In the Studio: Eric Fischl

For a slide show that includes several unpublished images, click on the photo gallery to the left.


LONG ISLAND—Eric Fischl finally paints in peace. No longer distracted by blaring sirens, rumbling trucks and taxi drivers beeping their car horns outside his SoHo loft, Fischl now works in a spacious, airy studio deep in the woods near Sag Harbor, on Long Island. In this pastoral setting, where he and his wife, landscapist April Gornik, share a home and matching studios, birds chirp in trees and light creates dappled patterns across a well-tended garden. In a matter of minutes, he can bike to town—where there are gourmet restaurants, an artfully programmed movie theater and several bookstores—or drive to breathtaking beaches, high-profile small museums and the homes of longtime friends.

Quick-witted, curious and loyal—he’s surrounded by people he’s known for decades—Fischl, who turns 60 this March, is also a hard worker. That’s how, over the course of three decades, he’s accumulated an imposing oeuvre—comprising critically acclaimed paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture of bad boys, bathers at the beach and bedroom trysts—as well as an exhibition track record that includes dozens of solo shows at museums and galleries, from Aspen and Berkeley to Wolfsburg and Zurich.

Since Labor Day, Fischl’s schedule has been chocka-block with appointments and activities. These include a variety of exhibitions. “Ten Breaths,” a complicated sculpture tableau involving 14 life-size figures, occupies two galleries at the Kestner-Gesellschaft, in Hannover, Germany, through February 3. In October, Thomas Gibson Fine Art, in London, hosted a 30-year retrospective of Fischl’s works on paper. That display overlapped with “All the More Real,” a survey of other artists’ work, tracing the human form from birth through old age, which Fischl co-curated to rave notices at the Parrish Art Museum, in Southampton, New York.

In between trips to Europe for his openings, Fischl discussed his own work in the sparsely furnished, 1,800-square-foot studio he had specially built and has occupied since 1999. Surrounded by several large, nearly completed paintings of crowded beach scenes, he said he didn’t know where or when he would show them. Sculpture was on his mind.

A big guy with a kindly demeanor, a thatch of gray hair, wire-rim spectacles, blue eyes and a winning smile, Fischl recounts how he began in the mid-1990s to make three-dimensional figures. He calls the story banal; others would term it serendipitous. “April and I were living out here in forced exile,” he says in his slow, even-toned voice. “Our place in New York was being renovated, and it caught fire.” Since it was the dead of winter in the Hamptons, the phone hardly rang and few visitors dropped by. In this quiet ambience, Fischl says, “I rediscovered play.” He was looking at photographs he’d taken of bathers in St.-Tropez during the 1980s and used so frequently for source material he felt the figures were his own personal repertory company. Out of the blue, he realized he was familiar with only the backs or the fronts of these scantily dressed characters. “I wondered,” he says, “what their other sides looked like.” So he got some clay and started to model miniature figures. He made one and then another. Within a few weeks, he had a beach scene on his worktable. That’s when it got really interesting. Fischl describes how he photographed his bather sculptures and then made paintings based on the prints. “It was,” he admits, “a wacky process.” Bright, colorful shots of seaside revelers in southern France metamorphosed into monochromatic sculptures executed in the bitter cold of the Hamptons. These were then photographed in black-and-white and subsequently transformed into paintings colored from the artist’s imagination.

At the time, Fischl could have been resting on his laurels. His paintings portraying mischievous adolescent behavior, such as Sleepwalker, 1979, and Best Western, 1983, had become instant American classics. His monotypes of bathers, in the buff and otherwise, as well as his prints for Peter Blum Edition, were being collected by major American museums. But although some art world observers consider the 1980s to be Fischl’s heyday, the artist himself has never looked back. Rather than repeat himself, he’s taken on new challenges that tellingly reveal how open-ended his artistic process is. He masterfully blends story and mood with free association, looking anywhere and everywhere for inspiration. After a trip to India, for instance, Fischl tweaked his palette and produced a group of saffron-tinged paintings that were exhibited in 1990 by his longtime dealer, Mary Boone. Six years later, a few months’ stay in Rome resulted in canvases that were filled with Baroque statues and church interiors. And what other avant-garde artist is talking about the things he learned from Auguste Rodins bronzes?

Raised in a Long Island suburb, Fischl, like many other teenagers during the mid-1960s, dropped out of school and ended up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. When he tired of being a hippie, he went to Arizona, where his family had moved. His draft board let him stay enrolled in a local community college. A few years later, he transferred to the new California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia, where David Salle and Ross Bleckner were fellow students. By 1974, Fischl was an assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax. Two figureless Fischls from this period—textured, shaped canvases with words inscribed into the pigment—were on view recently in a group show at the Fondation Maeght, in France.

With Gornik, whom he met in Halifax, Fischl moved to New York in 1978. Leaping from the world of abstraction, which had dominated the art world for decades, he made, on separate sheets of transparent glassine paper, intriguing oil drawings of naked women and boys and some dressed figures, as well as objects like chairs, cots and bathtubs. Fischl’s images of adolescent angst and suburban couplings became the basis of his first mature paintings. “I was looking at situations that were not considered the domain of art,” he recalls, “and I was seeing them through the eyes of a young boy.” Fischl painted adolescents in situations that transformed gallerygoers into voyeurs, even coconspirators, rather than idle viewers. His pictures helped usher in a return to representational art and the use of oil.

Initially, Fischl worked from memory. Subscribing to the notion that people remember details like an unkempt bed, sunlight shining through window blinds or the program playing on a television set, he deliberately didn’t use models or photographs. But he found himself feeling uncomfortable with the “distortions” he saw on his canvas. “I didn’t trust my ability to render,” he says. So he began taking photographs in the early 1980s. “It gave me little moments that seem concrete. Photography makes everyone look off balance, awkward. It started to inform me about body language.”

For Fischl, sculpture has been the ideal medium for exploring old-fashioned notions of figurative form and emotionally charged gesture. For the moment, it might be difficult to recognize ourselves in his contorted bronze statues, which seem to have more in common with Martha Grahams choreography than with our everyday lives. But given the artist’s history, it’s easy to believe that in a year or two, this way of regarding human form will seem more familiar.

Like a good modernist, Fischl knows that sculpture involves different concepts than painting does. “So much of the memory is in the hands, not the eyes,” he explains. “It’s why I love sculpture. It’s about stored memory, about all the things I’ve touched.” Why bother with photographs? “I need to look at them for certain anatomical details—say, how the hip is attached to the quad.”

Fischl now describes himself as an artist who works from collage. He embraces this term because he’s appropriating characters and settings from photographs he’s downloaded on his computer. This allows him to continually tell new stories. As a painter who studied with second-generation Abstract Expressionists, Fischl says he loves the heroic idea of “discovery and execution happening simultaneously on the canvas.”

He no longer struggles to figure out where to put, for instance, a man and a chair. He doesn’t find himself repainting them three inches from where he first positioned them. With the computer, he goes “through 1,000 ideas in a short time.” This freedom introduces fresh energy. For Eric Fischl, as he completes his latest batch of canvases in the studio near Sag Harbor, “colors, fluidity, sureness—all these things come through in a new way that makes the paintings better.”

"In the Studio: Eric Fischl" originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's January 2008 Table of Contents.