The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

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JUL-AUG 2014 Issue
Art In Conversation

ERIC FISCHL with Robert Berlind

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Inspired by a photograph by Oliver Abraham.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. Inspired by a photograph by Oliver Abraham.

The following public conversation between Eric Fischl and Robert Berlind took place at the National Academy on March 19, 2014. A special focus was on Fischl’s autobiography, Bad Boy, My Life On and Off the Canvas (Crown Publishers, 2013). The conversation was followed by questions from the audience.

Robert Berlind (Rail): Bad Boy delves into the complexities of having been through, survived, and learned from a difficult childhood, youth, college, and art school, and, at an early age, conspicuous success. The autobiography shows Eric’s surviving and learning from these experiences with impressive integrity. It also shows that one’s authenticity is not a personality trait but a lifetime project. Eric’s unusual candor about each stage of his life will make Bad Boy salutatory reading for people of any age. Biographers habitually assert correspondences between an artist’s life and art, often sidestepping rather than elucidating the work. It’s rare that an artist will write for public consumption about his or her travails and mission.

Among Eric’s ambitions is to make images that are pictorially expressive and at the same time accessible to viewers both in and outside the art world. Bad Boy extends those impulses in its directness and clarity.

Eric believes in the viability of painterly representation while many continue to ring the death knell for painting that has been rung since the invention of photography. He holds out not only for painting generally but also for pictorial storytelling. Because Eric is essentially a narrative artist, a storytelling artist, I’d like to make a few comments about the issue of storytelling in painting.

In the early Renaissance, painting moved away from iconic images and started to tell stories. Narrative pictures—early, groundbreaking examples are Giotto’s frescos in Ravenna and Assisi—show their mythic tales. Narration plays a major role into the 19th century. The birth of modernism begins with the rejection of narratives—religious, mythological, and historical—in favor of picturing contemporary life. Artists become more interested in art about perception and about art per se. By the late 1960s and ’70s, cool attitudes prevail, so it’s striking that Eric developed the idea of telling emotionally intense stories early on. Unlike earlier narrative paintings, these were not familiar stories from the established canon.

Eric, your early paintings depict peculiar predicaments. Viewers must flesh the stories out, find their own place in them. A degree of empathy for what every person in the painting might be experiencing is required of the viewer. Talk a little bit about your decision to draw on intimate details from your own life and to do that at a time when it was definitely uncool.

Eric Fischl: I’m a big believer in uncool. I arrived at the narrative in so many different ways. One was the discovery that I naturally tell myself stories when I paint. I have an associational kind of imagination. When I see a chair, I wonder about the chair: would someone be sitting, or maybe they’re not sitting, maybe they’re walking by, where are they going? And it just goes like that; trying to find a way of following myself through the painting process to ultimately arrive at the place I was going to with this feeling, memory, thought. That’s one reason why I moved into narration.

Rail: It’s also what puts the stories in the present tense, because they’re happening while you’re doing them.

Fischl: Yeah, exactly. It was such an embattled position. It was under such heavy artillery attack from so many sides that it became about reducing it down to just what I know—not moving it into the theoretical, the language or the discussion of art, but to simply affirm that what I know cannot be taken away from me. They can take away every pretense I have around what I know, but they can’t take away what I know. So, I paint what I know. I’m from the suburbs so I moved my paintings into the suburbs. I wasn’t thinking at the time, “yeah, the suburbs are such an untapped source.” [Laughter.] They were such a non-place in our cultural imagination that nobody assumed there could actually be content there. Writing and film had begun to explore that a little bit, but within the genre of representational painting it was overlooked. People had addressed the countryside, the pastoral, the urban high life, the demi-monde, etc. But the suburbs were considered bedroom communities whose non-existence was fundamental. We were the first generation of artists that actually grew up in the suburbs so we knew there was something there, so that was one of the motivating factors. It was as simple or stupid or defensive as that. It was the barrenness, the non-spiritual existence, a place of huge disappointment that manifested itself in marginal behavior or violence, or other abusive forms.

