It was the timing, the deft nearly comic timing that first drew me to the work of Eric Fischl. It was the thing about to happen, the act implied but not illustrated, the menacing relations between family members that made Eric Fischl’s paintings disturbing. It was the way in which he forced the viewer to fill in the blanks, to answer the question: What exactly is going on here? In his early work invariably the answer was sex; first sex, illicit sex, weird sex, seeing or touching something you shouldn’t, rubbing up against the taboos of familial flesh, interracial relations, etc.; the kind of thing you’ve considered, but aren’t necessarily willing to admit. Yet, in order to read the paintings, one had to participate, to admit at least to oneself that yes, we have noticed. It was that, exactly that, the way Fischl subtly and subversively required the viewers to call upon their own experiences, fantasies, nightmares, that impressed me most.
Now, having moved away from the psychosexual drama of the suburban experience to focus on the figure, Fischl remains a compulsively honest painter, depicting the very parts of ourselves we work so hard to keep hidden. In his nudes the body becomes a landscape, the expression of the life lived, physically and emotionally. He turns paint into folds of flesh, curving, contorted, ever-evolving shapes that contain the person we’ve become. His unblinking, melancholy celebration of the body and all its apparent faults are incredibly significant given the current climate of erasure—surgical cancellation and correction of the very marks that other cultures celebrate: age, weight, and the like. In an America that has developed an addiction for blotting out physical characteristics—our most basic identity—by embracing what is plastic and preserved, Eric Fischl has produced perhaps the most terrifying body of work to date: a series of nudes where we see that even the nude, the stripped figure, wears a kind of psychological clothing that goes beyond the skin. What’s hidden is in the thoughts; and this time the figure, the gesture comes closest to the disconnection of madness.
A.M. Homes In writing, in order to pull a story out you go so far into your mind that when you come out you feel you’ve traveled through time and that either you’ve been somewhere incredibly different or that the world has changed. And that’s a good day’s work, but it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience. In painting, where do you go?
Eric Fischl You go into the painting. I mean it’s the same thing, I would imagine.
AH Does it hurt?
EF Well, every day there’s the technical side of the discipline and there are good days and then bad days where the painting is giving me resistance and I don’t know how to paint anymore. But there’s also the emotional side of the work, the psychological side where you go in and explore feelings and relationships and memories. Often times you find things you’re not ready for and you can’t bear that this is in front of you. I assume that’s the vulnerability you’re talking about. I certainly have times where I walk around in my studio thinking: “I can’t paint, I’m not as good as I think I am, I’m certainly not as good as everyone else thinks I am.” And I’m freaked. The other side is when you’ve opened a door and you feel the weight of the responsibility. There’s something sacred about paint. You make a pact with the painting, you will be responsible for whatever you’re putting on it, what you find out.
AH I make a pact with myself that despite how I might frighten myself, I’ll keep trying. I’m not going to compromise the work because I’m scared. I think your paintings are scary.
EF What paintings? My paintings?
EF If you think things and hear voices, that enters you, it touches you but the image can evaporate in some way that when you actually see it in front of you it becomes terrifying. Your imagination can invent and conflate and interpret. Some of it is from what you’ve experienced, but a lot of it is from things you’ve heard, things you’re imagining could happen. When I went to more realistic representations . . .
AH How and why did that happen?
EF I wasn’t good as an abstract artist. It wasn’t fun to paint. A good abstract artist doesn’t feel the limitations I felt. Also, I went to representation because I wanted a broader audience. I didn’t like the pedantic language the formalist painters used. I wanted people to know what they were looking at whether they liked it or not. And then of course, in moving to representation came the question, What are you going to represent? I never felt confident talking about anything I didn’t know much about. I didn’t see my source as being greater than myself, my experience.
AH David Smith said an artist can’t create outside his time, outside his own experience. Do you think that’s true?
EF I was very nervous about getting specific. You start to think: If I paint what I know, how much do I know? Who cares about the little life I came out of? This is before you realize how big everybody’s life is. At first I kept it general, I made everything a noun: The TV, The Chair, The Window . . .
