PRINT April 1983


Social conditions now approximate the vision of republican society conceived by the Marquis de Sade at the very outset of the republican epoch. In many ways the most farsighted and certainly the most disturbing of the prophets of revolutionary individualism, Sade defended unlimited self-indulgence as the logical culmination of the revolution in property relations—the only way to attain revolutionary brotherhood in its purest form. By regressing in his writing to the most primitive level of fantasy, Sade uncannily glimpsed the whole subsequent development of personal life under capitalism, ending not in revolutionary brotherhood but in a society of siblings that has outlived and repudiated its revolutionary origins.
—Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 1978

ROBERT BIRMELIN, ERIC FISCHL, and Ed Paschke appear to have little in common, aside from a commitment to the figure. Despite their obvious differences, it can be said that these artists all use the figure as a point of departure into speculations about human behavior. What separates them from other contemporary figurative realists (Chuck Close, Alex Katz, or Philip Pearlstein, for example) is that they use narrative content to depict how we inhabit our cultural landscape. Whether it’s the tense, threatening turmoil of Birmelin’s streets, the hypersensitive, raw sexual energy of Fischl’s suburbs, or Paschke’s eerie, neonlike electronic netherworld portraits of Everyman, you sense that what’s making you uneasy while looking at the paintings is that what you’re actually seeing is us. Their paintings come as close to recording raw nerve endings, their bloody stumps of consciousness, as possible. There is nothing polite in their work, their paintings don’t come off the wall and shake your hand, Rather, like the threatening hand in Birmelin’s The Street—A Gesture from a Stranger, 1980, their paintings suggest slowly-rising anarchy, anger, and isolation lurking within every decision, every gesture, every interaction.

For just as the world has been washed over with media images (each of which offers a program for behavior, whether it’s Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or “the woman next door” raving about a fantastic new fast-action detergent), these artists point to and reveal other ways of reading what is accepted as “reality.” Instead of developing a hybrid formalist approach that appropriates various media techniques almost to the point of reification, Birmelin, Fischl, and Paschke use the techniques in critical and, more importantly, threatening ways. They are acutely focused on the tyranny of what is acceptable, as it is revealed by our gestures, modes of social interaction, and the various images of self we present to the world.

Instead of causing the viewer to remain passively in awe of their considerable technical achievement, the paintings of Birmelin, Fischl, and Paschke show that this media barrage has shaped our conciousness to such an extent that a new kind of representational imagery is necessary. Their paintings require the viewer to make both an intellectual and an imaginative leap, almost of faith, to fill in the story from the details presented. In an artistic milieu where the media is primarily understood as a collocation of decipherable signs, Birmelin, Fischl, and Paschke have steadfastly chosen not to succumb to the latest mannerisms of appropriating media techniques (under the elegant guise of semiotics) and instead use it for a completely different set of ends. The viewer is forced to look into the mirrors they hold up, to analyze and process the information that is to be found there.

In a world where behavior is no longer based on ideology and reason but on strategy, calculation (or miscalculation), these artists focus on the disjuncture this implies between our actions and their purposes. Beneath our actions (the rock, so to speak) are such worms as fantasy, voyeurism, and embarrassment. It is not just our actions but the propelling forces underlying them that these artists are concerned with. In today’s ambivalent world, these artists are attempting to express a moral vision. This moment the world is threatened and threatening; these artists are vulnerable.

The possiblity of contact among strangers is a subject that Birmelin explores in a number of paintings done roughly between 1979 and 1982. Other paintings from this period depict a rocky shoreline on Deer Isle, Maine, where Birmelin lived during the summer, but are as nonpastoral as can be, given the setting. In both groups of paintings the picture plane can be seen as a metaphor for the membrane between the private world of the individual and the threatening outside realm, where everyone and everything poses a constant threat, a potential danger.

