists are Kiki Smith, Jasper Johns, Barbara Krueger, Dana Schutz, Rosenquist. There’s a range of artists and art styles. The poetry is curated by Bob Holman. Robert Pinsky, Mary Harjo, Carol Muskie, 52 poets in all, it’s called ‘Crossing State Lines.’ It is an epic American poem that has traveled through the last 18 months."
"It’s an enormous project. Fourteen musicians who are singer songwriters are participating, who have agreed to write a new song or donate an old one. Sting, Yoko Ono. I am working with a team called Art Train U.S.A."
And of course, talk turns to the economic woes New York, and America are now facing.
"These are tough times. People are going for the tried and true. If you have a steady career, that’s great."
"I am actually optimistic," Fischl said, "that the way the art world has spun out of control will lead back to a more essential reality. I was asked recent if I could explain the difference between the art market of the ‘80s and today. I certainly can. In the ‘80s, we called it the art world. Now we call it the art market. I would be happy to go back to the art world."
ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.