Eric Fischl: “I don’t think of my work as erotic, I think of it as sexual.”

11/14/2017 07:10 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2017
Eric Fischl. Foto: Elena Cué

When I met Eric Fischl (New York, 1948), one of the most representative artists of American narrative painting, he was inaugurating an exhibition in London. We spoke about his memoir Bad Boy: “everything I wanted to say is there”. This revealing compendium uncovers the journey from his traumatic childhood and adolescence to his artistic evolution. His childhood inevitably marked not only his life, but also his work as although it is not autobiographical, it is full of references from that period. As he says, "the different scenes are not literally scenes from my life, rather collections of elements guided by my knowledge and experiences". A year later we meet again, this time in his warehouse studio in New York where he talks to me about his artistic process with great depth and clarity, providing an acute reflection as to what art is.

Do you consider yourself to be a “Bad Boy”?

No. It’s an ironic title taken from my painting “Bad Boy”. If anything, it would be more likely that the woman in it is perceived as a bad. The title of a painting is very important, but I certainly did not realize that I would end up being described as a “Bad Boy” myself.

Eric Fischl. Bad Boy

The jump from abstract to figurative art materialized in 1978 when you found your defining style which you have maintained until now. What did going back to painting mean at a time when painting was banned?

I had always wanted to be a radical artist, a member of the Avant Garde, but when it became clear that my skills lied in images and storytelling, I realized I wasn’t who I thought I was. Then I came to the decision to follow myself and in doing so I felt like I was going to follow myself right into the abyss. Until that moment, I don't truly believe I was really doing that. I allowed myself to be guided by everything that was influencing me or intimidating me, so I was maturing.

What did you learn through figurative painting?

That I predominantly see people. I see their souls and their bodies, the relationship between the inside and the outside. In my opinion, that is the drama of life: navigating that inside-outside relationship. The body has needs and desires, discomforts and problems, pleasure and pain, and a soul inside that is trying to understand and resolve them. It's a continuous challenge that’s constantly changing and always needs resolving.

Is your art more impulsive than rational?

I wish my work was more impulsive but I would describe it as more intuitive and associational. It only becomes rational once I establish what it relates to. Then it starts to make sense and has a logical order.

Eric Fischl. Self Portrait: An Unfinished Work, 2011.

Has figurative painting helped you become more aware of your unconscious impulses?

Yes, I think so. In the process of painting or creating something I do things and I think I know the meaning behind them but then it turns out I don't. I know there's something important to the things I do, but I don’t initially make a connection or interpret what that is. The unconscious is expressed but it doesn't necessarily reveal itself immediately. On some occasions people have interpreted my work in a way I had never thought of before. I always think of creation as a process of getting something that's inside out. For the viewer, on the other hand, it is the process of catching something that’s outside and taking it in. That's the exchange. When you have that experience you feel connected.

The magic of art...

That's the other thing that's amazing. You can feel connected to somebody who lived 500 years ago. You feel like they see you or you see them through you, almost like they are still alive. As artists, our job is to remind us that we’re the same.

Eric Fischl. A Visit to/A Visit From/The Island, 1983.

And the rational?

The process is not rational. It is very complicated. I can only describe it by saying it is as if I'm talking to myself, like a child who is playing with their toys and talks to themselves and creates stories. Then there is another part of me that's not the child but instead the adult looking at the child playing with their toys, the same way a parent would look and see that what the child is expressing is more than the child itself is able to understand. Through the knowing eye you see the meaningfulness of it. In my head I'm going back and forth between trying to be the freedom and spirit of a child who is just telling stories and at the same time the adult who sees that this does have meaning and if it's not exactly what it’s supposed to be, it doesn’t matter. There is a point at which you try to make the relationship between people, objects, color and light more specific. That is the process of creating a painting, the making of these decisions.

All this seems to be a process of psychoanalysis.

I think in psychoanalysis you search for truth, the core of what your life could be. But that truth is also archetypal, so it’s my core but another person’s core as well. When I was painting the bullfighting works I became fascinated by the existential crisis the bull faces.

You talk about the series “Corrida en Ronda” which was inspired by the Goyesca. What do you remember from this experience given that it is so different to your culture?

It was an incredibly complicated experience because it was about something beautifully constructed with perfect symbolism. The animal had lived quite a straightforward life until the moment of the bullfight, when suddenly, it is put into a situation it has no way of understanding. The bull therefore reacts instinctively by fighting and trying to escape but in the end it is killed.  Watching the ritual, colors, shapes, power, elegance, dance was inspiring. It’s the most intense experience able to elevate the aesthetic to a high degree of perfection but at the same time there is a life that gets destroyed. It was like coming into contact with all of my cultural prejudices and experiences, witnessing something that I’m not able to fully understand. It was a profound experience, powerful and tragic, fabulous and beautiful.

Eric Fischl. Corrida in Ronda #1, 2008.

What fascinated you the most?

Realizing that everything I thought life meant to me changed in a heartbeat and I was not able to comprehend it. That's the profound tragedy of life, almost impossible to accept because you are not ready to admit it was all meaningless and that you spent your whole life trying to make sense of something you can't make sense of. I think that is the truth.

Is art the only way to touch on taboos without feeling shame or guilt?

