“Eric Fischl: Portraits” at Mary Boone Gallery

Eric FischlEric Fischl, Self-Portrait (1998), oil on canvas; courtesy Mary Boone Gallery

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The painter Eric Fischl achieved fame as a chronicler of bourgeois hypocrisy. His depictions of sexual and, implicitly, societal dysfunction garnered him a reputation as a realist with something to say. In recent years, the provocative nature of his narratives has been moderated, if not abandoned, in the attempt at becoming a more painterly and, one feels, nuanced artist. In his current exhibition, Mr. Fischl is, for all intents and purposes, a society portraitist.

This being the late 20th-century, that means his subjects are celebrities, both of the art world (his dealer, Ms. Boone) and of Hollywood (the comedian Steve Martin). If his self-portrait is any indication, this endeavor makes him fidgety. Mr. Fischl depicts himself as a clown, complete with mask and fez, doing a pot-bellied shuffle. This picture may have been intended as a good, but its patent self-mockery divulges an artist uncomfortable with and, perhaps, embarrassed by his status as a conventional artist in a period that prizes the unconventional.

Kinkiness was Mr. Fischl’s prior badge of unconventionality and without it he has reason to be self-conscious: he’s a figure painter in over his head. Following the trajectory of his career, one sees him working from a style best described as pulp illustration to his current approximations of Manet, Sargent and Hopper. Approximations, however, they remain. Mr. Fischl is incapable of orchestrating a painterly surface and maladroit at handling the human form. His notion of mastery is to futz and fuss about the heads of his subjects and fill in the rest of the image with broadly manipulated brushwork.

His habit of blurring paint–an indication, I think, that the artist is working from photographs–is particularly grating. In Mike (1999), the head of neck of director Mike Nichols has, at best, a tenuous relationship with the rest of the painting–it feels pasted on. In Mary (1998), the art dealer’s midriff disassociated itself from her person to arrive at an awkward spot close to the picture plane.

Mr. Fischl came of age in the anything-goes milieu of Cal Arts, an environment inimical to the basics of figure drawing. The artist has, admittedly, been learning on the job since that time. But that a painter, and a figurative one at that, should be so lacking in the fundamentals of art makes Mr. Fischl one of the more prominent casualties of our conceptualist age.

© 1999 Mario Naves

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 14, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.

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