As part of The Broad Museum's The Un-Private Collection series, comedian-actor-novelist Steve Martin chatted with his long time friend and artist Eric Fischl at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on June 23, 2014. They discussed Fischl's memoir, "Bad boy: My Life On and Off the Canvas" and his early career in Southern California.
What follows is a condensed transcript of their conversation.
Steve Martin: Driving over here I was thinking how this [their friendship] was built, and it was a conversation about art between you and me and I thought first, actually, how little I know about art and then what a bad conversationalist I am. Eric and I have known each other for over 25 years and essentially we are both mute. And Eric has a wonderful wife named April who is also a painter and she is very gregarious and charming and she's essentially served as our interpreter over the 25 years. And when I would say "Uhhh" she would say, "He means that art is a wonderful medium..." and then when Eric would go "Wuhhh" she would say "Eric agrees with you, except with the point you made..." and that's essentially how we've communicated over these 25 years. But we've had had a long, long relationship actually discussing art and every once in a while, every year, we'd meet on vacation and have long, I think very interesting moments where we blurted things out that we thought about the art world and very little about show business. It was kind of one-sided.
Eric Fischl: [laughs] As it is tonight.
Steve Martin: [laughs] And I intend to keep it that way. I think one good way to start is, cause this is the Broad Theater... by the way, has Eli ever figured out that he pronounces his name wrong? Doesn't Edie tell him? First of all, we're very honored to be here, and you did a wonderful painting of Eli? There it is. And he's standing in front of a painting he owns.
EF: Yeah, one of mine.
SM: Wow. My god I wish I could do that.
EF: Go figure, right? How did I decide that pose?
SM: I really wish I could do that, I envy you.
EF: Do what, paint?
SM: No, sell something to Eli, but...
SM: Tell us a little bit about...do you want to talk about this?
EF: Not at all.
SM: I think it's a very astute portrait of him.
EF: Yeah. Portraits, I sort of began them in the 90's.
SM: No, he's much younger than that.
EF: And I reached the point in my painting career where my good fortune had brought me in contact with some remarkable people.
SM: Thank you.
EF: [to audience about Steve] It's this for 25 years. And I thought: I want to remember that. That is to say, I want to share a memory of that. A public memory, cause I think it's one thing that painting does better than other mediums, is to sort of monumentalize people in portraiture. It fixes a time, it fixes a character in a way that is very different than, say, photography. Photography is fantastic at essentially glamorizing people. And painting, what I think is fantastic about it, is that it captures people but it also captures the artist capturing people so what you see in a painted portrait is a relationship. And I think that it was a way for me to say "I was here and I was here with these people and they are amazing people who have done amazing things and I feel blessed about it and stuff." So I wanted to do that.
SM: So you were painting your circle.
EF: Yeah, more or less.
SM: So I summarized it really, really well. [Eric laughs] Now, when we were talking earlier about the different subjects you've painted, I think we left out one now that I think about it. You've painted models, you've painted actors, which is a whole other category, you've painted people but people you know, but you've also painted people you don't know--real people that you've photographed essentially secretly.
EF: Right, right. Yeah, and you were wondering what?
SM: I notice I didn't pose a question. I was just wondering how you approach a real person, for example, I know sometimes you take commissioned portraits and sometimes you just do a portrait spontaneously without any kind of preconception that that person might buy it or not buy it. You do it without any intent of them buying it.
EF: Yeah, we can show them the Joan and John portrait, for example. There it is.
SM: Oh, that was fast. Who did that?
EF: Way fast.
SM: That's Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
EF: Yes, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
SM: Which one is which? [Eric laughs] Now I'm not saying you're a bad painter...
EF: [laughing] No, no. No, no.
SM: Now are they in front of a blank canvas?
EF: They are, actually, yeah. A painting of people to be painted in front of the blank canvas that they're gonna be painted on, yeah. But that's not the most interesting part of the painting. I was painting these heroes of mine. Joan Didion was someone who absolutely informed my life so it was great to get a chance to do that. I painted their portrait and then they came to see it. They both liked it but John was really enthusiastic about it. And he was talking about how I captured his big chest, his robust Irish chest, and he was really prancing around my studio sort of talking about that. And a month later he was dead. From a heart attack. And it was like, I mean, amazing and strange.
SM: And you said Joan Didion altered your life? Was it because of "Play it as it Lays"?
EF: It was not so much "Play it as it Lays," it was more in her essays than in the fiction, yeah.