Rail: And yet your paintings aren’t critiques of the suburbs: Within that milieu they find some extraordinary energy.

Fischl: I came out of expressionist abstraction, I went into the not-knowing part of it and tried to find something there, then I stopped at that point when that revelatory moment occurred. How does that translate into narrative? When you are working with drama, where do you stop? If you stop it too soon, people fall short of the emotional or psychological impact of it. If you stop it too late it’s dissipated in some way. If you stop it at the moment it’s happening, it’s too confusing. There’s too much going on. So where do you stop it? For me it’s been a life process of trying to find what my friend, the photographer, Ralph Gibson, describes as those moments “when the reality of the object merges with its narrative.” This is where everything is present, but not determined. You stop it right before you know, but you’re definitely inside the moment. Then the audience goes on and completes it, they create a forestory and an afterstory to try to make sense out of that moment.

Rail: This brings me to another matter, your use of photography, which is intrinsic to what you’re saying about capturing some particular moment distinct from the flow of gestures. Walter Benjamin said about photography: “Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye, even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”

Fischl: Absolutely. That is it, and that’s why photography is indispensable to my practice. The photograph stops the world for such a minute fraction of a second that everybody is off-balance, essentially unaware of where their body is and exactly what shape it is. They’re off-balance, in motion, and if you are working with narrative you need motion as a way to trigger the narrative. For me it was indispensable to find the ways that people are so evocative in their unconscious state. For example, if you have somebody turning: turning away or turning toward? If they are turning away, what are they turning away from? If they are turning toward, what are they turning toward? Is it good, bad, painful, happy? All of those things are determined by a gesture that is essentially the same at that moment. Is somebody looking over their shoulder because someone had just come in? Are they looking over their shoulder because they are actually looking away from something that just happened over here? Or did something land on their shoulder? Those were the questions that photography set up for me. I would take the photographs and I would see something, but I wouldn’t know why I was fascinated by it. I would just see it, then take it. I don’t see anything else in the picture. I don’t see a dog walking over there or a person doing this or that. When I get back into the studio it still has the same effect on me, but I don’t necessarily know why it is evocative to me. Then it’s about contextualizing it: Would it answer my question if I took him from the beach and put him in a living room? Would it change something? What would it change if I moved him into the attic, or if I put him in the backyard? Each time, a new set of associations may have more of a pull for me.

Rail: So the process stays open ended for you. Throughout the history of painting from the Renaissance to Baroque and through 19th-century academic painting there is a huge repertory of poses and gestures. You might think, what can be left? Yet not one of those poses or gestures appears in your paintings. I think that’s a phenomenal accomplishment.

Fischl: When I was growing up in the suburbs, there were NO histories and no ART. [Laughter.]

Rail: In early paintings you were in fact teaching yourself a lot about representation.

Fischl: I have to interrupt you for one moment to say—for those of you who have not read the book—Bob is actually the person who opened representation for me. We were teaching in Nova Scotia and a wall separated our studios. I was painting really horrible abstract paintings and he was doing portraits of people: of students and faculty and whatnot, and he did one of me. I was sitting there watching him paint and I’d never seen a representational painter paint before, and his manner is so direct and so easy and so relaxed—this is light, and this is color, and this is the architecture of this space, etc. And I was looking at him like, are you kidding me? You can do that? Until I saw it, I thought that he sat there and labored and for months and years. So now I’m eternally indebted to Bob for moving back that veil.

Rail: Thanks for that, but you were a very quick study and you developed skills that were astonishing to all of us who were watching. In fact, you started with those skills. From the earliest paintings the drawing might have been curious in some cases, but the paint as a surface—

Fischl: That’s a very polite way of saying how bad the drawings were.

Rail: But the paint surface and light and color in the painting would carry it. It just worked. In time you had another problem, which was that you became more and more adept. Then there were those people who couldn’t forgive you for no longer having rough edges.

