BY Bruce Wolosoff | June 28, 2013 | People
Fischl began as a painter, but began sculpting when he was in a “dead zone.”
A portrait of Bill King and Connie Fox.
Fischl’s next series captures the world of art and art fairs.
A yet to be titled painting by the artist.
Sculptures in progress; once finished, they are cast in bronze.
The artist’s Sag Harbor home doubles as his studio.
Artist and Hamptons local Eric Fischl works on a painting in his Sag Harbor studio.
Fischl creates work that is an “attempt to reassert the primacy of the human body.”
I have been plying Eric Fischl with questions since the first time I met him. There’s something about Eric that makes me want to do that. Most importantly, he’s a great artist, and I’m fascinated to try to find out what makes him tick, to find out if maybe there’s some secret he can reveal about making art that will help me become a better composer. Obviously, this is an artist who has worked extremely hard, spent many hours alone, thinking, suffering even, in his studio. This gives his opinions a certain credibility and weight in my mind.
In talking to Eric about painting, I am hoping to learn something about music, my music, how to understand it better, how to make it better. Eric not only puts up with my questions, but he seems to enjoy them and asks questions back. I am struck by the way he patiently explores what I’m asking him with the attitude of a fellow explorer who has questions too and finds everything interesting and worth examining. We talk a lot about the relationships between music and art: how our processes are similar and where they diverge. We often e-mail each other audio files, YouTube clips, JPEGs of paintings. Sometimes we get together for lunch in Sag Harbor and talk about it more.
Eric listens to music and imagines narrative. I look at paintings and hear music. Eric sends me music sometimes, wanting to know how I react to it and what I think of it. I sent Eric an image of a painting last month and received a barrage of e-mails in response, exploring the idea behind it, its historical context, and work by other artists that seemed related to it in some way. I think he continued researching it after I couldn’t keep up and let the conversation drop. He recently sent me an image of a painting by a friend of his and asked me if I heard music when I saw it, and if so, to describe that music. We went back and forth on that one and had a lot of fun with it.
Since we are talking about these things constantly, I imagine that when Hamptons magazine asked Eric to select someone to interview him for this anniversary issue, he chose me because it would be a nice way for us to continue having the conversation that we were already having and would create a meaningful context for it. Eric is a truly inspiring friend, and I enjoyed doing this interview with him very much. My thanks to Hamptons magazine for the opportunity to engage in dialogue with a master.
Bruce Wolosoff: You’ve just published a memoir titled Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas, which details your life, your success, and your process in making your art. It also focuses a critical lens on the devolution of the art world into the art market and takes umbrage with some of your peers. Why and why now?
Eric Fischl: It did not start out to be a full memoir. It started out as a book about the creative process. It was the brainchild of my friend and coauthor, Michael Stone, who felt there is an audience out there that has an interest in art but feels cut off from it, intimidated by the insanity of the art market or the arcane and impenetrable writings of intellectual journeymen who have tried to usurp the experience of art for thinking of the experience you should be having while looking at a work of art. Either way, art has lost its intended audience, and my book is one attempt to reach out and try to reconnect.
My work has always been inextricably woven into the fabric of my life. I paint what is familiar to me so that I might learn what I feel about it. So as Bad Boy evolved, it seemed natural that we look deeper into my past and move those threads forward and up to my life today.
BW: Why have you chosen to live in the Hamptons full time? How does it influence your work?
EF: I grew up coming out to the Hamptons. My parents had a fishing cottage on Dune Road in Westhampton in the ’50s; I surfed out here in the ’60s. I bought my first home in 1985. In 1998 April [Gornik] and I moved into our just-completed dream house. And when you build your dream house, you want to live in it. By 2004, we were living/working out here year-round. I have done two, maybe three paintings that come from this area—they are portraits of friends, some artists, some collectors, and they take place on the beach. I love my friends. They are a joy and constant artistic inspiration. Although the Hamptons is becoming boringly suburban, prettified with curbs and road signs, perfectly trimmed hedges and lawns, and boutiques only the rich want to shop at, I stay out here because of my friends.
BW: You are a modern artist who has a very deep, even encyclopedic grasp of art history. How do you view your work in the context of that historical continuum, and do you ever respond in your paintings and sculpture to works of the past?
EF: I think about the past, which is to say, I think about the history of the stories we tell all the time. It is, I believe, the role of the artist to reinterpret the imagery, the narratives, the archetypes of our culture. To draw on the past is not to imitate it but to see how to revitalize it. That is the nature of creativity.
BW: That’s interesting. So it’s not the style or technique of previous masters that you reference, but the thematic content, enduring human truths, which may be as true for this generation as they were for others. You’ve found a great way to circumvent a problem I often have, which is how intimidated I get when I think about how high masters like Bach and Beethoven have set the bar. So how about the present then: Do you find yourself responding through your work to other contemporary works you see?
EF: I don’t work in a vacuum. I am in a dialogue with my peers through the art: theirs and mine.
BW: You’ve had a huge amount of success and recognition; to what extent are you working with an eye toward your work being seen and appreciated by a contemporary audience or are you also working with an eye toward how your work will be placed in the broader perspective of the art histories yet to be written?
EF: The urgency I feel to express myself is directed toward and in response to my immediate life. It is a sincere effort to reach out to someone for connection. How I shape my work, the decisions I make regarding, even what might appear to someone to be an easy decision, the sharpness of an edge or the saturation and chroma of a color, has everything to do with trying to finely hone my work, my feelings, so they speak to this moment first. That is the only thing I have a modicum of control over. The rest is outside of my ability to make happen, and I accept that.
