Bad Boy. My Life On and Off the Canvas. Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012. 357 pp, Index.
Books about the life and times of artists are not always what you expect. Biographies are often so dense with detail that you lose the sense of the
story, or tiringly familiarity in tone and observation. In part this is because we already know so many artists’ stories from media, movies, magazines and elementary art history lessons: consider Van Gogh’s ear, after all. And hasn’t this become the high point of the story, the bit we always focus on?
Very few artists write their own story (that is, write an autobiography) and fewer still see it in print while they are still alive and very much kicking. This is just one of the elements which makes Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy such a surprise. The voice of the artist is close to us, in time and outlook and feeling. Reading it, you feel you could make a phone call and discuss things with him, and his responses would make perfect sense. Besides this immediacy, it is a really great read. Whether this is down to Fischl, or whether the excellent writing should be credited to Michael Stone who appears as co-author – or is it ghost? – is not clear. But, beyond its technical excellence – lovely sentences expressing complex ideas, genuine engagement with the processes of memory without over-dramatisation – we enter into Fischl’s story, a long arc which has taken place in our own era and goes from psychologically tortured childhood in the affluent suburbs of 60s America, through an art-obsessed young manhood with the regulation overconsumption of cocaine and alcohol, to his current world of relative affluence and international glamour as a Golden Senior of the contemporary art scene. And we go through the art alongside the life. The one illuminates the other, a rare quality in this genre.
This sounds like a story that shouldn’t be enjoyed. After all we aren’t supposed to admire white male American artists especially when they offer figurative paintings with a lot of naked flesh in them. When I first encountered Fischl’s huge canvases of unclothed bathers on the beaches of southern France (what he painted, not where I was) I thought this was a contemporary Norman Lindsay even if the bodies were more realistic and the flesh more recognizably modern. But a deeper exploration quickly shows that this is not what Fischl is about. His art has grown from his own experience, in particular his early traumatic exposure to a very odd domestic scene disguised as perfect normality, and a sense of engagement with a kind of realism which is always imbued with something more, something deeper, something disturbing even while it forces an aesthetic admiration. As he has grown older the vision has, if anything, lightened. But he still stands as an observer, a viewer, a voyeur, a critic. He pursues surfaces only to insist on what is beneath them. Following his art from its earliest beginnings to the present offers a vista of a society and culture twisting and turning around its own sordid mythologies, centred on its own misguided fantasies, narcissism and self-defeating representations. Fischl puts it thus in his second chapter, “Childhood, 1948-1965” (p. 11).
I began to experience a profound, dizzying sense of disassociation. I became acutely aware of the disconnect between appearance and reality, between people’s emotional needs and desires and the status symbols and objects they surrounded themselves with …. I became increasingly aware of the differences between what things looked like and how I felt as my world spun erratically and dangerously off its axis. It would later form the basis for much of my art. Almost all of my early paintings deal with the fall-out from middle-class taboos, the messy, ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions, and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives.
This is the context from which his early, famous and controversial paintings arose. He struggled for many years in the art school environment to find a way to express himself. The account of his entry into the art world is vivid and totally believable. He relates his emotional life to the work he was doing, and his search for a viable attachment to a female partner became part of that environment. The connection between his personal, emotional, inner life and the creation of his art is a consistent theme throughout the book, but especially compelling in the first sections.
It was extremely unfashionable to be a representational or figurative artist at Calarts, the prestigious California School of the Arts which at that time (the 70s) specialized in conceptualism and offered the now-familiar critiques of all representational art forms, in the hysterical early post-modernism transferred from late 60s France. His description of the teaching methods at Calarts are dramatic and very funny. He, and a few others, were pushing against the tide of conceptualism, in an environment where manufactured images such as photos, movies and stills merged with the study of Wittgenstein and the French structuralists. He could not accept that painting is an art form necessarily associated with white European males and therefore inherently elitist, antifeminist and racist. He went on painting – abstracts of course – but with increasing disillusion. He dropped his long-time girlfriend Lannie, fell in love with another student, Laura, and moved to Chicago. The affair lasted six months while he spent his days at galleries and was hired as a guard at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. The affair with Laura petered out, he reconnected with Lannie, and they married.
Unexpectedly he was offered a teaching position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The focus there was conceptual art, but his own background seemed relatively unimportant – they urgently needed someone to supervise classes. He was now making large abstractions, working with oil and encaustic. He became increasingly anxious, swinging between euphoria and spells of black hopelessness. Lannie left him. However he soon met April Gornik, who was to become his wife and partner in an enduring relationship. He writes extensively and with deep appreciation about April, herself a talented landscape artist.
