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Eric Fischl, "Cleansed by the Flames of Water" (2020), acrylic on linen, 98 x 68 inches (© Eric Fischl / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York)

Eric Fischl, who is in his early 70s, belongs to the generation of male Neo-Expressionist painters that emerged in New York in the 1980s, which included David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In his early work, about which I wrote favorably at the time, Fischl focused on the repressed sexuality of suburban life in the America of the 1950s, when he was growing up — what he called his “psychosexual subjects” in his biography Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas (2013). 

More stylistically conservative than Salle and Schnabel, with whom he was most strongly associated, Fischl painted a domestic world of dysfunctional relationships, which mirrored his own life. In his biography, we learn that his mother was an alcoholic who walked around the house naked and committed suicide, which left him feeling ashamed and relieved (“We didn’t want her to be our mother.”)

Inhibition – and his response to it, particularly around the themes of incest and voyeurism – is one of the keys to understanding the arc of Fischl’s career. Another is his desire to shed the traces of his origins, which is something that seems more available to white people than to those marked by their ethnicity and race. 

In his painting “A Visit to/A Visit From/The Island” (1983), which is a diptych pairing hedonistic white beach goers with Black refugees struggling ashore during a storm, Fischl separated the races into two separate, self-contained domains. Since then, he has largely focused on a solipsistic realm of white leisure and privilege, which often takes place by a swimming pool or on a beach. 

In 2014, Fischl stated in The Guardian: “I am essentially the [Edward] Hopper artist trying to create a frozen moment. The truth about how it actually was.” Considered by many to be the quintessential American artist, Hopper is distinguished by the utter absence of people of color in his paintings. His figures live in a segregated world. This is the legacy that Fischl continues.

Eric Fischl, “Like Explaining the End of the World to a Dog” (2020), acrylic and oil on linen, 68 x 52 inches (© Eric Fischl / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York)

In his current exhibition, Eric Fischl: Meditations on Melancholia, at Skarstedt (October 27-December 18, 2020), he finds a visual bond between the elected seclusion of the affluent white world and the isolation and social distancing compelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This conjunction is evident in the first work encountered in the exhibition, “Like Explaining the End of the World to a Dog” (2020), which depicts a largely featureless, deeply tanned (raw sienna), nude, prepubescent girl standing at the edge of a beach, her arms open in exasperation, as she looks down at a puzzled Golden Retriever, scratching its ear, unconcerned with what it is being told. 

According to the gallery press release, the exhibition gives “a nod to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia from 2011,” an apocalyptic melodrama starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsborough, about twin sisters, one of whom is planning to get married as the earth and a rogue planet are about to collide. 

However, if Fischl did not present the paintings within framework of an impending apocalypse, I doubt the viewer would think that “Like Explaining the End of the World to a Dog” and other works in the exhibition are about living through a pandemic. 

The the girl is standing against a background painted two shades of blue, dark for sky and light for water, with the loosely applied brushstrokes frequently failing to reach the sides of the canvas. A pale blue orb or halo-like circle rises behind the girl’s head, suggesting that she is divine. It also backlights her, plunging her face and body in shadow

What are we to make of the girl’s right hand, which resembles an open chicken claw? Why didn’t Fischl extend the paint to the painting’s edges? 

Given how evenly tanned the girl is, it would seem that she has been frolicking naked in the sun since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Eric Fischl, “Inexplicable Joy in the Time of Corona” (2020), acrylic and oil on linen, 78 x 105 inches (© Eric Fischl / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York)

If we are to take her interaction with the dog as symbolic of failed communication, a paradigm that Fischl has concocted as a metaphor of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have to confess that I am not convinced by this backlit figure, whose physical expression of exasperation is familiar to the point of being a cliché. 

I think that when Fischl tries to be topical, as he did in his bronze sculpture, “Tumbling Woman” (2002), made in response to the sight of people jumping from the World Trade Center’s burning Twin Towers during the attacks of September 11, 2001, he overly depends on a charged narrative context to underscore the work’s meaning. The nude woman – why is she nude? – harks back to the 19th century and the age of heroic statuary, but she is supposed to memorialize victims who jumped to certain death because they faced no other choice. The disconnect between the reality of the situation and Fischl’s adoption of it as a symbol makes the latter seem trivializing. 

