Eric Fischl: From Bad Boy to Good Man

"Almost all of my early art dealt with the fallout from middle-class taboos, the messy, the ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives. Meanwhile I was a suburban bad boy -- cynical, sarcastic, contemptuous of all authority."
- Eric Fischl, in Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas.
If you had a foot in the art world in the 1980s you know who Eric Fischl is. Just in case you didn't, take a brief look at "Bad Boy," the canvas Fischl describes as his "most famous and notorious painting."

Eric Fischl, "Bad Boy," 1981, Oil on Canvas, 66 x 96 inches

The oedipal drama of "Bad Boy" unfolds in the corner of a slime green bedroom where a mattress has been laid informally on the floor. On its roiling seascape of bluish bedsheets a nude woman sprawls and pares her toenails; the porny, suburban great-grandaughter of one of Degas' late bathers. She appears totally oblivious to a shady pre-adolescent boy -- a young voyeur and possibly her son -- who leans against a dresser, and stares at her bush.

The seamy atmosphere of the scene is heightened by the fact that the boy is reaching into the woman's purse, an action that simultaneously suggests theft and sexual penetration. Alternating stripes of light and shade emanate from a half-opened window blinds, tiger-striping the scene and heightening the co-mingled tensions of the revelation and secrecy. A nearby still life -- a bowl containing some edenic apples and Freudian bananas -- adds some ham-handed touches of sophomoric symbolism

A detail from Eric Fischl's "Bad Boy."

"Bad Boy" equates the boy's moment of sexual discovery to a theft," writes Fischl in his recently published memoir, "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas." The painting, as he explains it "...extended the larger themes running through my work -- family dysfunction, the narcissism and careless inattention with which parents blind themselves to their children's needs and impulses, the suburban commodity culture that blurs the line between sexual and buying power, between genuine emotion and the superficial looks of things."

It is worth noting that "Bad Boy" was painted during the first year of the Reagan Presidency. I find it interesting that a painter who is the adult child of an alcoholic put his creative energy to work challenging the society that was offered the chance to regress towards soothing cultural and political fantasies by a president who also came from an alcoholic home. Fischl -- before during and after the Reagan presidency -- became the artist who, more than any other, channeled and attempted to exorcise the sexual and emotional angst of straight white American males.

The first time I saw Fischl's paintings -- while helping install a show of his works in Los Angeles in 1983 -- I remember noticing how many of them seemed to come from a boy's point of view. When I had the chance to speak with Eric he mentioned that some of his painting ideas came from one of his nephews. If I remember correctly, Eric's nephew had once suggested that Uncle Eric paint Adolph Hitler talking on the phone with his arm around a naked woman: that suggestion was never taken, but Fischl's nephew clearly "got" the subversive mix of sex and power that his uncle was dealing with in his art.

"Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas," by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone
Crown Publishers, 368 pages, 2013

Fischl's new book -- which mixes autobiography, art world anecdotes and aesthetic self-justifications -- is clearly written and well argued. He had good help with the project as he worked with a co-author (Michael Stone) and turned to friends, including comedian/writer Steve Martin, to give him feedback on the drafts in progress. The book has some very frank and revealing moments, including Fischl's descriptions of his mother's alcoholism and eventual suicide. In one stark anecdote Fischl describes how he tried to "reason with her" after the family faced a financial setback: "She'd rather be dead, my mother said, than face the sterility of suburban life without booze."

As I made my way through "Bad Boy," I was struck by the book's tone of sincerity, which brought up a question for me: just how heartfelt are Fischl's works?

If you are going to find this book convincing, you will need to believe that Fischl really has been coming from a place of genuine emotion, as opposed to tweaking the public with images that were and are calculatedly sensational. "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas" argues for the former. Fischl goes to great lengths to explain that his early life was painful and disjointed, and that his career and oeuvre are about a personal quest for catharsis and wholeness.

To make his case, Fischl argues that what is clearly "bad" in his works -- the awkward and embarrassing sexual situations and the somewhat inept technique -- are "good" because they are authentic: he and his work deal in rough truths not glossy fantasies. No wonder the nude in "Bad Boy" derives more from "Hustler" than from Titian or Renoir.

Of course, Fischl wasn't the first "bad" painter to experiment with this formulation. In her catalog essay for the much talked about "Bad Painting" exhibition held at the New Museum in 1978, curator Marcia Tucker codified the "bad is good" aesthetic:
'Bad Painting" is an ironic title for 'good painting, which is characterized by deformation of the figure, a mixture of art-historical and non-art resources, and fantastic and irreverent content. In its disregard for accurate representation and its rejection of conventional attitudes about art, 'bad' painting is at once funny and moving, and often scandalous in its scorn for the standards of good taste.
In preparation for writing this blog I posted the image of "Bad Boy" on my Facebook page and asked my art world friends what they thought about Fischl's art, and in particular about whether or not they found his work sincere and emotionally convincing. The opinionated comments that followed -- some of which I have excerpted below -- demonstrated to me that "Bad Boy" still hits a nerve.