SM: I guessed that. [Eric laughs]
EF: But you know, she's somebody who has a way of finding small moments or small events that become major reflections and major events. She finds the true metaphors within daily life and stuff.
SM: I find it very interesting that you, and the audience may not know, that you lived here in California.
EF: Yes, I did. I went to school here.
SM: And you also painted here, which I find so interesting. It was in your book that I believe, "Bad Boy," [to audience] which is available in the lobby... no it's not actually. [Eric laughs] Along with my perfume, be sure to pick that up on your way out.
EF: When I was a student here, I went to CalArts. [to audience] I'm sorry, I didn't mean to crush the laughter.
SM: No, it was actually perfectly timed, I have to compliment you.
EF: Oh, okay.
SM: It was just over the cusp, it was perfect.
EF: Okay. So I went to school at CalArts. 1970. Doors open. CalArts begins. It's a dream school, it's a vision for the future, etc, etc, etc. Of course it was anti-painting. Painting, it had actually been announced, was dead, so they believed it. So I had to deal with that as a student. I had to do abstract painting because figure painting was deader than abstract painting. Way deader.
SM: You must have felt wonderful.
EF: What doesn't kill you...
SM: In a way, I think that would be very encouraging in a way because you can say "I'll show them."
EF: Yeah, no, it certainly spurred me to find a way of making that not true. But, the thing is, is that CalArts was also absolutely focused on New York and focused on the mainstream and on this sort of linear narrative of Modernism and stuff like that and it was drilled into our heads that LA artists were totally provincial and that we should ignore any influence from them whatsoever. They gave Irwin a little bit of slack in that regard, maybe Larry Bell, but everybody else... that whole light and space thing was a cliché or just provincial.
SM: And how did they regard Ed Ruscha, do you remember?
EF: They gave him a pass, but mostly for the photography. But the thing was, you know, Baldessari was teaching at this school too and they still didn't see him as influential as he actually was and ultimately that's the point I'm making, is that if you go into a New York gallery now, the influence of Southern California art on young art is enormous. And that whole thing of experimentation with industrial materials and with the humor and the mix of photography and painting and object-making, all those things that were pretty much the language that was here in the 70's and 60's, is something that has blossomed in New York, so, go figure that.
SM: So, how do you, I know this is really becoming a lot about you and I'm sitting over here...
EF: Could you put Steve's portrait up please?
SM: No, no, don't do that. [laughs] You know what I love about this portrait? It shows my robust chest.
EF: Do NOT say that. Knock on wood. Anyway so, enough about you.
SM: This was done in, well, I'm standing in St. Barthes where we vacationed, til the paparazzi ruined our lives there. It was such a happy time for us and yet you blackened my eyes, which shows the true me.
EF: Yeah, the mystery man behind the smile. Yeah, that's true.
SM: I'm just gigantic in this portrait.
EF: Yeah, larger than life, as you are.
SM: No, the portrait is larger than life. I'm smaller than life, which you managed to capture.
EF: Uh huh.
SM: So, I'm just curious, how do you approach the model, the actor...
EF: The human.
SM: The human from a distance. [looking at screen] I'm trying to find an example... let's try "Untitled 1982." These are people I assume you just made up, at least I'm hoping. [Eric laughs]
EF: They are not made up, they're not modeled, and they're not actors. I stole them from, I don't know where. Some magazines on one hand and some sort of candid photos on the other, the standing woman.
SM: That makes no sense.
SM: I mean, it makes a little sense.
EF: The metaphor.
SM: Yeah, the metaphorical sense.
EF: I have to say, first to answer the question between models, actors, and humans. Is that...
SM: By the way, I hate what you title this.
EF: [laughs] "Untitled"?
EF: Oh, "The Broad." [pointing to caption underneath painting]
SM: "The Broad" (pronounced like "rod")
EF: I know, it should be plural.
SM: [mock anger] Politically incorrect. We just don't do that anymore.
EF: You know, the hardest thing about painting televisions in a painting...
SM: Which was my next question.
EF: [laughs] Is that, first of all, the whole thing of painting something within a painting that reflects back on the thing. When they started painting mirrors, like "Las Meninas" and stuff, it was all about bringing into your point of view things that were outside of your particular point of view but which still existed in the room at that moment. The iteration of where all of a sudden you're painting a television in a room, it also is explaining the context of that moment, but what is on there has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on in the room so it's an incredible, disjunctive thing that is also very familiar and very much a part of our lives. And in this scene, I tried so hard to figure out what I could put on the TV that made sense, made no sense, had something that might have exerted some kind of pressure on interpretation but wasn't a definitive and its echo or mirroring. And I tried: put things on, scrape 'em off. Put things on, scrape 'em off. And it was during the World Series that I was painting this and I thought, oh, baseball. Bring in the male presence. Right?