By 1977 he was working in a new technique, using glassine, a milky transparent paper on which he painted in oil. Its transparency allowed him to overlap several drawings at once. The glassine works became the foundation for his explorations into narrative: they seemed like photos, “thinly sliced moments of reality” (p. 100). They suggested rooms, and the rooms triggered an association which he described as being like the emergence of a soap opera. This was taking him back to his own traumatic life and offered a new way of painting narrative. The glassine drawings were depicting relationships within a fictive family, but it was soon apparent that his own family was going to provide the basis for a different kind of art.
Because of his scattered art education Fischl had no formal training in realist painting, but he was increasingly impressed by others involved in traditional portraiture and landscape. His friend Bob Berlind at NSCAD worked alla prima, drawing with his brush. The difficulties of this technique are many, but Fischl was excited by the ability to capture a luminosity and clarity of light and shadow. Bob was an artist completely outside the current trends, but the rich visual experience stayed with Fischl, and was further enhanced by a trip he made with April to Europe visiting the major centres and galleries. In Madrid he studied Velazquez and Ribera’s old men. In Florence they spent their time with Michelangelo and Donatello. They returned to Canada and set up a new joint studio and living space.
In the late 70s they moved to New York. The alternative art scene was centred in SoHo and spilling over to the East Village and TriBeCa at a dizzying pace. The post-studio artists from CalArts had a landmark exhibit in 1977 where Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were making an art of feminist protest, while Italians Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente brought symbolist imagery and Julian Schnabel offered a neo-expressionist revival with his broken-plate works.
There was a downside to life in New York. Finances were tight, April worked at waitressing, while Eric painted lofts and became an art removalist. By late 1979 things were happening in the art world. Eric was alert to the changes in contemporary art but also was engaged with Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Beckmann and Hopper. He liked the enormous scale of the abstract expressionists and he wanted to do heroic work of his own. The glassines were not offering enough scale or scope, and in 1978 he made the first painting of the type he went on to produce for the rest of his life. Painted on four by eight foot plywood, Rowboat was a simple composition in bright primary colours. “The string of associations which led to Rowboat were mostly unconscious … They produced an image that surprised and transfixed me” (p. 117). He felt what could happen when a painting took off by itself from his own unconscious. It was the first of the “frozen moments”, a state where all the elements of a picture are balanced on a knife edge, harmonious yet about to change.
This was the beginning of his move into full-colour, traditional oil paintings. The next major work was Sleepwalker. On a six by nine foot canvas, an adolescent boy stands in a child’s pool on a suburban lawn at night, in a still darkness. Far from awareness, he is masturbating into the pool.
This was the start of Fischl’s depiction of “taboo” subjects. At the time, the explicitness of his images was shocking and destabilizing. Paintings such as Bad Boy (1981) and Birthday Boy (1983) opened up a space which was then, and still remains, largely forbidden. Many of his themes arose directly from his family experiences, especially his deeply troubled relationship with his alcoholic and ultimately suicidal mother. Hypocrisy was to be stripped away, and the viewer was forced into a regime of Truth which modern life systematically obscured.
And much of my work was about skin, stripping away the layers of pretense in which my subjects clothe themselves, exposing the naked or unguarded truth of their lives, the posture beneath their meticulously arranged poses. (p. 199)
The eighties picked him up, along with many others, and swept them on a wave. The demand for new, young, or as we would say today “hot”, artists seemed limitless. Their work was snapped up, and by 1982-3 they started making good money. The early eighties were an amazing time in New York anyway: limitless cocaine, nightlife, restaurants, a whole city of openings, museum events, previews and screenings. The mid-section of the book conveys brilliantly the askew sense of urgency of the era, the narcissism it provoked, and the feuds which arose. Fischl had an especially difficult relation with Julian Schnabel. He was envious and upset that Julian had become the anointed one with an art which seemed to Fischl somehow full of fake emotion, operatic or theatrical in tone, too full of the existential heroic stance typical of the abstract expressionists.
However, he soon developed his own following and success and money flooded in. The economy was blasting through the real estate boom and the new global equities markets, and this produced a novel breed of collectors, moneyed and aggressive, tuned in to fashion and status, hosting movie stars and artists in lavish uptown homes. It was the dawn of the celebrity era. Eric and April now needed several thousand dollars a month for their expenses. He began paying in art works, and had a special budget for his cigar and cocaine bills. Success sharpened rivalries among the painters at the top of the tree. As Fischl says, for those who are ambitious there can never be enough success. The rivalry with Schnabel went on. But a reckless confrontation with a gangster after the opening of his show at the Whitney led him to stop all his drinking and drug use, which was no doubt a good thing considering what was coming.