AH What would happen if you made it specific?
EF I thought it would become a narrow autobiographical experience, or a narrow class experience, and objects would lose their potential for metaphor. I’ve always tried to edit the objects in my work so that they’d resonate and not be locked in time. I don’t engage the world in a direct way. I need the painting to mediate my relationship to it. I need to have the physical distance of a painting to understand life.
AH I’m thinking about the spareness of objects in your paintings.
EF The objects that surrounded my earlier work were objects that extended perception: the telephone, binoculars, a Walkman, a television . . . I have mixed feelings about those objects. You rely heavily on them, and at the same time they’re alienating devices. You’re actually listening to something that’s not there. You decontextualize yourself. You’re hearing stuff that’s not where you are. TV blends into the room situations and events that don’t take place in that room. The other kind of objects that I employ would be exotic ones, like statues, and things from alien cultures.
AH Like that one in Slumber Party, the figure with many arms.
EF The voodoo doll. I grew up in a house with one of those, and all my friends’ houses seemed to have a Japanese scroll, a Kontiki head, something that represented otherness, an exoticism. It is not unlike the way we deal with pets, which is that they connect us to something that we’re not, something that remains a mystery. It’s a prelinguistic experience. Also, putting these objects in your house decontextualizes them and renders them impotent.
AH By taking them out of their culture.
AH There are some interesting objects in the room in your new paintings, like the tapestry on the wall.
EF It’s the room I stayed in in India, that tapestry was on the wall. The first painting is of a woman crouching, looking away, with a black man standing next to her who is very animated and seems to be trying to affect her in some way. As I was looking at this painting I realized you can’t see the two figures at the same time. It was the weirdest experience because they’re standing right next to each other. You look at the woman, you get so totally absorbed in her inwardness that you don’t even know there’s this guy right beside her. Then you look at him and he’s so different than she is, so animated, half-hidden, half-exposed that you forget all about her. They don’t exist at the same moment. That became interesting for me because it posed a question: Is he real? Is she real? Is he a figment of her imagination, a fantasy, a demon? Because this room has suitcases in it, is she leaving, or has she just arrived? And I began, in that room, to chart the journey. The black guy disappears after that first painting, but his presence is always there. She’s crawling across the floor. Is she crawling to him or away from him? The painting is stopped at a moment when she is just beginning to unweight one arm. I didn’t know if she was doing it as though she were going to move forward or if she was beginning to retreat. She’s looking at something off the canvas, there is a presence outside of the painting.
AH So much of your work has been about the interaction of people, the tension and subtlety of that. And in the new paintings it’s so markedly different. The woman is looking outside of the painting, but you get the feeling she’s not seeing anything. It’s not outside, it’s in her head.
EF Totally internal.
AH Her pose and position become animal-like, primal. Have you seen people who have gone crazy? They squat.
EF Well there’s Diary of a Mad Housewife. She crawls under the table, totally gives up. And the table becomes a compelling object, speaking of objects as metaphors.
AH The woman is in another state that we can’t quite get to. There’s no relation between her and the outside world, or us.
EF These new paintings are the scariest paintings I’ve done. They are the most vulnerable. At my opening I didn’t come out of the back room. I didn’t invite anyone to my opening. I really surprised myself. I’m confident this is some of the best work I’ve ever done, but it’s also so exposed. Someone described the last painting as the “redemption painting,” the one of her all balled up, sort of exploded by light. When I was painting it, I couldn’t be sure. On the one hand, I felt that she was being annihilated by the light, and that she was returning to the shape with which she had started. Only now, she’s completely alone, without even a fantasy, just herself. The tragic end of something. At the same time, there is something so warm about the light. There is a kind of hope from it, that you will transcend your body. The scene with her crawling across the stone floor became an important part of the characterization of the whole environment, the floor turned into a spider web. And the question is: Is she predator or prey?
AH Is she a victim?
