New York

Eric Fischl

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Why, fancy that, there’s Steve Martin, alone on the beach, hiding behind black shades and a wide grin. And over here is Mike Nichols, looking quite dapper in black suit and shirt, but with that casual open collar to show he’s a regular guy after all. His interlocked hands and intense stare seem to relay something private, but who knows whether his look isn’t as studied and calculated as his clothing? And there’s Eric Fischl’s dealer, Mary Boone, looking like a petulant odalisque as she leans against the window sill. These, along with paintings of curator Bruce Ferguson, April Gornik (Fischl’s wife and a distinguished painter in her own right), artist Bryan Hunt, and writer Frederic Tuten, made up the society of portraits on view in Fischl’s recent show. And of course there’s Eric himself, whom I haven’t seen in years (first met him before he was a star), but he doesn’t seem to have changed, at least in mischievous attitude. In Portrait of the Artist, 1998, he wears a paper mask with a fez painted on it—the perfect exotic touch. Fischl shows himself comically strutting, his stomach absurdly stuck out, as though to imply that his portraits are equally absurd—that neither he nor they are to be taken seriously. Thus the would-be old master presents himself as would-be clown, defending himself from his own higher aspirations by pretending that his art is a rehearsed joke, perhaps trying to spare himself embarrassment.

But there’s nothing to be embarrassed by in these portraits. They’re brilliantly conceived and painted, bridging the socially obligatory need to idealize one’s subjects and the artist’s penetrating curiosity. It has been a problem since Raphael painted the popes and Titian the emperors: how to tell the truth about a subject without offending him or her. The artistic trick is to hint at the vulnerable person behind the invulnerable front. Fischl judiciously synthesizes the demands of public and private, often showing his subjects (who range from outright celebrities to lesser-known figures) in private situations and spaces. Whatever their status, Fischl dramatizes their appearance with an eloquent use of black and white: A bright, very Hollywood light falls on the face and hands of the subjects in the otherwise dark Mike, 1999, Fred, 1998, and Bruce, 1998—99; Steve, 1998—99, is a study in black (sunglasses, shorts, slippers) and white (T-shirt), as are Mary, 1998, and April in Paris, 1998; and the figure in the generally bright Bryan, 1999, casts a very dark shadow. The pervasive tenebrism, which seems as much photographic as painterly in character, gives the figures a rhetorical presence, as though they were declaiming their own importance. But it also emphasizes their emotional profundity, even fascination. Thus, Fischl successfully creates the illusion that we have got a hold of the person, not just the social identity, which has been the demand of portraiture since Dürer and Rembrandt.

Fischl’s tenebrism not only convinces us that his subjects have private, autonomous selves (interiority and agency, beyond their social status) but that every surface has a peculiar depth. He has the courage to show us that appearance is not just surface but can, after all, signal reality, if not a reality that is readily understood. This is of course one of art’s oldest standing missions.

Donald Kuspit