Why I love Eric Fischl
Richard (my husband) and I had a loud and passionate discussion tonight of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Eric Fischl’s paintings vis a vis, say, David Hockney, or Lucian Freud, or John Currin. All four are considered “realistic” painters (whatever that means), all four have achieved “success” (again, whatever that means) in the art world during their lifetime, and all four paint the human figure, albeit Freud, alone amongst the four, paints the figure as the figure, rather than the placing the figure in the context of “slice of life” paintings that the other three favor.
We argued the merits of each, and had to agree that of the four, Freud is the clear genius. It is hard to argue with his vision and view of the world, his painterly technique, his genius at seeing the human condition and portraying it on canvas.
Currin is unique among the four in that he uses his incredibly realistic (and old-masterly) technique to shock and disturb the viewer with his content, from Bea Arthur’s breasts to his current obsession with pornography.
Hockney seems the purest in terms of content and technique. Innocent in the way he uses a naiveté approach to technique allows him to convey what could be shocking subjects if handled in a less sensitive manner. He is not out to shock, only to express.
Of the four Eric Fischl would seem to be the least controversial, given his current narrative paintings. His earlier work was much more psychologically charged as he worked through childhood issues.
Fischl has been credited with reviving painting at a time when most critiques argued that painting was dead. Trained as an abstract painter, Fischl decided he just wasn’t a very good abstract painter, and so moved on to figurative and eventually narrative painting. Not having been schooled in the tradition of figure painting he had to teach himself how to render flesh and how to handle the medium of oil paint.
I have admired Eric Fischl’s paintings ever since I first saw his work, and after hearing him speak and enjoying a very short email exchange with him that admiration moved to the man himself, as well. While our careers have taken very different paths, our beginnings were virtually the same, given the fact that we attended college at about the same time, in the same era when abstract expressionism was king.
Given that we are both figurative painters and we both obviously love the texture and sensuous nature of paint, I was eager to hear about his process. He spoke at an event in Seattle several years ago and Richard and I attended. When he described his process and mentioned that he worked from photographs I was completely blown away! It was almost a mystical event in my life, as I had struggled for years over the question of whether paintings done from photographs were “legitimate,” or could be called, “art.”
Yeah. I know, right? Seems silly now but at the time it was like a cool drink of water after a long walk in the desert to hear a painter whose work not only did I admire but had been recognized as having revived painting as a legitimate medium! His work was in museums! And not only did he use photographs but he manipulated them with <gulp> a computer! Photoshop! WOW!
Confidence, or lack thereof, is a curious thing. I walked back into my studio completely renewed, and began to use photographs in ways I hadn’t before. Previously I would work from a photograph and use its entirety, or slightly change it, leaving out something here or something there, but never had I gone so far as to manipulate the photographs into source material that met a certain vision.
It’s funny how something so simple and seemingly benign can hold you back, or push you forward. I now take thousands of photographs and the way in which I use them changes constantly. While neither Fischl nor I are photo-realistists, photography informs and shapes what we put on canvas.
I guess the moral of this story is that we artists just have to have faith in what we’re doing, no matter what it is. If having an actress sleep overnight inside a glass box can be called art http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2013/03/25/tilda-swinton-moma-art-installation-launches—the-maybe (and I am not for a minute disputing that it is) then we must tune out the naysayers and just get on with it.
I wish I’d just gotten on with it a long time ago.
Click here to view a video of Eric Fischl talking about his painting process: http://www.sanjosemuseumofart.org/dive-deep-fischl
Lucien Freud with Martin Gaylord, from Lucien Freud: Painting People by Sarah Howgate
John Currin painting, Getty Images
David Hockney painting “Felled Trees on Woldgate”, 2008, Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima © David Hockney
Eric Fischl, Mary Boone Gallery, NY, NY