SM: Yeah, that's good. Anyways, some of my favorite parts of narrative paintings are the things that are in that are not the subject. You know, in a Hopper painting when you see a little table... some of the most exquisite work in some of these paintings is that little still life over here, in fact I'll point out something out later in one of your paintings that I just love. These little details off to the side. And sometimes you can tell how interested the artist is in his or her own painting by how he or she handles the smaller moments. And some of these moments really count and matter and add up significantly.
EF: Well, you brought up Hopper, why don't we look up the Hopper painting.
EF: [looking at screen] There it is.
SM: Oh yeah, I thought it was inverted for a second but actually it was me that was inverted. This was a painting that I was able to buy about 30 years ago when I walked into a gallery and I thought, "That's for sale?" and was able to finagle it. It wasn't that expensive at the time. And through the years, it was painted in 1926, I've really been able to look at it and my opinion about it has grown, I wouldn't say changed, has grown through the years and it's so much more complicated than I ever thought and so much more sophisticated than I ever dreamed. You know the first impression of it is that you go along with the clichés about Hopper: that it's a lonely house on a hillside and it represents isolated loneliness. And as you look closer at it you realize that it's not one of Hopper's isolated, lonely houses and you start to realize that the windows are open and there's a breeze going through and the curtains are blowing and even in the little porch area off to the right there, you almost feel like you can see through it. You get the feeling that you can almost see that porch, you can't see it but you can feel the presence of the furniture inside it, that sort of sunny anteroom where people sit, and you know someone is living there. And the more I look at this painting through the years, first the astounding passages and plates of light up at the top of the lighthouse that shift so magnificently and cleverly, if somebody did that really realistically you, you would admire it in another way. But somehow he understood not to do that. And you look at these iron walkway railings and the illusion is that they surround the tower. The closer you look, they don't. They actually have gaps and disappear. They're not fully painted out and the way he completed other areas of the painting, you realize it's completely intentional. He's left it vague there for some reason that gives the painting a unrealism that somehow brings it together that would not make this painting work as well as it does were it a completely realistic painting. And another thing I felt about this picture is that when you first look at it, you feel that it's all white, you feel that the house is all white, and then you start to look at the gradations of white and grey and some of those walls of the house are really essentially dark. And finally I felt that the solidity of the house and the massiveness of the house is really contrasted by incredibly delicate filigree in the windows and even the window dead center on the side of the house, it's so delicately indicated. And you almost get the feeling of extreme detail in the windows in the flat side of the house, the detail in the three windows off to the right, completely balancing this picture between massiveness and sensitivity. And I feel like all this is bringing this picture into something that is kind of a miracle. You described Hopper once, you said "I don't think Hopper is such a great painter but he is a great artist," and that's what to me this picture is, it's a masterpiece of art.
EF: You know, the dream of every painter is that someone out in the world would look at their painting the way you looked at this Hopper. The life of a painting depends on the intimacy with which somebody continues to look and figure out all of the decision making that went into that painting. And for a painter, the question of "what is enough" is a question that never gets answered but each painting attempts to answer it. And it's like, "what is enough" meaning what do I need to tell somebody that there's a house here? Do I have to put in all of the shingles to say that this is a house? What level of detail brings that house to life? What if I let some of that detail go in favor of a light and shadow experience? What if I try to redirect the viewer away from their preconception of this being this thing, by treating this part of it in a very cursorial way and detailing something over here which pulls them automatically away from the thing. It's all of these things are kind of moves that animate a painting and the richness of the experience of the looking has to do with somebody participating in that decision making. To see, oh, he made his wrist go this way instead of that way and that makes it feel differently, etc.
SM: It must be a very complicated decision to make because other artists, if you look at a Vermeer like when he painted the water and the girl pouring the water pitcher, the water is so vivid, I believe, I don't know if I looked at it right now that that's what I would say. I've often thought if I found a really competent artist and said "copy it" and they did an incredible job you'd know that something would be missing. Even if they did the most outstanding job, that sort of almost mystical element would be missing. That moment.
EF: There was a British TV show where a forger gives art lessons, have you seen this thing?
SM: Probably should've, yes.