By 1990 many other artists were challenging him on his terrain, featuring themes of sex, the body, desire, relationships and identity. And the art-market had crashed. Shows had been panned, including one of April’s, and the two of them fell into a state of depression. On the positive side, Fischl was beginning to receive a lot of attention in Europe, and he had done a series of paintings based on his travels in India which had moved away from the personal/sexual/analytic field. In 1992 they decided to move out of New York and away from the art scene. Another wave of the global wealthy emerged, in Russia, Brazil and China, looking to diversify their investments. And the Internet opened up new ways for art to be seen. However Fischl did not join the ranks of those who found success in this new environment. Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst had become the darlings of the art world. The spotlight had shifted away from realist painting on challenging themes. The faddish new work was what was selling. Fischl had not “made the cut” in the art market, and “the art market had become the art world” (p. 280). The process whereby the value of art was determined by its place in the market had begun. Artists had to conform to the dictates of what sells. Fischl went on selling, but not as one of the “artists who matter”. The art world had become part of the entertainment business, and it “favoured product that was splashy, replicable, and attached to an A-list, brand-name artist”. (p. 281).
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the extent to which other artists enter it. Fischl’s discussion of his relation to Edward Hopper is especially enlightening. He describes the mixed feelings Hopper raises in him. Fischl feels that Hopper lacks painting style. He describes a reductive technique, a kind of directness and honesty in an awkward kind of painting. “He’s not very good at rendering figures. They often seem overworked and turgid, and as such they reveal his puritanical anxiety about flesh; it’s as though he wasn’t in control of his medium”. (p. 299).
In spite of his critique of Hopper, Fischl was forced to accept that Hopper seemed somehow present in his own work. It was the same territory in painting. He had captured something about the experience of being American: “a bone-deep loneliness, a sense of alienation and anxiety that’s the flip side of self-reliance …” (p. 299).
Fischl then entered into a dialogue with two Hopper paintings, Summer in the City and Excursion into Philosophy. They embraced themes central to Fischl’s interests. These paintings were ten years apart but seemed to be telling the same story. They are about distance and abstraction, the gaps between lovers and life. His response was the painting The Philosopher’s Chair, a bedroom scene which enlarges the tension in the Hopper paintings. This led into a series of paintings based on similar themes, “The Bed, the Chair …” . He used a theatrical or cinematic device to advance the themes. In each picture (eleven in all) he placed different subjects in the same room, so that space became the location of different dramas over time. The series’ principle characters became the bed and the chair, while humans engaged alongside, on, or in them. The discussion of the thought process which went into these painting is almost unique in contemporary art writing (see pp. 300-303).
This led into the Krefeld Project in 2002, a series of large paintings based on an unprecedented encounter between art and a kind of realism. Two actors, a man and a woman, were photographed performing different scenes in different rooms of Museum Haus Esters, originally designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Fischl photographed them and finished up with more than 2000 photographs, which were digitized and uploaded onto a computer. Fischl then edited the photos into ten scenes which became the basis for ten paintings. Fischl gives relatively little discussion to this project, possibly because there is an excellent and extensive account of it published to accompany the exhibition. These two series brought together the storytelling devices he had been working on since the late 70s. They functioned like cinematic pieces using montage. Each painting worked on its own, offering an intense individual drama, but together they constituted a larger meditation on the nature of relationship, gender, power, place, intimacy and alienation – the themes which Fischl has been exploring throughout his career.
In one way, all of Fischl’s work can be seen as the construction of scenes within a series. The link between the elements of the series is not always evident, or can even be seen as deliberately obscured. Many paintings can be read in different ways and the relation between them is not necessarily temporal. If there is a sequence it is formed in the unconscious, so that the artist asks the viewer to make up his/her own mind about the narrative elements, the “what happened when”. Perhaps the pictures function together like a William Burrough’s writing sequence, reflecting back on each other while opening up new vistas.
It has proven very difficult to summarise this book. As in the narrative frame of Fischl’s paintings, the reader is constantly drawn forward into events, which reach a kind of soft resolution but then transform into the next phase. As we know, the full impact of an artist’s work cannot really be estimated until his death. Fischl remains very much alive and has a new show in London (October 2014), depicting sardonically the contemporary art “scene”. To read this book is to enter into a dialogue with art and life in contemporary America and beyond. It is also a philosophical and theoretical thriller, conveyed through wonderfully expressive writing and a sense of ethical engagement. It offers a treatise on the art world today, but more compelling is the sense of the person behind the art and the writing, a person struggling always with a level of truth even when it is distinctly uncomfortable and unflattering. It would be hard not to admire and enjoy the company of this person.