PRINT March 1984


CONTEMPORARY COMMITMENT TO PRINTMAKING, although not widely reported or acknowledged, has continued to develop many of the issues surrounding viewer-and-object relationships emphasized in the ’60s and ’70s. Prints and drawings by Sol LeWitt, for instance, might be bound or loose, and if loose they might be displayed jointly or singly—an entire print series can be mounted as a large, complete grid of geometries, but any one print or combination of prints is complete as well. And John Baldessari’s recent portfolio of aquatints, Black Dice, 1982, is an image decomposed, a set of compositions based on gridded sections of a movie still. The peculiar fact is that although we may not have been reading much about prints lately, their impression has filtered into the much-discussed contemporary painting of both America and Europe. Linear renderings, drawing, graphic styles, the head-on application of graffiti, formal examinations of the characteristics of drafting in work by Italian and German artists of the postwar generation, are all reflections of our transitional consciousness. In Germany especially, artists have been working reciprocally in both mediums, translating the fundamentally gothic jags of the woodcut, the narrative and descriptive amplitude of etchings, and the potential for political immediacy of prints in general, into their individual perspectives in painting; and they are in turn redefining prints as they make them, sometimes giving them the scale of history paintings.

Titian is known to have made etchings by putting down one segment of a landscape, then another, and finally lining them up along a wall as a unified field. Eventually, of course, there was Eadweard Muybridge. Incremental processes are suited for practical reasons to ambitious scale, and for other reasons—analytic, conceptual—to narrative, to the enactment of time and other morphologies. Eric Fischl’s Year of the Drowned Dog, a portfolio of six aquatint etchings published by Peter Blum Edition and printed by Peter Kneubühler, seems innocuous and charming in the way that a beach scene by Eugène Boudin, a water scene by Manet, or a pool scene by David Hockney can look innocuous and charming. When it is assembled conventionally, meaning that when its six leaves are under- and overlaid in such a way that their discrete horizon and shore lines are contiguous, its perspective is quite traditional—like that of any Impressionist sketch—and its lateral array of incidents has the same anecdotal buzz as rarely-looked-at family albums that bring back early seaside viewing positions and people whose names we can no longer come up with. To the far left, a dark male shape crouches over the inert, shadowy form of a dog; nearby, a small, tight woman bare to the waist and a naked young girl, about 10, stand close together facing toward the male and dog, with a sailboat in the far distance; at center three men in luminous white cottons, probably sailors, look out—toward the boat and the mountainous peninsula that precedes the horizon, possibly toward the woman and girl. These three clusters are situated in roughly the same foreground plane. Further down the beach, in the middle distance, a solitary man—probably naked, maybe wearing a cache-sexe—stocky, taut, and tanned, walks toward us; he is the only one to face us. The last figure, to the right, balancing the “drowned dog” incident and also in the foreground, is a man, about 30, taking off his shorts next to a cropped beach umbrella and chair at the very edge. He is facing away from the sea, away from the others, and away from us.

The underlying landscape is the largest sheet in the portfolio and is what links these five figurative sets—at least to a geographical place. Within the most literal format, the one I’ve described, there is no break in pictorial logic, no poetic licensing required. But when each of the five unequally sized incident prints is looked at separately—and when the bare landscape is “read” from left to right—subtle tonal differences, gradations of chromatic intensity, suggest discrepancies of diurnal light. The sailors appear to be set at high noon, while the extremities convey the more ambient perspectives of early morning or late afternoons on tropical islands, on the Mediterranean coast, or on other faraway beaches. The female figures and the single male seem also to be at middling points of the solar cycle. If one rids oneself of the imperatives of line, it becomes evident that the narrative glue, or solvent, might here be time, either the smallest solar unit, a day, or the largest one suggested by the title. The progress of a “dog day” feels like a year; an unfortunate beach incident—a drowned animal—could be an omen that affects the lives of eight witnesses for an astrological year, or it could be one drawn-out moment that brings them into a common frame.

The occult has found its way into Fischl’s work before. The cataclysmic panel of the large diptych Visit to/Visit from the Island, 1983, was based partly on the newspaper clippings of Haitian “boat people,” partly on an image from a book about voodoo. The figures in Year of the Drowned Dog can interrelate much the way tarot symbols do. In trying out possible combinations, auspicious, pernicious, and neutral pairings become evident. The lone male and the two females prove to be most strongly connected. Remove both sections, and the scene becomes contemplative instead of charged. Reposition only the man, and the beach scene, almost shockingly, turns into a scene of predation—an all-male world with carrion. Remove the man and put in the women, and the pictorial structure is toppled. Something is missing: he is the perceptual plexus of this set. The women—according to Fischl a mother and daughter, as in Vittorio de Sica’s movie Two Women (1960)—are “civilizing” catalysts, or, without the man, potential prey for the sailors. Even when you deal the deck, scattering all six “cards” without overlap, the landscape itself and all its figures and incidents seem to hinge on the man.

As it was exhibited at Multiples/Marian Goodman Gallery in New York this winter, most of these possibilities were implied. In the working proofs Fischl is shown to be an artist who relies more on intuition and change than might appear to be the case from his paintings. Most of the figures went through significant changes before arriving at their final descriptions. The drowned dog was first to be a child or a man, but that would have overloaded the drama; the figure crouching over it went through a racial metamorphosis, from white, through various stages of sunburn, before it became clear to Fischl that the man “should be black.” These and other evolutions resulted from technical and pictorial difficulties and “rightnesses,” but also from the subtler imperatives that mark the progress by which Fischl arrives at the polarized and ambivalent situations that he looks to establish in all of his scenarios, perhaps especially on his beaches. The physiognomies of the people on the beach are arrived at in order to suggest permanence, transience, economy, and the psychology of relations between sexes, between races, and within families.

Like the beach in Visit to/Visit from the Island, the one mapped out in this portfolio is a composite beach, a state-of-mind place, and like the painted beach this one is the setting for variations on leisure—the leisures, indolent, privileged, or conflicted, that are the subject of Fischl’s investigation and criticism. The mother and daughter are Gauguinesque, Gauguin being the unwitting creator of the Club Med esthetic. The sailors, who began their pictorial lives dressed like golfers, belong to the postwar American vision of guys on leave all over the world. The middle-aged, solitary man is ethnically and socially ambiguous. The black male, whose position suggests a lament, seems simply to belong to the beach.

The flexibility of these prints is interesting as it applies to ownership. Views, however complex, on canvas must be set. In the middle and late ’70s, Fischl under- and overlaid imagery in translucent paintings on glassine, which discolors and gets brittle quickly. Recently, while thinking about making prints, he saw Baldessari’s Black Dice, also a rearrangeable suite, and took on the medium as a way of extending his earlier concepts in a less ephemeral form. Year of the Drowned Dog is a beautiful set of objects to possess, and perfectly pitched to recent, widespread cravings for figures that reflect our complexities. The quality of its coloration and the emphasis put on its processes are such that in its physical presence it is almost a portfolio in the Old World sense of inviting slow study, careful perusal, and most important, manipulation. (It is a nice irony that the sketches—or studies—for the scene are oil on paper, are not for sale, and are considered by Fischl to be a painting.) Year of the Drowned Dog is really quite subtle in the politics of its meanings and the politics of its use. Ample room is made for the will of the viewer. If we are cultists we will attempt tarot readings; if we are intellectuals we can see these images as realist ink blots and describe ourselves as we describe what we see.

Lisa Liebman writes frequently for Artforum.