Birmelin has deliberately and vigorously switched the picture-as-window idea with rather disturbing anti-picturesque results. Instead of being presented with the detached, privileged, or ironic views that are so familiar in 20th-century realism, the viewer is involved, even implicated, as a possible victim collaborator, or witness. Typically what the viewer is confronted with in Birmelin’s paintings is a menacing, ambiguous gesture, or the exaggerated presence of a man’s unshaven cheek, say, pressing against the picture plane. Disjunctures are carefully developed and explored between the blurred claustrophobic closeness of others and the sharp clarity of a littered sidewalk receding into a deep space. Whereas other artists have carved out careers from depicting a few privileged details of our urban environment, Birmelin’s vision is expansive in its attempts to include everything. His paintings record the continuous turmoil that is both too fast to contemplate and too close to see clearly.

Unlike Alex Katz, say, whose paintings depict society in more familiar, comfortable confines, and could be seen as equivalents to billboard ads for Camelot, Birmelin is a chronicler on the streets of the uneasy ever-present tension that fills them. His paintings admit his own vulnerability and, by extension, ours. Because his people make eye contact they involve us in their own unnamed dramas, which do not exist in their world so much as they connect to the viewer’s. If Birmelin had not closed down the distance between his depictions and the viewer, he would have been working in the easy and familiar zone of voyeurism. He would have been continuing the illusion of the separation between them (his subjects) and us (the viewer). In a world where anything can happen, Birmelin’s paintings offer little comfort.

Not surprisingly, Birmelin’s responsible vision of our chaotic present has caused some critics to characterize his work as strident or abrasive, as if these were necessarily negative qualities. Actually he’s just being visually truthful, and because of this psychologically accurate. In The Street—A Gesture from a Stranger, a woman with part of her body and head cropped by the painting’s edge walks hurriedly by. She seems to be veering away, as if to avoid whatever is about to happen. On the other side of the painting a man is visible from his neck to his knees, the rest cropped by the top and bottom edge. One of his hands wields a rolled-up newspaper, while the other plucks a cigarette from his jacket pocket. Directly in front of him (squeezed between the picture plane and the figure) is a hand (is it closing into a fist? or reaching out to grab you?). The large, unidentified hand looms just behind the picture plane, toward which it is aimed. In the middle ground another woman, crossing the street, looks out at the viewer and makes eye contact. This method of presenting internal sightlines parallels the tradition of street photography. His paintings, too, are more than recapitulations. They are carefully composed, imaginative amalgams of moments anyone might experience while going from one place to another. Like his other paintings, The Street—A Gesture from a Stranger is an intensely realized field of vision, horizontal in format and with numerous focal points. One is reminded of the constantly roving eye that has to take everything into account, and the never-ending adjustments of instinct, pace, and direction, needed to thread one’s way through a crowd. At the same time Birmelin reveals the ambiguity of gestures: how nothing we see might be what it seems.

The paintings are based on small plein air sketches, and drawings done from the memory of an incident—something as small as a pair of cufflinks, say, or a yellow shirt—that caught Birmelin’s eye as he walked around 14th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York, where his studio is now located. For years his studio was near 125th Street and Broadway, and its environs provided the inspiration for a number of paintings. His crowded street scenes do not reduce their inhabitants to stereotypes of race and class, but are filled with the individuals who live and work amidst this grimness.

After Birmelin gets the basics of the scene down on the canvas, he begins adjusting, repainting, and reconstructing. A process of adding, shifting, and eliminating elements continues until everything fits together in a believable way. Over a period of months Birmelin will transform a man into a woman, and the space between two figures will be readjusted so that one can see or imagine a third, newly added figure being able to pass between them. Both the overall composition and its wide range of discrete and particular details continually demand Birmelin’s attention, and it is to these he responds. He paints in as neutral a style (without gestural effect or signature stylizations) as possible. The viewer is to be confronted by the scene, not the touch with which it is painted.

