A Conversation: Eric Fischl
New American Paintings Contributer, Arthur Peña, speaks with Eric Fischl on the occaision of his survey exhibition, If Art Could Talk, at the Dallas Contemporary.
Rift/Raft, 2016, oil on linen, 98 x 220 inches
Arthur Peña: There are so many moves and nuances playing out on the surface of the paintings. The work has a constant restlessness in the how the paint is being pushed around.
Eric Fischl: I don't know if you have that as well. I'm assuming you do, I think all painters do, which is that I’m always wondering what's enough. What does it take to make it feel alive, make it feel real? How much detail do I need? Do I stick to some strict formula? Do I deviate? Do I whatever? I thought the older I got, the better at the craft I got, the more that question would go away, but it gets worse.
Arthur Peña: How do you keep yourself occupied and involved with the painting when it pushes back at you? When it doesn't want to get resolved, when it's being fussy?
Eric Fischl: I find that if I'm stuck on one thing, if I start another painting, I'm stuck on that painting too because I'm stuck, is what it is.
Arthur Peña: For you, does the body hold a tell, even if a person can’t subjectively acknowledge it?
(L) Travel of Romance, Scene III, 1994, oil on linen, 72 x 54 inches (R) The Travel of Romance: Scene V, 1994, oil on linen, 70 x 54 inches
Eric Fischl: The body is shaped by all your experiences, right? All your wounds, your anxieties, your fears.
It shows itself, whether you walk around one shoulder up or you're relaxed. I think it's precisely that thing where we're not aware of what we're signaling because the skin is the interface to the outside world, so it's something that we have a profound ambivalence about. What do we show, what do we hide, what do we know about, what don’t we don't know about? I respond to that. I like the thing where there's a moment where it seems like a character was created precisely by where the tension and the comfort rests.
Arthur Peña: I was just listening to a podcast about how we need to consistently lie to ourselves on a minute by minute basis to get through the day and how that plays out in our interactions with people. Are we fully engaged or not because we're thinking about the things that we have to deceive ourselves with?
Eric Fischl: Well then, also, there's a longing too, that someone will see through that, will see you in a non-judgmental way. That they'll see your discomfort, your awkwardness, your pain, but won't judge you for it. They'll just see it.
(L) Rafael, 2010, oil on linen, 63 x 84 inches (R) Krefeld Project; Dining Room, Scene No. 1, 2003, oil on linen, 89 x 64 inches
Arthur Peña: Do you still find that your paintings put you in a position of asking, “What the fuck did I just do?”
Eric Fischl: Yeah, I definitely go through periods where I'm not wanting to face this or that again or can't believe I'm not a big enough person that I can’t get past this fucking obsession. I think it's always hard to accept your limitations, especially as an artist who is supposed to transcend the daily and be hopeful, be optimistic. I think ultimately you have to deal with the truth and hope that the way you represent that truth takes it into a different place.
Arthur Peña: Culturally, is the artist still expected to be a truth-teller?
Eric Fischl: I don’t think that contemporary American culture really knows what the artist is anymore. They don't know what it is to them. They don't turn to the arts as a kneejerk reaction when they need something. When 9/11 happened, communities, the government, nobody turned to artists saying, help us figure out what the fuck just happened. Give us some language, give us some images, give us some empathetic way of dealing with these feelings of terror and loss and anger and all of the things that came up. Vulnerability, how do we understand our vulnerability?
Nobody turned to the artist to figure that out because they hadn't turned to us for other things as well when it wasn't a bad time. Art's not central to the culture. The closest we get that's central to the culture, that's creative, that's part of the arts is film or music.
I think the gift that artists have is the ability to put form to disorder, to chaos. To somehow figure out a certain kind of way of connecting this and that which ultimately leads to making sense out of some feelings. I think they do it. Painters do it in an alchemical kind of way because they take this material that's not alive and they make it come alive. That's the magic of it.
Text, 2011, oil on linen, 68 x 84 inches
Arthur Peña: I really connect with your sensibility and willingness to straight up say this work is emotional. If not, then what else?
Eric Fischl: Isn't that what art does? To make the unseen seen and make the felt articulated and felt again, et cetera? That's my belief in what art is, so then I pursue that. It's going up against a lot of resistance because in certain aspects of the art world, that's not what they're looking for. They're looking for amusement. They're looking for distraction, or they're looking for something else, I guess.
Arthur Peña: We have to try and meet this psychological space that painting provides on its own terms. That connection takes time and will always be challenged by new technology, flailing attention spans, or something.
Not that I believe in the death of painting necessarily, because none of us who step foot in a studio actually believe that, but maybe a certain kind of death happens through the audience.
Maybe that disconnect isn't necessarily the painter stops painting, but maybe the audience stops looking.