Fischl: I always worried about that. It’s a legitimate concern. There is a time in a painting, an emotional or psychological moment, when the brutality of the manner is actually part of the overall experience. When somebody says you’ve gotten too good, I take that seriously. Have I gone over to the light side?

Rail: As you made those technical improvements you moved away from your initial subject matter, those gripping and disturbing images. You went on to other things: the beach scenes, the multiple panel scenes, the India themes, the Krefeld series with two actors, the bullfights, the portraits, and so forth. One of the fine and quite rare things about your book is that you talk so clearly and candidly about your choices and what lay behind them.

Eric Fischl, “Sleepwalker,” 1979. Oil on canvas, 69 × 105˝. Courtesy the artist.

Fischl: I’d like to go back and pick up something we touched on about processes. What has been important for me about storytelling is that, as I navigate my narrative, I begin to sense deeper, more resonant connections between the people I am depicting, the environments that I place them in, and the objects I have chosen for them. Their body language and the spaces between them become charged. The objects act as witnesses to the dramas. It is through this process of association and juxtaposition that my themes are revealed. All artists have themes. The sooner you identify them the better, because the journey in art is the journey through an artist’s life. How you progress as an artist has to do with how you cultivate and explore the essential nature of your themes. I have found that over time my themes have become subtler and more nuanced as each body of work revisits them from different vantage points. I am the same person now at 66 that I was at 11 or 24, but with a different relationship to my needs and my desires. That is what I try to stay attuned to and truthful about—what in my experience has changed and what remains the same.

Rail: I think your capacity for embarrassment is key to much of your work.

Fischl: Well, one of the definitions of embarrassment is an emotion that says you shouldn’t exist: I should not be here at this moment in this way. My work has always been about proving to myself first and then to others that I had a right to exist, or maybe that I shouldn’t exist after all. That’s part of the voyeuristic aspect, especially of the earlier work. That presence/non-presence creates the tension. The painting “Sleepwalker” depicts a boy masturbating in a swimming pool—it’s a painting that I simply started to make into a dirty painting. If you wanted to assert some kind of power back into painting, you made a dirty painting. My intention initially was ridiculous or silly at best. But something happened in the process of painting it. It shifted from a kind of graphic and emblematic image to a very intimate painting, the most intimate and truthful painting I had made at that point. I captured something that was typical of a boy’s life: a coming of age, a dawning awareness of the power and need of his body. And yet the painting was not at all typical subject matter for art. It moved me into a realm of exposure and for the first time made me aware of how critical it is to consider where you place your viewer. In this case the point of view is elevated, looking down as if out a bedroom window. It has the feeling of discovery, a chance moment when you look out a window and see something you weren’t expecting to see. In “Sleepwalker” the point of view reinforces the metaphor of discovery, which the boy is having at that moment.

Rail: Have you ever thought about making movies?

Fischl: I get asked that all the time because I have that kind of cinematic aspect and movies have been a great influence on my paintings in terms of framing and sequencing and stuff like that. But the difference between trying to take a narrative and shrink it down to a frozen moment, to make everything in it be essential and frozen in that singularity versus extending the narrative across an hour and a half or two hours with a series of flickering images: I couldn’t even imagine how to sustain that.

Rail: You speak about your friendships with Mike Nichols and Steve Martin, and I can understand the affinity in your sense of timing, of knowing what to include and what to leave out.

Fischl: I had the great privilege the other night actually of having dinner with Mike and Steve after looking at a workshop that Steve and Edie Brickell are doing. Afterward we sat around a table and Steve was asking for feedback because he is still early in the process. Mike was saying that this one evil character did a very bad thing. The problem was that he was bad from the start so his transgression wasn’t a shock; it didn’t touch us on a deep level. He said that you need to have a character be good on some level so that you care about them, so when they do this terrible thing, your world explodes at that moment. That is the kind of thing you can take back into painting. You were talking about my scenes where it seems like everybody is thinking and somehow they’re real, they’re not just backgrounds. Even if I hate them, I end up caring about them in their specificity.

