Eric Fischl, the figurative artist who came to fame in the 1980s for his loaded psychosexual depictions of postwar suburban America, is sitting in his SoHo studio, a classic loft, talking about the capricious nature of the art world, which has alternately embraced and ignored him over the past 35 years. “I certainly went off the radar for curatorial stuff,” he says. “Their focus and interests were not in the direction of my kind of painting. I very naively thought as a young artist that the work I was doing was not suited for individuals to live with because it had such harsh content, but I thought museums would want it because it is about the truth of life. Turned out to be the opposite. Museums are afraid of sexual content.”
American ones perhaps more so than most. Munich’s newish Museum Brandhorst devotes an entire room to Fischl, and now the Albertina, the Viennese museum with a prized collection of works on paper, is organising his first major solo museum exhibition in nearly 30 years and the first ever retrospective of his works on paper, opening on February 13.
This being Fischl, there are plenty of nudes and high-tension scenes among the nearly 90 works. For Fischl, the body represents “exposure, vulnerability, essence . . . need, desire, longing, insecurity”. To be sure, the works evoke that range of emotions, from the coupling of “Swimming Lovers” to the humour of sagging flesh on a man wearing a teeny-weeny swimsuit in “Untitled (Old Boys of Summer)” to the ultimate fragility depicted in his controversial “Falling Figures”, sparely rendered watercolours inspired by the horrific sight of bodies cascading off the World Trade Center towers on 9/11.
Unlike many artists, Fischl did not obsessively draw or make objects as a kid. He fell into it after trying the hippy life. Today, he is not one of those artists who maintain daily drawing practices; instead he tends to draw seriously when between painting or sculpture projects. “Partly it’s to keep the hands moving,” he says, “or it’s to begin the search for something.”
His oil sketches on chrome coat paper “are freer, more direct than my paintings are”, he says. “Maybe less psychological than my paintings are.” There’s a spontaneity to the drawings that, he says, “I’ve never been able to scale up” to canvas-size. Still, each has a place. “One satisfies a more erotic, sensual pleasure for me – oil on paper. Painting satisfies a more resonant, deeper, emotional complexity.”
His drawings are not typically studies for his paintings or sculptures, but they do feed those mediums. Sculpture often takes a cue from his watercolours. “It’s hard to translate the ephemeral and spontaneous nature of watercolour into 3D bronze, but there are things so sculptural in watercolour that I keep trying,” he says. “I’m always amazed how I can put a blob of colour on to something, and all of a sudden it’s a thigh, and no one would not know it’s a thigh.”
Elsy Lahner, curator for contemporary art at the Albertina, calls Fischl’s drawings a “behind-the-scenes tour” of the artist’s creative process. “Through his drawings you can see how he composes his paintings,” she says.
The exhibition includes several examples of Fischl’s early “Glassines”, drawings made on the clear, film-like material while he was teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, in the late 1970s. Glassine’s transparency and slippery feel are what initially appealed to him. Oil paint, he says, “schmears and slides across it – it’s very sexy”.
Fischl rendered the figurative works with simple strokes in a heavy black outline, working from his imagination. “I was fully intending to have that be the rest of my life,” says Fischl, who, though grey, is still boyishly good-looking at 65. “At that point I was trying to avoid painting.” Instead, the “Glassines” lit the path back to painting. “It was showing me how I think – how I construct narratives.”
Using several sheets of the material, he would draw different elements on each – perhaps a nude figure on one, a chair on another, yet another nude on a third – then, since they were see-through, experiment with how to layer them, asking himself questions about the figures and objects in order to discover a narrative. “It all begins to unfold,” he says. These days he uses snapshots and Photoshop to compose his drawings and paintings, but the technique and film-still-like effect are the same.
After having painted abstractions as a student at the California Institute of the Arts and as a young artist in Chicago, Fischl was surprised to find his voice in representation, but the expressive approach enabled him to wrestle the demons bequeathed by an alcoholic mother who committed suicide. And though painting was denigrated at the conceptual art-dominated CalArts and NSCAD, it was suddenly gaining steam again in New York. “I’m a competitive person, and it seemed like painting was the big leagues,” he says. “My peers were starting to paint away. I said, ‘I’ll show them.’”
That he did. Fischl moved to New York and was soon showing with Mary Boone, the dealer who would come to personify the go-go 1980s with a stable that also included Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Fischl has been with her ever since. The Whitney Museum of American Art gave him a major survey show in 1986.
Fischl’s prices tumbled when the art market crashed in the early 1990s. He had to come to terms with the vagaries of the art world and, he says, “being eclipsed by another generation with much different sensibilities”. While writing his 2012 memoir, Bad Boy, he says, it was not his painful childhood that proved most challenging to discuss but the present. “It was no longer the art world,” he says. “It was the art market.” Especially disconcerting was the firestorm of protest that met his “Tumbling Woman” bronze, installed at Rockefeller Center in 2002, just a year after 9/11. “Doing a work of art meant to be part of the healing process, to connect us, got thrown back at me because someone saw it as a career move,” he laments.
He’s now on an upswing. In addition to the Albertina exhibition, his paintings are on view at the New York Academy of Art in The Big Picture, a five-person show featuring, as the title would have it, figurative canvases that use their large scale to make an impact. For the past 15 months or so, Fischl has been at work on a painting series that takes art fairs and gallery openings as its subject, which he plans to show, fittingly enough, at a London gallery during Frieze week in October. Its genesis was Art Basel Miami Beach in 2012. He strolled round the fair with his camera, shooting the interplay of collectors, dealers and art in the highly commercial setting. “I’m painting my world” – or what’s become of it, he says. “It’s one of those things you don’t think you’re part of, then you realise you are.”
One canvas captures collectors and dark-suited dealers gaping at a sculpture of sneakers. “How many people does it take to sell a work of art?” Fischl quips, noting that he found the fair a “chaotic cacophony” and was intrigued by how little looking at art actually goes on. “Some of it could be passed off as caricatured, but the relationships between people feel poignant. Some of it feels tragic.”
Many of his recent portraits are of his friends, who just happen to be celebrated individuals in their own right, such as Steve Martin, Mike Nichols and John McEnroe. The former tennis star doesn’t deign to play a real match with Fischl, an avid amateur, but occasionally hits balls with him. They play to 21. “My goal was to get to 10 before he got to 21,” Fischl says. The mistake, he adds, was telling the notoriously competitive McEnroe. “The score ended up being 42 to 3.” He consoled himself: “Every point I get off him I consider a set.”
In 2004, Fischl and his wife, April Gornik, a well-regarded painter of contemporary landscapes, decamped from the hubbub of SoHo to make Sag Harbor, Long Island, their primary home. There they have “separate but equal” studios. “In terms of the city nurturing me the way I would need on a daily basis, that’s long gone,” he says. Now he finds sustenance from “birds at the feeder, the light on the pond”. “Some days I don’t leave the house. I see the UPS guy and April.”
‘Eric Fischl: Friends, Lovers and other Constellations’, Albertina, Vienna, February 13-May 18, albertina.at