Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas
The story doesn’t get off to a promising start. It begins with a road rage incident on the opening night of Eric Fischl’s 1986 Whitney retrospective. Is this going to be a Jay McInerney-esque, drug-addled tale of the ’80s? Or will it be a self-conscious confessional, as foreshadowed in the next chapter detailing Fischl’s painful suburban childhood? It’s unclear whether the book is going to be an entertaining beach read or a satisfying insight into the mind of a commercially successful, deep-thinking, and influential artist.
Fortunately, it manages to be both. There is something for everyone. A few juicy bits are thrown in for fun—an orgy at CalArts, waitresses serving lines of coke at a party, some celebrity name-dropping. But the arc of the narrative soon takes over, delivering an unflinchingly honest story of Fischl’s personal evolution as an artist and how the trajectory of his career intersected with the art market. Along the way, there are many succinct passages on the evolution of the art market since the 1970s, discerning thoughts on a range of artists and detailed descriptions of his process and interpretations of important works. However, the real meat of the book is in the many candid descriptions of his emotional responses both to formative childhood experiences and adult life, and equally important, how the desire to understand and make peace with events provided a deeply personal motivation for art-making. In his words, “I was painting, and still paint, to explain myself to myself.”
The book is thoughtfully organized to make this main point. But some sins of narrative have been committed, most likely by the ghostwriter Michael Stone. The book starts predictably enough with a crisis and then winds its way back to the roots of that problem. The prose can be a little awkward at times, mixing what seems like direct transcriptions of a conversation and embellished language. Even then, one can’t so much blame Stone as recognize the inevitable by products of the ghost writing process. As Dore Ashton said at the beginning of an interview with Marcel Duchamp, “The interview is a fundamentally crass process.” So some of it seems a bit tacky: discussion of himself in comparison to Degas, Beckmann, and Hopper or the egotistical confessions about his desire to make “heroic” work. But let’s be honest—almost any artist worth his salt has huge ambitions for his work and an ego to match. Many visual artists are not interested in sharing their personal biography, let alone their most private ambitions. Even fewer would have the courage to put them down on paper.
In a departure from standard narrative structure, the book includes sidebar comments from friends and family members. It’s a novel, post-modern experiment to tell a story from multiple points of view. Almost all of the entries have an element of tribute, which is often insightful and moving, if not sometimes a tiny bit cloying. His sisters Holly and Laurie describe both his anger-fueled, destructive behavior and his protective, caring side as a brother. His former wife describes their “good hippy” credentials. One entry by David Salle recounts his perspective on a major argument. On balance the structural experiment succeeds, although it would have been even more effective (not to mention more brave) if, for example, he had included the point of view of people with whom he has irreparably fallen out, such as the art critics Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith.
Despite these criticisms, there is a large enough dose of brutal honesty and insight to make compelling reading. Fischl delves deeply into the roots of his own art-making, exploring without self-pity the implications of an intense relationship with his mother, her long struggle with alcoholism, and her tragic suicide just before his first year at CalArts. He is also unsparing about his competitive nature, in particular with Julian Schnabel and former CalArts roommate, David Salle. He candidly describes his misery and confusion after Schnabel’s first blockbuster at Mary Boone and Leo Castelli. There is also an extensive discussion of the temptations and distractions of fame, in particular why he stopped drinking the morning after his Whitney retrospective. The road rage incident came full circle.
Moreover, Fischl’s professional life makes an excellent case study of what it’s like to be first in and then out of synch with the famously fickle art market. He began his life as an artist in the late 1970s when conceptual art was ascendant and painting was widely viewed as “dead.” Studying at the newly-formed CalArts, which was mostly under the spell of conceptualists such as John Baldesarri, he struggled to break with the modernist experiment and explore his interest in figurative painting. By the early 1980s Fischl had become comfortable with his personal and uniquely uncomfortable psycho-sexual narratives. He enjoyed stratospheric commercial success, thanks to the support of gallerists Ed Thorpe, Mary Boone, and Ed Downey—a generous collector who offered him a monthly stipend for a period of time.
By the 1987 recession, his work was still selling, but prices were down. The arbitrary nature of the art market had become apparent, threatening anxiety in the studio. After an eye-opening trip to India, Fischl painted a series of scenes of Indian women. The sari-clad women were a new direction for him; the images were not concerned with psycho-sexual issues, but were more directly landscapes about shadow and light. He felt they were significant. But there was a painful disconnect between a market wanting recognizable “Fischls” and his need to react to his own life experiences and progress as an artist. Initially the paintings were not well-received.
By the 1990s, artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst were top dogs. Fischl openly criticizes much of the work in galleries during this period. Feeling neither inspired nor comforted by what he viewed as the lack of challenging, emotional works in the market, he temporarily lost his way in the studio; a feeling exacerbated by people trying to take advantage of his fame and a growing distrust in the art market.
At this point, the tone of the book shifts, becoming more reflective. He speaks frankly about feelings of irrelevance as well as the dangers of an artist measuring his worth by financial rather than critical, aesthetic measures. Many pages are devoted to important relationships that have sustained him over the years, in particular the rejuvenating effect of his friendship with Mike Nichols. There are also respectful and loving mentions of a wide range of individuals who have influenced him and elucidated aspects of his life: artist Ralph Gibson, tennis player John McEnroe, and comedian Steve Martin. This is undoubtedly an attempt to establish himself as part of the cultural fabric of his generation, but the friendships are real and the tributes sincere.
Among the passages that ring most true are those about the experience of being an artist. One passage describes his reaction to a particularly searing critique delivered early in Fischl’s career by collector Jean-Christoph Ammann: “All painters I know have a list in their heads of things they are unsure about with any painting they are working on. For me, if someone looks at my work and hits on anything on the list, I know that my doubts were correct and I need to fix it. If they don’t hit anything on the list, then I know my doubts simply reflect my own anxiety. In this case, Jean Christophe hit every single thing on my list. It was a scalding critique. I was distraught.” Any artist who has ever gone through a critique would immediately recognize the checklist and the resulting emotional panic, not to mention the doubts elicited by the acknowledgement of weak technical skills or the feelings of fraud when external recognition from the market arrives unexpectedly.
On the creative process, Fischl explains: “There are literally no words to describe what occurs when an image suddenly and unexpectedly appears on the canvas. Sometimes it’s serendipity, the result of a fortunate brushstroke. Sometimes I think it has to do with the inherent qualities of paint, or the slickness of a surface, or the fullness or acuity of a brush. And sometimes when I’ve got a good rhythm going and everything comes together, I feel as though it produces the purest expression of who and what I am and how I perceive the world.” That pretty much sums it up and few painters would disagree.
Towards the end there is a fair bit of rumination on the nature of art and what art “should” accomplish. Some comments perhaps verge on a justification of his choices. He argues that contemporary art had “failed its audience on a basic level” by no longer addressing the ordinary lives of people. He also unsurprisingly makes a very strong case for figuration, arguing that the body is the ultimate expression of the soul, and of what it makes us human. If visual art fails to represent that, he believes it fails to hold a central place in our culture. Further, for art to “work,” “an audience has to see themselves represented in the artist’s creation.” Many an abstract painter would take issue, not to mention any layperson that has stood in front of a Mark Rothko or Vladimir Kandinsky painting or any of the other many contemporary painters whose non-figurative images easily lift the heart or stir the soul. Whether one agrees with him or not, his arguments are reasonable and heartfelt. One is still grateful that he has made the effort to share his point of view, not only in countless paintings over the span of a career, but in this thoughtful, generous, and above all, honest book.