(L) Cyclops Among the Eternally Dead, 1996, oil on linen, 65 x 55 inches (C) Beata Ludovica, 1996, oil on linen, 74 x 98 inches (R) La Spesa, 1997, oil on linen, 75.5 x 8.25 inches
Eric Fischl: Yeah. Well, stop seeing what they're looking at. I think that that's an education issue. It's the difference between people looking at a work of art and appreciating it, seeing what the artist did, and seeing it in great detail. The more sophisticated their looking is, the more they see in it. They can be on the same plane with the artist who created it with the exception that they didn't create it. Some people are built for speed. Some people are built to think. Some people are built to see.
The painter organizes information based on this activity of seeing shapes that reconfigure back into a form. Seeing color, seeing how a mark carries feeling, and then using all those things to express themselves. That's the gift they have, their talent. The audience is somebody that you want to bring in, so that they can see that it's not just what the painter is showing you, it's how they're showing, so that you get into the deeper levels of nuance and subtlety. You take that same journey, in a way.
Arthur Peña: In your art fair paintings, you're literally bringing the audience along by depicting onlookers, exhibitors, and art world personalities; although, you've mentioned that you don't specifically know or care who they are. Maybe there’s a bit of disdain for fairs and the art world found in that; however, you do damn sure care about what artwork and which artist you put in the painting.
The Wall, 2016, oil on linen,72 x 84 inches (R) Complexity of Pleasure, 2016, oil on linen, 68 x 48 inches
Eric Fischl: I had this experience years ago in Rome where I had this really strong feeling. Rome is one of these places where art and life live, especially in terms of architecture. Gods are on the buildings and there's a palpable feeling; during the day, they're statues, and then around dusk they start to move. They start to come alive in a way and it's like you've got these two planes. You've got the human existence here, and you've got the god thing here, where there are these spirits which are embodied in the art that are happening simultaneously.
What's so interesting about the gods is that they're just super humans. That is to say, they all embody the total aspect of a human. If a god is greedy, they're really greedy. If a god is sensuous and erotic, they are the goddess of love. They break up the human character into parts and each part becomes a god, and then they just move with you in this world. They pay attention to you, or they ignore you. They're there, and you pay attention to them when you need to or ignore them, but you both exist in the same way.
Somehow, in Rome, you get a stronger visual sense of those two worlds happening. That's something that I like in the work is the way you can feel in a painting of mine that the art object in the painting is witnessing what's going on between the humans. That they're witnessing it in a very particular way and they triangulate with the viewer. The viewer and the art object witness what the people are doing, that's the relationship.
Arthur Peña: It's about participation, but in some of the paintings, it's also implication as well. You’re asking, “You saw this too, right? You're seeing this?”
Eric Fischl: It's not just me.
Arthur Peña: Right, it's not just you. We verify your truth.
Fort Worth, 1985, oil on canvas, 98 x 216 inches
Eric Fischl: Yeah. You definitely hope that you're not wrong, that it's not just you. You gotta run the risk that it might just be you. That's the big moment of truth for an artist, when they see something, that it's not art, it's you. You don't know whether it becomes art, but it's you, and you cannot walk away from it because it's terrifying that you feel that limitation. It's just me. I feel this way, I see this thing, but if you walk away from me, you'll never be the artist that you wanna be. You don't have a choice, even though the choice is there.
Arthur Peña: Thinking about a life in painting, what’s a singular truth that's carried through? I mean a real studio truth, a truth that you've found in the material, in the paintings, in the working.
Eric Fischl: There's a difference between being a young artist and being an artist for 40 or 50 years. It's in the studio practice that you had back then. That's important to figure out what that studio practice is and whether that studio practice is actually gonna sustain itself for that length of time, but what does that actually mean?
Identifying themes, which are different than subject matter. What are the themes of your life? For me, it's always about a disconnect between what you want and what you need. If you get on to your themes, you'll find that they evolve. It's not about change. It's they evolve, which means you keep circling around the themes and, each time, you get a different look at this thing that's at the center of your life. Your thing is to keep trying to mark it from where you're at, at any given point. Love, desire, need, loss, whatever. They're still there at age 70 as they were at age 20 or age 6.
How you articulate them is different. Is it something where it's crushing your spirit? Is it releasing it? Is it letting go a little bit? Is it giving you some breathing room to have grown old with it? How do you articulate that? Is acceptance a part of the aging process? It's definitely part of the creative process.
(L) Untitled, 2012, oil on linen 82 x 68 inches (C) Neon Family, 2013, oil on linen, 82 x 112 inches (R) Melva and Ray, 2013, oil on linen , 54 x 68 inches
This conversation took place on the occasion of Eric Fischl’s survey exhibition If Art Could Talk at the Dallas Contemporary through August 26.
Arthur Peña is a Dallas based artist and current Visiting Assistant Professor in Painting at the University of North Texas. His curatorial project One Night Only recently hosted a celebration of new work and a site specific installation by Nicole Eisenman.
All images courtesy of Dallas Contemporary.