My mommy doesn’t like him because he has long hair.My daddy doesn’t like him. He says he heard him swear.He’s a bad boy, but I don’t care.— The Holy Modal Rounders, “Bad Boy”
To get a couple of things out of the way at the top: Eric Fischl isn’t all that bad, either as a painter or a person. As a smart-ass conceptual artist friend of mine (who has no particular affection for the dauber’s craft) points out, “He can move it around.” But before I get to Fischl’s recent memoir,* this personal anecdote:
My wife, Laurie Fendrich, teaches at a university that, in 2006, organized a symposium about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She invited Eric Fischl, whose commemorative bronze sculpture, Tumbling Woman, had met with great protests and ultimately a rejection, to participate. He did, for free. The school scheduled several simultaneous sessions, so that the audience for the Fischl panel was much smaller than it should have been, and, moreover, the tech stuff got screwed up so that the artist was unable to project images from his computer. But he took the snafu like a trouper and, afterwards, over a cup of coffee, waxed calm and philosophical about the whole event. A real gentleman, she said.
For those who haven’t followed particularly closely the dramatis personae in the art world’s metamorphosis from, at the end of the 1970s, a late-stage academic dole, with avant-garde artists ensconced as securely salaried teachers in every college across the fruited plain, to the hyper-moneyed reincarnation of vaudeville it is today—Eric Fischl is one of America’s most successful contemporary serious figurative painters. His calling card has been, as Fischl himself says of one of his most famous pictures, Sleepwalker, 1979 (a pubescent boy standing and masturbating in a wading pool), a “queasy sense of voyeurism.” [End Page 87] This, plus one of the best brushstrokes in the business, has made his work a hot item—sexier than the dependable carpentry of Philip Pearlstein or the cool verisimilitude of William Beckmann—and signature features are what set him apart from his c. 1980 rocket-to-stardom painting cohort, Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Although, looking back, Fischl is a little uneasy about how—and why—it all shook out, he’s hardly apologetic about his $350,000 per picture good fortune:
I’m not an ivory tower artist. I understood the value of building a career and getting my work out in front of the public. I was grateful for the recognition I’d gotten. And I was glad not to be poor. I’d worked hard all my adult life, sometimes at two or three jobs. I didn’t complain when money was scarce. I refused to feel guilty now that my pictures were selling for six figures.
Born in Manhattan in 1948, Fischl was raised in the Long Island suburb of Port Washington. His father, Karl, was a salesman for an industrial filmmaker and his mother, Janet, as per the norm of the times, was a stay-at-home housewife with, eventually, four kids: (in order) Holly, Eric, Laurie, and John. The elder Fischl’s friends were “bridge players, yacht clubbers,” and they all put their tootsies on the edges of suburban marital hijinx. At parties, the husbands and wives would take turns standing as a group behind a sheet hiding everything but their legs while the spouses tried to spot their particular mates. Mrs. Fischl was also a “ferocious alcoholic,” a condition partially responsible for Eric’s being sent off to boarding school in Maryland. While he was there, his mother’s concurrent emphysema prompted Karl to relocate the family to Phoenix.
Reluctant to return to the fractious family fold, young Eric instead traveled to San Francisco to experience that 1967 Summer of Love—i.e., to live in a crappy apartment with people he didn’t really like and do a lot of acid. Back in Arizona, he started taking art classes at the state university in Tempe...