EF: So one of the episodes is he's teaching them how to forge a Hopper. So he has them out in a field and there's a barn there, and you can imagine it being turned into a Hopper scene. And the people start painting it and he goes around correcting them and pointing to stuff like that, and you thought, this guy must have forged something once and gotten caught. Because, there was nothing in his way of trying to make his students see the Hopper that made you think he actually knew what a Hopper looked like, I mean, it was phenomenal.
SM: Let's take a look at this picture my wife and I own of yours, "Barbecue." Now this is about 1981.
EF: Yeah. I say that but I never actually remember the dates of my paintings.
SM: I don't know either. But do you recall if this is rightside up or upside down? I first saw this picture at Doug Cramer's house. And I walked into the room and I was stunned. I thought it was fantastic. And I was completely envious. And then about five years later I got a call from the dealer, you probably haven't heard of him, Larry Gogosian, [Eric laughs] he said he's moving and he can't accommodate this large picture, would you like to buy it? And I said, yes. And I was so strongly attracted to this picture. First of all I grew up in Orange County, California. And I don't know if, you have no business even interjecting in this commentary because I don't think this is of Orange County, California but it is exactly like Orange County, California. And I so identified with it, this young boy blowing fire in this very conservative backyard environment. In fact, this family that you depict here is way warmer than my own family. And this bowl of fish is just so out of context and bizarre.
EF: Do these people really eat fish? No.
SM: Nobody puts fish in a bowl and barbecues fish, especially in Orange County, you know, and the shape of the pool is strange and 50's modern and I just viewed this whole thing and I saw the sky as just either seconds after an atomic blast...
EF: And somehow that felt like home.
SM: And then the weird grin on Dad's face: "I'm gonna kill you."
EF: And poor Dad's fire is going out...
SM: And this dynamic fist of the kid to get out. And this is why you can't interject because I know none of this is true, it's not inherent in the painting it's just what I saw. This bowl of fish I somehow related to a Christian symbol, maybe, but I just like to talk about the bowl of fish as being this strange detail in the picture. And also I love in the background of the house with this beautifully painted plate glass that's reflecting you know, whatever it's reflecting, the houses and bushes and fences in the distance. And you can see the strange 50's or 60's sofas in the interior. I just totally loved this painting and I still love it.
EF: You know, as I was saying it's like the artists, the painters look for somebody to look at their work intimately and I'm really hoping someday that happens for me. [Steve laughs]
SM: By the way, I just sold this to Eli today. [Eric laughs]
EF: One story before we go on. A friend of mine's seven-year-old daughter was looking at this painting when it was shown at Scarsden last year. And she went up to it and she started talking about the step-mother. And her father said, "Why do you think that's his step-mother?" What she couldn't explain but she was absolutely convinced was that this was her step-mother in there, speaking of interpretations.
SM: And also there's the plane of the picnic table. The table is slightly off, which is always a little annoying when you're trying to hang a picture. And I did have to re-stretch it, I hope you don't mind.
EF: I always wonder when you invite me over for dinner and you say, "Bring your paints."
SM: Maybe we should get off us for a little bit.
EF: All right.
SM: Although there's one thing I wanna point out. This is the first picture I ever bought of yours, "Truman Capote in Hollywood." And I saw this picture and I just loved it and it was painted about 1984-85. First of all, dealers always come to me thinking I'm gonna love show business subjects. And I remember somebody came to me with a lacquered wood cutout of Charlie Chaplin. And it was awful, but I was supposed to get all excited about it. But this Truman Capote, I just love this and it's got so many techniques in it. The sort of water color technique you do with the girl, and the sort of dripping paint, I don't know, I just really loved it. And I looked at this picture for so many years and I thought this reminds me of something. And I thought about it for 20 years, that this reminded me of something and then, and now this is really abstract, but if you notice something, the picture sort of moves from right to left. It makes a kind of a Z-shape or an L-shape with the girl and it moves across to that sort of Alan King figure, then it's moving right again down to the naked girl down to the dog. Now pull up this "Milliners." And you can see the sort of hats moving across, this is one of my favorite paintings in the world, by the way, this Degas.
EF: Besides mine.
SM: Well, you know the "Truman Capote" is number one. The Degas is like, fourth. But it just sort of reminded me of it, just this weird coincidence.
EF: When you pointed that out to me I thought that was so interesting actually...
SM: Of course you would.