Rail: You’re taking it on yourself to be in every part of the painting, which means realizing that they didn’t get up in the morning saying, “I’m going to be evil today.” They’re just people, real people. To sustain that openness toward them is a discipline in itself and a requirement for empathy. You’ve talked about self-revelation, discovering things through the process of painting. The Abstract Expressionists frequently spoke about painting in that way, the idea of unpremeditated activity.

Eric Fischl, “Krefeld Project; Dining Room, Scene #2,” 2003. Oil on linen, 89 × 124˝. Courtesy the artist.

Fischl: All paintings are abstract on some basic level. No matter if you are describing a bowl of fruit, all elements leading up to that ultimate depiction are abstract. Color, shape, surface, tone, and scale are all fundamentally abstract until combined with feelings and thoughts. When I was an abstract painter (and I wasn’t very good at it), I was always disappointed that those looking at the work only talked about it in formal terms and never in feeling responses. It made me feel like I was only talking to myself. I didn’t have the audience I was looking for. I realized I need an audience that can see what I am trying to do. So it was about trying to find a language and an audience. I have been accused of being a popularizer to some extent, trying to demystify certain aspects of art making to reach a broader audience. I accept that. I think people on some level want to see themselves represented and they want it to be meaningful in a way that they can connect to themselves. I think that’s a high ambition. Certainly by the time we were into the ’70s art had become so esoteric, so self-referential, that the only audience it had was very small and exclusive. I came to realize that wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t compete well in it nor was I particularly interested in it. I was trying to get away from narrow, inbred concerns of the art-about-art discourse to reach an audience that did not have to know historical and philosophical arguments in order to recognize authentic experience.

Rail: I want to jump to another topic: the art market, the art world that we all bitch about and wonder about. You mentioned that the stock market debacle of 1987 had a really bad influence on your fortunes. For the first time Neo-Expressionism was out. You wrote, “We were no longer the ‘it’ boys and girls, we were no longer hot.” And the India paintings that you showed in 1989 weren’t well received critically, and the prices went down—I can’t believe I’m saying this—to $250,000. You quote collector Stefan Edlis’s remark, “You gotta face it, man. You didn’t make the cut.” Well, I’m sure I’m not the only one reading that who had a kind of W.T.F. moment. Then I came across the New Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten about David Zwirner and, for me, the other art world. One learns a lot about this stratospheric zone reading your book. You’ve survived the temptations of succumbing to your own early difficulties and miseries before things began to happen as well as the temptations of success when a lot was happening. At the upper levels the temptations are really snazzy. For years I would have to tell students walking into one of the very posh galleries, “Okay, okay, I know about your politics and your feelings about these money matters, and I share some of them, but let’s get rid of all the distractions and deal with the real issue here which is the art and what has gone on inside the studio.” We so easily get caught up in the phenomenal commerce and glamour. I wonder if you can shed light on this question.

Eric Fischl, “Corrida in Ronda #8,” 2009. Oil on linen, 90 × 108˝. Courtesy the artist.

Fischl: I can’t shed light but I can share experiences. I was invited to talk at Yale in the early ’90s. The first time, I was attacked by feminists. The second time, I was attacked by Marxists. The third time—these were years apart—the Q. & A. came up and the first question that someone asked—I’m fully expecting to get attacked about something, right?—was, “Can you tell me who pays for framing?” [Laughter.] So business has entered the room. It’s a legitimate question but not as the first question, right? Down the road it’s good to know the business aspect of what you do because it is a business as well. As a first question, that represented a sea change for me. A few years ago David Salle was up at Yale doing a master class, and he said all they wanted to know was how to become branded. That again represented a major era change. Now the art world has become the art market. And it’s a huge market, and, like any market, it has products that are more desirable than others, so there’s a sort of market selection taking place, but it’s far more complicated. My generation didn’t know it was happening. We naïvely thought we were changing the world, and we were being changed.