EF I think she’s a victim of her own desire.
AH What happened to her?
EF She came to that room looking for something. If she was trying to leave the room, then it was a total failure, because she doesn’t get out. And if she came looking for something, then maybe that last painting is redemptive. What she first thought she was looking for wasn’t what she finally accepted, which was her aloneness. I’m not saying that this is the only experience one can have, but I know what’s in the paintings. Before this series, I had my own reasons for making paintings and other people would find other reasons in them that would actually contradict my reasons. But both were equally valid because there was ambiguity in the work. I don’t think there’s ambivalence in these because the emotional core is so clear. First of all, they’re not funny.
AH That was another question people had.
EF Did you interview thousands, take a poll before you got here?
AH I like to get lots of points of view.
EF Anyway, in comedy you’re always giving up something of yourself. You’re always taking something that you feel and care about and parodying it. There comes a point in your life when you have nothing left to give away and you take a stand and say this is what there is. And what there is is usually tragic. You were going to ask me about bodies?
AH The whole question of the male gaze. What does it mean for a male painter to be painting this lonely female nude?
EF What it means to be me, a male, is precisely measured by the work itself. I don’t take a generalized view. In that series of paintings I chose a black man because he was equally distant from me and her. There were three “others” involved here, three different kinds of experience: me, a white male; him, a black male; her, a white female. All other to each other, an equilateral triangulation of distance. I managed to project into those differences and see, record, what I imagined.
EF They’re not passive though, they’re not pornography. You have an emotional relationship with the person you’re watching. I don’t think you’re seeing things that she’s not feeling. It’s not as though she’s a tragic character and you have the comfort of knowing her fate. You don’t stand outside her. You participate in her feelings. Maybe women do not need to meditate, to construct the other in order to measure the distance as a way of understanding themselves, but I think it’s very much a part of the male psyche. We are defined by that which we are not.
AH I can’t think of another painter, white or black, who paints black people and white people together, especially nude. You’ve done that a lot. I’m curious about that.
EF It’s sexual. I knew that I was dealing with taboos, and that those taboos carry a tension that needs to be explored, maybe exploded, maybe upheld, I don’t know. But I knew I was playing in that terrain.
AH But white and black seem quite comfortable with each other in a lot of the paintings.
EF In most cases the white person would feel like they don’t belong there rather than the black character. The white person is the odd man out.
AH But I want to know where their relationship comes from. How do they end up there together?
EF I did a painting that started out as a wedding. I painted quite a lot of it—the ceremony, the bride, the groom—before I thought, I don’t like this, there’s no interest, why am I doing this? So I moved it to the reception after the wedding, from inside to outside, so I could paint Japanese lanterns, people dancing, night light . . . it would be visually more exciting, theatrical. And the bride was really cutting loose, slugging back a bottle of Jack Daniels and there was a black jazz musician whaling away on the piano. Then that got painted over. The painting ended up being three people around a pool, absolutely calm, late at night, like four o’clock in the morning. A white woman sitting in a butterfly chair with a glass of wine looking off the side of the canvas. Leaning against the chair was a black man in a bathing suit with a glass in his hand looking down at this white kid who is sitting by the side of the pool playing with a wind up toy, a monkey that beats a drum. It’s a thinly veiled racial slur. The painting’s called The Brat. This kid is willfully sitting there because he’s jealous of his mother’s relationship. The black guy is totally, confidently there and looking at the kid like: deal with it. The wedding is hidden underneath it.
AH There seems to be a determination to be completely honest. I don’t want to see this, you don’t want to see this, but if I don’t show it to you I’ll be lying. Could you talk about that compulsion towards honesty, despite the fact that it may not be pleasant?
EF My imagination is not about flights of fantasy. It’s really a process of discovering who I am, so it’s about peeling away and peeling away. It’s about meeting something essential. The body poses the biggest question for me. It’s a question itself. It’s all about needs and desires and union and oneness and aloneness. It’s all about the edges and boundaries of the flesh, the needs of the flesh. I’m trying to find out what my relationship to the body is, the comfort and discomfort, the appropriate and the inappropriate. You know what I’m saying?
