New York

Eric Fischl

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Has Eric Fischl returned to the kind of work that earned him notoriety (and the scorn of feminists) in the 1980s? The innuendo, and sometimes-explicit sexual imagery, of the six paintings that are part of his ongoing sequence of “Bedroom Scenes,” immediately suggest as much. However physically intimate, the men and women depicted therein are at emotional odds, a condition emphasized by the witty subtitles—Surviving the Fall Meant Using You for Handholds, 2004, is one example—that accompany each canvas. Robert Pincus-Witten argued that, in the paintings with which Fischl made his name, the artist was illustrating Freudian themes with irony, whether intentional or not. But the new pictures make it clear that his work is best understood in terms of relational psychoanalysis: Sexual problems are an expression of or mask for interpersonal problems, and these have always been the painter’s primary preoccupation.

Even in Fischl’s classic Bad Boy, 1981, the young figure of the title is reluctant to relate directly to the naked woman lying in front of him and steals from her instead (though his hand reaching for her open purse is an obvious sexual symbol). The newer couples are all adults, and the pictures have the look of film noir or classic romance. But the tension between some of the lovers seems comic, as though Fischl is mocking both filmic and genuine love, flaunting a sophisticated superiority to the scene he depicts. He is an intruder in a very private space, a curious but dispassionate voyeur. But the real giveaway of Fischl’s regression to the bedrooms of his past are the rows of stripes that proliferate in almost all the paintings. Shadows cast by venetian blinds, they veil the figures’ identities even as they enliven the surfaces of their flesh. It’s a Hollywood device, building suspense and signaling emotion the way that music does. Indeed, their rhythmic repetition is itself suggestive of music, and confirms the fact that the scenes are meticulously staged—depicted from just the right angle and in just the right light and shade.

Yet, while it has been made more painterly, the motif of the blinds is essentially the same as in Bad Boy. There it marks the woman’s body with luminous striations, as though to suggest it has been handled. In the “Bedroom Scene” series, the stripes function as lines of emotional force between figures. They are at once more agitated and more integrated into the scenes than before, and are often intensely bright, suggesting that Fischl is attempting to deal with the excitement of looking as well as with emotional turmoil.

In general, the handling here is richer than before, although there are still flatly painted black patches in the manner of Manet (another exposer of fraudulent intimacy, and Fischl’s basic model). One wonders if Fischl’s attempt to reclaim old pictorial and emotional territory indicates that he’s in a creative cul-de-sac. Or perhaps he now has more insight into its traumatic character than ever before. What is beyond doubt is that he retains a passion for observation, not just for representing dubiously passionate relationships.

Donald Kuspit