Birmelin’s paintings can be seen as instances from a journey, but one that is not transcendent, like those taken by questers in epic literature. Knowledge for Birmelin is not in arrival (after all, is anyone ever really there?), but in being aware. One wanders through the streets with antennae out, receiving and interpreting the myriad sounds, sights, smells—the presences constantly swirling around us. In Birmelin’s paintings the figures—their gestures and glances—threaten to pierce the picture plane and invade the psychological space that one needs to feel safe. Unlike Edward Hopper or, more recently, Rackstraw Downes, Birmelin closes the emotional distance between the viewer and depicted scene. To extend this line of thought, the paintings remind us of the plight of Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa; they extend Kafka’s vision of the beetlelike mentality that is pervading our consciousness.

The heightened sense of continually shifting relationships among the figures is a distinctive characteristic of these paintings. In the beautifully resolved, highly complex diptych Broadway and 125 Street, 1978–79, we might ask what is happening on the left-hand side. There, a man restraining a yapping dog is moving quickly toward a woman who has stopped to look at something—her purse. Beside her an unsavory character looks on. Across the busy street, beneath the el train, two men have stopped to appraise a woman who has just passed. Each of Birmelin’s numerous focal points presents a completely realized dramatic moment. The multiplicity of these instances conveys a tension which cannot ever resolve itself into one dramatic conclusion. His paintings crackle with the tensile, unresolved emotions of the street: the viewer is stopped and made to consider what will happen or what has just happened. The news they depict is related to our psychological apparatus; they don’t feed our desire for documentary proof. In fact, Birmelin never resorts to copying from photographs, saying that it is “an article of faith that causes me to paint from experience and memory.”1

In a recent diptych On the Street—An Event with TwoCops, 1981–82, Birmelin has aligned the central group of figures in such a way that the head at the bottom edge (cropped) and the center of the painting seems to be jutting out into the viewer’s space, like the formidable prow of a ship. In the middle ground and to the right two policemen are running up the street while looking to the left. In front of them and farther back in the painting is a woman, her face hidden behind her hair; she has stopped to look at a piece of cloth on the ground that could be either silk or satin. With her face hidden and her head bowed, the woman conveys a romantic embodiment of mystery, innocence, and vulnerability. What is remarkable here is Birmelin’s sensitivity, his willingness to explore the wide range of emotions implicitly suggested by this one instant. Altogether the viewer is confronted with a difficult scene. How are we to react to the woman standing on a sidewalk, unaware of what is about to happen, and to the two cops running pell-mell in her direction? Elsewhere in the picture, a crowd of threatening figures confronts us with their bored and hostile stares. Do we want to know what the cops have seen? Will we try to signal the woman of what is about to happen? Or will we slip quietly away? This painting brought to mind . something I’ve never been able to forget. Once I was walking behind the New York University Library when I saw four white teenagers suddenly run across the street, knock down a middle-aged black man, and begin to beat him. For a moment I stood still, stunned, frightened, and confused. Then I started yelling and running towards them. One of the teenagers looked up and said, “Watch out, he’s got a gun.” I and everyone else stopped dead in our tracks. The teenagers quickly took off. They had used our paranoia as a weapon against us and gotten away. The man stood up, brushed himself off, and walked away repeating, “I don’t need any help.”

Birmelin’s street scenes convey that same intense, almost hallucinatory moment. In order to accomplish this, Birmelin has contradicted the familiar aspects of pictorial composition. His manipulation of the picture-as-window idea is not a gratuitous gesture. If anything, Birmelin’s inability to remain within this long and hallowed realist tradition compelled him to start anew. Unlike other contemporary urban realists, Birmelin no longer allows us to see things distanced. The results are radical and unexpected. On one level Birmelin seems to be asking how, if the world is harrowingly chaotic, we can remain satisfied with an outmoded way of seeing and interpreting it. Nor is there anything mechanical in Birmelin’s vision. His paintings have the same feeling of spontaneity found in the work of Weegee and William Klein, who took to the streets to find their photographs. All three use the formal possibilities of their particular medium to express their emotions. Unlike those irresponsible news editors and photographers who give us one grim photo-headline after another, until they all read and look alike and mean the same thing, Birmelin’s paintings explore the web of emotional responses. By changing and even upping the stakes he explores what we see, not at a museum moment, but everywhere.