BW: You’ve continued to base your work on the human figure throughout an era when artists were doing pretty much anything but that. What is it about the human figure that makes it such a compelling subject for you as a painter and sculptor?
EF: My work is a constant attempt to reassert the primacy of the human body—not figure—in the experience of life. We live at a time when the body has become such a problem for us because it is a constant reminder of our limitations and, more importantly, of our mortality. I am only interested in the struggle to find peace with this condition. Paint and wax are both materials with the sensuosity of flesh, and that is one important reason that I paint and sculpt.
BW: A human expressing his humanity and coping with the limitations of the human condition through working with human forms. Love it! Often the images seem a bit enigmatic to me, and I find myself looking at your paintings and creating stories in my mind, as if trying to figure them out, like wondering if the Mona Lisa is smiling and why. Would you care to say a little about the importance of narrative in your work?
EF: An artist can only take you to the experience, not control or overdetermine how you interpret it. I make paintings that unravel feelings for me that have become convoluted or forgotten. The way I do this is to tell myself stories as I am painting them. When images trigger feelings, I pursue them, looking for clarity and meaning. My interpretation of their meaning will of course be different than the viewers’—no better and no worse. Everyone should feel free to project and possess their interpretation of a work of art’s meaning.
BW: Can you describe what it feels like when you are in your studio working and you know the work is going well?
EF: It is heavenly. A teacher once described the flow, the zone, as a kind of mindless attentiveness. You are both making it happen and watching it happen. Nothing makes me feel more integrated and focused.
BW: I get that—that zone you describe. When I’m in it, it’s almost as if I’m not really “doing” anything. The music is just somehow passing through me, as if the radio were picking up signals from some other place. How about when you’re struggling, and it’s going badly?
EF: Ah, now those are unpleasant times. You enter a dead zone and it is terrifying. It starts out with not being able to make the painting feel alive and full of energy and you tell yourself, This will pass, keep working. Pretty soon you begin to feel the desperation coming on. Your thoughts turn to the fear that you no longer have it. Everyone can imagine the terror of those feelings, I’m sure. When I am at this point, I become stubborn and begin to overthink my painting. The more I do that, the worse it gets, but I can’t let go; I keep beating the dead horse. What I know but am not ready to accept is that I have used up an inspiration and lapsed into repetition and I have begun to bore myself. The solution is in the letting go and accepting that for a period of time I may not know what I am doing or want to do, and that is okay. Eventually something comes along and the fire burns bright once again.
BW: I know that feeling, too. I only seem to get out of that funk by taking the pressure off and somehow returning to a place of play, experimentation, just fooling around with a couple of chords or a rhythm. Are there any tricks you have to get yourself out of that fallow place and into your next creative phase?
EF: I started making sculptures when I reached a dead zone with my painting. I began with no purpose other than to not paint. What I found was that working with clay and wax in three dimensions unlocked memories only my hands could access. The feel of a leg or torso preceded the sight of it. My hands knew before my eyes saw. I also do large watercolors where I am working absolutely to the limit of my ability to control the material. Pooling masses of liquid color onto a sheet of paper and trying very quickly, very deliberately to move it around until a figure appears. The watercolors are both practice and play. They are very satisfying without needing to be important.
BW: If you didn’t create another new work, you would still have made your mark as one of the great artists of this era. How does this impact your desire to create new work or your choices about what new pieces to make?
EF: You are both blessed and cursed to be an artist and it is something you need to embrace. The only things that would stop me from making art are negative, life-threatening things, such as blindness, loss of a limb, deep depression, political oppression, censorship, boredom.... Whatever it takes me to steer clear or navigate through this is what I will do. If that means believing I am bigger than the moment, I will mine my ego’s energy supply to make my art happen.
BW: Which of your current projects are you most excited about?
EF: I have begun a series of paintings based on the world of art, art fairs, and collecting. I think of them as satires. I am excited about both the paintings I am working on, which look at my immediate milieu and about the sculptures I am making of young girls dancing. I am most excited about a show of works on paper I will be having at the Albertina museum in February 2014.
BW: Artists, even more than other people, seem to have a heightened sense of how much work they want to do and how limited time there is here in one lifetime to do it—ars longa, vita brevis. What are some of the things you would still like to accomplish in your work?
EF: I think art is an attempt to stop or slow time down. I don’t have any big plans or projects that I feel the urgency to complete before I die. I take it one painting, one sculpture at a time.
BW: If time were unlimited, might you try different things, different media you’ve previously chosen not to explore in the interest of concentrating your energies and maintaining focus?
EF: I have already tried different media, only to find my strength lies in painting and sculpting. They are the way I organize and process information and stimulation. The world comes in through my eyes and goes out my hands when I paint and comes in through my hands and goes out through my eyes when I sculpt.
BW: I hear you. All I know how to do is play piano and write music, and sometimes I’m not even sure I know how to do that. Do you have any regrets? If you knew then what you know now, would you have worked differently, taken on different projects, gone in different directions?
EF: I think it is precisely that feeling that you could’ve, should’ve done something differently that drives you to do what you do better. The irony is as an artist you struggle through your work to find the uniqueness of your “voice,” all the while railing at your own limitations.
Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas is available at BookHampton locations throughout the Hamptons.
Photography by Gregg Delman
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