F. Scott Hess, a painter whose work also strives for discomfort and authenticity, had a positive reaction: "Fischl's 1980s paintings were honest expressions of his inner world, and they hit the art world with perfect timing, when it was hungry for figuration after decades in the grip of abstraction."

Painter Margaret McCann, had a first hand observation: "I've heard Fischl give several group critiques and he is The Best I've encountered - he stresses authenticity and can insightfully and eloquently pinpoint what each student is trying to articulate; his work shows the same perspicacity."

Marc Trujillo, a painter and teacher, commented that "The ineptness of the painting is almost part of the subject matter, like maybe the boy painted it or some other adolescent as fantasy."

Artist William Rand was unstinting in his praise: "A masterpiece of my generation."

Writer and art historian Paul Karlstrom took a kind of middle ground, questioning the artist's motives, but still acknowledging the pull of the canvas: "Somehow the image encapsulates, for me, female sexual power and its conscious, perhaps even cynical, deployment, at least as depicted by Fischl. This is the material of disturbing dreams lasting into manhood."

Painter Paula Heisen can't connect with "Bad Boy" at all: "I remember the shock of seeing Fischl's painting of a young adolescent boy masturbating while standing in a kiddie pool, in a gallery in Soho in the 80s. I was interested in that painting beyond the initial shock: but I have never believed a centimeter of this one. Can't answer about his (Fischl's) intentions - only he can do that - but it's a total snore."

Sensitive to the polarizing reactions his works have drawn over the years, Fischl copes by trying to stay aloof from criticism. "I actually try not to read reviews," he told me via email, "as I am thin skinned about it and don't take criticism well." Admirably, sensitivity has not dimmed his candor as an artist or as a writer.

Part of the strength of Fischl's book is that he gives an unflinching account of a work that was rejected by the public: the "Tumbling Woman" sculpture he made as a memorial for the victims of the terror attacks of 9-11. The idea behind the figure came from the indelible impressions that had been made on Fischl by the people in the twin towers who "jumped or fell from the towers, in terror and out of sheer desperation."

Eric Fischl, "Tumbling Woman," 2002, Bronze, 37 x 74 x 50 inches

After "Tumbling Woman" was briefly placed in the lower concourse of Rockfeller Center a year after the attacks "all hell broke loose." As Fischl explains: "People were offended. They didn't want to come face-to-face with a sculpture that embodied death and vulnerability." In this refusal Fischl sees the public as resistant to a cultural necessity. "To rehabilitate the importance of the body in art," he writes, "we have to come to terms with sex and death."

Even though she had not actually seen the work, columnist Andrea Peyser wrote a piece in the New York Post asserting that Fischl was cynically using the pain and suffering of others to promote his work. Within days "Tumbling Woman" was removed from view and Fischl came away from the experience "deeply hurt."

"Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas" is also a love story, narrating the long partnership and eventual marriage of Fischl to painter April Gornik. When I sent April a brief message asking how Eric has managed to remain focused and productive in the face of all the reactions to his work over the years, she had this to say:
My reaction to that question is that every artist feels that the truth, beauty & strength in their work will overcome negative reactions. I don't believe that Eric ever paints or sculpts simply to provoke.
Since April -- better than anyone else in the world -- is in a position to comment on her husband's sincerity, I am going to trust what she says. I will keep her words in mind as I go back and read Eric's book, thinking hard about the fact that what looks wrong or "bad" at first deserves closer scrutiny and deeper consideration.

When I visited SFMOMA a few years ago and stood in front of Fischl's pantsless "Portrait of The Artist as an Old Man" I took it literally to be a painting about exhibitionism. Now I would be more likely to see it as a raw statement about sexuality and aging: a manifesto of impurity.

Although his book makes clear that Fischl would have liked his career to float a bit higher and longer -- he is not a fan of the current art stars Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst -- he acknowledges that he has enjoyed substantial financial and critical success. He has used his influence and cash to support "America Now and Here," a program that used semi-trucks to send art and art experiences across America to stimulate cultural dialogue. Fischl has also been very generous to his alma mater, Phoenix Community College, where he has funded a gallery, bought equipment, and launched a lecture series. 

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that Eric Fischl has transformed himself through his work from a bad boy to a good man. If you believe that true healing involves airing out and revealing hard truths -- especially those that challenge our society's prevailing taste -- you may believe it too.