AH Some. Your paintings exist in a very traditional form, yet they’re subversive because they do the things that they’re not supposed to do. They show you what you don’t really want to see, and in such a way that initially the viewer doesn’t necessarily notice it.
EF Part of the compulsion comes from growing up in an environment which was both middle class, which has its own restrictions on character, and alcoholic, which has another set of restrictions. The middle class is always en route. It’s not a rest place. It’s not a place where you want to stay, it’s a place that wants to continue to grow. And so it’s horrified by any reminder of where it came from, and envious of things that it has not yet attained. The middle class has this denial built into it. Add to that denial the fear that they will be revealed for what they are, that their ambition would be revealed . . . Then the alcoholic thing was stigmatizing when I was growing up, to the point where you couldn’t even acknowledge that it was taking place. It’s a world in which you couldn’t say things which were painfully obvious. If you live in that state then reality doesn’t have much meaning for you. Reality became a passion of mine. I willfully chose to be painfully honest. Initially, my paintings pushed it too far. They wanted to be too painful, too confrontational, but in a way that wasn’t authentic. It went past the real content to a sensationalism. A lot of the paintings were melodramatic rather than purely dramatic.
AH The lighting in the new work has become much more heightened, more dramatic.
EF It’s become almost theatrical. There’s not a major work of art that isn’t invested with light. Light is absolutely an essential aspect of painting.
AH How do you paint light? It’s ethereal.
EF You don’t paint light. You feel light. You paint towards a kind of illumination. It’s both a psychic illumination as well as a physical illumination. You feel your way towards it through how color works, your relationship to shadow and to highlight, all of those. Each one’s a metaphor. There is such a difference between something that is spotlit and something that is luminous, shade and shadow. Very different states of being. It’s about casting something in light too. To be an artist you have to engage an audience. You have to use all these things to pull them in, to seduce them. Light is very seductive because it contains mystery and revelation simultaneously. It’s also totally outside modernism because in order to really play around with light you have to get past the flatness that is part of the modernist ethic, surface. Light is not about surface, it’s about non-surface.
AH Henry Miller talks in an essay about what would happen if he could turn up the light past the full brightness of day. That’s part of what’s happening here.
EF I started going to art school when I was living in Phoenix. I was influenced initially by the light in the Southwest because it’s a very intense flat light that renders everything in two dimensions. You get this cardboard reality. Everything is hard edged, delineated, stark contrast, dark shadow to bright. A lot of my early work used that kind of light. It was part of my ambition to pull these people into the harsh light of day and say, “This is it.” Now I’m definitely looking for a much more complicated, emotional light.
AH You paint a lot of naked people. What is nakedness to you?
EF Nakedness is nakedness. I’m affected by it as well. I’m not above it. I have self-consciousness about my body, not unlike most people. But I wonder why it is that the essential self is the uncomfortable self?
AH Any thoughts on that?
EF (laughter) No, I just have a career based on wondering about it. On thinking about it. I don’t have any answers.
AH You’ve taken a lot of photographs. They’re very snapshotty and yet they’re perfectly like your paintings.
EF I was really surprised when I put this portfolio together by how much they looked like my work. My experience is that I watch, I see things. And when I find myself riveted, before I’m thinking anything, but just fixed, that’s when I know that this is something I want and I don’t know why. My process of painting is trying to contextualize that.
AH When did you start using photography?
EF In 1980, in St. Tropez. The experience of being there was so overwhelming that I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I had no idea how I felt about it. I was so compelled by what I was seeing, I didn’t know whether it was a joke, or whether it was wonderful, or horrifying, or stupid, or everything.
AH What you were seeing being . . .
EF I was seeing people on the beach who were naked, who were behaving in a totally socialized way. So that their body language was social language rather than private language. But they were naked, which was the most private place. And so that contradiction was compelling in and of itself. A lot of the gestures were ones that I could take off the beach and put in a living room, or in a bedroom, or in a car, and they would still be active and not about lounging on the beach, which is a whole other kind of body language.
