Make Way for the Art Truck!: Eric Fischl on Mixing Art, Poetry, and the Transformers to Tackle Post-9/11 America

Eric Fischl is looking to bring idealism back to art. Several years ago, the 63-year-old painter became fed up with the isolation of traditional museum and gallery venues at the same time that he grew increasingly frustrated with the political polarization in the wake of 9/11. His efforts to address these disparate issues led him to one single solution: "America: Now and Here," a traveling exhibition of visual art, poetry, theater, film, and music. The project will bring work by 150 of today's preeminent artists — including artists Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Vik Muniz; poets Billy Collins and Charles Bernstein; and musicians Joan Baez, Sting, and Phillip Glass — to small towns and cities across the country.

Fischl's massive project is, essentially, a well-organized traveling art circus. As he envisions it, 18 trucks custom-designed to serve as mobile galleries will travel to each location, where they will unfold, Transformers-style, to reveal 3,300 square feet of exhibition space. Together, the whole caravan will contain over 60 works of visual art, 16 music listening stations, and at least two theater spaces where actors can perform scenes and monologues live. (In a number of salient ways, the project is reminiscent of a similarly idealistic traveling-art circus planned by Paris's Pomidou Center.)


While Fischl continues to raise money to build the full fleet, he has prepared a pared-down version of the tour for the first few stops. On April 27, a truck wrapped with work by Barbara Kruger will kick-off the preview season in New York. In May, the exhibition will head to Kansas City, followed by Detroit in July and Chicago in October, spending six weeks in every region — including one week at a state or community college and another at a military base. In anticipation of the project's first public outing, ARTINFO spoke with Fischl about his hopes for the project, his hatred of digital media, and the perils of fundraising.


The Barbara Kruger Art Truck will be parked on Greene Street, between Grand and Broome Streets, on Wednesday, April 27 between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.


This project began with you inviting a group of artists, poets, and musicians to submit a work of art inspired by America. How did that request evolve into "America: Now and Here"?

First, I have to stress that this really isn't a curated show in a tight sense of the word. It's really more of a shout-out. I reached out to my friends and peers-first in the visual arts-and asked them if they would create a work of art specifically about America post 9/11. And it's really not about 9/11, but about where we are between then and now. At first, the idea was to put the works on a train, and then it evolved into these trailers that we're trying to get built. We will take the work around to small towns, military bases, universities, inner cities-places where people don't necessarily gravitate to the arts or aren't exposed to the arts. We want to see if we can get another kind of conversation about America going that isn't so polarized, so polemical, so rhetorical, and so divisive.

Are most of the artworks original, i.e., made for this particular project?

It's a mixed bag. Some artists said they had work that they had done within that time period that represented exactly the feelings that they wanted to convey, so they loaned those works. Some created new works. And after I invited the visual artists, I was talking to some poet friends of mine, Carol Muske-Dukes and Bob Holman, who came up with a brilliant way for poets to get involved, this idea based on the form of a Japanese Renga, where one poet writes a 10-line verse, and gives it to another poet who responds, and they have this kind of back-and-forth conversation. And Carol and Bob's idea was to take the form of that and just keep it going, so one poet starts and it goes to the next poet, and to another, and so on. They created this thing called "Crossing State Lines: An American Renga," and it is 54 great American poets who have collaborated — which is like an unheard of thing in poetry — on one poem, 540 lines.

So they were writing bits of this poem and then sending it on to the next poet?

The scheduling of it was phenomenal, because it was like herding cats. But they each had three days to write their piece. It started with Robert Pinksy because he was ready. He had three days to write it and then return it to us. We'd then schedule the next poet. They all wrote it over the course of six months.

Will the poets themselves be reading the poems if the caravan stops in their particular location?

We're still in the process of finishing, but we've filmed each of the poets reciting their 10 lines. And then there will be a projection of those recitations inside the exhibition along with a scroll of the work, so people can read it as well. A map will also be projected to chart the journey that the poem takes. As I said, it started with Robert Pinsky writing on the East Coast in Massachusetts and ends with Robert Hass looking out over the Pacific. It literally crisscrosses the country many times. We're going to try to re-create that road trip visually.

How did the visual art element come together?

When I did the shout-out to these artists, I wasn't about to tell them what to do, other than in the most general sense of it. I had no idea what I was going to get back. It could have been a highly politicized, polarizing visual diatribe — "America's Inequities," or something. It was a crapshoot. I was very surprised by all the work that was suggested. It was kind of self-organizing. It became very clear that there were three broad topics that the work fit under. One was "America as Icon," one was "America as People," and one was "America as Place." "America as People" was about a sense of community, a sense of family and relationships, different interest groups. For "America as Place," it was connected to the history and tradition of landscape in America, that sense of the vulnerability to what was once considered majestic, powerful, and entitled to us. And "America as Icon" was represented by things like Jasper Johns's "Flag" — images that recreate a sense of forward-looking America against the backdrop of Depression-era soup kitchens. Some of it was pretty straightforward, but there was also a lot of humor, irony, and cynicism.

Can you tell me about one work of art in the show that particularly sticks out in your mind?

My wife, April Gornik, did a painting that I think is incredibly beautiful, and I think it's one of the most poetic paintings in the show. It's a seascape of this broiling sea. But she's put the viewer right at the end of the water, looking out over the waves to the distant horizon. And when you're standing there, you don't know whether you're looking east, for example. If you're looking east, it means you're looking back toward Europe, back towards where we came from. But if you're looking out over the Pacific, it means you're looking from as far as we could have gone. Within this one seascape, she's sort of captured the whole journey of the country.

What do you feel like has been your biggest challenge in the course of putting this together?