If you were not informed of the backdrop for “Tumbling Woman,” which transforms an upside-down woman perched on her shoulders into a universal symbol of suffering, you might think the pose indicates the choreography of modern dancer or a yogi practicing a leg-strengthening exercise. 

This is the problem with nearly all of the paintings in the exhibition; you have to keep reminding yourself that they were done in response to feelings stirred up by the apocalyptic implications of the pandemic. 

Done in oil and acrylic, “Inexplicable Joy in the Time of Corona” (2020), depicts two nude children dancing, their backs to the viewer, on the far right of the painting. Between them, facing us, a nearly featureless woman in a black dress dances with them, one knee raised, and her arms flung outward. Her face is defined by a few quick brushstrokes.

Other than the patch of green beneath their feet, the painting has been laid in with thin washes of blue. Much of the canvas edges are left unpainted, along with a large area to the left of the green, at the bottom of the painting. 

Eric Fischl, “American Hula” (2020), acrylic and oil on linen, 75 x 64 inches (© Eric Fischl / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York)

Does the apparent speed of the execution – perhaps even in one shot – convey urgency or the need for spontaneity? While achieving a sense of immediacy, the paintings fail to create a physical space for the figures and a psychic space for the viewer. 

If I did not read the title, would I connect the dancing figures to the pandemic? Does the fact that these nude children are well fed and happily dancing relate in any way to the deleterious effects of COVID-19 and the need to socially distance? 

No less than the elites populating similar environs in Fischl’s work of recent decades, the people depicted here exist in a privileged bubble. His views of them are cliché and sentimental.

In “American Hula” (2020), we see a gyrating muscular nude man from behind, as a red, white, and blue hula hoop spins around his waist. An ominous, dark blue sky looms above, with a fringe of washy drips running over light blue patches just above the horizon. 

What’s up with Fischl’s nod to Abstract Expressionism and its promiscuous drips? Is he trying to be a bravura painter in the mode of Willem de Kooning? 

Eric Fischl, “Preparing to Swim the Channel” (2020), acrylic and oil on linen, 68 x 96 inches (© Eric Fischl / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, courtesy of the artist and Skarstedt, New York)

The one exception to this unconvincing body of work is “Preparing to Swim the Channel” (2020), which depicts two people on a beach. An adolescent boy in blue swim trunks stands on the far left, facing diagonally toward the right, occupying a narrow space between the canvas’s left edge and the left end of a mound-like, grassy island rising above the horizon. \

On the other side of the painting, in a larger space defined by the island’s right end and the canvas’s right edge, a woman with short-cropped hair stands on her toes with one hand on her hip, staring at the boy with apparent disapproval. She is wearing an unbuttoned scarlet red and dark blue knit sweater, which exposes part of her naked chest. Is she standing on her toes to give the boy a better view of her breasts? 

This is the one painting in the exhibition whose pictorial composition enhances the isolation of the figures, their physical and psychological distance from each other, without needing to invoke the framework of COVID-19 as a justification. 

Whenever Fischl gestures toward the topical, his paintings are hampered by his subjects’ privileged whiteness. More than 35 years ago, in “A Visit to/A Visit From/The Island,” he segregated the leisured whites and suffering Blacks into separate domains. Since then, he has narrowed his focus, apparently without feeling the need to investigate that division except in the most cursory fashion. 

Eric Fischl: Meditations on Melancholia continues at Skarstedt (19 East 64th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 18.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...

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2 Comments

  1. Mr. Fischl is the über smart, articulate, white, male, privileged, entertaining, living artist. Plus he has an amazing amount of talent. Any ordinary person would wilt under the expectations.

    In a small Hamptons bookstore he told us in the audience, while smiling, that things were bad for him because his painting were selling in the $50,000 range.

    Thanks John Yau for the essay on the insouciant Mr. Fischl.

  2. Thank you, this review felt well thought out. Unfortunately I am not in NY or able to visit the exhibition but sadly I found the work disappointing and sadly unconvincing. Sad because he has the painting chops to be great.

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