AH Which is what we do, we’re not very good on the beach.
EF No. We don’t live on the beach the way the Europeans live on the beach.
AH Speaking of photographs, Sally Mann’s work on the parent and child relationship shows something so incredibly intimate which we don’t otherwise get to see.
EF She’s speaking of the reflections of an adult on childhood from a point of sexual knowledge, and we’re talking biblical.
AH A lot of your paintings do that as well.
EF To an artist that’s absolutely fertile territory. It makes sense to go there because so much of what we’re about comes from there. But if we were on Sally Mann’s porch watching her kids play in the sun we would not get a drama out of it the way she pulls it out of the black and white. It’s sensibility and vision.
AH In your earlier work, a little boy showed up in various incarnations, and then around the time of the India paintings he disappeared. What happened to him?
EF I haven’t been able to go back to him. I mean, he is gone.
EF He grew up. He got past the outrage of a child’s psyche when what they’re promised and what they’re given aren’t the same thing. You know what I’m saying, right?
AH Yes, I do.
EF We’d all love to find something that gives us fertile ground and makes us famous that we could do for the rest of our lives and that we’d still be good at doing all the way along. But what happened psychologically and emotionally for me was that the early paintings looked up into the adult world, literally, from the point of view of a child: The planes were tilted, the scale was larger than life. At some point after going through the emotional stuff, reliving, reexperiencing, and expressing that emotional discomfort that was there as a child, it was like clockwork. The plane came down, the gaze became eye level, became a one-to-one relationship, it had nothing to do with becoming happy or those kinds of things.
AH That’s good to know. (laughter)
EF I just started to see it in a more ambiguous way. An adult can accept that situations can be ambiguous, you can have multiple feelings, multiple relationships to the same thing.
AH You literally left and went to India, producing this entirely other body of work.
EF The India paintings were not as different as people think. They were attached to the same impetus. I left that which I knew, went out into a world in which I didn’t know anything, and so all I did was watch. The experience of the India paintings was one in which the audience feels alien, even though they’re looking at an alien culture, they are the ones that feel alienated. Yeah, it was a fantastic break. It had a particular life . . . intense.
AH That image from the India paintings of an incredibly large nude adult male, standing on his head—you’re working with imagery that’s at once archetypal and entirely your own.
EF First of all, I’m attempting to do that in lieu of the absence of myths that united society. We used to explain ourselves to each other through our mythology.
AH Which is also moral.
EF Yeah. I prefer the Greek pantheon which divided the human character into all its parts, made each one a god and projected them out into their world to watch them behave. And the way they behaved was instructional. You could see when Eros became a little too needy or insistent or obsessive, bad shit could happen. Or when somebody became too greedy or too powerful, you understood it because they were all parts of something you knew yourself, you could moderate your own behavior accordingly. You had the ability to judge. Americans don’t really focus on their history as part of their myth, except the myth of the individual. So I wanted to find within daily life the things that become mythical. Needs and passions. That’s why I focused on the family, the most basic structure. Every matrix combination is in there.
AH And the American dream.
EF I’ve become much more sympathetic to the mentality of the middle class and to their fright.
EF In a way, it is the most interesting aspect of American life. It’s the biggest, filled with ambition; the class of transition that tries so hard to uphold the values of the culture. It’s tragic and compelling.
AH I have to tell you an Eric Fischl story. One day I look out the window and on the terrace far across the way is a nude man, gardening. I go and get my camera, thinking I’m seeing an Eric Fischl painting, a nude man in the city, gardening. I crouch down because I don’t want it to seem like I’m taking pictures of some nude guy gardening. Then the guy goes into his apartment, gets his binoculars and all of a sudden I’m watching a nude guy, who’s watching someone further downtown. Then he starts masturbating. And I’m thinking, charming, this is really charming. Then he turns and looks at me with his binoculars. Caught. I totally freak out, drop to the floor of the apartment and literally crawl away. I felt caught and embarrassed.