We haven’t examined the erosive effect of pluralism. Pluralism broke down all the barriers, the structure that had been established up until and through the ’60s. All of a sudden race and gender and politics were rushing in to become authentic voices of something and were approaching art with different stylistic inventions. A floodgate opened. By the early ’80s Europeans that had been left out of the New York-centric art world were coming in waves. The infrastructure of the art world couldn’t handle this volume and the speed of the changes. Museums took two or three years to curate a show. Art magazines had a six-month lead-time at least. Galleries planned their shows at least a year in advance. Galleries still represented sensibilities that were identifiable with the gallery itself and were exclusive in that regard. All these things were going on that could no longer be managed. They were scrambling to catch up and figure out how to represent everything that was going on and keep up with the insanity of its pace. Art writing morphed into mere reportage. Serious art was now covered in the entertainment sections of the dailies as well as the weekly lifestyle magazines. For the first time, artists were showing up on the same page as movie stars. Arts and entertainment were now inextricably linked. Artists were trying to break down all of those definitions they felt had oppressed them to form new ones. They were using different materials and different media to approach it a different way.

Rail: Clement Greenberg’s idea of historical necessities was being pushed out. I used to assign Greenberg to graduate students, thinking that if you are going to talk about post-modernism you better have some functioning theory of what modernism was, and his was succinct. There came a time in the ’80s when students would dispute his theory. And then came the morning when they arrived and said, “Why are we reading this? Who is this guy?”

Fischl: And, didn’t you read the latest Carol Vogel? That’s more important. [Laughter.] The heroes for me as a student were the Ab-Ex guys. Artists were not meant to be a part of the society but were to make a purist critique of society from a distance, eschewing money except for the ability to live. Those were the things that I embraced as well, but moving into the ’80s it began to change. Now you had celebrity, something that was enveloping you. Money had become a part of the exchange. I was thinking the other day about how Warhol started hanging out with younger artists. He would come to all the shows at Mary Boone and hang out; he would be at my openings and dinners. He was somebody who ultimately represented the new paradigm. He had no self-consciousness or confusion about wanting to be at the center of society. He wanted to provide products in an unself-conscious way. He had no ambivalence about money. Money, lifestyle were part of the whole thing. He preserved his radicality from that central position. He provided an answer to that problem: how can you be the authentic artist when you are standing in the midst of high society? He embodied all the current qualities of the new artist: integrity, irony, absurdity, and cynicism.

Rail: In the 19th century there was the imperative, épater les bourgeois (“shock the middle class”). What Warhol did initially was épater les artistes. It turns out that he was really making many distinctive choices. His work upset many artists; others had no problem with it. If you were on the high-culture road, that development was something to grapple with.

Audience: First, from one painter to another, thank you for you inspirational perseverance. My questions for you are, first, do you work on multiple paintings at the same time? And the second: how long do you spend on a painting?

Fischl: I work on one painting at a time. I found if I tried to work on more than one at a time, whatever problem I’m having in one painting gets transferred to the other, so why double my headaches? I make one painting at a time under different light conditions so I have no ideal light setting for how it has to be viewed. I leave it up to people who live in the spaces with the work to display the work how they think best represents them as well as me.

