New York

Eric Fischl

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Few artists in recent years have evolved as productive a repertoire of subjects based on the human figure as Eric Fischl’s. In his first solo exhibition of sculpture, Fischl unapologetically celebrated the historical tradition of the figure. Aggressively eschewing what he regards as the impersonal, cynical voice of much contemporary art, the artist used figuration to raise issues—such as the importance of archetypes and the value of ritual and the ceremonial—that evoke the aesthetic and philosophical concerns and convictions of a distant past. His grouping of life-size bronzes conjured all the bygone sanctities: beauty, emotion, and invention, not to mention unabashed preciousness, given the abundance of bronze. Even Fischl’s titles, such as Watcher, The Wait, The Brave Moment, and Puppeteer (all works 1997), summoned up literary or narrative conventions that modern art left behind at its inception.

Fischl’s dialogue with historical and religious art seems to have begun in earnest in 1996 during his residency at the American Academy of Rome. The milky, marmoreal bodies of many of his painted nudes of recent years (such as Once Where We Looked to Put Down Our Dead, 1996, or Frailty Is a Moment of Self-Reflection, 1996, which may be a portrait of the artist’s late father) show the influence of the spectacular art of that city, as do the bronzes: their pitted, lushly patinated surfaces bespeak a nineteenth-century romanticism that reconciled the heroic with the spontaneity of nascent Impressionism.

Yet if the figures’ physical presence is distinctly classicized, their blend of candor and unforced emotion sets them apart from their more histrionic ancestors of the nineteenth century. Weary, anguished, struggling, or anxious, Fischl’s contorted figures are cut off from the viewer, their suffering withdrawn and puzzling. This sense of detachment is demonstrated in Fischl’s strategy of revealing the works’ representational illusions, referring to the concrete materials out of which they are formed: an untitled female figure clutches the sculpture stand on which she squats; in numerous others, certain physical features such as hands and feet, alongside the otherwise exquisite anatomical detailing, are left unmodeled, instead rendered more dramatically as though they were clay.

Fischl has claimed that it was the need to “reinvigorate” the somewhat enervated figures of his paintings that impelled him to refashion them in three dimensions. In his stated preference for posture (registering the body’s physical and psychological experience) over pose (which he associates with formalism), he parallels Rodin, who believed absolutely in the body’s ability, in and of itself, to project meaning. But the depth of Fischl’s involvement with this pivotal premodern master—he wanted, he states in the catalogue, to “see if there was a way of accepting Rodin and using Rodin and doing something that wasn’t Rodin”—suggests a grander plan. Reviving the acute presence of the hand, Fischl’s sculptures work as a commentary on the limitations of abstraction. They are anomalous not only in their retro grandeur, but also in their affirmative stance. Steadfastly suspending disbelief in their own illusions and gestures—even as Fischl builds signposts of those illusions right into them—they part company with so much art bent on deconstructing durable myths of art and history. Fischl’s romantic musings may stray too far in fetishizing the values of the past, but their visual resonance demonstrates the power of artfulness and technical skill to move and persuade.

Mason Klein