Raising money. It's been a huge learning curve for me. I naively thought the hardest thing to do would be to convince all these great artists to participate. That it was something so far outside what the art world normally does that I would get rejected over and over again. In fact, it turned out to be the opposite. What I thought would be the easiest thing to do would be to get people who have enormous amounts of money and are the guardians of our culture — the collectors, the institutions — to be convinced of the value of this project. And they've all been financially supportive, but not in a large enough way to go ahead and build the trucks. So we keep working on that aspect of it. My timing was impeccable — I put this thing together right as the market crashed.

Are you still actively fundraising?

Oh yes. But because we had the content of the show ready, we decided, why wait? We had enough money to begin the journey, so we decided to start by putting the show into some hard-shell and distressed buildings in towns and cities where they're trying to drive some kind of economic revival. We'll work with them to figure out where the work could go — somewhere not necessarily within the traditional art world environments. And we'll use the opportunity of these shows and programs to show people the talent and value of the work. Hopefully they'll realize that what would be ideal is to see them in a fully realized form, which means putting them on trucks and getting them into more marginalized communities.

In an interview, participating playwright Marsha Norman said everyone involved has predicted that these artworks might be a bit risqué for more conservative areas of the country, which could be a problem. Have you all given any more thought to how you might confront that?

Well, she was joking. But there are a few pieces that might be difficult to perform if there are children around. So we're thinking about doing an adult night for something like that. We'll certainly give people the opportunity to decide not to come to that, so it's not something that's sprung on them and causes them discomfort. In terms of the visual arts, I don't think there's anything in there that should be upsetting that way. Actually, there is one photograph that is really touching and funny and sweet and also based on a Matisse painting of "The Dance." And it's done by Leonard Nimoy, and it's five overweight women — very large-bodied women — re-creating that dance. I don't know how people are going to see that throughout the country, but I think it's quite amusing and touching. These women are having a great time.

Will you be traveling with the caravan for any amount of time?

I certainly don't think I will. I think I'll go to places where it goes. We're trying to get the other talent involved in the show to participate with that kind of stuff as well. Hopefully we'll salt the places we go with some of the talent in the show. Also, the idea of the show isn't to just go to a place and set up and show people what art is. It's really about using the work and the show to start a conversation about who we are, what we want, think, and feel. We're doing it in conjunction with talent wherever we go so that local talent creates works along the same themes that the show has. So you'll get a local perspective on a national subject. It's all about getting people to respond creatively. What's going to change the kind of conversation we're having is if people engage each other creatively rather than through dogma.

It's interesting that you mention conversation as a big component. I was thinking about other art road trips that have happened over the last couple of years and they all seem to be based around the idea of engaging in conversation. The Bruce High Quality Foundation is doing their "Teach 4 Amerika" project, where they're driving around engaging in discussions about the future of art education, and Jeremy Deller drove across the country with his artwork and engaged in discussions about the Iraq war. Why are artists having the impulse to go out, drive around, and engage in conversation?

I think artists are always trying to reach out to people, to engage them. I think the art world has become isolated, marginalized, suffocating. Most of the artists I know don't make work for it to go to an auction, to get bought, to get put in a crate, only to go to another auction so that people can make money off of it. That's what's happening, but that's not why they're doing it. ["America: Now and Here" Poetry curator] Bob Holman said that the art has changed over the years, but the delivery system hasn't. This is about trying to find a way to reconnect to the public. The time is now — obviously, it's the zeitgeist. Everyone is thinking about ways to break out of a system that's not working.

That's interesting, because you would think that in this era, the way to reach out to people is online and through digital media. Yours is a much more traditional way of engaging with people.

Social media is killing art. What it's doing is making us visually illiterate as a culture. I think it's absolutely urgent and necessary to try to get real works of art out in front of people so they can begin to learn how to look at a painting, listen to a poem, and listen to music in a way that is enriching rather than generalizing. Nowadays, people think that if they see a painting online, on their iPhone, or on a widescreen computer — they have no sense of the experience of a painting that deals with scale, for example. Online, everything is scaleless. They have no sense of how one experiences an object where a painter chooses a very particular size and composition because they are trying to change the way your body relates to an object. They're trying to take you out of your space and put you into this other place so that you can re-experience something, or experience something new. And that's the kind of thing that gets lost. People think all paintings have the same surface because it's all reproduction. That's something that I think is just horrible.

This is certainly a completely different way to relate to and engage with artwork than the online art fairs and galleries that are popping up all over right now.

When I was starting out as a young artist, galleries would hold paintings until the collector could come in and see it. Now, it's all digital. People decide based on whatever they see on the computer. They don't see the actual work until they pick it up, if ever. It produces people who simply are buying art for other reasons, and that's terrible.

Considering the massive scale of this project, has painting been on the back burner for you while you've been setting it up?

I've been stealing time in my studio. But I chose to throw myself into this project at a good time in my life, where I had just completed a big show of bullfight paintings. That took a lot out of me. I didn't feel like I had the next thing going, and I certainly didn't commit to shows, so I didn't feel pressure. But I've been trying to steal some moments where I could get some things done.

Do you feel like being surrounded by all these artworks about America will affect the direction you take as a painter?

I can't say — I really don't know. I think that I've always thought about America, I've always made paintings about America. Even when I was thinking I was making paintings about other places, it was so much from an American point of view. I don't think this will change that. I think the big experience isn't going to be the art that I see and that I've been surrounded by now. It's going to be about how the whole project resonates with people-whether they embrace it, get excited about being included in it, or whether it just falls on deaf eyes, deaf ears. I don't know, and I won't know for probably another year.

Anything else you think people should know about the project?

I've always tried to make part of the message that this is a sincere gesture on the part of artists — to reach out and touch people and also embrace them and to listen. I think that's the primary significance of this gesture, and hopefully people will be open enough to allow that to happen.