New York

Eric Fischl

Whitney Museum of American Art

The photosleaze painterliness of Eric Fischl’s canvases, full of grandiose passages and minutiae in precarious equilibrium, seemed impermeable under the glare of the museum lights. The scenes revealed themselves as less vulgarly Freudian—less full of suburban psychology—and more art-historically resonant, and thus in a more deconstructive mode than originally perceived. Fischl’s paintings of affluent society’s suffering are not simply topped off with gratuitous allusions to American realism but theoretically toy with the conventions of realism: physiognomic reading of physiological detail, and a consistent iconographic order that provides a conceptual underpinning to the perceptual tour de force.

One can linger with Fischl’s themes and symbolism, which really have less to do with sexuality than with that old Edward Hopper standby, American inexpressive loneliness (but with the George Segal Modernist filter making it no longer stylish, and with a primitivist fetish to show its autoerotic character). But I would rather emphasize his deconstruction of narrative structure by noting the fundamental lack of cohesion of the “furniture” in his paintings. This is not David Salle’s slick disjunctiveness, brilliantly obvious in order to make us drop our guard so that the images, dumb rolling stones, can accumulate psychic moss. Rather, it is the incoherence of images that want to cohere into a story but can’t do so because the lines are too well-known: the story’s been told too many times. Fischl’s figures are involved in a game of chess, in which any one can, when maneuvered properly, cancel out any other. It is as though we are watching one picture struggling to come into being, compulsively rearranged in the hope that it will at last come out “right,” and mediate a nameable feeling. It is this compulsion that is interesting about Fischl, as well as the unstatability of what is occurring in his pictures once they are looked at closely.

In the new work at the gallery, Fischl is overtly self-deconstructive. He is always, I think, better with one or two figures than with group scenes. Saigon Minnesota, with his typically odd couplings and their hint of perversity, and the similar Manhattoes, both 1985, in the end seem less effective than Bayonne, 1985, and Pretty Ladies, 1986. Without getting into the iconography’s moral aspect, or the uncanny complexity of the figures’ relationships (to one another and to such objects as the television sets that “mirror” them), the key thing about these scenes is their fragmented condition. The disjunctiveness not only signals their condition as inventions but also the tentative, theatrical character of the relationships depicted, and the possibility that even their protagonists recognize them to be fictions.

As such, Fischl’s characters are dubiously substantial, but it is only as play-actors that they can have substance. The pictorial fractures deconstruct the relationships as well as the composition, showing us what we subliminally knew all along: Fischl’s paintings are about the modern inability to sustain a relationship, even a peculiar indifference to and intolerance of binding interpersonality, despite the loneliness that seems to have become second nature to those perhaps involuntarily involved with one another. Fischl’s genius is that he can give us layer upon layer of such doubleness.

Donald Kuspit