Certainly it was the city’s endless nightmare many tried to escape when they moved to the suburbs. Soon vast shopping malls, restricted country clubs, and cars that could transport teenagers to the drive-in became the way people met. Replacing the urban paranoia was suburban alienation, the endless need for diversion. Swimming pools, country clubs, and social cliquishness that denied difference was what was most desired. A status quo was rigorously maintained—not least by manicured lawns that defined parameters of privacy. It is this milieu that Eric Fischl explores in his paintings from the inside out.

At the beach a partying bunch of teenagers are posing. On a lawn a woman in sunglasses sits smoking, surrounded by caged dogs (a scene a bit too “normal” for Diane Arbus to have photographed, no doubt). At night a skinny adolescent boy, body as tense as a bow, stands in a plastic wading pool and masturbates. These are some of Fischl’s subjects. They are darkly anarchic mnemonic devices. What Fischl has focussed on in these paintings is a wide range of symbols, myths, and images (the traditional elements, one might say, of spiritual life) and revealed the various ways in which they are experienced in the secular realm. Or, to put it another way, Fischl has taken the props of suburban life—the wading pool and baseball bat—and pushed them into a disquieting, sometimes loving, sometimes grieving, and often creepy context. Many of Fischl’s paintings suggest the analysis expressed in this line from Charles Simic’s poem, “Ax”: “Whoever swings an ax / Knows the body of man / Will again be covered with fur.”2

In Bad Boy, 1981, for example, a teenaged boy stealthily reaches into a purse for some money. In front of him a nude woman (his mother?) lies on a bed, her leg bent so that the foot is arched toward her mouth in a kind of dreamy, infantile gesture. Through the venetian blinds falls a harsh light, striping the woman with shadows. These tiger stripes of light and dark convey the woman’s animistic powers, her caged sexual ferociousness. An incredible delineation of her being is conveyed by painterly means. On the table, along with the purse, is a bowl of apples and bananas. Fischl’s straightforward combination of such details as the degraded symbols of genitalia with the starkly lit room and the bleak venetian blinds (reminiscent of ’50s grade B films) can be seen as the stitching together of Freud and pornography, repression and desire. His use of particular colors—blacks, grays, orange, acidy yellow, and biting green—is as grim and sensitive as Jean-Luc Godard’s use of newsreel film strategy in Vivre sa vie (My life to live), where Anna Karina plays a doomed revolutionary. Fischl’s grace as a painter is most obvious when he both orchestrates a painting tightly into an overall composition, and lets each particular assert itself.

Bad Boy, like many of Fischl’s other paintings, is not the projection of a desire so much as the acute registration of a potential embarassment. What is striking about BadBoy is the way Fischl has let each of the details emphasize the emotional content. Everything is necessary in this vision of a desperate mood. The theft and the masturbation are the bonded particulars of the setting, as is the bleak room asserting isolation and futility. There is a keen sense that this scene is an inextricable part of the mother and son’s relationship, something to be played and replayed. The viewers are made to feel as if they, too, are intruding. In carefully composing the scene so that the viewer is looking over the boy’s shoulder at the woman, Fischl delimits voyeurism as intrusion, looking as peeking.

