New York

Eric Fischl

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

The most interesting aspects of an Eric Fischl painting are more often social and psychological than derived from any unusual formal resourcefulness or skill of the hand. In his preparatory studies and works on paper, Fischl’s brushwork can be absorbing, but in his big pictures it is usually only serviceable and sturdy; and as for his visual constructs, they work just fine when serviceable and sturdy, but he seems to like them enough to draw attention to them with multipanel contraptions and exaggerated perspectival surprises. The best of these works supply a sense of panoramic social overview in which all the parts adjust and complement each others’ meanings. It also happens, though, that Fischl ends up on the wrong side of the line between invention and contrivance.

One might have expected, however, a certain focus and seriousness from Fischl’s recent exhibition, for the artist’s catalogue statement tells us that he produced it in the aftermath of his father’s death. And indeed all of these pictures, made during and after a stay in Rome in late 1995 and 1996, are single-panel paintings, and all share a sober palette of blacks, grays, tawny browns, and chilly whites. Perhaps one or two of them reflect directly on the artist’s bereavement—Frailty Is a Moment of Self-Reflection, for example, in which an elderly man, vulnerably nude, moves tentatively down a corridor by windows that permit no view yet render his pale body luminous. Less private paintings leave similar aftertastes of mortality, for many of them are church interiors, eschatological by nature and also, in Rome, crammed with monumental statuary and other cold stone surfaces that steal the body’s comfort.

In the networks of sight lines and relationships among his figures, though, and in their actions, Fischl returns in this work to ideas from his earlier career. A statement of his from 1982 spoke of living in “a culture whose fabric is so worn out that its public rituals and attendant symbols do not make for adequate clothing”; in the recent show, the rituals and symbols in question would be those of art and faith, so that, in the churches of Fischl’s Rome, the statues look mutely on as the spaces they inhabit are put to incommensurate ends. In If The Dead Had Ears, what a funerary group seems to be mourning is the presence of pedestrians who have paused to chat, one of them holding a Jeff Koons–like, rabbit-eared helium balloon; in Anger, Remorse, Fear or Incontinence, a man urinates on the floor before a marble patriarch. Other paintings transfer to statuary the sexual undercurrents that gave tension to Fischl’s earlier beach and suburb scenes: in Cyclops among the Eternally Dead, for example, stone figures are jumbled in such a way that a male nude seems to stare at a female nude’s crotch.

Unfortunately, relationships that have an intricate and interesting seaminess when they are revealed among human beings have a schoolboy smutty-joke quality when transferred to statues. Though the questions these paintings raise are serious (suggesting Thomas Struth in another register, perhaps), there’s a sourness to Fischl’s handling of them, and a thick-skinned kind of levity. In the same statement from 1982, Fischl wrote, “Central to my work is the feeling of awkwardness and self-consciousness that one experiences in the face of profound emotional events.” I would have liked the recent show better if it had done more to explore such awkwardness and less to manifest it.

David Frankel