Art is a safe place to examine whether those taboos should be taboos or whether they are just old ideas that no longer make sense. Art is a place where you should be able to do and say anything. Yet you don't examine taboos just for the sensationalism of it, you do it to see how you feel about the violation and the restriction of whatever it may be. That in itself is terrifying and facing it is a great challenge.

Unlike the iconic eroticism of pop you draw attention to the stereotypes of eroticism...

I don't think of my work as erotic, I think of it as sexual. It emphasizes the psychological and emotional aspect of sexuality. Eroticism has a level of comfort with physicality, contact, the power of desire, confidence and how it affects somebody else; in short, the giving and taking of pleasure. The hands of an erotic artist express beauty and a sort of order that I’ve never been able to achieve. I'm always too nervous, too insecure in relation to that. For me, it's more complex, it’s linked to a disturbance that happens in those moments of connection. I'm more aware of the vulnerability than I am of the pleasure, such as what might hurt you, what you might hurt, what you might mess up etc. In reality, it's something natural so it should be easier.

Eric Fischl. The Travel of Romance; Scene I, 1994.

You say that your creations represent your true self. Don’t you think that's the best way to define art?

Good and quality art, yes. You want to see the nature of the artist, the center of the experience and I try to be there, with all of my insecurities and small failures. There was a point in the 70s and 80s when I felt like the art world was moving towards wanting to be more directly expressive of that. That’s to say, the world was not going to be a pretty picture that would be easily resolved, it was going to be a struggle. You felt that people were really interested in feeling the existential drama. Nowadays, I don't feel they want that at all. People want sensation now and that is different.

“Collage is an artificial construct that imitates how the mind works.” What did you mean by that?

500 years ago, scientists invented a mathematical equation of describing the way we see space which is through perspective and an artificial construct. It’s made out of a mathematical equation but when you paint it, it seems like you are looking through a window into real space and that is the way we see things. Now, collage has the same purpose regarding the way we think. It’s the pieces that come together at some point to have more meaning than they had before when they were just pieces.

Eric Fischl. Womens' Locker Room, 1982.

When do you know that a painting is finished?

When I’m no longer looking at it as a painting and I stop asking myself certain questions. A painting is never perfect, there is always something that bothers me, but I don't know whether changing it will make it better or just make it cleaner. On some level, I believe that imperfection is better than perfection. It's more human, it lets everybody in, in the sense that I’m not perfect, it’s not perfect and that’s OK.

Why do we wonder what constitutes normal?

There is no real normal but I guess I’m just trying to not feel isolated, alone, that there is something wrong with me and that I don't fit in. The difference is artists know how to handle isolation, they know how to create something to make them feel less isolated. That is art. You would suffer more if you didn't have a way of expressing that feeling or connection that confirms that people feel the same way as you. That’s what art does; it goes to the center of our lives, it's a union which enables us to see ourselves.

In your painting Rift Raft you can see influences from Luncheon on the grass by Manet or The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault. What does your work owe to the great European painters?

It owes everything to them. I taught myself how to paint figuratively through critical observation and study. I still didn’t have the technique but I saw how they constructed dramas, the language of human interaction. All this comes from the Europeans. In Spain I looked at Velazquez, Goya, Zurbarán, Murillo and Ribera. When I look at Ribera’s work, I wonder how flesh can be painted like that and manage to look so real and powerful. So much of painting involves putting an undercoat of red or earth tones, then painting over it and seeing the red glow shine through. In Ribera’s work, he painted the flesh over black which creates that perfect moment between life and death. There’s no transition, it’s this or it’s that; that’s poetry in painting. I also looked at The Raft of the Medusa, one of the all-time great paintings. The hopelessness, the drama, trying to stay alive against all odds is fantastic, and that’s our tragedy. I also looked at Manet’s work. I always had mixed feelings about him in the sense that he wanted to take all of the deeper meaning out, to bring the painting up to the surface and just have it be a painting. There’s an irony to his work, it’s something he uses to make fun of the existential quality of life; that’s what I find most challenging about him.

Eric Fischl. Rift/Raft, 2016.

After creating your first figurative work you said "For the first time I felt I'd created reality”. What did you mean by that?

I created something that I didn't feel I had made up, it wasn’t just a figment of my imagination or a fantasy, it was really happening with real people and real feelings.

When Donald Trump won the American elections you went to the studio to create a series of paintings. Can you tell me about them?

We were all trying to figure out what was happening at a time when our understanding of the United States, of ourselves and what’s important went right out the window. I started making portraits of Trump and people he was surrounded by. Then, at one point, I started putting clown noses on them. It was a simple idea, it wasn’t profound in any way but I was under the impression we had just entered a period of anarchy and that's what a clown is. Its purpose is to completely absent our sense of reality.

Eric Fischl. She says, "Can I help You?" He says, "It can't be Helped.", 2015.

And regarding art?

One question I haven’t been able to answer is that there is a lot of art that is childlike, especially in the United States; it even uses the language of children: cartoons and video games. It makes you wonder why, in a country that is so scientifically and technologically advanced, its greatest artists are acting like children. Why is art not reaching a high level of sophistication and intelligence but is instead fascinated by insignificant things? At the same time you have a politician like Donald Trump who is also just like a child. Are we regressing? Are we so afraid the world is going to fall apart and we don't want to face it so we adopt childish attitudes? In the United States we have no leaders and everyone is scared.

Eric Fischl. Foto: Elena Cué
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