In The Catch, 1982, a theatrically grimacing adolescent squeezes his crotch with one hand while dangling a fish from the other. Beside him a girl grabs his wrist with one hand while coyly drooping her other arm around his shoulders. The other adolescents are also posed in a grimly comical way. The view is frontal, and the painting is in grisaille. The Catch is a memento, a kind of blurred snapshot from a drunken outing at a beach, rawly typical of the tics of adolescence. In Sleepwalker, 1979, yellow acidy light (possibly from a porch) illuminates the skinny boy masturbating in a wading pool. The picture plane has been tilted up so that the viewer’s angle is down at the boy, as if watching him from a back-bedroom window. Once again, Fischl’s details are perfect. At the top of the pool, like two thrones, are two empty garden chairs—stand-ins for Mom and Dad. The boy could be the viewer’s brother, son, or neighbor—this implied bond of spying is the subtext of the painting. If we were to look out the back window and see this boy, what would we do? How would we feel? Who would we tell? And why? Fischl pushes the narrative possibility. Instead of being primarily interested in delineating figurative volumetrics, shadows, and patterns from abstract brushstrokes, thus suppressing psychological content in favor of formalist stylistics, he is willing to risk investing his compositions with fixed meaning—not in some nostalgic, historicist manner, but from a deeply contemporary, confrontational position that goes after the psychology of cinematic and photographic responses.

While trauma is present in one sense or another in these three paintings, this isn’t Fischl’s only concern or focus. He doesn’t resort to the nervous stand-up comic’s routines of Philip Roth or Woody Allen to carry his subject. Rather than using embarrassment, Fischl deals with it. His primal scenes—their obsessive tug on his, and our, consciousness—form a complex web of fought-for self-consciousness which results in direct statement. What we see in The Catch, Sleepwalker, and Bad Boy is the awkwardness of desire, its muffled expressiveness. Fischl has not only painted compelling images, he has revitalized the realist genre by depicting individuals rather than sexual types. Like Birmelin and Paschke, Fischl’s images are not the received, glossy ones, but one he’s looked for hard, paid for and earned.

If angst and consciousness are inextricable parts of Fischl’s vision, then Beach Ball, 1981, is an excellent example of their roots. Unlike Bad Boy, Beach Ball (though it picks up the theme of self-indulgence) suggests not only the range of Fischl’s subject matter, but his subtle ability to reveal a specific drama beneath a familiar moment. A couple (their backs to the viewer) passionately and somewhat theatrically embrace at the beach, while a younger boy (facing the viewer) reads with an air of feigned indifference. How else is this young boy who is reading to act under the tyranny of self-consciousness? The pun of the painting’s title underscores the self-conscious mood. The beach ball (the one thing that can be used by all three) is ignored. The tension between separate states and community is depicted in a beautifully resolved, quiet—to the astonishing point of being almost genrelike—painting.

Fischl’s subtle, but persuasive, edited moments of growing up evoke images of what Christopher Lasch has called “a society of siblings.” In The Women, 1981, for example, a group of women of all ages drink and carouse at night. In front of the fire an adolescent girl lifts her skirt and smirks. In the background a motel is visible, as if these women make up a nomadic tribe that the feminist novelist Monique Wittig might have written about. He depicts them as individuals who have defined themselves, rather than succumbing to sexist roles. This vision is informed by an impulse from some strange otherness, from the time when our ancestors lived in caves and wandered, frightened and vicious, beneath the stars. Fischl is able to convince us by orienting, and then displacing us with the familiar—mobile home, venetian blinds, wading pool—until it turns primal. All his paintings suggest that beyond the laws we know are other laws—ones we might never fully comprehend. Fischl is beyond being an impressive young artist; he is forging a new direction—one that will only be satisfied with understanding, not preconceptions.

The suburbs offered no real solace from the cities. How the people in either situation chose to escape the tedium is central to Ed Paschke’s vision. He has been distilling his observations of modern life since the mid ’60s, when his paintings first started hitting their stride. Despite what superficially looks like radical stylistic change and an abrupt shift in focus, the subject of his work has remained consistent: he has insistently examined the entwined themes of glamour and spectacle, and with them the part the media plays. Paschke’s portraits from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s can be divided more or less into two groups—the nameless walk-ons (lady wrestlers, burlesque queens, third-rate club boxers, dwarfs, transvestites) and the stars (Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra). Unlike the work of his New York Pop contemporaries, in Paschke’s paintings nothing was smoothed away.