In terms of how long it takes, I recently set myself a goal of trying to finish a large painting in one day. Since I started painting I have been trying to figure out when a painting is done—a question which all painters deal with. Is done different from finished? I asked myself if it would help me to up the ante by letting some of the preciousness go, to try to hit something directly? I don’t think it’s better if it takes longer. I used to take photographs. I would take a loop and look at the one figure I had been looking at and I would go to my blank canvas and put that figure on it somewhere, and then I would put in another figure as associations started to happen and if it didn’t work, I’d scrape it off, flip a figure around and re-work it. Oftentimes a painting could take several months, not because of the manner of painting—it was very direct with saturated color—but because it was the not knowing that I was going toward. One of the things I liked about the Ab-Ex guys was how they felt that discovery and execution had to happen simultaneously on the canvas. Then Photoshop came along and now the discovery happens on the computer, but I’m still doing the same thing: scanning the figure, finding a context, flipping it over, enlarging it, printing it, and I end up with something that looks like the painting I want to paint. At first I was so freaked out that it was going to take all the life out of the painting. It turned out that it did the opposite. It freed me up to paint. It broadened my language and it broadened my adventurousness in a way that I hadn’t expected. But the maquette paintings were taking less time, between three days and two weeks.

Eric Fischl, “Art Fair: Booth #1, Play/Care,” 2013. Oil on Linen, 82 × 112˝. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: But I’m sure your prior experience had an effect on your use of Photoshop. You already had that experience of composing.

Fischl: That’s the problem with young artists. They go to Photoshop, not knowing what they need to do. They let the computer tell them what to do. We receive imagery in so many different shapes and sizes. From seeing an image on your iPhone or iPad, a computer or a billboard, there is a certain sort of illiteracy that has crept into the world for painters. For one thing, scale has gone out the window. You can perceive images in small, medium, and extra large. You stop having the sense that there is an internal necessity for a painting to be 64 and 3/4 by 72 and 3/16˝, an internal tension that is part of the experience and the effect. The other thing is that imagery received that way takes surface out of the question. It has also changed the color palette so paintings have moved into the CYMK color range of reproductive color as opposed to natural pigments; light is reflected light as opposed to an imbued embodiment of light. All of these things have had a huge effect on young artists because the pressure to find a branded thing has produced an artist that is cranking out a small, medium, and large version of the same thing to satisfy a large market, moving into a factory model as opposed to the older atelier model. Then, of course, there’s the marketing system, all the art fairs that require a work. You used to see a gallery representing a sensibility. Now you see galleries representing everything. You go to an art fair like the Armory Show and they’re all the same. I think that there are two possibilities in all of this that could be redemptive. One is that, because of globalization and the Internet, etc. the information that artists have and exchange with each other is instantaneous and all over the world. So when you go into a biennial or an art fair you see these ideas that are fully realized in all different parts of the world and the quality is incredibly high. You can’t quite remember who was the first to think of a particular idea. What you see is a local approach to a generally held idea. For example, a couple of years ago the teardrop shape was a big thing. Everybody was doing the teardrop shape. In Brazil they were weaving it in colorful yarn. In Mexico they were doing it with beads. In China they were doing it in shiny plastic material. It was just something that was captivating these artists. The shape was fresh, they were doing things with it. To me it speaks to regionalism in a positive way. If you can convince the local audience that your local artists are as up to the fucking minute at executing this thing as well as it’s being executed anywhere else in the world, then you do not have to go anywhere to get it. You can be there and celebrate it. I’m a big proponent of promoting regionalism because I think it’s legitimate.

The other thing I think is that the art world is no longer the power structure, which earlier was the church, then the state, then museums and curators, then critics, then galleries, and now, for sure, it’s the collector. These collectors are incredibly powerful, but they are under the illusion that they are exerting their power simply by spending a lot of money on what artists are doing. To me that’s not power. Power would be getting an artist to do what you want them to do. What I think would redeem the art world would be to go back to the patronage system. It would take a huge educational effort to do it, to educate collectors to identify what it is they want in an interesting and sophisticated way, not “I want a picture of my dog and my wife,” but to really find out what it is that they feel represented by in a compelling way and then going to the artist they think could best execute that. We all know what the styles are today and you would find the artist that most represents that. Once you start doing that the auction houses dry up, the resale market dries up, the warehouses dry up. What you would get are collectors who are fully represented by the thing they have. They had a part in its creation, so they are attached to it in some way.

