New Exhibit: 'Eric Fischl: Beach Life'
by stacey goergen
The Gang, Eric Fischl, 2006
“The beach is a place that is absolutely voyeuristic,” says artist Eric Fischl, describing his use of the motif as a backdrop to his paintings. “I first started painting the beach after having visited, and then for many years frequenting, the beaches in St-Tropez. The French are wonderfully voyeuristic and exhibitionist, as well, so that was a revelation. It’s a place where people let their guard down, so what you get is a kind of body language that is both intimate and socialized.”
Speaking from his North Haven home about his retrospective at Guild Hall, Eric Fischl: Beach Life, the amiable, articulate artist talks of the importance of capturing fleeting gestures. It was this masterful depiction of nuanced body language in taut, psychological scenes that catapulted Fischl to fame in the early 1980s, as his figurative paintings helped forge a renewed interest in the genre.
Describing the way he approaches a new work, Fischl says, “You see somebody doing something. They are bending over a certain way or twisting a certain way, and it’s a provocative, evocative gesture.” Photographing these poses first, Fischl then works in Adobe Photoshop to create a collage with images. Although he may begin with a certain motion, the process of creating the painting or sculpture arises from the series of questions raised by this initial physical expression. “What is this person doing? Are they bending over to tie a shoe or bending over because they tripped? Are they turning away from something or turning toward something? Is there anyone else in the picture?” Fischl asks. “I keep projecting possible scenarios, and there is a certain point at which the gesture really begins to make sense. It starts to create an emotional, psychological dynamic. That is what I am going for.” Because he is working through each painting to a resolution, Fischl works on one canvas at a time, from start to finish.
The Guild Hall show, overseen by chief curator Christina Mossaides Strassfield, includes 14 large canvases spanning over 30 years, all centered on the subject of the beach. With Guild Hall’s mission to promote artists with an affiliation to the East End, Fischl’s exhibition is a logical one. The artist and his wife, the celebrated painter April Gornik, are art world celebrities, not just in the Hamptons, but internationally.
The earliest work in the show, A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island (1983) is an iconic piece borrowed from the Whitney Museum of American Art. A Visit is comprised of two side-by-side canvases. On the left, a group of vacationing tourists frolic in clear blue water in front of a sandy white beach and holiday island hotel. The vivid colors are in stark contrast to the image on the right, which shows a chaotic scene in somber, dark colors as Haitians attempt to flee their island during what became known as the Haitian boat crisis. Of this painting Fischl says, “It could have been called ‘One man’s paradise is another man’s hell.’”
A totally different construction is manifested in The Gang (2006), a colorful, cheerful portrayal of the artist’s friends on a beach. Fischl’s voice lightens as he describes the work as paying homage to a long tradition of artists memorializing themselves on Hamptons beaches.
Participating in a legacy that reflects the area as a haven for writers, artists, and the creative community, Fischl points out that The Gang is his first painting where all subjects are smiling. With a genuine laugh, he describes from memory the placement of his friends in the piece, emphasizing that he recalls because they are his friends. The composition includes Gornik (“She’s in the foreground, of course; she’s in the foreground of my life,” he says), Ross Bleckner, Bryan Hunt, Nessia Pope, David Salle, and other East End stalwarts. The Gang is still in the artist’s personal collection.
As for his repeated use of the seaside in his work, Fischl explains, “For me, the beach setting is a metaphoric space as well as something that is purely pleasurable. It is a boundary that I think resonates on a deep, almost genetic level because the sea is where life came from, and we return to its edge on a regular basis. That space between where we live and where we can no longer live is a compelling undercurrent to our fascination with that place—as well as it being simply fun-filled, pleasurable, relaxing.” Eric Fischl: Beach Life will be on view August 11 through October 14 at Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton, 324-0806