These early paintings (1967–70) are related to John Heartfield’s critical photomontages. They are edgy and confrontational—a disquieting conjunction between an X-rated movie and Tod Browning’s Freaks. Eschewing bland ironies, Paschke’s paintings can be seen as exposures of come-ons or invitations to the local coliseum that promise spectacle. Beginning with Khrushchev banging the U.N. podium with his shoe, there has been an air of spectacle hovering over every public event. Television began to sell such events in the living room. We could watch them while eating dinner. Paschke has a direct pipeline to the millions of psyches that read the National Enquirer to discover what Marilyn Monroe’s spirit said to the medium during a seance. In hindsight, what becomes clear is that Paschke’s raunchy depictions of that time were too much for an art world that preferred the cool and detached views of Warhol. John Kennedy may have been dead and the Vietnam War raging, but for some the myth of Camelot persisted.

A conjunction between Philip Guston and Paschke isn’t as odd as it may first appear. When in 1970, Guston showed his new (now famous) paintings at the Marlborough Gallery, Hilton Kramer greeted them with a review in the New York Times entitled, “A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum.” The rest may be history, but it is one still in need of a thorough reexamination. If Guston’s dissatisfaction with the limits of abstraction and his subsequent radical departure from it can be seen as partially a consequence of his reactions to external events (the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, and assassinations), then the early part of Paschke’s career should also be seen as conscientious objection. In 1968, for example, Paschke painted Purple Ritual, a lurid, Photo-Realist derived portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald toting a rifle and framed by a decorative pattern based on the American flag and eagle. A further parallel can be drawn between Paschke’s Purple Ritual and Malcolm Morley’s Racetrack, a painting finished in 1970. Cynically titled, Racetrack is a Photo-Realist painting derived from a poster advertising the pleasures of visiting South Africa. A large red X was drawn over the original and the whole thing was then copied into a painting. Presented as a copy, the X signifies both anger and impotence; rather than effacing it directly, Morley documents it. Like Paschke and Guston, Morley (an Englishman and an outsider) began his career as a reactive artist, and continued to be one even after his radical stylistic change from Photo-Realism to gestural extravagance. Both Paschke and Morley used Photo-Realism to document their angry vision of America. What connects them with Guston is that their reactive natures made them go beyond the approved stylistic shiftings of the art world. “Art for art’s sake” seemed to them an inconsequential game. That the three of them reacted to circumstances, whether public or personal, during the ’60s and ’70s can be seen as a critique of both America and its painting. Certainly, the current situation owes something to their initial reactions during the last decade. In their profound restlessness, each opened for himself and others new considerations.

Even in this early phase of their careers, Paschke and Morley did not fit conveniently into any slot. Paschke was no more a Chicago Imagist, a Midwest version of Pop art, than Morley was a bona fide Photo-Realist content to record the bland ironies of America. Negative impulses gave their work a dark side that their counterparts’ efforts lacked. Both made critical decisions rather than merely appropriating an image and enlarging its scale. What fueled their choices was anger; the result was satire. For Paschke, the label of being from Chicago pushed him out of the mainstream, made him seem a local artist. The fact is that he was never a local artist; he was, and is, an independent.

What these critics failed to see was that Paschke’s sideshow freaks were descendants of Velazquez’s Spanish royal court. In Las Meniñas, 1656, Velazquez lavished as much attention on the dwarf playmate as he did on the royal children. Just as buffoons, morons, and dwarfs play a significant part in Velazquez’s oeuvre, Paschke has painted such lovingly detailed portraits as Holy Stick Man (1967–69), Hop Head (1970), Yolanda (1973), and Red Sweeney (1975). The connection becomes more significant when we realize that Velazquez’s technical mastery of the sensuous effects of lace, leather, velvet, and satin would finally have an heir in Paschke’s costumed and tattooed figures of the ’70s. Somewhere along the way the royal wardrobe had been pilfered by these pretenders to some imagined throne. Paschke’s exquisite technical control and his smooth surfaces may be emotionally closer to the tightness of Rogier Van der Weyden and Hans Holbein than to the painterly approach of Velazquez, but he has in effect been America’s other court painter (other than Warhol, that is) since the beginning of his career.