EF So listen to this. If this happened on the same day, it would blow my mind. My assistant was working over in the West Village renovating an apartment. They were having lunch, and they looked out the window and saw this nude guy on the roof who eventually saw them. They had binoculars and they were checking it out, and then he got binoculars and he was checking them out. And then he started to masturbate.
AH I think there must be a lot of this.
EF Now which part of that do you think is me? You said the Eric Fischl story . . .
AH You would rarely see a picture of, for lack of a better word, an imperfect person naked. And he was doing it publicly and unselfconsciously. There was this hyper-moment around it, this extra-large frame. And then the binocular part got really weird.
EF Yeah, absolutely. Masturbation would be present but it wouldn’t necessarily be a thing I would depict. Because at that point it becomes a different relationship . . . It comes to be about something he wants. There’s a revelatory moment before the masturbation happens when you see something that is compelling but out of context. This naked person, private and public, gardening and urban, work together to create this weird context. The metaphor that’s there isn’t there when he starts to masturbate.
AH What makes it erotic is that he’s not doing it, which means you’re participating by involving your own sense of what is erotic.
AH The most fascinating part is how the viewer chooses to participate. Which also makes them have to take a certain amount of responsibility.
EF You always have to include the audience. One way to understand the relationship between an artist and the audience is to look at tennis. In tennis you have yourself and an opponent. And the opponent is going to give you the most resistance to what you’re trying to do. And your effort is going to be to dominate that resistance so that you win. That’s the battle. And in a sense, your opponent is your audience, because they’re the ones who are going to feel and understand all of the intensity and all of the subtlety of your strokes. They’re going to know what it feels like when you ace them or you cram a ball down their throat or you drop shot ’em or you pull ’em wider or you mix up the pace. They’re going to be affected by it and react to it.
AH Where are the critics?
EF Critics are like umpires. Referees. They’re the ones that try to call the out balls, but in my game of tennis, I don’t need referees. You don’t write for the audience that sits in the stands. You don’t paint for those people. But you know that they’re watching, and you hope that they’re aficionados of the sport, so that they can also appreciate when you do something with incredible touch, or when you masterfully work your way out of a situation, or change the momentum, that they can perceive that moment the way your opponent does.
AH This is the last question. There is an enormous sense of alienation in your work and yet you seem perfectly fine. Are you? And if you really are okay, how did you get to be okay?
EF (laughter) Now we are getting to the part where we swap questions, aren’t we?
AH No, but literally . . . you do seem fine.
EF Affable and sociable and . . . I don’t see a contradiction in any of that. First of all, what do you mean by alienated? The figures seem alienated?
AH Well there’s pain, this last set is in more pain than ever. You’re enormously successful, a lot of good has happened, how do you reconcile that pain in there with things on the outside? You’re trying to expose yourself each time as much as you possibly can. And then it’s this weird moment where you’re saying, “I hope you like it.”
EF Steve Gionakis gave me the best definition of art: “Art is a desperate attempt to make friends.”
AH I think it is. People constantly discuss your work in psychological terms, by the narrative. There is so much storytelling in Freud. Do you read Freud?
EF No. I don’t know anything about psychology. To me psychological means full of character, and also that the meaning is unconsciously perceived by an audience. Psychology has replaced religion in the way that it can explain the world and the phenomena of the world, our sense of beauty and our sense of purpose to us. So it would make sense that you would make a narrative out of that psychological setting.
AH Do you think people should attempt to tell the story of your paintings in their own psychological narrative?
EF I like that, because it means they are possessing the work. You want possession. You want somebody to internalize it and interpret it in terms that they understand themselves. It’s about them. I seek that. What I try to do is narrow the possibility of interpretation to a certain area so that they’re never that far wrong. You don’t want to control it so much that they have no room. You want them to participate.
A.M. Homes is the author of Jack, The Safety of Objects and In a Country of Mothers.