New York

Eric Fischl

For me, Eric Fischl realizes the goal of the Real Life movement more successfully than Lawson. Fischl exposes the media fiction of eroticism by confronting it with its own implicit possibility of perversion. In comparison, Lawson’s exposé of the social fiction of personal tragedy is tentative. One might say that Fischl’s “casting” and sense of social texture, as reflected in his “lurid” handling as well as in his scenes, are more pointed than Lawson’s. Lawson does not really grasp the sordidness of the American type; he doesn’t have Fischl’s flair for the sleazy and vicious, but rather a once fashionable European sense of the hollow man. There is nothing neutered about the nakedness, psychological as well as physical, of Fischl’s visceral specimens. And Fischl throws off the controls of formalism, which he implicitly regards as conveying an obsolete sense of alienation. His work in this sense is much more realistic—powerfully realistic—than much so-called “realism.” In Fischl’s work real life is not alienated from itself by its abstraction into a story, but with relish takes to roles that show its full sociality. Indeed, the clichés of “real life” are made so dense in Fischl’s demonstrations of them that they become positively insinuating, almost as though there was nothing ambivalent or nihilistic about them. Where Lawson shows us the abstraction inherent in images of “real life,” Fischl shows us the concreteness, including concrete attitudes, they make visible. More crucially, Fischl demonstrates that unrepressed, passionate life is itself an ideological myth; the supposedly socially revolutionary ideal of the Real Life movement is itself a numinous fiction. Fischl shows us that the cultural representation of the life of the passions, however socialized as “free love”—in Fischl, ironically presented as potentially orgiastic—is paranoid, for it implies the potential for a misuse of others. By conveying a sense of lurking, unclarified, and unself-enlightened psychological reality underneath the Real Life representation, Fischl accomplishes the implicit goal of the Real Life movement: to show that the media image is really a dream image, a vector in which unconscious and conscious forces converge. The media image is a fulfilled wish: the realization of the dream or fiction is itself the satisfaction of desire. But Fischl deals with the very desire for fiction, the desire which can find true satisfaction only in images, in fantasy—in art.

I like Fischl for his freewheeling use of art history as a seductive realm of connotation. His pictures tempt us to art-historically free associate (rather than force us to do so, as do Julian Schnabel’s); this adds to the voyeuristic appeal which is already a given, through their sexual content. (Is it the fictions that voyeurism creates or demands that is Fischl’s ultimate subject matter?) The fickleness of his references to past art avoids the show-off irreverence and calculated iconoclasm of a Schnabel. There is mock tenebrism in The Women and Over Night, emotionally unhealthy Reginald Marsh–type joie de vivre in The Catch and Digging Children, a touch of Edward Hopper in Beach Ball, a near-allusion to Paul Cadmus in the homoerotic Boy Oh Boy and to the early rubbery figures of Max Beckmann in Grief. Bad Boy is a tour de force which evokes both porno and juvenile-delinquent/misguided-youth films. Fischl gives genre art a new lease on life. There is also a kind of psychological nostalgia for menace—the air of menace or apprehension is what perhaps most satisfies voyeurs, who are generally in search of a “dangerous” or threatening scene similar to one they saw before—which goes well with Fischl’s art-history elusiveness. Indeed, Fischl rids us of the dead weight and inertia of art history by finding unexpected psychological rather than pictorial relevance in past art, which he scales down to suit the mood of his contemporary “real-life” images. It should also be noted that Fischl’s use of off-center objects to focus the scene in some of his paintings—the ball in Beach Ball, the ice chest in Boy Oh Boy, the bowl of fruit in Bad Boy—reminds us of the material reality that “real-life” fiction does in fact refer to. This seemingly peripheral materiality becomes psychologically dominant, a sign of the hidden psychological center and truth of the work. Everything in the scene converges on these material objects, which acquire allegorical potential and at the same time throw us back into the real life that “real-life” imagery escaped from.

Clearly, Fischl has a more complicated sense of social fiction than Lawson’s theory allows for. He has a more ambivalent sense of the power of representation, which articulates, even “expresses,” concrete reality as well as gives an inauthentic version of it. Lawson has a one-dimensional, negative sense of media representation; Fischl sees it as more tricky—dialectical. Law-son’s theory is a dogmatic criticism of the immanence of conventional modes of representation in our collective memory; Fischl knows that, practically speaking, fiction is sometimes the only way we can embody our experience of our own subjectivity, the only way we can record the imprint of reality on our lives, and show it to be part of our concreteness.

Donald Kuspit