Perhaps the differences between Andy Warhol’s and Paschke’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe ought to be reexamined. In fact, might it not now be possible to see Warhol’s portrait of Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans as issuing from the same source—a mind keenly attuned to media advertising, rather than someone examining its propaganda methods? Paschke’s depiction—Marilyn Monroe as a minstrel strumming a banjo—is the seamy, nasty underside of cooled-out distance. More than formal properties separate these two artists, both of whom happen to be Polish-American and Catholic. Warhol’s portrait arose out of a confessed need to be an insider, a member of a cliquish entourage. Paschke’s portraits are of loners, outsiders who are socially alienated and physically maimed. In 1978, Paschke may have depicted a rock musician in Guitao, but he didn’t, as Warhol did, make it Mick Jagger. Looking back at the early phase of their careers, it can be said that both artists summed up the era of the Kennedys and the Vietnam War but from opposite sides of the fence. One was concerned with vanity and glory, while the other was dealing with the forces that brought us there. Consequently, Paschke’s images have grown ever more vital and Warhol’s just might have stayed the same.

By the early ’70s, Paschke was painting shoes that had acne, hair, varicose veins, and tattoos. This fetishizing allowed Paschke’s critique a freer rein than had previously been seen. The shoes were objects on which Paschke lavished his penchant for kinky details. Alongside these shoe paintings were continued depictions of tattooed women and weirdly costumed men. Rather than reaching exalted states of grace, these figures should be seen as descendants of Christianity’s flagellants, penitents, and those who received stigmata. They have cancelled out their right to humanness and objectified their bodies with decorative coverings which suggest that the paintings can be read as skin. The masks and tattoos are emblematic of Paschke’s vision of the dualities that exist in humanity, of the splits between inner being and outward projection. His portraits not only entertain such metaphysical speculation, but in their mimicry of “body art” they suggest some of the artist’s deeper intentions. The alienation Paschke depicts—the intense desire to make oneself into “art” and therefore unique—may have arisen out of Paschke’s own existentialist doubts.

This introspection may have led him to make the stylistic change he did in 1977. Certainly his interest in media-shaped perceptions must have also influenced him to effect television’s distortions, holograms’ insubstantiality, and cardiographs’ linear zigzags. The references to television, hospitals, and bodiless bodies form his new subtext. What the new paintings clarified was that Paschke had been concerned all along with the numerous ways individuals annihilate themselves (or are annihilated) in order to achieve a recognizable image.In fact, these paintings were just that: images. Earlier in his career Paschke had focussed primarily on outsiders. Now he was turning his attention toward insiders, ordinary citizens who, for all their respectability and achievement, are hurting. Paschke’s vision implies that nowadays free will and predestination are one and the same.

What these paintings depict is complete depersonalization—alienation taken to its logical extreme. And Paschke has, in the process, moved decisively away from cultural icons and fetishized types of alienation to concentrate on more generalized, widespread manifestations. The figures are drained of substance, as if beneath their masks and costumes the flesh has started to decompose. Bodies and faces look like neon-electrocardiograms, screens of fatigued yet sinister energy. They express the grim possibility that our fields of vision, both psychological and perceptual, have become completely mechanized by the media. The paintings evoke the age of computer games, radiation, holograms, and Home Box Office. Their pulsing, bright lines can be read from side to side, while their layers of color can be read back and forth. In them flesh has deteriorated to the point where one can’t determine where the body ends and the surrounding space begins. Paschke has integrated his vision of our dualistic nature with the duplicitous effects of television. “Reality” is something we view through a psychotic television. One cannot escape the feeling that Paschke believes that Claude Rains’ insane cackling doctor in The Invisible Man is lurking in all of us. Now we are looking at a mirror, not a poster.