Audience: Do you represent things from your background, what you’re used to? Traveling, your beach scenes. You don’t see many of those in America. There are some, but I’m really interested in the so-called background of your message.

Fischl: There’s certainly been some criticism leveled against my work as being too privileged, that it represents only the privileged class. I don’t really buy that. There are certain things I am privileged to have, and I think that there’s truth in the life that I have, so I don’t have to go looking for it. A lot of the people I do portraits of are people who have contributed huge amounts to our lives, and informed our lives on so many levels. It happens that they have become rich or become celebrities. I had this fantasy when I was doing the paintings of the beach in St. Tropez that I was doing for France what David Hockney did for L.A. I was giving a talk somewhere, and this woman with a very heavy French accent said, “but it looks just like Long Island.” [Laughter.]

One of the things that the book forced me to do was to look at myself and my position in the art world and to realize this is my world. So I’ve made art fair paintings. This is the world we live in; these are the people in this world. You paint art into a painting; it exerts a pressure that pushes something forward, whether it’s good art or bad art, and the viewer pushes back, and anyone who’s in the middle gets squeezed. It becomes a dynamic, very interesting spatial issue.

Audience: I have a two-part question. You mentioned that at the very beginning, when you were trying to paint, they were trying to take subject away from you, but you figured they could take anything else except for what you know. Could you explain who they were and what they were trying to take away? And when you look back in retrospect, was there legitimacy to the claims of whatever they were trying to take away?

Fischl: Well, some of “they” were the artists and art critics who were saying painting is dead. My belief, based on my experience, is that one does not choose to be a painter. Painting is the way we choose to organize information, the way we organize experience, and we re-present it through the language of paint. It’s unlocked by the thing paint is. Some of us are photographers or dancers. Those who are painters don’t choose to be but they do choose to be better painters. So the critique that painting was dead, that it had no relevance, was an assault on me as a person that I could not tolerate, and I had to try to prove that wrong by making paintings that didn’t feel dead. That was one motivation for it. Another was the feminist critique, which at the time, late ’60s early ’70s, was incredibly aggressive and ferocious and absolutely directed at maleness from top to bottom. That was another area that they couldn’t take away from me. For example, what does it mean to be a boy going through identity issues? The critique was painful and humiliating, and the same time it was helpful. It made me hone in on the question: what is it that cannot be taken away from the male? Is it the same as for women? Is it different? The issues around figuration and narration were also under the microscope.

Eric Fischl, “Womens’ Locker Room,” 1982. Oil on glassine (9 pieces), 82 × 186 ̋. Courtesy the artist.

Audience: As an artist you have the power to do what you want—

Fischl: I think that the do-what-you-want kind of thing has run its course. I don’t think that artistic talent is necessarily best manifested in self-imposed problem solving. That’s one reason art has moved into an absolutely elitist and small domain. It’s not part of our daily experience and it’s incredibly lonely.

Rail: In fact, one’s work being in dialogue with the culture is empowering. It doesn’t mean that someone comes up and tells you what to do. They know your work and they are interested in that degree of collaboration. Think about Sergei Shchukin commissioning Bonnard and Matisse to make work. He got them to do more expansive, more developed work than they had done before.

Fischl: I think creativity thrives under restrictions. I think that when you are in the studio by yourself trying to work with your self-imposed restrictions, it gets tiresome. Philip Guston said the problem with modern art is that it demands too much sympathy. I interpret this to mean that the Modernist condition is that artists have to make up every aspect of their art. They have to make up the language, the material, the narrative, the symbols, and so on. They’re doing all the work and then having to send this out into society, which will then have to learn the artist’s private language in order to feel connected.


Robert Berlind

ROBERT BERLIND is a painter and writer who lives in New York and upstate in Sullivan County. He has received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Painting, the B. Altman Award in Painting at the National Academy, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and an Artwriters’ Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.

He writes regularly for the Brooklyn Rail and has written for Art in America since the late ’70s as well as writing many catalog essays for various museums. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2014

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