EF: [laughs] There's so much embedded knowledge, historical knowledge just from seeing art for so long and stuff, that these things creep in whether I'm conscious of them or not. There were three things that I was struck by that you pointed out. One, was this sort of movement that you could legitimately point to in the Truman Capote painting. Two, was that that my painting focuses on a hat, the Truman Capote hat. And the third is that the hairdo of the woman in the foreground is a total, French 19th century kind of hairdo. And I think it was because I might have copied her from a 19th century photograph. And what do you think? Do you think she's riding that dog?
SM: [laughs] I never noticed that but now that's what I'm going to see.
EF: I could never figure it out. You know in paintings you're allowed to play with space and you can collapse space in certain ways so there's that. There's a rationale for it, but is she kneeling next to the dog? Is she standing? Are they walking? How tall is it? She might be riding it.
SM: I never saw that, I just thought walking.
EF: For me it created or amplified the strangeness of that moment.
SM: Hey let's look at... first, let's get a new subject. Why don't we just spend five minutes on Lawren Harris.
SM: I don't know where we're at in our conversation, we don't need to go on too long.
EF: Do we have to go on longer?
SM: [checking watch] You know, we only really have a few more minutes.
EF: You know, you're supposed to be looking over there [points behind him].
SM: I have been looking there, they've been signaling me, they're going like this [waves arms back and forth] but I have no idea what that means.
EF: Alright so we have five minutes, more or less?
SM: I don't know yet, they haven't given me any signals at all. Oh I see, there's no light on it. I never saw a light, it's in the dark.
EF: We've got five minutes. Starting now. Even though it's been there for five minutes. So for those of you that don't know, Steve among all his interests and talents and stuff like that is curating a show for the Hammer.
SM: Yes. That's enough about that. Oh, time is up already!
EF: On this great Canadian painter Lawren Harris.
SM: Well, let me explain how this happened. First of all, I've never, never in my life presumed to curate an art show. I do not consider myself a scholar and I don't even want the trouble, I don't want the criticism, I don't want to have to even think about it. However, I have been in love with this Canadian artist Lawren Harris, who painted in the 19-teens, 20s, 30s, and on actually into the 70s. But for many years, and through the years I've collected a couple of his works and I have hanging in our house and Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer came over for dinner one night and saw a little one--some are small, some are huge--and she said, "What's that"? And I said, "That's a Lawren Harris, have you heard of him?" "No." "Well, neither has anyone else in America," I said, "He's Canada's greatest painter." And she said, "Oh." Then a couple of months later, Ann Philbin went to Canada, to the Art Gallery of Ontario where they have a massive collection and said, "Oh, there's some more." Okay. And saw more and said, "This is very interesting. You know, we have a tradition of having people outside of their field curating like Robert Gober curated Charles Burchfield." And I said, "Well, I'll tell you something, would you be interested in me curating because I happen to know enough about Lawren Harris to do a very mediocre job." But, here's the thing--Lawren Harris is already curated. His great works are known and he's unknown in America and I thought this would be great, to bring Lawren Harris to America for the first time because he's essentially never been seen here in America. Lawren Harris actually lived in America for a while. He lived in Santa Fe, he lived in Boston for a while, and he believed in theosophy. So if you look at these paintings, to me they have a mystical element, a theosophical element. And then after 1935 or 1940 or so, at this point he thought he was painting mountains and after 1940 he thought, "I think I'll become more abstract and become more theosophical." So now he thinks he's painting theosophical or mystical, and it becomes terrible. And his previous paintings where he didn't think he was being mystical he was very mystical, but the moment that he tried to externalize I thought he kind of lost it. So don't do that.
EF: Well, screw abstraction anyway, right?
SM: I think these were painted mostly in Santa Fe.
EF: I'd like to... [to Steve] are you done?
SM: No, but I think you are! I'm getting this! [Waves arms]
EF: I was thinking maybe we could go to the banjo...
SM: Oh yes, let's do that.
EF: I don't know how many of you know this but not only is Steve a banjo player and a great performer of the banjo and tours with a great band, etc etc, he also started this annual banjo award...
SM: I should say me and my wife, Ann Stringfield, started this.
EF: And Ann, I'm sorry Ann. The two of you started this annual banjo award for the great banjo players unrecognized. And he asked me if I would do something that they could give to the banjo players so this is the award that I designed for them.
SM: By the way, you struggled with it you said.
EF: Oh yeah, terribly, terribly. I can't remember why now, but there's a lot of clichés out there.
SM: For trophies there are a lot of clichés. I thought your original one though [makes an imitative pose] was pretty good. I liked it.
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