What Paschke seems to be saying is that our egos, so attuned to being persuaded, if not instructed, by mass media, can no longer see for themselves. Instead the extent to which our fantasies (the stylizations of dress, gestures, and modes of interaction) are shaped by media amounts to more than just an epidemic. If fantasy is, in its purest form, an expression of desire, then Paschke was pointing out that our desires have become consumer-oriented choices.

In Fumar, 1979, for example, the ovoid shape of a head is outlined by a reddish, neonlike current of color. Both ground and face conform in their spectrographic range of color and threaten to merge. Stylization occurs both at the level of features (face, nose, and mouth) and gesture (a hand holds a cigarette). Depersonalized and pushing toward abstraction, Fumar, like Paschke’s other recent paintings, is a portrait of a contemporary Everyman.

Does the camera reveal? Cover up? Or both? Paschke raises the question but leaves it unanswered. Like his single, luminescently painted figures of the early ’70s, these recent portraits convey a static moment. The difference is in the amount of information they contain. Whereas the earlier paintings disrupted our expectations, these recent ones go even further. We may recognize them immediately as portraits, but it takes far longer to analyze and process all the information. This disjuncture between recognition and information has been one of the subtexts of Paschke’s paintings since the beginning. Ramrod, 1969, for example, depicts a figure that is both masculine and feminine in clothes and body pose. By analyzing and recombining the conventions we associate with clothes and gesture, it presents a jarring image. Going beyond the initial shock value of such paintings as Ramrod, Paschke’s examination of this disjuncture has deepened into one of the more resonant aspects of his vision. His paintings question the basis of what we call “reality” and the way we get our information about it. They go beyond social conventions to explore their sources.

Soon after, Paschke began introducing two or more figures into these paintings, suggesting internal narratives in which various stylized gestures echo our own. Irresolvable contradictions are presented. If, as in Buenuto, 1982, the couple are kissing, the manner in which they are posed and portrayed denies all possible emotion. Despite the presence of more than one figure, the mood is of severe isolation. It’s as if both figures were caught in their own world, the alienation and narcissism imploding. In order to accomplish this vision, Paschke has derived his visual vocabulary from the look of television. He is acutely attuned to the range of stylized gestures we have learned from this distorting looking glass.

Paschke is able to achieve these effects purely through the tradition of oil painting, never resorting to an airbrush, as one might first suspect. Surprisingly, Paschke and Chuck Close share something in their references to media techniques. Close’s obsessive use of the grid and “dot” and Paschke’s technically lavish neon bands of color echo the same art-historical source. Behind both these artists stand that scientific painter and observer of modern life, Georges Seurat, and Pointillism. The difference between the two contemporary artists is that Paschke never makes technique the essential content of his work. Close’s paintings fit in smoothly with the American work ethic—the dull, repetitive routine of the assembly line, while Paschke focusses on the solipsism of its inhabitants—masked figures, incorporeal substances. A quivering, neonlike jellyfish roams the streets. Paschke is saying we are sliding down the evolutionary ladder, toward a moment when we will have no backbone.

Birmelin’s paintings tell us that no gesture can be guaranteed to save us, Fischl points out that perhaps all gestures have histories, and Paschke depicts the gestures we have chosen, the elaborate masks and disguises we wear. Their paintings dare a society afraid to examine its own life.

John Yau is a poet and art critic. His next book of poetry, Corpse and Mirror, is to be published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in May 1983.



1. Conversation between author and artist at his studio, April 16, 1982.

2. Charles Simic, Dismantling The Silence, New York: George Braziller, 1971, p. 63.

I am indebted to the following: an essay by Richard Flood which appears in the catalogue, Ed Paschke; Selected Work 1967–81 (Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago. 1982), and an essay by Gerald Haggerty which appears in the catalogue, Robert Birmelin; Recent Paintings, Maine and New York (Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 1980). I would also like to thank Robert Birmelin, Eric Fischl, Phyllis Kind, Ed Paschke, Federico Quadrani, and Ed Thorpe for the time they took to answer questions.