Los Angeles

Eric Fischl On Writing, the Art World, and Steve Martin

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In partnership with The Broad
In anticipation of its opening, The Broad has launched "The Un-Private Collection," a talk series featuring unexpected pairings of cultural leaders and influential artists in the Broad collections, taking place at venues around Los Angeles.

By Maxwell Williams

When Eric Fischl was a young painter taking art classes in Phoenix in the late-1960s, he heard about a brand new art school in Los Angeles started by Walt Disney called CalArts. At the time, it was the vanguard of art -- faculty member John Baldessari led a wily band of young artists in a crusade into the shifting winds of art. Baldessari, a hulking but gentle figure, stridently stood against traditional practices like painting and sculpture in favor of more conceptual endeavors. In fact, Baldessari had, as an act of contrition, burned all his early paintings. As a painter, Fischl felt outcast and anachronistic. He took it as a challenge.

"When I was a student, and painting had been declared dead, it became a battle cry to try to prove that, 'No, painting is not dead, because I'm still alive when I paint. How could it be dead?' says Fischl on the phone from his home in Sag Harbor, New York. "And then it became a thing of competing to make it come alive to other people. So in a way it was a healthy kind of antagonism, because it helped me to define and clarify and hone my ambition."

Fischl would later, while teaching in Canada, figure out a style -- realist narratives that referenced an arduous family life in middle-class Long Island -- that portrayed the malaise surrounding taboo societal subjects with brutal honesty. This would propel him into artistic stardom in the 1980s New York art boom. Last year, he released a memoir, "Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas" (co-written with Michael Stone), that scrutinizes both his early life and the art world he would later inhabit. He'll discuss the book and that time spent at CalArts -- as well as his with his longtime friend, comedian-actor-novelist Steve Martin at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica as part of the Broad Museum's "The Un-Private Collection" talk series.

Eric Fischl

Steve Martin

"Bad Boy" talks about the art world in ways that aren't normally discussed. Included are dramatic scenes like a scrap with fellow artist Julian Schnabel, breakdowns of the moment his prices skyrocketed from $10,000 a painting to $100,000 a painting in the mid-1980s while he was showing at Mary Boone Gallery, and descriptions of more than a little bit of drug intake, all interspersed with lengthy discussions about his painting techniques and processes. But what the book really comes down to is a dissection of Fischl's early life, in which he struggled to help his alcoholic mother who ended up committing suicide, and the life he built with his wife April Gornik.

"I was surprised about how many people that have told me they think the memoir is a love story," Fischl says with a laugh. "It wasn't that I consciously set out to do that, but to find that that is tightly woven into the fabric of my life, I was really thrilled."

But it was the fraught scenes of his early life eventually would make it onto the canvas -- the paintings that referenced his family life were what initially garnered him early acclaim -- something that Fischl says actually made it easier to write about, have already laid bare the emotional memories in his paintings. It was the current time, becoming a "mature artist," and realizing his relevancy as such, that Fischl found to be challenging. Since finishing the book, Fischl has found a sort of peace.

Eric Fischl, "By the River," 1989, Oil on Linen, 98x114inches

Eric Fischl, "Corrida in Ronda, No.8," 2009, Oil on Linen, 90x108inches

"[Writing the book] forced me to look at where I'm at now and where the art world is at now, and it made me come to terms with the fact that actually I'm a part of that as opposed to outside of it," says Fischl, who has also delved into sculpture in his later career. "So, now the work that I'm making is about art fairs -- paintings of art fairs. 'This is my world. This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like,' which actually, in one sense is no different than what I've always done, which is to try to stay in my life wherever I'm at at the moment -- whether I'm in a memory phase of my childhood, or whether I'm in a traveling phase of going to India and seeing all of the world, or whether I'm going a bullfight and trying to figure out that experience, or what it's like to be in love and desire in a body that is aging."

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Also up for discussion will be the show at KM Fine Arts, which features a series of printed multiples, a few watercolors, and a glass version of one of Fischl's most enduring works, a sculpture he made of a woman in freefall, "Tumbling Woman II," after 9/11 (the first iteration of the work was the focus of controversy when critics and viewers found the work too graphic, and it was removed from its location at Rockefeller Center in New York City).

"I think it's one of the most dynamic and tragic figures that I've done," says Fischl. "I think there's a strange beauty to it, a kind of surprising tranquility to something that was anything but tranquil. So I'm compelled by that paradox, and trying to moving it into different material -- moving it from bronze to glass, where it becomes that much more ephemeral, that much more fugitive, that much more vulnerable. In a way, I'm trying to find the perfect resolution of form, experience, emotion, and material. That's why I keep working with it."

Eric Fischl, "Tumbling Woman," 2002, Bronze, 37x74x50inches.

But Fischl and Martin have known each other for over 20 years, and vacation in St. Barths together, so really any topic is fair game.

"We haven't scripted it in any way. We've given a couple of public talks where we interview each other; they're friendship conversations between two people who have a deep respect for each other's talents and intelligence. [Martin is] incredibly creative, and he collects wonderful things that I always love seeing. He's also somebody that I'm inspired by, because he's an artist that has continued to change and grow. For him, there isn't one creative medium he doesn't look and think, 'I'd like to try that now.' He's right in the middle of writing and working on a bluegrass musical with Edie Brickell, and of course his novels. He's just somebody that keeps alive. I think part of that will be pointing that out to people in the audience, the value of that. We're going to show works that Eli Broad has collected of mine, which cover several years, so it's a variety of work. We're going to show other works of mine that I've chosen, and talk about the portraits and paintings in which Steve or Steve and his wife Anne [Stringfield] are in, because I've done a lot of paintings of both of them in different situations, sometimes as characters in a drama, and sometimes portraits. And we're going to show maybe some work that Steve collects, that he values. Last time we talked we talked about [Edward] Hopper, for example. Hopefully, it will be loose and easy and funny and that'll be that."

Eric Fischl, "Self Portait: An Unfinished Work," 2011, Oil on Linen, 203x274cm

Eric Fischl, "Barbeque," 1982, Oil on Canvas, 65x100inches

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Top Image: Eric Fischl, "Saint Barts Ralph's 70th," 2009, © Eric Fischl 2009

About the Author

Maxwell Williams is a freelance writer based in Rampart Village, Los Angeles.
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